When CNN started 40 years ago this June, we were at the height of the Cold War, and Ted Turner wanted to create an international news organization to bring people together during one of the world’s scariest times. We could have had nuclear war, and of course that was what all leaders were preparing for. And that was the biggest threat journalists were preparing for too.
I joined the team in 1983, straight out of the University of Rhode Island. At the time, I thought, “Great, I’ll learn on the job here, and then I’ll go get a proper job at a real network.” Little did I know CNN was going to be the big leagues.
Ted’s motto at CNN was, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” And I’ve always tried to live up to it. My first big test as a foreign correspondent came when I was sent abroad in the summer of 1990. Within a couple of months, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, which led to the first Gulf War.
No one is ever prepared to go from an ordinary lifestyle to an extreme one. And being a war and disaster correspondent is extreme. You’re living on the edge of life and therefore on the edge of death. As a new correspondent, it took time for me to get used to living among residents who were targeted, where anyone could be a victim. But I had a job to do, so I learned and adapted each step of the way.
My next war was in Bosnia, and I was reporting from Sarajevo when the entire area was in lockdown. You either worked or were asleep in a dorm-like room in the only open hotel. At any time you could get sniped or shelled. I was basically covering a genocide. And because the world didn’t want to intervene to stop it, the major powers like the Americans, the Brits, and the French said, “All sides are equally guilty. And there’s really nothing we can do about it.” Well, I could see for a fact, from the ground, that wasn’t the case. There was an aggressor, and there were victims. And I quickly realized that unless I was willing and able to report the truth, I was useless.
In that moment, I learned that journalism is not about neutrality. You can’t be neutral when you’re witnessing something like genocide. It’s about objectivity, exploring all sides. But you can’t treat all sides equally when they clearly are not equal. It redefined my entire outlook and responsibility as a reporter. And ever since then my mantra has been, “Be truthful, not neutral.”
This way of reporting does not come without risk. I’ve gone into places where there’s live fire; I’ve lived in malaria zones; I’ve been in the middle of a genocide in Rwanda where there were crazy people high on drugs, swinging around machetes. And journalists are targets too.
Yes, it was often dangerous, but the flip side is that I learned to look for the ray of light. I always tried to find that slice of humanity wherever I was. I take joy and comfort in the way that people truly come together in times of adversity. We’re certainly seeing it in spades right now with the coronavirus pandemic.
In some ways, all that I’ve internalized from being in the field feels as if it was training for the difficult conditions we’re facing now. It was training for lockdown, for emergency operations, and for how to get facts and information remotely by phone or Skype. Those survival tactics are even more important because what we’re dealing with now is a different kind of enemy, one that is potentially more debilitating since it caused the entire world to come to a screeching halt.
Of all the wars, disasters, pestilence, and plagues that I’ve covered, this is an entirely different ball game. My instinct is always to rush toward whatever is happening. But this is not like a war, or terrorism, where you get out there and resist and show that you’re not afraid. We’re all behind closed doors. I’m single and working from home, so I understand the stress so many people are going through right now. And reporting in the Trump era, which is just an endless White House assault on the media, has made me want to double down on truth and facts.
People have lost their trust in experts and institutions. There are even people who are questioning science. I think that is so utterly dangerous. Right now, it’s the difference between life and death. There has been a relentless campaign from unscrupulous leaders over the past several years to denigrate journalism, to denigrate facts, but now we need experts more than ever. I’m a warrior for the truth. I will absolutely keep doing it. I don’t care about being liked by those in power. I will keep fighting the fight as long as I have breath in me.
This time is changing people in ways they’ve never imagined. And as lucky as we are to live in the developed world, there are still millions of people who are going to continue to lose their jobs, their insurance, their homes, and their loved ones.
We need to get back to a place where this hyper-partisan political polarization that is so poisonous begins to fade. I hope that there is light after all of this. I hope we are all up to the challenge. And I really hope this time will make us reassess our humanity, whether that involves climate change, human rights, capitalism, or simply the quality of leadership we choose. The truth is that sometimes the darkest of days brings the right kind of change.
—As told to Jennifer Ferrise.
Amanpour is CNN’s chief international anchor of the award-winning global affairs program Amanpour and the host of Amanpour & Co. on PBS.
For more stories like this, pick up the June issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download May 22.