The Debater

Mehdi Hasan’s challenging transatlantic rise

Last October, Mehdi Hasan, a British journalist who lives in the United States, interviewed John Bolton, Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, on Peacock, the NBCUniversal streaming service where Hasan had just debuted a nightly show. Bolton had been a regular news guest since the summer, when he published a book excoriating Trump; he sometimes faced awkward questions about his work for the president, but the focus of interviews was usually on Trump’s threat to America. On Peacock, Hasan asked Bolton about the prospect of Trump refusing to accept the election result, should he lose. Then the questions took a turn. Hasan pressed Bolton on his refusal to vote for Joe Biden. And he went back in time, to Bolton’s encouragement of the George W. Bush administration to invade Iraq.

“Verbal abuse is the president’s strong suit, of course,” Hasan said. “But then again, when he says in response to you and your book that you’re a, quote, ‘warmonger’—that all you, quote, ‘wanted to do is drop bombs on everybody’—is he correct about that?”

Bolton tried to deflect the question—it was “about as simplistic as Trump’s criticisms,” he said. But Hasan would not be waved off. “What I’m wondering,” he asked, “is all those thousands of people who died in Iraq, all of those innocent Iraqi civilians—men, women, children, killed by US air strikes, some of them in massacres, at Haditha, Mahmudiyah, Balad—none of those weigh on your conscience? None of those deaths ever keep you up at night?”

Bolton didn’t answer directly, so Hasan asked again, and then a third time; at one point, he also asked whether Bolton fears one day being brought to justice for war crimes. As the barrage continued, Hasan moved on to grill him about Iran. Bolton grew flustered. “I have never said anything other than what I believe,” he told Hasan, “and we are now, sir, twenty minutes into this interview, which you said was for fifteen.” (Less than fifteen minutes had gone by.)

Hasan, who is forty-two, with stubble, piercing eyes, and thick, perpetually skeptical eyebrows, has built a global reputation on conducting devastating interviews—first at Al Jazeera English, now at NBCUniversal. In late November, Hasan gave both barrels to Chris Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax, a conservative network that was then cresting in popularity thanks to its sycophantic coverage of Trump and his election denialism; Hasan played Ruddy a conspiratorial clip from Newsmax and asked, “Do you feel embarrassed to be running nonsense like that on your network and calling it ‘news’?” In late February, he added to his schedule a prime-time Sunday-night show on MSNBC, and invited Dan Crenshaw, a Republican congressman from Texas who had recently called him a “fake partisan ‘journalist.’ ” On air, Hasan pulled up a chart showing that, contrary to the Republican narrative about immigration, apprehensions at the border had already been rising when President Biden took office, thanks to a law through which Trump had effectively shuttered the US to most migrants without allowing them to apply for asylum. (The Biden administration has kept the policy mostly in place.) Crenshaw said he didn’t know where Hasan had gotten his data. Hasan said it was sourced from Customs and Border Protection.

In addition to these bouts, Hasan has delivered more typical MSNBC fare: segments with network contributors, public health experts, anti-Trump Republicans, and Democratic lawmakers and officials. Hasan often challenges these guests, too. He attacked the border crisis from a different angle with Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff. (“This isn’t family separation,” Hasan said, of the administration’s treatment of migrant children, “but it’s still an outrage and unacceptable, is it not?”) In a monologue about Barack Obama’s memoir, Hasan eviscerated the papering-over of his use of drones. Hasan has been scathing about the centrist senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema for their support of the filibuster; at one point, he asked, as he did with Bolton, how they sleep at night—albeit rhetorically, since, unlike Bolton, Manchin and Sinema have yet to subject themselves to the Hasan treatment. Frequently, he goes off on breathless rants timed against the clock. He also convenes thoughtful, substantive discussions on topics as varied as vaccination, the war in Yemen, and Palestine. In April, he interviewed Noam Chomsky, the veteran left-wing academic—a unicorn sighting, by MSNBC standards.

