Barbara Walters questioned President Bashar al-Assad in 2011
For some journalists, Syria has been one of the least hospitable countries in the Middle East, a place where reporters — if they can get in — are routinely harassed and threatened as they try to uncover the repression that has propped up the Assad government for decades.
For other journalists, Syria has until recently been a country led by the cultivated, English-speaking President Bashar al-Assad who, along with his beautiful British-born wife, Asma, was helping usher in a new era of openness and prosperity.
That second impression is no accident. With the help of high-priced public relations advisers who had worked in the Clinton, Bush and Thatcher administrations, the president and his family have sought over the past five years to portray themselves in the Western media as accessible, progressive and even glamorous.
Magazines and online outlets have published complimentary features about the family, often focusing on fashion and celebrity. In March 2011, just as Mr. Assad and his security forces initiated a brutal crackdown on political opponents that has led to the death of an estimated 10,000 Syrians, Vogue magazine ran a flattering profile of the first lady, describing her as walking “a determined swath cut through space with a flash of red soles,” a reference to her Christian Louboutin heels.
Fawning treatment of world leaders — particularly attractive Western-educated ones — is nothing new. But the Assads have been especially determined to burnish their image, and hired experts to do so. The family paid the Washington public relations firm Brown Lloyd James $5,000 a month to act as a liaison between Vogue and the first lady, according to the firm.
This web of politics and public relations ensnared Barbara Walters recently. After she conducted an aggressive interview with Mr. Assad on ABC News in December, she offered to provide recommendations for Sheherazad Jaafari, the president’s press aide and the daughter of the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations, who was applying for a job at CNN and admission to Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
Ms. Walters issued a statement on Tuesday expressing regret for her actions, which she called “a conflict.”
Ms. Jaafari, 22, who has been accepted by Columbia, had worked as an intern at Brown Lloyd James. Last year, she expressed her feelings about the Assad family in an e-mail to Mike Holtzman, a partner at the firm who, according to his online profile, advised the Clinton administration on trade issues and worked in the State Department during the Bush administration.
“I have always told you — this man is loved by his people,” Ms. Jaafari wrote in the e-mail, which was obtained by the British newspaper The Guardian. Mr. Holtzman replied: “I’m proud of you. Wish I were there to help.” Mr. Holtzman did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
The Assads were in many ways ripe for celebrity treatment by the news media. The president, who was trained as an ophthalmologist, received part of his education in Britain, where he met his wife, a Briton of Syrian descent who grew up in London and worked as an investment banker in New York.
Andrew Tabler, a Syrian expert with the Institute for Middle Eastern Studies in Washington who once worked for a charity sponsored by Mrs. Assad, summed up the appeal the Assads had for some news outlets: “He speaks English, and his wife is hot.”
The campaign to make the ruling family the face of a more Westernized and open Syria began in 2006, when Mrs. Assad approached the public relations firm Bell Pottinger in London.
Tim Bell, a co-founder of the firm and a former media adviser to Margaret Thatcher, said Mrs. Assad contacted the firm after several first ladies, including Laura Bush, began to hold annual meetings and conferences.
“She wanted to be a part of that club,” he said in a phone interview.
Bell Pottinger did not set up interviews for Mrs. Assad directly, but advised her on how to set up a communications office in Damascus to help shape her image.
A few years later, positive articles began to appear. Paris Match called Mrs. Assad an “element of light in a country full of shadow zones” and the “eastern Diana.” French Elle counted her among the best-dressed women in world politics, and in 2009, The Huffington Post published an article and fashion slide show titled “Asma al-Assad: Syria’s First Lady and All-Natural Beauty.”
“She responded beautifully, because she speaks well and is beautiful,” said the Italian writer Gaia Servadio, who worked for Mrs. Assad in Damascus. She added that Mrs. Assad hoped the coverage would deflect some of the negative attention her country had received.
None of the articles about Mrs. Assad struck a nerve quite like the 3,200-word March 2011 profile in Vogue titled “A Rose in the Desert.” In it, the writer, Joan Juliet Buck, called Mrs. Assad “the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies.”
In a phone interview, Ms. Buck said that shortly after the profile was published, she began “steadily speaking out against the Assad regime,” including in an interview with Piers Morgan on CNN and elsewhere. In April, on National Public Radio, Ms. Buck said she regretted the headline that Vogue put on the article. But she said Mrs. Assad was “extremely thin and very well-dressed, and therefore qualified to be in Vogue.”
This spring, the magazine removed the article from its Web site. On Sunday, Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, issued a statement about the article saying, in part: “Like many at that time, we were hopeful that the Assad regime would be open to a more progressive society. Subsequent to our interview, as the terrible events of the past year and a half unfolded in Syria, it became clear that its priorities and values were completely at odds with those of Vogue. The escalating atrocities in Syria are unconscionable and we deplore the actions of the Assad regime in the strongest possible terms.”
Even among the world’s most repressive governments, Syria stands out in its treatment of journalists. The only way for many reporters to cover news emerging from the bloody crackdown on dissidents is to sneak into the country — often putting their lives at risk.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 13 reporters have been killed in Syria since November, including Marie Colvin, a veteran war correspondent from Long Island. (Anthony Shadid of The New York Times died of an asthma attack during a clandestine reporting trip to Syria.) Syrian officials have denied targeting journalists, but state media outlets have said that foreign reporters killed in Syria “must be spies or have links to terrorist organizations.”
Ms. Walters, who has a lifetime of experience chasing and winning interviews with world leaders, said she spent six years establishing a relationship with the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, including once dining at his home.
The connection eventually paid off. “Assad decided he would do an interview; according to the ambassador, he had requests from all over the world,” Ms. Walters said in a telephone interview last week. “And he chose to do it with me, based on the recommendation of the ambassador, and also because I had been to Syria twice before and knew something of its background and history.”
Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said this kind of interview is highly sought after. “In a strange way, political leaders, presidents and prime ministers who are highly repressive and restrictive are good ‘gets’ for these types of interviews, precisely because there’s no fair media coverage in their countries,” he said.
Ms. Walters’ interview, broadcast in December, made worldwide news, with Mr. Assad issuing claims that he was not responsible for the Syrian military and that people were not being killed by his government.
Ms. Walters said, “I went to Syria and conducted what was a very tough and strong interview that President Assad did not like.”
But her offer of help to the ambassador’s daughter has cast a shadow on that interview. Two people close to Ms. Walters said she had reacted to a plea from Ms. Jaafari for help because Ms. Jaafari was being removed from her position as a media adviser to the Syrian president.
Mr. Tabler said that he didn’t “find it surprising what Walters did for her.” The issue, he said, was the timing.
“At that point, how many had been killed — 7,000?” he said. “This is an attractive young woman, and she speaks English. Maybe you help her with an introduction. To get beyond that is a little difficult to swallow.”
-This article was published in The New York Times on 11/06/2012