Inside Charlie Rose's Five-Month Booking Effort to Land Bashar al-Assad Interview
Even the State Department did not get a heads-up on the sitdown with the Syrian president: "We're reporters. We don't go around looking for confirmation of what we're doing. We're just doing our jobs," CBS News chairman Jeff Fager tells THR.
Nothing was off limits in Charlie Rose's exclusive interview with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who is facing intense international pressure after an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus that killed 1,400 civilians, including children.
"There were no restrictions about any subject," CBS News chairman Jeff Fager told The Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday. "And we get that in a lot of interviews. People try to curtail what's going to be asked."
Fager, who is also the executive producer of 60 Minutes, traveled with Rose to Damascus to produce the interview, which aired Monday on CBS News and PBS' Charlie Rose program. Rose repeatedly pressed Assad on the chemical weapons attack, his alliances with Iran and Russia and how Syria could end its bloody military crackdown that has killed more than 100,000 Syrians. A skilled communicator who conducts his interviews in English, Assad repeatedly characterized the rebels as "Al Qaeda" and "terrorists" and attempted to draw comparison's between the Bush administration's faulty substantiation for waging war in Iraq and President Obama's push for limited military intervention in Syria.
"Charlie is so well-prepared," noted Fager. "Not only is he incredibly read-in on the story, but he's interviewed almost all the major players during the years of conflict [in Syria]."
Rose previously interviewed Assad in 2006 and 2010. "You can go into an interview like that and if you're not prepared you can make mistakes and leave things out that really need to be asked. We didn't know what kind of answers we were going to get. We didn't expect he was going to take responsibility for the attack on Aug. 21. We just wanted to make sure that the interview covered the most important points of the story."
Fager said he has not heard from Assad's office or the Obama administration since the interview aired. And he brushed off suggestions that the news division should have looped in the State Department; administration officials apparently found out about the exclusive the way everyone else did, on Sunday morning when Rose called in to Bob Schieffer to share details from the interview on Face the Nation. (CBS News president David Rhodes is the older brother of Obama administration deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.)
"You know what, we're reporters. We don't go around looking for some confirmation of what we're doing, we're just doing our jobs," said Fager.
Rose and CBS News producers began pursuing Assad more than five months ago and in recent weeks, Rose stepped up his efforts. It was the first U.S. television interview for Assad since ABC's Barbara Walters sat down with the Syrian president in December 2011.
"I think they felt they had to do an interview at this moment," said Fager. "Their biggest fear was that his words would be taken out of context. They felt that in their last American network interview experience they were taken out of context. And that's the thing we promise everybody. That is our strength, and Charlie and I are so in sync on that. If it's a 60 Minutes interview, if it's a Charlie Rose interview, if it's a CBS News interview, you're not going to be taken out of context. You're going to be treated fairly. And that was their biggest concern."
It was also a coup for a news division that has staked out hard-news territory – sometimes to the detriment of ratings points – and dedicated considerable resources to the conflict in Syria. Correspondent Clarissa Ward was the first American journalist to broadcast live from inside rebel-controlled territory in Syria in December 2011 and Elizabeth Palmer is still reporting from inside Syria.
Rose and Fager left New York last Friday night, arriving in Beirut, Lebanon on Saturday morning and then making the drive to Damascus, which took about six hours due to numerous security check points. They traveled in a beat-up car and without a security detail. And while they were provided with bullet-proof vests and gas masks, they did not use either. "We didn't even take [the gas masks] out of the boxes," said Fager. "In Damascus, you don't get a lot of ideology. But you do see a lot of people with weapons. It's a very tense place. People are really worried. It's a hard place to work. But going into Damascus doesn't compare to the places that Clarissa Ward has gone."