Barbara Walters, the grande dame of American television news, has admitted to trying to further the career of one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s media advisors, after recently-released emails exposed a major conflict of interest.
Walters had been helping Sheherazad Jaafari, the daughter of Syria’s U.N. ambassador, secure a place at an Ivy League university and an internship at a CNN primetime program, the Daily Telegraph has reported after gaining access to the emails.
The emails were obtained by a Syrian opposition group, the newspaper reported.
Walters, the 82-year-old ABC broadcaster, expressed “regret” for her actions when confronted with the emails. She told the newspaper that she wrote to Piers Morgan, a CNN host, and a professor at Columbia’s journalism school on behalf of the Assad aide following an exclusive interview conducted with the embattled Syrian president earlier this year.
In the interview, which ABC had lobbied for to become the first American television network to meet the embattled Assad, the Syrian president denied ordering a violent crackdown on thousands of Syrian civilians who have been protesting against the regime since March 2011.
Walters, who is currently the host of a daytime talk show, has interviewed many of the biggest figures in American politics and culture over a decades-long career.
The emails reveal a close relationship between Walters and Jaafari, 22, who stayed in close contact particularly after the interview.
In one of the emails, Walters wrote to the young Syrian:
“Dear Sherry: I wrote to Piers Morgan and his producer to say how terrific you are and attached your resume. I am not sure if they have an opening. Are you still planning to apply to Columbia School of Journalism? Do you want me to do anything on that? Do let me know your plans when you return from Syria. Be safe. Hugs. Barbara.”
The newspaper stated that when Jaafari returned to New York she reached out again to Walters, whom she referred to as her “adopted mother.” In return, Walters called her “dear girl.”
“They met for lunch at the Mark Hotel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in late January, where Miss Jaafari apparently asked for a job at ABC News. Walters said she refused but offered to use her contacts to help her in other ways,” the report added.
Shortly afterwards, Walters followed through with her offer to help Jaafari on her university application, emailing Richard Wald, a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism and the father of Jonathan Wald, Piers Morgan’s executive producer.
In the message, Walters wrote: “She helped arrange my interview with Assad. She is only 21 but had his ear and his confidence. I have recommended her as an intern to your son for Piers Morgan. She is applying to Columbia School of Journalism. She is brilliant, beautiful, speaks five languages. Anything you can do to help?”
To that, Professor Wald replied that he would get the admissions office to “give her special attention.”
Walters has admitted to creating a conflict of interest in a statement to the Daily Telegraph.
“In the aftermath [of the Assad interview], Ms. Jaafari returned to the U.S. 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 organization and in academia, though she didn’t get a job or into school. In retrospect, I realize that this created a conflict and I regret that.”
Jaafari would sometimes be the only official in the room when Assad did interviews with Western journalists, and spoke with him several times a day, sometimes calling him “the Dude.”
A day after the interview aired in December, she emailed ABC in a panic asking for the unedited tapes of the interview. “I am in so much trouble here and I have to have the the links for other two tapes please today,” she wrote.
‘Good for my CV’
In leaked emails belonging to President Assad and members of his inner circle, obtained and independently verified by Al Arabiya in March, Jaafari appeared to be one of the closest advisers to Assad and was at his side as Syrian troops stepped up their onslaught on protesters.
In one of the emails from Jaafari to Assad, she referred to herself as the Public Relations and International Communication manager of the Syrian presidency, also asking Assad to grant her powers that will enable her to impose her decisions in the palace.
Also, an email from media adviser Jaafari to Assad in December 2011 implied that the President was carrying out his daily sports exercises normally, while bloody protests mounted against his rule.
After praising his skills as a professional tennis player, Jaafari wished him luck for a match the President was expected to play. It was Friday, Dec. 16, 2011 -- the same Friday the Syrian protesters had dubbed as “The Arab League is Killing Us.”
In another instance, Jaafari described her time in Damascus to a friend as “a challenging experience but its good for my CV and thats all I care about now,” she wrote.
The embarrassing leak seemingly ended her career in Damascus and soon after she returned to New York, where her father works.