Also Al Jazeera had to live up to the expectations set by Al Jazeera Arabic. Because Al Jazeera Arabic had made its name through covering live events—the Afghanistan war, the Iraq war. So we were very much born into that spirit. And we had to live up to that spirit.
Editorially what was different and distinctive about Al Jazeera?
I think it was that everything was on the table for discussion. That there were no holds barred on what can be said, there was nothing that was institutionalized in terms of what a fixed editorial policy was going to be. That really was a breath of fresh air. We wanted to challenge everything and we had such a great platform to do it. I mean, I wonder, during the Gaza war, where else would I have been given a platform to report twenty hours a day live coverage without any commercial breaks, without any kind of breaks. And even during the Egyptian revolution, what other platform would we have been given the chance to report continuously live for those many hours? So editorially speaking, there were no limits.
How much of that freedom might you be giving up in going to NBC?
It was definitely a factor on my mind. NBC is a much more institutionalized organization that has years of processes that have been put in place. It certainly has its own editorial guidelines and standards and practices that I will also have to learn. Wherever I can make a contribution in a positive way, I certainly will. If I find that there’s something in the coverage that is based on a policy or a guideline that has been in place for years— but is inaccurate as to the realities on the ground—I will do my best to speak up and try to change it.
This goes back to why I made that jump. I said to myself if I didn’t do it, I would be selling out the very principle that I believe in, that American journalism can be a better conduit for the American people to understand. I believe that the time was right for someone from my background, with my experience, and my personal story—of being an immigrant to the United States and understanding both regions of the world—to really make that gap a little bit more narrow. If there’s ever an opportunity for anyone to make that change within any American news organization, particularly when it came to the Middle East, this was the time.
It seems to me that the biggest difference between Al Jazeera English and NBC is the audience. Al Jazeera really has both a unique and a uniquely global audience. Hard to give that up?
Absolutely. It’s extremely hard to give that up. But at the same time, what I am trying to go after is extremely challenging. And again it goes back to that personal decision. As an Arab-American, a part of me wants to speak to the global audience, and a part of me wants to speak to America.
Now obviously, having grown up in America, and spent a lot of time here, America is much closer to my heart, and the American audience is much closer to my heart. All the years I spent in high school and college in the US, everything I did, even on a one-on-one level with my friends, was always reporting to them about what the reality of the situation is on the ground. So in essence I always felt myself [to be] an ambassador from the Middle East to the United States. But at the same time whenever I was in the Middle East, whenever I was in Gaza, whenever I was anywhere else, I was an ambassador of America to this part of the world. And when people would see me and see the opportunities that I had in the US and I would tell them and describe to them what life was really like in America, their misperceptions about America changed. So this was the ultimate platform in doing what has always been something that I did on a personal level. It was now the ability to do it on a massive, million-viewer [laughs] platform on a daily basis, through msnbc.com, through MSNBC, Nightly, Meet The Press, the Today Show, what have you.
To some of your American viewers, you may be less welcome than you were for the audience at Al Jazeera.