Hasan’s approach can be seen as an explicit rebuke to outdated journalistic norms in general and complacent coverage of Trump in particular. At the top of his first show on MSNBC, he laid out a mission statement: “People sometimes say journalists shouldn’t be biased,” he said. “No. Journalists should have a bias: a bias toward democracy.” He has called out Trump’s lies and racism—even his fascism—when many journalists still felt squeamish about doing so. “Mehdi saw immediately what was at stake, for media and democracy as a whole, partly because he comes from outside the US,” Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a scholar of fascism at New York University who has appeared on Hasan’s program, told me—enabling him “to make that leap to say ‘Yes, it can happen here.’ ”

Hasan’s sensibility presents a hybrid, of sorts—part MSNBC, part The Takeaway, part Democracy Now!, part something else. Genuinely tough interviewers are rare on American TV, as are strong progressive voices; Hasan is both. “He has a very clear point of view,” Jay Rosen, an associate professor of journalism at NYU who has appeared on Hasan’s Peacock show, told me. “Nobody’s gonna accuse him of being a ‘he said, she said,’ phony-neutral journalist. But I think he very smartly includes being critical of liberal politicians—from the left—as part of his mission.” In an era that has exposed the failings of triangulation and false equivalence, Hasan has shown that you can scrutinize “both sides” from a place of unabashed moral clarity.

Phil Griffin, who hired Hasan while president of MSNBC, was impressed by his interview style and saw him as the kind of talent who could help anchor his network’s push into streaming. “He’s very polite, but he’s tough,” Griffin told me. “He doesn’t let you get away with the thing that we hate most: talking points, or generic statements. It is good television, and it is thoughtful television, and you know the guest better prepare if they’re gonna come on that show.” I asked Griffin whether a desire for greater ideological diversity had factored into the decision to hire Hasan; the progressive left, including Bernie Sanders, has often criticized MSNBC as a bastion of the Democratic establishment. “I would disagree with the sensitivity of the Bernie Sanders campaign,” Griffin replied. “Our best interviewers are gonna hold you accountable whether you’re a Democrat or a liberal—or whatever. I knew that Mehdi would hold everybody accountable.” Laura Conaway, who heads The Choice from MSNBC, a news streaming channel under the Peacock umbrella, told me, “My first impression about Mehdi was that he’s what I’ve heard referred to sometimes, in different contexts, as a lot of horse—he’s just a really, really strong performer.”

Hasan has shown that you can scrutinize “both sides” from a place of unabashed moral clarity.

 

Hasan was born in 1979, in Swindon, a town in the southwest of England, to Hyderabadi Muslim parents who immigrated to the United Kingdom from India. His father was always argumentative about politics; in the eighties—amid widespread disavowal, across the Muslim world, of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses—he bought a copy, telling skeptical friends that one should always read the other side of an argument. When Hasan was a child, his family moved to North London, where Hasan attended what he has described as “a posh white-majority private school which was switching to become very brown.” He then went to Christ Church College, Oxford, where he studied philosophy, politics, and economics, or PPE—a degree that is a long-standing rite of passage for the British political elite. As a student, Hasan appeared in a school play alongside Riz Ahmed, who is now a major Hollywood star. Recently, Ahmed appeared on Hasan’s MSNBC show. “I remember even then you being the debating champion—the vicious debating king,” Ahmed said. “No one wanted to go toe to toe with you. So I think it’s no surprise what you’re doing right now.”

That remark appears not just to have been guest-to-host flattery. In interviews with a dozen people who know Hasan, I heard repeatedly that he was made for the screen—a live wire who dominates every room he enters, and who is the same off the air as he is on it. Not that there was anything inevitable about his trajectory to cable. As he prepared to graduate from Oxford, he applied for media jobs out of a “process of elimination,” he told me. “I looked around and said, ‘Well, I can’t do any of the other, normal jobs that people would do. I’ve got a big mouth. I’m interested in politics. Maybe this’ll work for me.’ ”

Hasan landed an entry-level freelance position at ITN, a British production company, then worked at various networks in off-air roles. One of them was with Jonathan Dimbleby, a prominent British broadcaster who employed Hasan as a researcher and producer. Dimbleby recalled that, during preparation sessions for interviews, when Hasan was supposed to be role-playing as an upcoming interviewee, he would share his own opinions. “He wasn’t, as it were, trying to persuade me about what I should do so much as he was irrepressible,” Dimbleby told me. Dorothy Byrne, Hasan’s boss at a different network, Channel 4, remembered him inhaling political news and blogs. “I thought I would get worn out if I had as many passionate views as Mehdi Hasan has,” she said.

