Tonight, ABC News will broadcast Barbara Walters’s interview with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The network hasn’t released the full transcript yet, but so far press releases suggest that the big news is that Assad is denying any responsibility for the almost 4,000 Syrians killed since the beginning of the uprising in February.
“[W]e don't kill our people,” Assad tells Walters. “[N]o government in the world kills its people, unless it's led by a crazy person.”
Presumably, Walters pushed back pretty hard against Assad. “We were free to ask any questions,” she told Good Morning America anchor George Stephanopoulos. But her questions are beside the point. Assad’s not “crazy,” but he is literal-minded. He doesn’t care how he plays to TV audiences since all that matters to him is the fact that an American media star is interviewing him. In the mind of a dictator who has his back against the wall and is fighting for his life, what matters is that people still feel he’s important enough to speak to, whether it’s Western officials, or celebrity journalists.
Not that it matters to Barbara Walters, but all she’s done with her “exclusive” is confuse the issue by shifting the conversation. The question before American policymakers now is what should be done to remove an Arab strongman whose prestige rests entirely on his anti-American and anti-Israeli credentials. Nonetheless, Syria is very low on the White House’s agenda, and now, in the aftermath of Walters’s interview, policymakers are going to be wasting the next few days fielding questions about whether or not Assad’s really responsible for the bloodshed. Her work serves no real world purpose at all.
What matters to Walters of course is what big-time journalists call the “get”—or securing an interview with a major world figure—whether that’s a reclusive movie star or a murderous ruler. Assad is presumably a very attractive “get,” and we can only imagine producers at other networks now cursing the good fortunes of Walters and her staff. No doubt some junior producer at Sixty Minutes or any other of ABC’s competitors is getting an earful from her bosses this morning.
But then again ABC has had a lot of luck wrangling Assad. Back in 2007, Diane Sawyer went to Damascus where she chatted up the Syrian president—while he was in the middle of his campaign of helping to kill U.S. troops in Iraq and assassinate pro-democracy Lebanese figures. Sawyer and the Western-educated ophthalmologist shared quite a few laughs in their brief conversation. Perhaps most appalling was a segment where the computer-savvy Assad told ABC what he listened to on his iPod—quite a lot of Country and Western music it seems, the point being that no matter how many Americans he helped kill he couldn’t be all bad.
I’m trying to imagine what Syrian opposition figures are thinking today, both those who are walking out into the streets of Syrian cities and towns to take on the Assad regime, and those in exile who are seeking international support. Not all of them consider America a friend, nor do they have to. But it must be baffling to try to reconcile the reputation of our liberal democracy and its free press with the vanity of a journalist who has provided a platform for a giggling murderer.