Fresh from college, looking for a stepping stone into the big time, I took a job at what was then a little start-up called CNN. It was just three years after Ted Turner launched Cable News Network to the world. I had no idea I would end up staying for my entire career, much less that it would become the world’s number one news network.
The enemy back then was nuclear war, and it is difficult to convey just how real the threat felt back in the early 80s, but when Ted Turner conceived the network, that foreboding sense of imminent threat was central to his thinking.
It was in that environment that both the channel and I began our careers in journalism, but that Cold War era of two opposing superpowers soon changed for both of us.
My first major assignment as a foreign correspondent arrived in 1990, as Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
There was no other global 24-hour TV network, and we were the only network able to broadcast live from Baghdad as Operation Desert Storm began. That small team, working in incredibly difficult circumstances, in a dangerous environment with enormous technical challenges, had the eyes of the world upon them.
I was on an aircraft carrier during that initial attack, covering the allied perspective on the story. I saw the missiles launch from those ships, then later found myself in Baghdad covering the Iraqi side of the equation and saw where those same missiles had landed.
For me personally, that war was a first step into a new and extreme environment. As a war correspondent, you are often literally walking the line between life and death, among people trapped in those circumstances. You must learn and adapt quickly, which I did, and focus on the job in hand.
I think my own defining moment, if I were to choose just one, would be my next major assignment, the war in Bosnia. It was tough, arduous, dangerous and horrific. I quickly realized that I was covering a genocide, and that the rules of engagement were totally different.
In Bosnia, the major military powers —America, Britain and France—had essentially thrown up their hands and said that intervention was pointless. All sides were equally culpable, they believed. But on the ground, it was obvious that was not the case. There was a clear aggressor, and countless victims whose stories needed to be told.
By telling those stories, revealing the true horror of massacres like Srebrenica, journalists helped change the course of that war. In the face of such clear, persistent and damning evidence, those same military powers could no longer ignore it. They had to intervene, and as a result, the war ended.
Bosnia instilled in me the importance of being truthful, rather than neutral.
Trying to create a false moral or factual equivalence between victims and aggressors, the perpetrators of ethnically-motivated massacres, makes no sense. Indeed, it is vital for a journalist to be objective, but that also means telling the truth.
The Balkan war changed the way journalists were treated in conflicts. Suddenly, we were viewed as legitimate targets. A colleague of mine—the brilliant, brave camera operator, Margaret Moth—was shot in the face by a sniper in Bosnia. Miraculously, she survived, but she was gravely injured. She was in a vehicle that was clearly marked with the letters “TV"; the sniper who shot her didn’t care that she was a journalist. CNN bought its first armoured vehicle after that. It was a sign of the times and the beginning of a new and chilling age.
In the 40 years since CNN was founded, the process of news-gathering has transformed completely, and this element of personal danger is definitely one of the most troubling changes. The conflict in Syria has almost certainly been prolonged by the difficulties facing those attempting to tell the story. The risks facing journalists—prized targets at the height of that conflict—were unacceptably high for most, and tragically claimed the lives of some.
More recently, journalism has come under attack in different ways. The casual dismissal of probing questions as “nasty" and of uncomfortable truths as “fake" has become a crutch for mainstream politicians and despots alike. The lines between those two types of leaders have also blurred. Make no mistake: Attacks on journalists, whether physical or philosophical, are attacks on all of us.
Today, the era of social media has also put truths and lies together on the same platform. This has led to an understandable lack of trust in the media, and confusion over where to find objective news.
Four decades on, we are still fighting to keep the principles of unwavering dedication to the pursuit of truth and making it available to all, alive and well—and I continue to be immensely proud of the work we are doing, especially right now. The covid-19 crisis has posed extraordinary challenges to us all, but it has also underlined the vital importance of facts. The world needs journalists, now more than ever.
Christiane Amanpour is chief international anchor, CNN