In 2009, Hasan went to work at the New Statesman, a progressive magazine, where he covered Britain’s Labour Party and wrote features and rapid-fire, trenchant blogs attacking austerity economics and Western military intervention in the Middle East, among other targets. (That wasn’t quite Hasan’s first gig in print: in a curious turn, he briefly interned at The Spectator, a conservative magazine that was edited, at the time, by Boris Johnson. Hasan recalls helping Johnson sign Christmas cards while Johnson sang carols.) Soon, Hasan found himself in high demand as a pundit on TV and radio shows. Jason Cowley, the editor of the Statesman, tried to prep him for his debut appearance on Question Time, a prestigious weekly debate panel on the BBC. “We said, ‘Look, just be calm. We don’t want to be represented by a left-wing firebrand—we want to show people that the New Statesman is more nuanced,’ ” Cowley said. “Of course, he was a left-wing firebrand.” Hasan “dominated” the panel, Cowley recalled. “The next day, when we came into the office, we’d had a surge of subscriptions from people who had seen him.”

As in the US, voices of the left have traditionally been underrepresented in the British media. Many of Hasan’s stances from his Statesman days are unexceptional by today’s standards—since Hasan covered the Labour Party, it has shifted leftward—but at the time he was a rare, staunchly progressive voice in the mainstream forum. Not that his positions followed a formulaic script. “With a lot of commentators, you know exactly what their line is going to be, because their various views fit in with each other,” Byrne said. “Mehdi isn’t like that.” Once, he sparked a ruckus on Twitter—where he was, and remains, active—after he wrote a column opposing abortion, calling it incompatible with his worldview. “Isn’t socialism about protecting the weak and vulnerable, giving a voice to the voiceless? Who is weaker or more vulnerable than the unborn child?” he asked. “Yes, a woman has a right to choose what to do with her body—but a baby isn’t part of her body.” (Hasan stressed to me that then, as now, he supported laws guaranteeing a woman’s right to choose, and that he said as much in the column; he also said that he wouldn’t make the point in the same way today. “I upset a lot of people, and I regret that,” he told me. “Looking back, it was unnecessarily provocative and gratuitous.”)

In 2012, Hasan moved to HuffPost UK, where he worked as political director. (The Statesman continued to copublish his columns.) The same year, he became the host of a show on Al Jazeera English called The Cafe, in which he moderated topical debates, then piloted a program that would later become Head to Head—his breakout long-form interview show, which he hosted until last year and which featured Hasan challenging public intellectuals, senior global politicians, and military leaders whose values and records typically conflicted with his own.

Eventually, Hasan left HuffPost and, in 2015, decamped for Washington, DC, to host another Al Jazeera show called UpFront, a weekly program that incorporated elements of his other formats. The move was prompted in part by his wife—also of Indian descent, and who grew up in Texas. When she told Hasan that she wanted to relocate, his response, at first, was to ask what “a lefty, Muslim, British journalist is gonna do in the United States.” Still, he was fascinated by American politics and media; on trips to visit his wife’s family, he’d seen Keith Olbermann’s show on MSNBC. Plus, he said, “there is that Beatlesesque, can-you-conquer-America aspiration.” Hasan became a US citizen last year, just in time to vote in the presidential election.

