Mehdi Hasan and Ayman Mohyeldin Are Doing Something Radical for Cable TV: Presenting the Palestinian Side
Much of the American television news coverage of the ongoing violence in Israel and the Gaza Strip has followed a familiar, decades-old format—with two major exceptions.
British American television anchor Mehdi Hasan, who hosts an eponymous Sunday night program on MSNBC and a weeknight show on NBC’s streaming Peacock Network, has spent the past several days challenging the U.S.-media status quo by doing something practically unheard of on an American television outlet.
So has Egyptian American journalist Ayman Mohyeldin, the anchor of a weekday afternoon show on MSNBC.
Covering the increasingly lethal exchange of rockets and bombs between Hamas militants in Gaza and the Israeli Defense Force—which as of Wednesday night had killed an estimated 65 Palestinians, including 16 children, and seven people in Israel, including a 5-year-old child—Hasan and Mohyeldin are devoting substantial airtime to the Palestinian point of view.
Their portrayal of the conflict—which has included sympathetic interviews with Gaza residents and contentious, occasionally acrimonious debates with Israeli officials—has prompted cheers among some within the network who have been pleased to see MSNBC elevate voices seemingly skeptical of Israeli military force. But it has also rankled some American supporters of the Israeli government, while prompting some eye-rolling among a few of their NBC colleagues.
On Wednesday, for instance, conservative journalist Seth Mandel, executive editor of the right-leaning Washington Examiner newspaper, accused Mohyeldin in a tweet of “denying Israel’s existence” because of the anchor’s aggressive grilling of embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev.
An MSNBC spokesperson said Hasan and Mohyeldin were unavailable for comment.
The Oxford-educated Hasan, who has been steeped in the conflicts of the Middle East as a sharp-edged opinion journalist for the past two decades, and the hard-charging Mohyeldin, who spent two years living in Gaza as a correspondent for Al Jazeera English, have been attempting to provide the sort of context that is uncommon among their broadcast peers.
“Just a reminder the Israeli-Palestinian conflict doesn’t begin when western media decide to start covering it,” Mohydelin tweeted this past Monday as hundreds of rockets from Gaza began to fly into Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and other Israeli cities. The violence was sparked last Friday as Israeli authorities moved to evict Palestinians from their homes to accommodate Jewish settlers in the predominantly Arab Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and IDF soldiers lobbed tear gas into East Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, where fasting worshippers were celebrating Ramadan.
On Wednesday he posted an emotional plea on Instagram for Gazan civilians being bombed out of their houses by Israeli airstrikes.
Like Mohyeldin, Hasan—whose much smaller Peacock Network streaming audience is not publicly measured—has stopped short of criticizing colleagues directly. But in a monologue on Monday, he complained that framing the escalating violence as a “clash”—the description numerous anchors and correspondents have used over the past week—is woefully mischaracterizing the situation.
“The fundamental unavoidable reality at the heart of this conflict is there is an asymmetry of power here,” he said. “One side is the occupier. The other side is occupied. And media coverage, political commentary, international interventions that don’t reflect this fact... are all, I’m sorry to say, part of the problem.”
Indeed, much of the American television news coverage of the ongoing violence in the Middle East has followed a familiar, decades-old format regarding the Jewish state and the Palestinians: Anchors on cable and the nightly news networks seldom stray from placing blame on “both sides,” while the on-the-ground correspondents have leaned heavily on information about the escalating violence shared by Israel’s military and other government authorities.
Mohyeldin has dedicated large chunks of his show over the past week to the outburst of violence, placing heavy emphasis on the Palestinian experience while other cable news programs have flicked at the conflict briefly. On Tuesday, his interview with Palestinian activist Mohammed el-Kurd, along with a second one on CNN, went viral as el-Kurd described how his family was being forced out of their longtime home by Israeli authorities, whom he accused of “ethnic cleansing.”
On Wednesday, Mohyeldin featured Gaza-based political science professor Mukhemir Abu Sada, who described the dire conditions on the ground. Mohyeldin, along with NBC’s newly named (but still London-based) Jerusalem correspondent, Raf Sanchez, gave airtime to critics of Big Tech censorship of some Palestinian posts on Twitter and Instagram (restrictions both companies claimed were accidental).
On Wednesday night’s installment of his Peacock Network show, meanwhile, the left-leaning Hasan presented a nine minute-long segment—an eternity on American television—featuring an interview with a jittery Palestinian cultural official in Gaza City, as several loud bangs punctuated the conversation.
“We are living under heavy airstrikes in the last 48 hours,” Fadi Abu Shammala, the executive director of the General Union of Cultural Centers in Gaza, told Hasan as a thunderous clap interrupted their exchange. “So you are hearing now the bombing. They are bombing now during this interview. This is the sound that we are used to hear[ing].”
Just before Shammala came on camera, Hasan had criticized American television writ large (and arguably his own employer) for focusing on Gaza only when Hamas starts launching missiles. He noted that the Gaza strip—despite an Israeli withdrawal in 2005—is still blockaded at its borders and on its coast, with Israel severely restricting Gaza’s fishing rights. Thus it’s a disaster economically, with more than half the population living in poverty. “Back in 2010, former British Conservative prime minister David Cameron even described Gaza as an open prison camp,” Hasan said.
While most cable news guests largely abstain from placing blame on particular actors over the past several days, the airwaves have had their fair share of vocal supporters of the Israeli military action in Gaza. Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, used his interview on Jake Tapper’s CNN show to call out the Palestinian militants, while on Brian Williams’ MSNBC show, former CIA chief of staff Jeremy Bash praised Israel’s military response to Hamas’ attacks, expressing frustration with Hamas rocket attacks that disrupted Israelis’ dinner plans, while failing to note similar disruptions caused by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza.
“No country in the world could survive air raid sirens all night and people running into bomb shelters during the dinner hour,” he said. “This is not what a civilized society should have to put up with, and I think it’s right tonight for the United States to stand with its ally Israel.”
James Zogby, longtime president of the Washington, D.C.-based Arab-American Institute, offered praise for Hasan and Mohyeldin, singling them out as bright spots in a predictable yet, in Zogby’s view, misleading portrayal of events.
“What you have here are two very qualified, very skillful, really smart people who are incidentally of Arab or, in Mehdi’s case, Muslim background, and they’re just doing the job they’re supposed to do,” Zogby told The Daily Beast.
But he doubted that their unorthodox approach will have much influence on American television news writ large, despite the fact that recent public opinion polling, such as a Gallup Poll released in March, suggest that Americans, especially younger Americans, are slightly less likely to support an aggressive Israel while warming to the plight of Palestinians.
“It is not a question of policy so much as it is the fact that, like politicians, TV journalists are uninformed,” Zogby said. “I can write a book and a half about TV journalists getting it wrong on the Middle East and never being held accountable for it. It’s not so much of bias as it is that media people who know [domestic] politics, and are very keen about challenging candidates on issues, just don’t know enough to do that. So they end up reporting what the company line is.”
—with additional reporting by Justin Baragona