CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR HAD WHAT she calls ""a weird feeling of deja vu'' as she flew into Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, from her base in Paris last week. Amanpour, dispatched by CNN to report on the terror bombing at an American housing complex, had covered the beginning of the gulf war from Dhahran six years ago. ""And here I am coming back again,'' she says in her distinctive British accent. ""It's almost like all the same people all over again.'' CNN is even encamped in the same hotel it used during the gulf war. But back then Amanpour was an unknown on her first foreign reporting assignment. Perhaps her greatest distinction was her status as one of ""the Three Holy News Babes,'' as she and her all-female crew were jokingly known. This time around, it's different. The phones in the CNN suite are ringing off the hook. Reporters are calling -- and they want to interview Amanpour.
Between visits to Dhahran, Amanpour, 38, has compiled a collection of passport stamps and broadcasting awards that make her the envy of every news operation on TV. This spring, with her contract with CNN close to expiring, she may have felt more besieged by executives brandishing contracts than by Serb snipers waving rifles. Last week she, CNN and CBS announced an unprecedented deal that will keep her at CNN for the next three years -- at an annual salary said to be more than $1 million -- while at the same time allowing her to contribute five or six reports a year to CBS's ""60 Minutes,'' a side gig rumored to be worth as much as $500,000 more. She calls these numbers ""way wrong, way too high.'' In the news business, where exclusivity is everything, it's almost unheard-of to allow an employee to work part time for a competitor. ""This really is an exceptional situation,'' says CNN president Tom Johnson. ""I don't expect to be doing other deals like this.'' All sides describe the pact as a win-win-win proposition: CNN gets to keep Amanpour and gets promotional mileage from an agreement that she'll be identified on ""60 Minutes'' as a CNN correspondent; CBS acquires a fresh face for an aging franchise, and Amanpour gets to stay at CNN, which runs more foreign news than the networks do, while finding a wider U.S. audience on CBS.
That's important to someone who cares as much about the stories she covers as Amanpour does. From the gulf war to the Kurdish crisis, through Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti and, most of all, in Bosnia, Amanpour has earned a reputation as a reporter who not only slogs gamely through the most dangerous and unpleasant assignments on earth but also delivers authoritative and impassioned reports that bring home the horrors of international conflict. ""She's simply the best at what she does,'' brags CNN's Johnson.
Given her background, that's not surprising. Amanpour, born in London to an English mother, grew up in her father's native Iran. With the coming of the revolution in 1979, the family returned to England, but Amanpour soon crossed the Atlantic to get her journalism degree at the University of Rhode Island. After graduating in 1983, she landed an entry-level job as an assistant on CNN's international desk. A star, slowly but steadily, was born. Not that Amanpour cares for talk of stardom. ""I don't consider myself a celebrity,'' she says. ""I don't let it for a minute interfere with what I'm doing.'' A slew of disappointed reporters calling the CNN suite last week found that out the hard way.