Hasan sharpened his voice as a commentator on American politics at The Intercept, where he signed on as a columnist in 2017; he later hosted a podcast and online videos there. His hiring was championed by Glenn Greenwald, with whom Hasan remains friendly, and by Betsy Reed, The Intercept’s editor in chief, who credits Hasan with bringing a “refreshing” outsider’s perspective to the site. “He was one of the first people to start talking about this idea of court-packing,” Reed told me. “Initially, I thought, Okay, come on. This is just a British person’s fantasy that this would happen and this would actually be talked about in the US in a serious manner—but, lo and behold, they’re actually really talking about it.”

Hasan’s interviews at The Intercept were framed as a corrective to mainstream media narratives. Since his days at the Statesman, Hasan has incorporated more media criticism into his work than perhaps any other journalist who is not on the media beat. In the UK, he lashed out regularly at right-wing pundits (“If he could provoke more established commentators into responding to him, that’s exactly what he wanted,” Cowley said); after moving to the US, he often accused major outlets of deferential coverage, and of normalizing Trump. In his Intercept column, he shredded interviews he found unimpressive—Norah O’Donnell on Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (“a crime against journalism”), Margaret Brennan on Ivanka Trump (“makes O’Donnell’s sit-down with MBS look like an interrogation”). On his podcast, he took aim at “guests from corporate-funded think tanks who run their mouths day in, day out on corporate-owned cable channels,” and slammed White House reporters for defending Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s press secretary, after Michelle Wolf, a comedian, mocked her at a White House Correspondents’ Dinner. “Andrea Mitchell, of NBC News, even suggested that the White House press secretary was owed an apology by the White House Correspondents’ Association,” Hasan said. “I mean, seriously? What is wrong with these people?”

Now that Hasan works for the same corporate-owned cable channel as Mitchell, it seems his perspective has changed. “I definitely get the access issue,” he said, of the need for shows not to alienate potential guests. “Not everyone has to have the same style; not everyone needs to do what I do.” He has praised Chris Wallace, of Fox News, and Jonathan Swan, of Axios, for eventually subjecting Trump to tough, on-camera interviews. He also likes CNN’s Jake Tapper and Pamela Brown, who is one of Hasan’s competitors in his Sunday-night slot. But he has continued to criticize rivals: assailing “lazy, unhelpful, ‘both sides’ media coverage” that equates progressive Democrats, including Ilhan Omar, with QAnon-adjacent Republicans like Marjorie Taylor Greene, and scolding Politico for granting credence to Stephen Miller, Trump’s immigration adviser.

Hasan finds media criticism fun; he enjoys reading “gossipy media pieces.” His main motivations, though, are serious. “Race is a big part of it,” he said. “I am a Muslim journalist. I am an immigrant journalist. I am a brown journalist. That’s not how I define myself, but it is part of who I am, and therefore I’m not going to hide the fact that in an era where race is very much dominating most political stories, I’m gonna have a strong view on how we’re covering it.”

“He wasn’t trying to persuade me about what I should do so much as he was irrepressible.”

 

In 2018, Hasan hosted Ahmed, his old schoolmate, on his Intercept podcast, and brought up something that Ahmed had said in an interview with the New York Times magazine, about his identity as a child of immigrants in Britain: “We are the inheritors of the scars of empire but also the spoils of empire, and that kind of inside-outside state is totally ingrained in us, which is why, at a time like now where everybody’s being asked to pick a side, everything is binary.” The quote, Hasan said, resonated with him. He added, “Isn’t it the case that it’s not just that we’re asked to pick a side, but both sides—both parts of our identity, call them East or West for simplicity—are insisting we pick them and are suggesting that we would be betraying our identity if we don’t pick one?” Later, Hasan discussed how he feels when people call him a “Muslim journalist”: “Sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not,” he said. “It’s easy to say you don’t want to be pigeonholed by your race or your religion—but when there’s so few people like us around in public life, we can’t help but pigeonhole ourselves. Can we?”

