One year in the life of a war reporter
The news media has never been subject to so intense or so instant public scrutiny. The rise of social media, blogs and single-issue, often deeply partisan pressure groups has meant that every news segment is combed for accusations of bias, imbalance or omission — usually in real time. In the US, this has particularly afflicted coverage of the ongoing struggles between Israel and the Palestinians, creating an atmosphere in which the truth is considered less important than the sensitivities of the audience.
In 2014, NBC’s Ayman Mohyeldin looked like being the latest casualty of the media police when, in the midst of the summer’s war in Gaza, he was pulled off the story following his account of the death of three Palestinian children from Israeli shells. After a public and professional outcry, he was soon returned to the beleaguered territory and was able to continue reporting, helping in the process to humanise a conflict so often reduced to political point scoring. Born in Cairo, and raised in Atlanta and Amman by his Egyptian father and Palestinian mother, Ayman is now based in New York where his work in both Cairo and Gaza has been rewarded with increased prominence at the network, including a forthcoming show on MSNBC’s new digital channel. If nothing else, he explained to Esquire, the past year has been a crash course in the business of news.
On first coming to America’s attention: I joined the fledgling Al Jazeera English network in 2006 from CNN, and many people told me that I would never work for a US network again. That was it, my career was over. But Al Jazeera’s coverage of the revolution in Egypt in 2011 put the spotlight on the network, and me in particular. I did get a lot of offers from the major networks following the Tahrir Square demonstrations, and ultimately decided to join NBC, which has a strong reputation for foreign news and some of the very best broadcast journalists in the business.
On covering war: Last summer was the third time that I have reported on conflict in Gaza now and I have also covered the wars in Syria and Iraq. They’re all horrific — you really can’t quantify trauma, but I would say that this summer was as bad as anything I have ever seen. In 2009, I remember myself and Sherine Tadros were the only reporters in Gaza and people in the industry were saying things like, “Wow, you were lucky to get that story.” But trust me, it’s an exclusive you don’t want.
On being an Arab-American reporter: I never want to be the “identity” guy, a reporter who sees things through a certain prism. But I do think my cross-cultural background gives me a perspective on these stories that a purely US reporter, or a purely Middle Eastern reporter, might not have. I would always argue, though, that my reporting isn’t driven by being an Arab. Without meaning to sound corny, Gaza affected me not because I’m half Palestinian but because I’m human. It’s just not about sides. Of course, I get the usual accusations: “He’s an American” in the Arab World and “he’s an Arab” in the US. I guess that proves it’s not all bad.
On being taken off the Gaza story midway through the war: It was a difficult situation. I think the best way to frame it is that the news business is a dynamic environment, with a lot of calculations that the management have to consider — some internal, some external. I just got caught up in those. Ultimately, I was reassigned a few days later and I was able to continue reporting. That was the key thing for me.
“People in the industry were saying things like, ‘Wow, you were lucky to get that story.’ But trust me, it’s an exclusive you don’t want.”
On the support he subsequently received from the public: It was incredibly humbling on both a personal and professional level. Much of it wasn’t even from a political point of view, it concerned the principle of free speech and I received support from people who might not necessarily have liked seeing some of things within my reports. People simply felt that I should be free to do my job without repercussions. Honestly, it really moved me.
On the level of understanding about Israel-Palestine in the US media: There is definitely an increased sophistication about the issues now, much of that down to the democratisation of the information available, with blogs, experts and social media accounts presenting a huge array of material from both sides. That said, I do think mainstream media is still lagging behind. In general, the US public still isn’t hearing a proper diversity of perspectives.
On media bias in general: The issue for me isn’t so much about objectivity as credibility. In the news media, especially in the US, we have got into this situation where objectivity is seen as presenting two sides as though they are of equal value. The result is a flawed debate. The example I would use is climate change: there is very little debate amongst scientists or academia on this — it’s real and it’s happening. But when it hits the media, it’s polluted, if you will, by this false desire for balance. The marginal two percent still gets 50 percent of the air time. What people want is, above anything, accuracy and credibility.
On the changing role of reporters: When it comes to breaking news, we simply can’t compete with social media. If there was a major incident somewhere in the world — a tornado, an earthquake, a shooting, whatever — social media can convey all of the information in an instant. So, the role of a reporter is less about the “what” and more about “why” and “how”. It’s about framing events and explaining them.
On what is news these days: That’s an ongoing debate. Is something “news” only if it directly affects people — the traffic, the weather? Sometimes people are resentful of explanation or dismiss coverage of Ebola or ISIS as hysteria, but I still think it’s important to tell people what is going on. That’s information not hype. Is ISIS in the US? No, but it’s still a big deal. I hope we are given time to pursue those stories.
On what he learned in 2014: Human beings are still primitive in many ways. In the 21st century, we are still using weapons to resolve political disputes. When you see war up close, you are baffled by society’s use of bombs and missiles, and when you then hear the spin and the utter disregard for human life that comes with it, it’s frankly disgusting. We can put men on the Moon and cure diseases, but we still excuse barbarity like this. It is disgusting. That’s the only word for it.