This spring, just before he turned thirty-two, Ayman Mohyeldin’s contract with Al Jazeera was ending and he was faced with a happy career decision—choosing among offers to stay where he was or go to any of three major American network news organizations. I had worked with him for the first year of Al Jazeera English, when I was an anchor and he was a correspondent in the Washington Bureau. His strength as a reporter and grace on camera had been immediately apparent, and it had been no surprise when he was tapped by Al Jazeera headquarters in Doha to be an A-list correspondent in the Middle East. After that, his work covering the 2009 war in Gaza and the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt made him something of a global celebrity. But he is an Arab American (his father is from Egypt and his mother, a Palestinian), and it is no surprise that the decision between Al Jazeera’s growing global audience and an American audience was not an easy one. He chose NBC and starts tomorrow, September 20. I spoke with him about that decision for CJR on September 8.
Before negotiations started, had you set up in your mind a goal?
Yes, I did, actually—to try to do a partnership deal, to find an American network that would work with Al Jazeera, allowing me to report for Al Jazeera as a primary reporter and to be a special news contributor, to do programs for any of these American networks, the kind of deal that I had seen done with other correspondents like Anderson Cooper, Sanjay Gupta, and Christiane Amanpour. To my surprise, two of three of the networks were willing. They liked the idea and wanted to explore making it work. The network I ended up with was the one that didn’t want to play.
Would Al Jazeera have gone along?
I can say now in hindsight, they said no. At the time I thought I could make a convincing argument that it would be beneficial to them to have an Al Jazeera reporter working for one of the three American networks, but even though Al Jazeera reporters do appear on other networks, to try to work out an arrangement on sharing me on assignments posed too great a logistical challenge. It was territory that was very new to Al Jazeera, that they just weren’t ready to explore at this time.
I’ve been told that the new editorial boss at AJE said that he has no interest in “star correspondents.” Does that mean he didn’t want to bid against US networks?
No, to be honest with you, that wouldn’t be accurate, because I did not in any way ever use this as a negotiating tactic to try to leverage Al Jazeera against any of the American networks. I never wanted to try to go back to AJ and say this is what I’ve been valued at by the American networks and can you match it. I think that would have been extremely disrespectful to the organization and everything it stands for, everything that I’ve built at AJ.
How has NBC set up your expectations? What kind of reporting have they said you can expect to do, at what length, for what platforms?
They have pretty much said all platforms. NBC has the great advantages in that it has a twenty-four-hour news channel. So that’s a tremendous platform. It also has its regular stable of news shows. [The idea] was to be a major contributor about what was happening in the Middle East. What they’ve been telling me about how they wanted to cover the region was a huge motivating factor in my decision.
Before you worked at Al Jazeera, you were a desk assistant at NBC and you worked for CNN. How different did you find Al Jazeera?
It was very, very different. It was different administratively, it was different editorially. I wasn’t around when CNN started, but I produced for a lot of correspondents and worked with a lot of people at CNN who were with it from its early days, and they told me it was very much the same spirit, a very run-and-gun type of situation. Something breaks in some part of the world, everybody gets deployed on a plane with as many resources as possible, with a big wad of cash in your bag and just go cover the story, bring us something out of there. It wasn’t, you know, this pre-planned ‘let’s talk about budget, let’s talk about this, let’s think about how we’re going to do this.’