Hasan is a practicing Muslim and has covered Islam and Muslim communities around the world ever since his first article for the Statesman, which was about the growth of Sharia-compliant finance. He emerged from “the first generation of incredibly assertive Western Muslims,” Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a veteran commentator in the UK, told me recently. “He certainly was the first of many who then emerged—very confident of themselves, and very able to take on Western prejudices and push themselves into the public space.” Hasan has spoken out often against Islamophobia—including in the media industry—and has quoted the Koran and Islamic history in columns debunking stereotypes about his faith. He has also challenged his community, calling out, for example, anti-Semitism in its midst. Despite that, right-wingers have sometimes sought to tag him as a radical Islamist, often by recycling a speech he once gave in which, quoting the Koran, he referred to close-minded nonbelievers as “cattle.” Hasan has pointed out, in response, that he also referred to some Muslims as cattle, but in 2019 he apologized unreservedly for the comments. (He has also apologized for using homophobic language as a young man, writing on Twitter: “Growing up in a conservative faith community, where you didn’t interact with *actual* gay people, I ended up making insensitive remarks.”) He told me that his apology was “everything that needs to be said,” but added that he does get “annoyed” that his old comments still follow him around—“Muslims and brown people,” he told me, “get held to account twice as heavily for the things we mess up on as everyone else.”

Hasan came of age professionally at a time when Islam was a subject of intense global interest. He was a week into his job at Dimbleby’s show when the twin towers came down, and he spent the next few months trying to book “Great Muslim Guests” at the behest of his bosses. (“You can count on one hand the people you were able to book,” Hasan said.) He vehemently opposed the subsequent US-led intervention in the Middle East. The need to prevent a war with Iran remains one of his major journalistic preoccupations. So, too, is Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. In May, after Israeli police raided a mosque and fired rubber-tipped bullets at Palestinian protesters, Hasan called out euphemistic US media coverage. “These are not ‘clashes,’ ” he said on his Peacock show. “There is an asymmetry of power here: one side is the occupier, the other side is occupied, and media coverage, political commentary, international interventions that don’t reflect this central fact—yeah, the fact of illegal occupation of the West Bank, of East Jerusalem—are all, I’m sorry to say, part of the problem.” The Daily Beast noted that Hasan—along with Ayman Mohyeldin, also of MSNBC—had done “something practically unheard of on an American television outlet . . . devoting substantial airtime to the Palestinian point of view.”

Hasan has also pointed his arrow at Trump, who launched his presidential bid a few months after Hasan moved to the US. Hasan likes to say that, as a Muslim immigrant journalist, he represents “the trifecta on the Trump hate list.” Nevertheless, he initially laughed off Trump’s proposed Muslim ban as the ravings of a candidate who would never win. “Hey @realDonaldTrump,” he tweeted after returning from an overseas trip, “I’m back baby!” After Trump won, Hasan’s mother urged him to keep his head down. But he felt obligated to speak, just as he had done in the UK in the long aftermath of 9/11. As we talked, I asked Hasan whether he finds it tiresome to have to say so much about his faith; overall, he told me, he does. “I don’t think any Muslim wants to write about how Islam isn’t a terrorist religion, how Muslims are not fifth columnists.” After he became a public figure in the UK, Hasan regularly fielded calls from TV bookers asking him to be a Great Muslim Guest; he didn’t always want to say yes, but “you watch TV and you watch someone screw up a defense of your community, and you’re like, ‘Argh!’ You’re shouting at the TV. And I was one of those people who used to shout at the TV. Now I have an opportunity to be on TV and fix those issues. I felt like that was a burden I had to carry.”

The TV appearances could be physically grueling, requiring overnight trips and unsociable hours at a time when Hasan was starting a family. He and his wife have two children; they now live in the DC area. (He declined to say much more about his household, citing the abuse he gets for his work.) “My wife jokes—not in a good way—that I end up working twenty-four-seven,” he told me. Since January, he has had more free time, which he likes to spend on “mindless action movies,” including the Fast and Furious series. “When all you do all day long is think about the news, and think about human suffering, and think about how the world’s gonna end in one way or another, the way you relax is not to then do highbrow stuff.” Still, when called upon for his opinions as a talking head, he’ll answer. “I am a disputatious person,” he said. “I enjoy going on a debate and rhetorically beating someone up, or taking apart bad arguments. Do I enjoy the process? Yes, I’m not going to deny that. That’s who I am.”

