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.’
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.
All I can say is that I believe in the American people. I really do. I really believe that they have the right spirit and the right attitude about tolerance, as a society, as individuals, and as a culture. It’s said over and over, not to be a cliché, but America is a country of immigrants and the stories of successful immigrants bridging the gap are tremendous, from every culture and every walk of life in the United States. And I think that over the past ten years, because of what has happened since 9/11, and America’s involvement in the Arab world and the broader Islamic world, the time is right for Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, and people from that background—who’ve been for decades integrated in the United States—to become more vocal and to become not just observers of American life, but to be participants of mainstream American life. And nothing can be more mainstream in America than reporting for an American network like NBC.
That’s why this decision weighed heavily on me, not just as a journalist, but as an Arab American. I knew that in some ways I would be paving the way. I’m not the first Arab American to work for an American network, but I’d like to think that it is breaking new ground for a lot of young reporters from all different kinds of backgrounds who may think that, you know what?—American media is generally of a certain type, out of a certain background, reporting to a certain audience, and we’re certainly going to try to push the envelope with that a little bit and see what the reaction is going to be like.