Barbara Walters, the grande dame of American television news, has been forced to apologise after it emerged that she had tried to use her influence to further the career of a former leading aide of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Emails seen by The Daily Telegraph show that Walters tried to help Sheherazad Jaafari, the daughter of Syria’s UN ambassador, secure a place at an Ivy League university and an internship with Piers Morgan’s CNN programme.
When confronted with the emails, which were obtained by a Syrian opposition group, the 82-year-old ABC broadcaster admitted a conflict of interest and expressed “regret” for her actions.
Miss Jaafari, 22, was a close adviser to Mr Assad and was at his side as Syrian troops stepped up their campaign of killing and repression. She would speak to him several times a day, sometimes calling him “the Dude” in her adopted American accent, and was sometimes the only official in the room when he did interviews with Western journalists.
Miss Jaafari, whose father Bashar Jaafari has known Walters for around seven years, began dealing with the broadcaster late last year as ABC News lobbied for an interview with Mr Assad.
Walters’s interview in December – the first with an American television network – made headlines around the world as Mr Assad denied he was responsible for the crackdown which had already resulted in thousands of deaths in Syria. The emails show that, after the interview, Miss Jaafari and Walters stayed in close contact.
When Miss 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” and sometimes signed off “Hugs, Barbara”.
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.
Shortly afterwards, Walters emailed the young Syrian saying: “I wrote to Piers Morgan and his producer to say how terrific you are and attached your résumé.” She also asked whether Miss Jaafari was still planning on applying to Columbia University and offered to help.
A week later, Walters emailed Richard Wald, a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism and the father of Jonathan Wald, Morgan’s executive producer.
Walters described Miss Jaafari as “brilliant, beautiful, [and] speaks five languages” and asked whether there was “anything you can do to help?” Prof Wald replied that he would get the admissions office to “give her special attention”.
Neither Professor Wald nor Columbia returned a request for comment.
Miss Jaafari did not ultimately get the internship nor the university place.
Walters was one of only a handful of Americans invited to a private party hosted by the ambassador in March 2011, the same month that the uprising against the Assad regime began. The only other journalist on the guest list was a reporter from Press TV, Iran’s state-owned television channel. She did not attend the event.
The broadcaster is currently the host of The View, a daytime talk show, but over a decades-long career has interviewed many of the biggest figures in American politics and culture. Her interview with Monica Lewinsky after her affair with Bill Clinton attracted a record 74 million viewers.
In a statement, Walters said: “In the aftermath [of the Assad interview], Ms Jaafari returned to the US 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 organisation and in academia, though she didn’t get a job or into school. In retrospect, I realise that this created a conflict and I regret that.”
Miss Jaafari was part of a young circle of aides who advised Mr Assad to speak to the Western media as evidence of atrocities mounted. When he agreed to the interview with Walters in December, Miss Jaafari wrote a list of talking points advising that the “American psyche can be easily manipulated” if he were to make a limited expression of regret. Miss Jaafari did not respond to phone calls, texts or emails.
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