Arguments only work if the participants operate within a shared reality—no guarantee these days.

 

In 2019, on an episode of Head to Head, Hasan interviewed Erik Prince, the Trump-allied founder of a private military contractor formerly known as Black-water. For nearly fifty minutes, Hasan raked Prince over the coals with excruciating dexterity. He started with Blackwater’s complicity in civilian deaths during the Iraq War. Then he pilloried Prince for suggesting that private contractors be sent into Afghanistan, too. He referenced Hamid Karzai, the country’s past president, who called the proposal a nonstarter. Prince said he thought Karzai might have changed his mind; Hasan replied, “I literally asked his office on Friday, and they said they’re dead against it.” The studio audience applauded. After a break, Hasan brought up Frontier Services Group, another Prince company, and its plan to establish a training center in Xinjiang, where the Chinese government has committed human-rights abuses against ethnic and religious minorities. Prince suggested that Hasan had mistranslated an FSG press release; Hasan countered that his company had posted the document in English. More applause. Finally, Hasan asked Prince about his ties to Trump, including a meeting Prince took in August 2016 with campaign officials and other characters at Trump Tower. Hasan wanted to know why Prince didn’t disclose the meeting in testimony before Congress. Prince squirmed and eventually said that congressional record-keepers may have made a mistake on the transcript. Neither Hasan nor the audience bought it.

The Prince exchange was a testament to the depth of preparation—with researchers compiling hefty dossiers on guests, then role-playing as them in rehearsals, as Hasan learned to do on Dimbleby’s show—that the team at Al Jazeera put into big interviews. (“He knows how to frame a question, and he does so with precision,” Dimbleby told me.) The Prince encounter also illuminated a blurry line, in Hasan’s work, between interviewing and debating—the porous boundary between probing a subject and eviscerating him. Initially, the producers of Head to Head had discussed a format where Hasan would debate his guests while a third party moderated; in the end, they used Hasan as an interviewer, but his debater’s spirit became part of the show’s DNA. Head to Head was filmed at the Oxford Union, Britain’s most prestigious debate hall.

“He was a star at debating at Oxford,” James Macintyre, who worked with Hasan on Dimbleby’s show and at the Statesman, said. “It’s amazing how he’s managed now to make a living out of what he loves doing best.” Sophie Elmhirst, another former Statesman colleague, told me that Hasan “had this extraordinary debater’s energy,” and that being in editorial meetings with him was like being in “a kind of uni debating society.” (She added that, although Hasan’s TV career hasn’t surprised her, she partly expected to one day see him in Britain’s Parliament.) Ryan Grim, the DC bureau chief at The Intercept, told me that he “gave up” debating Hasan. “Even if he were arguing that the world was flat, and I was arguing that it was round, he would win the debate,” Grim said. “It was kind of pointless and hopeless for me.”

Hasan’s part-interview, part-debate approach is distinctive but not unique; it is, in fact, decidedly British. Not all British interviewers are like Hasan; some use subtler techniques to get under a subject’s skin. But a combative style has come to define British interviewing in the eyes of the world, incarnated not just by Hasan but also by the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman—who, in 1997, asked an evasive Conservative politician the same question twelve times—and Andrew Neil, whom Boris Johnson conspicuously dodged ahead of the 2019 UK elections, and who, the same year, chewed up Ben Shapiro, a right-wing American pundit. Hasan has suggested that Paxman is so tough that he wouldn’t last “even five minutes on US cable news,” and describes Neil as “probably the toughest interviewer on British TV.”

When I reached Neil recently, he praised Hasan as a strong interviewer in the British mold. It’s been good, he said, to see him break through in the US, where interview subjects have traditionally been “allowed to tell their truth as opposed to the truth.” Yet when I asked him to compare their methods, Neil described himself as an “equal-opportunity beater-upper”; Hasan, by contrast, comes at every subject from a left-wing vantage. “There’s probably no market in America for somebody like me, who, when faced with a left-winger, would come at them from the right and test their views—or, faced with a right-winger, would come at them from the left.”

