The BBC producer and reporter broadcasts from danger zones around the world.
By Erica Moody
She speaks fluent Farsi and keeps a go-bag by her bed if she’s suddenly called to cover a war zone. Only 28, Suzanne Kianpour, a Washington-based producer and reporter for the British Broadcasting Corporation, is proving she is a journalistic force to be reckoned with.
You were recently in Saudi Arabia for work. What was your experience like there? I’ll be honest — I didn’t expect to be in Saudi Arabia for two full weeks in March when we unexpectedly got extended visas to do some original reporting there, a rare opportunity, off the back of Secretary Kerry’s visit at the beginning of the month. What I definitely didn’t expect was to return less than a month later to cover a war. My experience in March working in Saudi was completely different than in April — and not just because this time I had a flak jacket over my abaya. There are rare moments in one’s journalism career where you get to see several different sides to the same story — political, social, military muscle — and in the past month, I’ve seen many sides of the kingdom.
What is the most fascinating place you’ve visited, and where do you want to visit? I’m excited to say I reached my goal to visit 30 countries before I turned 30 a bit earlier than expected, but I’d have to say Cuba. How it has stayed locked in time is completely mind-boggling. The fact that 1950s cars are people’s primary mode of transportation is surreal. I also really want to go to North Korea.
Did you always want to work in news? When I was in the fourth grade, Friday was my favorite day, not just because it was almost the weekend, but because it was current events day. Our assignment was to cut out a newspaper article, summarize it and then present it to the class — not too far off from what I do now. I always loved news and especially TV news. I anchored our high school program and helped launch and anchored Emory News Now in college.
How has covering the Middle East, Latin America and Washington shaped your worldview? Why were these areas a point of focus for you? I come from a mixed background, Persian and Italian, and grew up around people from all over the world — especially Latin America. So, naturally I was drawn to these issues in these particular regions and followed and studied them from a young age. I’m lucky, in my job covering Capitol Hill and the state department, to be able to continue to do that. Last year I was based in Lebanon, something I asked to do because I wanted to be on the receiving end of U.S. policy. Covering Washington is great, but staying in the bubble as journalists, we risk getting tunnel vision and, quite frankly, getting spun. How can you really understand the story and accurately report it if you’ve never lived it? I wish all of our politicians and staffers who make decisions about these countries could go and spend a legitimate amount of time there, not just quick in-and-out official trips where you barely step outside the “bubble.”
What’s it like reporting on Washington politics for a national audience as opposed to an international audience? I started my career at NBC News, so I’ve covered Washington for both a national network and now an international network with BBC. Having to explain things like cloture in 30 seconds or less is a serious exercise in keeping it concise.
If you could pinpoint a highlight or defining moment of your career so far, what would it be? Landing an exclusive interview with the Iranian foreign minister and then two weeks later covering the historic diplomatic breakthrough that was the Iran interim nuclear agreement. It was also my 27th birthday. I had to postpone my party from Geneva. John Kerry was my ride home and wasn’t leaving in time.
Who would you most like to meet or interview? The Iranian supreme leader, especially as we’re on the verge of a final nuclear deal.
What is your ultimate career ambition? To have my own show: @kianpourworld.
This interview appears in the May 2015 issue of Washington Life magazine.