Lebanese journalist Hisham Melhem has been a correspondent for many of the Middle East’s largest newspapers and now presides over TV station Al Arabiya’s Washington bureau. He talks to Monocle about covering a winter of Arab rebellion.
“When the events happened in Tunisia and Egypt, we were live. I was in Davos on 25 January when the big event happened. Physically we were in Davos, preparing for a session, but everyone was thinking Cairo. You are a reporter; you have that bug and want to be in the middle of it. There’s a lot of frustration, a lot of exhilaration, maybe envy – in a healthy way. But there’s also room for old people like me to sit down and reflect and try to make sense of what’s taking place in a country that’s incredibly important for other Arab societies.
For me as a journalist, it’s my job to explain the complexity of the American political system. I’ve lived most of my life in this country; it has such a tremendous cultural influence and political presence in the Arab world, and it’s incumbent on me to explain and interpret America with all its greatness, contradictions, parochialism and creativity. There is this not very accurate view of the US government as a monolithic structure that speaks with one voice, and there is very little appreciation for the fact that you have debate – sometimes tough debates – not only between the White House and State Department, or the National Security Council and State or Defense, but within each agency. If you are confused in Washington, just imagine the degree of confusion in the streets of Cairo – and in the palace of Cairo. Who is speaking for America?
I’ve been in this business for 30 years now. That was before the era of satellite TV in the Arab world. There was a time when you would be lucky, even for a hard-working journalist, to get an interview with the deputy assistant secretary of state. In those days, most people felt the Arab media was just an extension of Arab governments – which was mostly true – and they didn’t bother to talk to us. But things have changed.
Even the Bush administration understood, after 9/11 in particular, that Arabs by the millions watch satellite stations, so it’s important for public opinion. At times, it’s in their own interest to talk to us so they can try and get certain messages to Arab audiences that are either sceptical of American policies or in some cases downright hostile. That was one of the reasons Obama gave me his first sit-down TV interview after a week in office, because he wanted to get something out to the Arab world through me. We talk to people at State and at the National Security Council – and of course we talk to people at think-tanks. That’s how you operate in Washington: you talk to people in government, you talk to people out of government but who have an open door – and you exchange information. When you are in the heat of unfolding events, it is extremely difficult, especially when you work for television, to get quick access. You might get the access, but you might not get it in time.
It’s true now that you have the bloggers and those who use Twitter and Facebook and so on. But most Arabs get their news from television, just like Americans. For an old print guy like me, this is not necessarily the best thing in the world, but that’s the reality. If you go to politicised Arabs’ homes, they just keep switching channels. The way they surf is just mind-boggling – there are at least 500 satellite stations in the Middle East. There is no such proliferation in any other region in the world, and politicised Arabs just surf like crazy: Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera, MBC in Lebanon, Nile in Egypt, BBC Arabic.
I get here at 08.30, but I do work at home. Usually we propose the stories, send them to Dubai, and they say yes to 95 per cent of them. Sometimes they propose something, if they see something from there. I rarely go out to lunch; when I go it’s for work. Prime time in the Middle East is not 20.00 like here: it’s 22.00 or 23.00. For me, 13.00 to 16.00 – this is really the time when I have to be here. And we are also forced to be active during those hours because we have the White House briefing and State Department briefing to keep up with.
I am confused with all the deadlines I have: radio deadlines, newspaper deadlines, television deadlines. Most of the days I spend working for Al Arabiya, and later on in the evenings I work for An-Nahar [Lebanon’s well-regarded newspaper]. Reflective pieces and think pieces I do at night or on the weekends.
At heart I’m a print journalist. I don’t like the fact that most people rely on television for news, because you cannot be really informed unless you read. Television gives you things you can’t get in print, and I love the immediacy of radio. But when you do short commentaries on television, you can be the most erudite guy but barely scratch the surface in three, four minutes. When you do print, you can put things in context because you have the space.”
1950 Born in Beirut
1976 Graduates from Villanova University, Pennsylvania
1979 Pursues doctorate in philosophy at Georgetown University, Washington
1980 Joins ‘Al Majalla’ news magazine
1983 Becomes Washington bureau chief for Lebanese daily ‘As-Safir’
1991 Begins contributing to Radio Monte Carlo’s Arabic-language service
2003 Joins newly launched Al-Arabiya network
2004 Becomes correspondent and analyst for Lebanese daily ‘An-Nahar’
The 24-hour channel Al Arabiya was launched from Dubai in 2003 as aSaudi-funded competitor to Al Jazeera. The stated objective of Arabiya’s founder, Sheikh Walid Al Ibrahim, was clear: he wanted his network to be a less excitable alternative to the Qatar-based networkthat dominates satellite news in the Middle East (Al Arabiya is a sister channel of the more established MBC).
That posture won Al Arabiya friends in the US, where Al Jazeera has been dismissed as too sympathetic to Al-Qaeda, and has helped Melhem score interviews with top US policymakers. But Al Arabiya has one major disadvantage trying to make its mark outside its home region: without an English-language service, few Americans can watch it.