As Trump rose to power, many American media critics, not to mention news consumers, expressed frustration with the established TV journalists who pitched softballs at his lying surrogates, then continued to invite them back on their shows. Over the course of his presidency, there was, it seemed, an expanding appetite for British-style maulings. Hasan’s sit-down with Prince went viral, as did a 2018 interview in which he nailed Steve Rogers, a Trump campaign adviser, with a handful of Trump lies. (“Let’s go on,” Rogers said, to avoid having to answer for one of them. Hasan shot back: “You want to go on because you know it’s a lie.”) Hasan cites the Rogers appearance as a breakout moment: celebrities retweeted it; Seth Meyers invited Hasan on his late-night show and described the interview as “the template for talking to people within the Trump sphere.” The Rogers exchange has remained pinned to the top of Hasan’s Twitter feed, with the message: “Hey US media folks, here, I would argue immodestly, is how you interview a Trump supporter on Trump’s lies.”

Still, Hasan has often made the case that deferential American journalism traditions—even those he finds absurd, like reporters standing up when the president enters a room—channel deep-rooted cultural norms. His tough interview with Crenshaw was praised by many liberals, but not everyone enjoyed it. “Did anyone learn anything from this exchange?” Ross Garber, a law professor and CNN contributor, asked on Twitter. “Hasan appears to have hoped to take Crenshaw down. But compare his huffing, exasperated, righteous, talking-over approach with, for example, Tim Russert’s technique.” Hasan can sometimes bring more heat than light. And since Biden took office, promising a return to “normalcy,” some audiences have been happy for news coverage to simmer down. When Hasan interviewed Brian Deese, a top economic adviser to Biden, some liberal viewers accused him of being too harsh, even though the interview was not especially tough.

That doesn’t mean Hasan plans to adopt the American way. He is steadfastly devoted to fierce debate and believes that more of his TV news peers are coming around to his style. “You know what? The more of us who do it,” he said, “the fewer safe spaces there will be.”

 

Aiming to find out what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a Hasan interrogation, I called up Arthur Laffer. An influential supply-side economist who has posited, with his eponymous curve, that it’s possible to cut taxes and increase tax revenue by spurring growth, Laffer advised politicians including Ronald Reagan and, more recently, Trump, who awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2014, Laffer appeared on Head to Head, where Hasan grilled him on his complicity in rising inequality and his track record of economic predictions. At one point, Hasan held up a napkin with Laffer’s curve on it—a reference to a meeting in DC, in 1974, at which Laffer drew the curve on a napkin for Dick Cheney. The “problem with your principles,” Hasan told Laffer, is that “they’re great on napkins. In the real world, they don’t work.”

Laffer told me that he loved the interview. He has since appeared with Hasan twice more, on UpFront. “This is not my first barbecue,” Laffer, who is eighty-one, said. “I’ve been in this framework and this environment for much of my life, and I thought it was about as good as any I’ve seen.” Laffer was referring mostly, though, to academic settings—like Milton Friedman’s workshops at the University of Chicago—and to interviews overseas; Hasan’s approach, he said, is “very rare” in US media. “I found his pushy style—his aggressive style—charming, and inclusive, and expository, and really, really helpful in bringing out the inner workings of the subject matter.” He told me that American friends who watched his Head to Head appearance were “very stressed” by it and found Hasan to be rude. But the Brits he knew enjoyed the sparring. “I wish Margaret Thatcher was still alive and I could have shown it to her,” he said. “She would have loved, loved, loved it.”

In today’s media landscape, there’s little incentive for public figures to subject themselves to hostile interviews; they can, especially on the right, simply appear on shows and networks that will massage their egos. Yet there are those like Laffer out there who enjoy a vigorous exchange. Many politicians go for it because they value attention of any kind, or because they possess the kind of confidence that makes them think they’ll be the one who comes out on top where others have failed. Some waltz onto a cable news set without doing any homework on the interviewer. Taken together, these factors have provided Hasan a regular stream of guests on his shows, despite his reputation. “In theory, should we be concerned about people not wanting to come and do interviews with me?” he asked. “Sure. But has it actually happened in practice? I’m pleasantly surprised to say no. We’re still doing very well.”

