In stark contrast to NBC, Good Morning America co-host George Stephanopoulos on Wednesday hit Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with tough questions, pressing the Iranian President on whether he was in control of his government and on his rough handling of protesters.
Regarding 2009 crackdowns on personal freedoms, the ABC anchor pointedly asked, "You referred to the protesters as dust and dirt. Do you regret using that term?" On September 12, when Today co-host Ann Curry spent the day with Ahmadinejad, she wondered, "What is your primary motivation, as president? Why do you work so hard?" She also pointed out his "grueling schedule."
By comparison, Stephanopoulos pushed the Iranian President to give a commitment that two U.S. hikers would be freed. Ahmadinejad indignantly replied, "Do I have to provide a guarantee?" Stephanopoulos didn't budge: "I think a lot of Americans would like that guarantee."
The journalist also probed, "There seems to be, from the outside, a power struggle inside Iran. The members of the judiciary are determined to embarrass you and prevent the release of those hikers while you're here in the United States."
Curry's take, however, sounded like she was interviewing a celebrity and not the leader of a brutal regime. At one point, she declared, "A hard-driving schedule is the norm his aides say, claiming he sleeps just three hours a night and that his days often stretch to 2:00 a.m. They say even Iran's supreme leader has advised him to sleep more."
Stephanopoulos' tough questions also stand out when compared to CBS's Scott Peley. In 2007, he described Ahmadinejad as "friendly" and "modest."
A transcript of the September 21 segment, which aired at 7:03am EDT, follows:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: As you know, he plight of the hikers have complicated the visit of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to New York this week. Like President Obama, he'll be addressing the U.N. General Assembly. And when I sat down with the President yesterday, he made it clear that he wanted and expected these hikers to be set free.
MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD [through a translator]: I did say within the next few days. And I still say the same thing. And God willing, they will be released very soon.
STEPHANOPOULOS: There seems to be, from the outside, a power struggle inside Iran. The members of the judiciary are determined to embarrass you and prevent the release of those hikers while you're here in the United States.
AHMADINEJAD: There is no problem. There is a judicial process that has to be completed and hopefully, it will be.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Guaranteed they will come to the United States?
AHMADINEJAD: Do I have to provide a guarantee?
STEPHANOPOULOS: I think a lot of Americans would like that guarantee.
AHMADINEJAD: Yes. We act upon whatever we say. When we said we will release them, we will release them, as a humanitarian gesture.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But that gesture of goodwill was followed by tough words on the U.S. role in the Arab spring.
AHMADINEJAD: Show me one dictatorship in the world that has not been supported by the U.S. government or some European government. It almost doesn't exist. NATO's interference, the U.S. Interference, does not solve the problem.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And the Iranian president made no apologies for cracking down on the 2009 marches for freedom in Iran. You referred to the protesters as dust and dirt. Do you regret using that term?
AHMADINEJAD: Don't you distinguish between those protesters who have something to say and who have some demands and those who set buildings on fire? Those who protested, they expressed their demands, and the legal process reviewed them and responded to those demands.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Many faced violence before they could go through due process.
AHMADINEJAD: That's not so.
STEPHANOPOULOS: The Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, said earlier, this year that it's just a matter of time-
LEON PANETTA: -before that kind of change, reform and revolution, occurs in Iran, as well.
STEPHANOPOULOS: What did you make of that?
AHMADINEJAD: Does this mean the U.S. has some plan for the Middle East?
STEPHANOPOULOS: Is that your fear?
AHMADINEJAD: No. I have no fear. Why should we fear the United States? But if he has some plans and he's announcing it, I would be telling him, you're making a mistake. And the response would be very resolute.