Jan 28, 2009

World - The Obama Interview: How al-Arabiya Scooped the World

How did a journalist for an Arabic-language broadcaster score the first television interview granted by President Barack Obama? Well, at first, Hisham Melham, the Washington Bureau Chief for al-Arabiya, a Saudi-backed channel headquartered in Dubai, thought he was getting something else. Not that he hadn't tried - like everyone else in Washington - to snag the historic first.


When Melham's bosses in Dubai got a feeler from the White House on Sunday, it seemed that al-Arabiya was about to get an exclusive interview not with Obama but with new Middle East envoy George Mitchell. The previous Friday, Melham began pressing for an interview with Mitchell after learning from his sources that the former U.S. senator and Nothern Ireland peace negotiator was heading to the Middle East almost immediately. The White House told al-Arabiya execs to be ready for a major interview on Monday.


Shortly before 9 a.m., Melham knew from the caller I.D. on his Blackberry that the White House was phoning him. As Melham 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.'"


Melham says there was apparently an internal debate in the White House about whether it was the right time for Obama to grant an interview to the Arab media, but that when the decision was made, several advisors had recommended it be granted to al-Arabiya. The channel is seen as a prominent voice of moderation in the Middle East, preferring calm analysis to what many see as rival al-Jazeera's more sensational coverage. The Obama scoop came at a good moment for al-Arabiya, which had seen ratings falter during the recent Israeli war in Gaza as al-Jazeera provided blanket coverage of Palestinian suffering.


On Monday, Melham arrived inside the White House at 3 p.m. but Obama did not appear for the taping until nearly three hours later. Melham says Obama put him at ease and the two schmoozed for awhile before getting down to the questions. After telling the President that his wife and daughter were enthusiastic supporters of Obama's campaign, the President took some White House stationery and jotted nice notes to them. When Melham mentioned that he shared Obama's love of Chicago Blues music, the President beamed with satisfaction as White House aides tapped their feet impatiently. "There we were, two Blues fanatics, sitting there talking about Muddy Waters," Melham says.


Whether it was chemistry with the journalist or Obama's scripted intention, Melham came away with an interview that amounted to an unprecedented reach-out to the Muslim world by an American president. Unprompted, Obama spoke about his own Islamic connections, noting that some of his family members are Muslims and that he had lived in the largest Muslim country, Indonesia. "My job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect," Obama said. (See Barack Obama's family tree.)


Melham had come close to an Obama interview before. He nearly snared a Q&A during then candidate Obama's visit to the Middle East last summer. This time, he had put his request through the Washington sources he had developed. "I began pushing hard when I realized that he was going to be serious about the Muslim world in the first part of his administration," Melham told TIME. The White House certainly knew who they were dealing with.


Melham, long a vocal critic of U.S. Middle East policy, says that he was touched by Obama's conciliatory tone and references to his Muslim roots. "You can feel the authenticity about him," he says. "The interview was his way of saying, 'There is a new wind coming from Washington.' Barack Obama definitely sees the world differently from a man named George W. Bush."


Obama's aides cut Melham off before he could finish all his questions, explaining the President had a dinner date with his wife. But it seems in the Obama White House, Arab reporters stand a good chance of getting more scoops. As they concluded the interview and shook hands, Melham recalls, Obama told him, "There will be more."

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