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.’
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.