The interview conducted by the American television network ABC last week with the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, has been discussed, analysed and critiqued extensively for its political and media content. Although the interview in itself was highly significant, we must not overlook the identity of the journalist who conducted it.
Many will be aware that Barbara Walters is an experienced American journalist with a rich history and formidable presence; still active in the media as host of “The View”, a famous American talk show. However, many may not be aware that Walters conducted her latest scoop – a visit to Syria to interview Bashar al-Assad – at the age of 82.
Walters’ age here is significant.
Any passionate journalist aspires to remain in their career for as long as possible, and perform to the best of their mental and physical ability. Such aspiration may even turn into obsession, when the personality in question happens to be a female journalist or broadcaster, particularly in our Arab societies which continue to be hesitant and indecisive towards the position of women, their capabilities and roles, and social attitudes towards them, especially in the media and other public fields.
Comparing our media to that of the West, age is a frightening and daunting prospect for many of those who have assumed their careers relatively recently in the television and media sector. In fairness, this age phobia is also strongly present in the West, and yet an observer of the Western media would feel that there is enough room for new blood, whilst not undermining the presence of those with more experience, as this blend of youth and experience complement each other.
Anyone who watches our satellite channels, and takes note of the appearance of many of our media figures and reporters, can sense the impact of this ageism. There are often attempts to hide the signs of aging as much as possible; with some cases more successful than others.
Walters’ interview received widespread praise in the American press, demonstrating the 82-year-old’s journalist’s capacity and capability of serving as an example of professionalism in her field. Yet, she was also criticized by those who felt that she ought to have been more aggressive in the questions she posed to al-Assad. However what is important here is that the praise and criticism dealt with Walter’s professional performance, rather than questions about her age or gender.
For the majority of the television interview with President al-Assad, Barbara Walters was combative. She repeated the questions to which she deemed al-Assad’s answers unconvincing, and insisted on answers to the questions he tried to avoid. Barbara Walters’ maturity and experience was an advantage in this instance, rather than a negative.
In the Arab world, it is true that old age can be a negative attribute. This is because in many cases, professional standards are not met. Some media corporations may ask their female reporters to maintain their youthful and good-looking appearances, a task in which some may succeed and others may not. However, what matters here is our endeavour to acquire knowledge, and so we must challenge the standards of such corporations, and impose standards of professionalism upon them.