Syrian President Bashar Assad’s first interview with a Western television journalist since a March uprising was a coup for Barbara Walters and ABC News, but not entirely for Assad.
In excerpts aired by ABC Wednesday, Assad denied ordering a violent crackdown on residents and denounced the United Nations when Walters asked about the U.N.’s claim that there had been widespread killings and torture of protesters in Syria.
Walters confronted Assad with pictures of civilians brutalized by his regime. When she asked him on camera about the torture of children, he said, “I don’t believe you.”
She talked on Wednesday of Assad’s “disconnect” with what is going on within his country and his own role, an attitude that may have extended to her discussions with him in his Presidential Palace.
“He was very happy with the interview,” she said. “He likes the confrontation. He likes the tough questions. When it was over, he smiled and thanked me and he was happy. I don’t know if it did him any good.”
Walters said in an interview that she was apprehensive about going Syria because the U.S. government had warned her not to leave her hotel room. Adding to the concern, a Jordanian airline booked for the last leg of her trip delayed its flight because it did not want its pilot to stay in Syria overnight.
But her fears dissipated by the time she arrived in Damascus from an airport about 18 miles (28 kilometers) away. She even wandered through some outdoor markets and talked to people, although she was accompanied by a government minder.
Walters said she had met Assad twice before, which cut down any fear she may have had of him. While in the Middle East several years ago, she said Assad’s wife called and asked Walters for an off-the-record meeting with the couple in Damascus. Walters also traveled to Syria three years ago, hoping for an interview, but it didn't happen.
She thought this interview wouldn’t happen, either, after Assad canceled one get-together two weeks ago, presumably because it was to happen around the time the Arab League was condemning Syria. Then word came that Assad was willing to talk.
Assad hand-picked Walters for the interview.
“I can’t tell you why he requested me,” she said. “I can only tell you that I have met him twice before.”
ABC News, under its new division president Ben Sherwood, has made news-making interviews a priority. Within the past year, “World News” anchor Diane Sawyer has interviewed Jaycee Dugard and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and “This Week” host Christiane Amanpour talked with former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and late Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
Sawyer and Amanpour are more closely identified with breaking news; Walters, as co-host of “The View,” a daytime talk show largely for women, is seen more in terms of entertainment than news, despite her long and laudatory history as news reporter, anchor and interviewer.
She may not have been the obvious choice for the Assad interview. When ABC seeks newsmaking interviews, it generally offers prospective subjects a choice of potential interviewees.
One critic, Affen Chowdhry of the Toronto Globe and Mail, wrote Wednesday that if the Syrian government had expected a “soft” Walters interview of the type reserved for movie and pop stars, “it ended up getting something very different.”
When ABC arrived in Damascus, an Assad aide first said that government cameras would be used to record the interview, but Walters rejected this. Two Assad assistants also asked for the right to look at the tape after the interview. ABC refused.
The government also said that reporter Alexander Marquardt, who accompanied Walters, would be given free rein to travel across the country. Marquardt, in an ABC blog, said this did not work out. He went to the city of Daraa, and found most residents unwilling to speak with him because they saw secret police agents nearby. Daraa's governor refused Marquardt's request to visit the village of Dael, saying it was unsafe, the reporter wrote.
Walters said that it appeared some of Assad’s aides were interested in seeing the leader get more exposure in the West. The British-trained eye doctor is “not a crazy, wild man like Qaddafi,” Walters said.
“Why he did this now, I can't say,” she said.