Pres. Obama's First TV Interview Draws Scrutiny More than a few eyebrows were raised when President Barack Obama decided to grant the first television interview of his presidency to the Al-Arabiya news channel, based in Dubai. The decision was largely viewed as a strong first attempt by Obama to reach out the Arab world. The journalist who conducted the interview is joined by a cultural expert to discusses the impact.
NPR logo

Pres. Obama's First TV Interview Draws Scrutiny

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/99999968/99999959" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Pres. Obama's First TV Interview Draws Scrutiny

Pres. Obama's First TV Interview Draws Scrutiny

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/99999968/99999959" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, Many teenagers worry about their clothes, but we're going to hear from a young Muslim-American girl about what it's like to wear hijab at an American high school. It's the latest in our "This I Believe" essay series, and it's coming up in just a few minutes.

But first, Barack Obama's first broadcast interview as president. It was not with one of the big three broadcast networks or CNN or Fox. It was with Al-Arabiya, the news channel headquartered in Dubai.

(Soundbite of President Obama's interview with Al-Arabiya)

President BARACK OBAMA: What we want to do is to listen, set aside some of the preconceptions that have existed and have built up over the last several years. And I think if we do that, then there's a possibility, at least, of achieving some breakthroughs.

MARTIN: To talk about Obama's message and some of the reaction to the interview, we are joined by Hisham Melham, Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya and the journalist who conducted the interview with President Obama. Also with us are Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. He's been a regular visitor to this program. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SHUJA NAWAZ (Director, South Asia Center, Atlantic Council): Thank you.

Mr. HISHAM MELHAM (Washington Bureau Chief, Al-Arabiya): Thank you.

MARTIN: First, of course, congratulations on the interview. You know we're all jealous.

Mr. MELHAM: No, no. (Laughing)

MARTIN: We'd like to know, how did the interview come about? And if you would, tell us a little bit about Al-Arabiya and who it reaches.

Mr. MELHAM: Al-Arabiya is a 24-hour news channel that was established in 2003. It's headquartered in Dubai. We have bureaus throughout the world in major capitals, and we reach more than 100 million people, mostly in the Arab world and the Middle East. We are watched by the respective communities in Europe and North America.

MARTIN: Is it in Arabic or English or both?

Mr. MELHAM: It is in Arabic. We have Web site in English and Arabic, and there are some thoughts given to an English - all-English channel, so we'll see. I thought that I had good chance, or some chance, of interviewing the president when he announced that he would be addressing the Muslim world from the heart of a Muslim capital. So I said, well, now the field is narrowed. So I began to mobilize my friends formally, informally, asking them to put in a good word for me. This was before he was inaugurated, after he was elected.

And last week, I was working on an interview with George Mitchell, and again, I used my Lebanese contacts because Mitchell's Lebanese background, as you well know. So on Sunday, we were told, expect something on Monday. No names, nothing. Monday morning at 9 o'clock in the morning someone called from the NSC and said, my name is so and so. I'm going to either make your day or ruin your day. Would you like to see the president of the United States at 5 o'clock this afternoon? I said, well, I have a busy day, but I think I'll accommodate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I think I can play with my schedule.

Mr. MELHAM: Exactly.

MARTIN: So you thought you were getting George Mitchell, and then you got the president, the new president of the United States.

Mr. MELHAM: Yes. I didn't think that the president that early, before he finishes his first week in office, will address us, or through me or through our channel, address the Arab and the Muslim world. I thought he'd probably do it before his major speech just to build up for it.

And I - but I thought that - later on, I found out that he felt that maybe this is - we should send that early message - after he began the process of closing down Guantanamo, after he began the process of reviewing the plan to leave Iraq, to withdraw from Iraq, and after the announcement of Mitchell and the dispatching of Mitchell to the region. And in fact, when he spoke with us, it was after a meeting that they have with George Mitchell and Secretary Clinton. That's why my first question was about that meeting.