At NBCUniversal, Hasan’s booking odds have been enhanced somewhat by a change in format; unlike the journalistic utopia of Head to Head, with limited runs of forty-plus-minute interviews built on months of preparation, he now has nightly episodes to fill, each with far shorter segments. At more than sixteen minutes, his interview with Crenshaw, for instance, was long by cable standards, and required dropping an ad break. (It’s no wonder Bolton felt like his fifteen minutes with Hasan dragged on forever.) On American cable news, “you’re expected to paint with a broad brush,” Hasan told me. “I have to work this out on a nightly basis. What is the right balance? What is the right tone? What is the right guest selection?” Conaway, of NBCUniversal, told me that Hasan’s team has been working to tease out “what Rumsfeld might have called the ‘unknown unknowns’ ”—attributes that Hasan may not be aware he has. The next step, she said, is growing his “dynamic range,” mixing his intensity with bashfulness and humor. “What Mehdi turns out to be—that I think an American audience loves, but did not know that they were gonna get out of him—is he’s adorable,” Conaway said. “He makes you love him.”

His tack seems to be working. He’s risen quickly through MSNBC’s ranks; occasionally, he has filled in as a guest host for Chris Hayes. The ratings for Hasan’s MSNBC show have held up well against those of his Sunday-night colleagues (though they tend to trail Fox and CNN, and lag behind the viewership of MSNBC’s top-rated weeknight hosts). Peacock does not publish viewing figures, but Conaway told me that Hasan, along with another host, Zerlina Maxwell, has been the “heart and soul” of its news programming so far—establishing a foundation and raising its profile whenever clips from his show go viral online. When I asked Conaway, who used to work on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show, whether Hasan could one day match Maddow’s enormous popularity, she replied, “Absolutely.” Griffin told me, “I think he’s gonna end up a player.”

At the moment, Hasan’s approach poses perhaps one question more than any other: Even if he can book contentious guests, should he? Since the early days of his career, he has warned about the dangers of handing extremists a media platform. And yet to watch some of his early interviews is to glimpse back at a less tense time for discourse, when disagreements felt more civil than they do today and debating more of an intellectual exercise. (Often that was a sign of complacency, as much as anything, and not necessarily cause for nostalgia.) He once ended a conversation with Asad Durrani—the former head of Pakistan’s intelligence services, who referred to dead children as “collateral damage”—by telling Durrani that although he had expressed “some pretty appalling views,” he had done so “very confidently, very passionately”; in 2013, Hasan went toe to toe with a climate skeptic. Hasan told me that he wouldn’t interview a climate change denier today. “My views have probably hardened,” he said, “because I’ve seen the damage that’s been done by giving untrammeled, unrestricted platforms to extremists.”

Lately, when American media critics have made the case that news organizations should withhold platforms from harmful figures, their complaints have often been more about how journalists treat such people, rather than the fact of the platform itself; interviews with any subject can reveal something valuable if handled with vigilance and rigor, as Hasan has proved with Rogers and Prince. But that doesn’t mean he’ll spar with anyone. Hasan has spoken about his practice of conducting “hygiene tests” to weed out meritless interlocutors. When Crenshaw came on, Hasan started by asking him to accept that Biden was the legitimate president. Crenshaw did, so the conversation proceeded.

In Hasan’s view, arguments only work if the participants operate within a shared reality—no guarantee these days. “I’m a debater,” he said. “I love debating ideas, debating people. But on two conditions: I will debate in good faith, and right now much of what we see in our media is done in bad faith, especially on the right. And I will debate with facts, and figures, and reason, and science, and qualifications. Like, you could pay me a million dollars—I’m never going to interview Marjorie Taylor Greene. Why? What would be the point?”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Illustration by Jing Li