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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 03:38 PM ET, 06/06/2012

What’s Barbara Walters apologizing for?


Barbara Walters (Evan Agostini - Associated Press)
ABC’s Barbara Walters has fashioned a very serious apology. Seems she’s copping to stepping over some line in her work. The background is a touch complicated:

Back in December, Walters scored an interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In wiring up that “get,” Walters got assistance from an aide to al-Assad, Sheherazad Jaafari, the glamorous daughter of the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations.

Following the interview, which landed with worldwide impact, Walters not only kept in touch with Jaafari, she also opened up her Rolodex, recommending Jaafari for work with CNN and for placement in a Columbia University program.

The back-and-forth between Walters and Jaafari, of course, occurred via e-mail — e-mail that was dug up by the Syrian opposition and that eventually found its way into the Daily Telegraph. Presented with the findings, Walters issued a statement, which reads in part:

In the aftermath [of the Assad interview], Ms Jaafari returned to the US and contacted me looking for a job. I told her that was a serious conflict of interest and that we would not hire her. I did offer to mention her to contacts at another media organisation and in academia, though she didn’t get a job or into school. In retrospect, I realise that this created a conflict and I regret that.

ABC sent me pretty much the same statement, only with some “z”s in “organisation” and “realise.” But hold on a moment here: Just what is Walters apologising for?

Dial the Nexis machine back to December. The Assad-Walters interview, coming in the midst of a long and violent crackdown by the Syrian regime on opposition groups, caused a huge problem for the country’s president. Here’s a bit of the dialogue:

WALTERS: (Off-camera) Do you think that your forces cracked down too hard?
AL-ASSAD: They are not my forces. They are military forces belong to the government.
WALTERS:(Off-camera) Okay, but you’re the government.
AL-ASSAD: I don’t own them. I am president.
WALTERS: Okay.
AL-ASSAD:I don’t own the country so they are not my forces.
WALTERS: No, but you have to give the order?
AL-ASSAD: No, no, no.
WALTERS: (Off-camera) Not by your command?
AL-ASSAD: No, no, no, we don’t have — no one’s command. There was no command to kill or to be brutal.

Reviewing statements like those, the State Department called it ”ludicrous” that al-Assad would try to hide behind “some sort of claim that he doesn’t exercise authority in his own country.“ That’s what you call backlash, and it appears to have affected Jaafari’s position with the government. Walters’s statement says: “[T]he fallout for Assad from the interview was such that the Syrian government went to great lengths to discredit me and ABC News. In the aftermath, Ms. Jaafari returned to the US and contacted me looking for a job.”

In an e-mail just after the Walters-al-Assad interview aired, Jaafari writes to the ABC star: “I am in so much trouble here.”An ABC source confirms the notion, saying that Jaafari had become “persona non grata” with her employer and was seen as “responsible” for the Walters disaster.

Jaafari later flew to New York and had lunch with Walters. That’s where the request for the job at ABC dropped onto the table. Not happening, said Walters. As a fall-back, Walters worked contacts with Piers Morgan’s CNN show and with Columbia University’s journalism school.

The e-mail chain shows that Walters uses far more intimate greetings with the world of flackdom than does the chief of the Erik Wemple Blog. In a Dec. 13 message to Jaafari, Walters wrote:

You have been much in my thoughts. I am off today to interview my own President and First Lady. Are you alright? I would love to h hear from you. Once more, my gratitude and affection, Barbara

And at the end of a Jan.19 missive, Walters wrote:

Hugs. Barbara

So Walters has violated the never-hug-or-propose-to-hug-aides-or-flacks rule of journalism ethics. And as for transgressions, that’s where the road ends.

Put this all together:

1) An aide to a ruthless dictator extends herself in pushing for an interview by ABC News with said dictator.

2) Aide gets in trouble and apparently needs a new job;

3) ABC News star stiff-arms aide on job request; and

4) ABC News star dashes off a couple of e-mails to help aide.

Another consideration: Was Walters helping an aide or merely a former aide? The Daily Telegraph reports that Jaafari’s run as adviser apparently ended not long after the Walters interview, following the leak of an embarrassing memo she’d written about manipulating American public opinion. The New York Times calls her a “former aide.” Calls to the Syrian embassy and to the State Department to determine when she left her post have gone unanswered. Jaafari remains on the staff list for the Syrian mission to the U.N. The individual who answered the phone this afternoon at the Syrian mission reported that everyone was at lunch and that no one could answer my questions.

There are some reasons to decline assistance to a person such as Jaafari. One is that she’s a person of privilege and should be able to find her way. Another is that she was helping a hateful regime to spin its bloody record.

Yet there’s no evidence of a pre-interview agreement that Walters would assist Jaafari down the road — a development that would sully the “get.” Absent such a pact, Walters appears to have been just doing a solid for someone who’d gotten her one of the year’s best interviews. So she banged out a couple of e-mails and moved on. Good for her.

By  |  03:38 PM ET, 06/06/2012

Tags:  barbara walters, sheherazad jaafari, syria, bashar al-assad, new york times, daily telegraph

 
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