MARTIN: We're going to hear more about the interview in a minute. I want to bring Shuja into the conversation. What message do you think the president is sending by making this kind of high-profile interview? Or I'm wondering, are we overthinking it? This is a huge deal in the American media world, but is it a huge deal overseas?

Mr. NAWAZ: Oh, yes, it is. I think it's the new face of America, and he realized it even during his campaign, although he was very careful in not getting too caught up in the embrace of even his Muslim supporters in the U.S. If you recall, he didn't visit a mosque. He tried to avoid getting into that kind of a situation during the campaign. But it was quite clear that he believes in trying to exceed expectations. And this move, as Hisham was saying, it was so unexpected that I think it has created even greater expectations, and now the question is, when is he going to walk on water?

MARTIN: Oh, dear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NAWAZ: And the Muslim world is going to be waiting for him to resolve not just the Arab-Israeli conflict but most of the other conflicts that they are faced with.

MARTIN: Hisham, you dedicated a considerable part of your interview to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I just want to play a short clip. Here it is.

Mr. MELHAM: Sure.

(Soundbite of President Obama's interview with Al-Arabiya)

President BARACK OBAMA: We cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what's best for them. They're going to have to make some decisions. But I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people.

MARTIN: What struck you about this? Is it the fact that the president said, first we're going to engage and engage right away? What else struck you?

Mr. MELHAM: Well, that he is going to implement his promises during the campaign, that on my first day I'm going to address this issue actively and aggressively. I didn't want to ask him specific questions about the Jerusalem or the wall or the settlements because I know he was going to give me broad, you know, answers. I wanted to know from him about his modus operandi when - now that he is the president. Is he going to be activist like Bill Clinton, or essentially make some statements like George Bush and really doesn't pursue it? And I wanted to know, are you going to propose bridging ideas? Are you going to propose parameters - and that was a reference to Bill Clinton, and he was smiling when I mentioned the word parameters. I mean, his political mind is amazing. And the impression I got is that he's going to listen.

He's waiting for the Israeli elections. He doesn't want to really play his cards at this stage. But by dispatching Mitchell that early, by creating some - by choosing someone with Mitchell's caliber, with his reputation and his knowledge of the complexities of the region, he was sending a signal: I am serious, and there will be change here. The style will be changed, and I will be more activist and I will be more involved in it. And I think people noted that.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're talking about President Obama's message to the Muslim world with Hisham Melham, Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya, who scored an exclusive interview with the president, and Shuja Nawaz of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council.

Shuja, the definition of the war on terror was another issue that was mentioned in the conversation. President Obama made sure to draw a clear line between people who disagree with the United States, and terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda. This is what he said about al-Qaeda.

(Soundbite of President Obama's interview with Al-Arabiya)

President OBAMA: Their ideas are bankrupt. There's no actions that they've taken that say a child in the Muslim world is getting a better education because of them, or has better health care because of them.

MARTIN: You know, President George W. Bush also drew that distinction. I mean, right after 9/11, he made very clear to try to convey the message that the United States respects Islam. And so, whether or not people felt that that message was received is, of course, another question. But did you - what did you draw from President Obama's message about the war on terror? And how - did he draw a distinction between himself and the prior administration?

Mr. NAWAZ: I think he maybe - he may have tried to draw the distinction but certainly, that distinction does become clear - where President Bush, in many ways, was a divider - us and them was the way he often portrayed things, and particularly with the Muslim world. President Obama is someone who brings people together, and this is a reputation he has from even his days on the Harvard Law Review, that he would bring people into a room, listen to all the arguments, not just hear them but listen actively, and then bring people together. And that's what he's trying to show here, that he understands the needs of the Muslim world.

My only concern is, as I said at the outset, that the expectations are now are so high and that it's - given the United States' tremendous preoccupation with the domestic economic situation, which is also international in its scope and its effects, he has to make sure that he keeps the domestic base strong while continuing to present the U.S. as a global leader on not just economic but political matters, and their engagement will be key.

