President Barack Obama gave his first sit-down interview this week with an Arabic language television news channel, al-Arabiya (alternatively Al Arabiya). Imagine. He could have talked to Katie, Matt, or even Al. Barbara and Whoopi would have welcomed him on "The View." Instead he chose Hesham. I'm referring to the well-known outside of Washington before Tuesday and now better known inside the United States journalist and Washington bureau chief for al-Arabiya TV, Hesham Melhem, who is probably this very moment walking around shouting to no one in particular, "I'm the man, I'm the man."
As Time magazine reported today, here is how the whole thing developed on Monday:
Shortly before 9 a.m. on Monday, Melhem knew from the caller ID on his
BlackBerry that the White House was phoning him. As Melhem remembers it,
"This man says, 'My name is so-and-so, and I'm either going to make your day or
ruin your day. Would you like to chat with the President about 5 p.m. today?' I
joked, 'I guess I can accommodate the President.'"
Let's face it. Anyone who even gets into the same air space as Obama these days might as well have published a book that got an Oprah Book Club sticker.
Obama could have talked to Al Hurra, the U.S. taxpayer-sponsored Middle East TV Network that was founded on Valentine's Day 2004. A sit-down on Al Hurra would have been a boon to that fledgling network, but it's not the station with a tag line that reads, "Your leading source for news in the Middle East."
He was wise not to choose Al Jazeera, though it is still the most popular satellite television news channel in the Middle East. Al Jazeerah's ratings jumped even higher during its around-the-clock coverage of the Gaza conflict. Nevertheless, Al Jazeera would have been a political hot potato and this president seeks to remain Mr. Cool.
How can we forget the Bush Administration criticisms of Al Jazeera from national security adviser Condoleeza Rice and secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld who called it a Middle East propaganda operation that favored America's enemies? Walter Isaacson of CNN warned international journalists to strive for balance in their news stories about the post-September 11 period. Isaacson's memo read in part:
As we get good reports from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, we must redouble
our efforts to make sure we do not seem to be simply reporting from their vantage
or perspective. We must talk about how the Taliban are using civilian shields and
how the Taliban have harbored the terrorists responsible for killing close to 5,000
This was implied to mean make sure that Americans feel good about their news just as Arabs might feel good about their own news.
Al Jazeera is still accused today of being too sympathetic to Islamic militants and in some circles goes by the nickname, Bin Laden Central. (I do not hold this opinion as one who has worked a few times with Al Jazeera English and whose limited encounters with Al Jazeera have been pleasant enough.)
There's no question that Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda were masters at using Al Jazeera as a video marketplace of ideas. Al Arabiya stepped in to fill a void between Al Hurra, which still has a marginal audience in most parts of the Middle East, and Al Jazeera. That void could be called by a number of identifiers: neutral, central, moderate. There is no U.S. media network to compare here, and as a station owned in part by the Saudi government, being neutral and objective may be a tall order. But strive they say they are doing to redefine how the world views Arab-language television.
Al Arabiya director Abdul Rahman al-Rashed told the New York Times last year that the station came about "to cure Arab television of its penchant for radical politics and violence."
Established in 2003, Al Arabiya is a year older than Al Hurra but much younger than Qatar-based Al Jazeera, founded in 1996. It's feeling all grown up now.
Nancy Snow just published Persuader-in-Chief: Global Opinion and Public Diplomacy in the Age of Obama, now available from Amazon.com.