Mehdi Hasan: ‘The American press doesn’t want to rock the boat, and so things are just reported straight.’ Photograph: Greg Kahn/The Guardian
The political interviewer on how he made it in the US and his anger at the deference the media has for Donald Trump which could cost lives during the pandemic
by Nesrine Malik
Fri 27 Mar 2020
‘We all know that the president is a pathological liar,” Mehdi Hasan says from his office in Washington DC. “But the lies he’s been telling about the coronavirus – they’re no joke; they cost American lives. The US media’s failure to call Donald Trump out on those lies in real time makes part of the media, I’m sorry to say, partly complicit in those deaths, too.” Hasan, who moved from the UK to the US in 2015, is that rare species of TV interviewer: not in it to make friends, to network or to gain access. His passion for grilling his subjects is only matched by his frustration at his peers who do not do the same.
When the White House press corps turned on the comedian Michelle Wolf after the 2018 White House correspondents’ dinner and defended Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, it was the last straw for him. In that moment, he realised that the US media is almost “irredeemable”.
“If not now, when?” he asks. “If they’re not going to stand up against this administration’s secretary, then who?” A credulous New York Times headline in the wake of the 2019 El Paso shooting, “Trump Urges Unity vs Racism”, was, to him, just another stitch in the pattern of this submission. “The American press doesn’t want to rock the boat, and so things are just reported straight.”
Such forthrightness has served Hasan well. Not only have his hard-hitting political interviews become regular viral hits, he has also become a fixture on the high-profile US cable news circuit. Rumours are beginning to circulate on the east coast about offers to host his own show on a US network. On such approaches he is coyly amused when I ask him, maintaining only that he very much loves his job at the moment.
As an interviewer, he is relentless, a quality that boosted his profile after Trump came to office and the US media seemed unable to land a glove on the new president or his surrogates. As a columnist for the online magazine the Intercept and the host of UpFront and Head to Head on Al Jazeera English, Hasan has developed a reputation for somehow managing to nail dissimulating politicians by being forensic and refusing to move on until his point is made. His technique is simple. “Most people ask the question and move on whether they get an answer or not,” he says. “I don’t.”
Hasan, 40, was already a successful journalist in the UK when he moved to the US to host an interview show for Al Jazeera English. An established pundit and political analyst with a diverse journalistic background, he has worked in TV at Sky News and Channel 4, co-authored a book about Ed Miliband, and served stints as the political editor of the New Statesman and political director of the Huffington Post UK. For all that it seems like a charmed career, Hasan describes it as “random”. He started out on the bottom rung as a freelance news assistant at ITN and puts his success down to those “willing to take a chance” on him.
But it was in the US where he really began to cut through. Clips of his Al Jazeera English interviews began to catch fire online. A clash with the Trump adviser and Fox News regular Steven Rogers in November 2018 heralded Hasan’s arrival in the mainstream. In it, he questions Rogers on Trump’s lies on birth right citizenship, among other falsehoods. Rogers starts out with bluster before quickly squirming and deflating under Hasan’s barrage.