The United States cannot be seen as sitting on the sidelines. He will need to cajole and encourage, but not get in and roll up his sleeves and say, OK, this is the way I resolve it. Based on his history, that's not the way he operates, and so he will perhaps become the great facilitator.

MARTIN: I see your point. You're worried that so many pressing priorities, will he be able to satisfy people's expectations in meeting all of these priorities at once? Hisham, Iran: President Obama also addressed U.S. relations with Iran, and we do have a short clip. I'm going to play that, too. Here we go.

(Soundbite of President Obama's interview with Al-Arabiya)

President BARACK OBAMA: As I said during my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.

MARTIN: What do you make of what he's trying to say? And has there been a reaction from Iranian leaders to his comments?

Mr. MELHAM: Well, the Iranian leadership knows that he's trying to go over their heads to their own people. He was very careful, actually, not to say that much because also, again, he is - like the Israeli situation, he is waiting for the elections in Iran, too. He doesn't want to serve, indirectly, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the radicals there.

I think just as he's going to make al-Qaeda and their ilk nervous, he's going to make that new Iranian leadership a bit nervous because it's going to become very, very difficult for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to demonize a man whose name is Barack Hussein Obama, who's saying, I'm going to extend my hand.

And the clincher in the interview, by the way, when he was talking about the Muslim world, was, you know, a short sentence: Some members of my family are Muslims. What he is doing, really, essentially - again, it shows you how he looks at these things politically - he is undermining the very argument of these groups. He's going to provide people like us with ammunition when we deal with these groups. It's going to be very difficult for them to demonize him the way they used to demonize George Bush or probably someone like John McCain.

And I think that's his way of addressing people there, and I think, you know, in the final analysis, when he approaches the Muslim world, he will say to them, look at what I've done already. You know, there's Guantanamo, Iraq and Mitchell. He will be standing on a firmer ground morally and politically, and then he will be demanding from them, also, accountability. And when he say, unclench your fist, meet us halfway. And he was speaking, actually, forcefully but very thoughtfully about this thing.

MARTIN: And finally, you said that he is going over the heads of the leadership in many ways. What reaction did you get from your audience?

Mr. MELHAM: Tremendous. I really - I thought that there would be a positive reaction, but I was overwhelmed with how positive it was. Even when they heard him and saw him speaking in Arabic through translations, they felt that he was genuine, he was authentic, that the tone is different, that there is a different approach and a different discourse from Washington. And I think he's going to force the cynics and the critics to give him a fair hearing, and that's really what he wanted to do.

MARTIN: Shuja, final word from you about reaction to the interview that you were hearing.

Mr. NAWAZ: Extremely positive, again, from the general public and also from the leadership in the Muslim world. We should recall, for instance, that just a day or so ago, Prince Saud, the Saudi foreign minister, also said that the resolution of the Middle East conflict would contribute to the resolution of other regional issues in the Muslim world. So the expectations are extremely high now.

MARTIN: Shuja Nawaz is the director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. He's also an author of many books. Hisham Melham is the Washington bureau chief of the Arab network Al-Arabiya. He conducted his exclusive interview with President Obama earlier this week. They were both kind enough to join us from our studios in Washington. Gentlemen, thank you both so much.

Mr. MELHAM: Thank you.

Mr. NAWAZ: Thank you.

MARTIN: And remember, at Tell Me More, the conversation never ends. We'd like to hear from you. How do you feel about President Obama's interview with Al-Arabiya? Do you welcome a new dialogue with Arab and Muslim countries, or are you concerned that America's foes could see it as a weakness? To tell us more, and to compare notes with other listeners, please go to our Web site, the Tell Me More page at npr.org. You can also call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Again, that's 202-842-3522, and please remember to tell us your name and where you're from.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.