Mehdi Hasan first came to my attention for his debates and heated viral interviews with public figures like Israeli politician Danny Ayalon and Blackwater founder Erik Prince, in which he pushed past the usual evasions with precision and verve. His subjects clearly relished the challenge, but often seemed to end up in more trouble than they anticipated. After a start in the British press, then a move to the U.S. (he became a naturalized American citizen in 2020), Hasan hosted a popular podcast at the Intercept, Deconstructed, on which he challenged seemingly natural allies to his politics like Riz Ahmed and Noam Chomsky. More recently, he took a nightly show on Peacock, the NBC streaming service. Since March, that show has also aired Sunday nights on MSNBC, vaulting Hasan to a prime-time role on American cable news.
Hasan began his MSNBC berth since we last spoke, and his show has been promising: He had a sharp interview with Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw, where he skipped an ad break and kept focused on the border and immigration policy, an unfortunately rare event in cable news. But he’s also found himself in the middle of a cable environment that can promote the same mindless factional politics that he made his career subverting, little by little. We spoke recently about what’s surprised and vexed him about his arrival to cable news, the differences in covering Joe Biden and Donald Trump, and what he’s learned since becoming an American himself just before the breach of the Capitol last Jan. 6. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Aymann Ismail: You’ve quickly gone from anchoring a show on Peacock to anchoring a prime-time slot on MSNBC. What’s surprised you most about doing a show like this?
Mehdi Hasan: It’s a different audience. Is it a bigger audience? I don’t know what the Peacock ratings are—they don’t tell me. But it’s interesting to have access to this historic platform, now a 25-year-old channel with a lot of loyal viewers, to be able to do my thing that I’ve been doing for years in all sorts of other places.
I’m busier now. I do the Peacock show Monday to Thursday. Then I have Friday, Saturday, as my weekend. I have the Middle East, Islamic weekend, Friday and Saturday off. Then I work the Sunday show with a totally different team. It’s a different beast because it has a different structure. People don’t realize this, but ad breaks make a huge difference. A Peacock hour of TV is longer than a cable hour. You have to think differently about interviewees and conversations. What can you go long with? What do you have to go short with? I like to do the odd rant. Where do they fit in, in a MSNBC hour? I did a commentary block on Julian Assange, which was nearly five minutes long and not the top of the show—this was just in the middle of the show, which is an eternity for most cable shows. I’m getting my style there.
But your trademark style, confronting politicians and pundits and not allowing them to evade—why do you think you haven’t been able to do that as much on cable?
A couple of things. Number one, they don’t want to come on and take tough questions from me. It’s very hard to get Republicans to come on MSNBC, or Peacock for that matter, because they want to go to the safe space of Fox and Newsmax and OAN. Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders may go on Fox. There are very few high-profile Republican equivalents who will come on my show, or on my network as a whole. That’s just a reality. Number two, the Republicans who will come on don’t pass my hygiene test. I’m up for a debate, but I’m not going to waste time interviewing some crazy MAGA person who thinks the election was stolen, thinks climate change isn’t real, or thinks masks are the sign of this devil. I don’t want to insult my viewers or amplify their craziness. So, where do you find non-crazy Republicans? They are few and far between these days.
I persuaded Dan Crenshaw to come on in March after a row on Twitter. It was a 16-minute conversation. We dropped an ad break live on MSNBC. I thought that was an interesting conversation because, as frustrating as it was—and I think he was wrong on everything he said—it was important to do. You don’t often see right-wing Republican Congress members arguing on a substantive matter, immigration reform, for 16 minutes live on cable. We were very proud of it, we had millions of views online, a mass audience on a policy matter. It wasn’t shouting about stuff. We actually talked about immigration policy. I’d like to do more of that, but it’s hard to find guests who are willing to do it. Crenshaw kind of passed the hygiene test because he didn’t vote to overturn the election at least.
And the last point I’ll make is that while we get a lot of Democrats on MSNBC, I can’t speak for others, but on my show, nobody gets a pass. I have had a bunch of prominent Biden administration members on the MSNBC Sunday night show.* We’ve had Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, on. We’ve had Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, on. We had Chuck Schumer, who does very few TV interviews. All of them got pushed by me. All of them took tough questions, whether it was about the filibuster with Klain or the failure of Senate Democrats to secure voting rights with Schumer. I pushed them all.
What about the environment on prime-time cable news in general? Bill O’Reilly of all people recently told Dan Abrams cable news is “fractured” and is just playing to different viewers’ laziest politics. Abrams agreed and told him, “Yeah, there isn’t any debate on MSNBC or Fox.” Do you see the same problem?
First off, Bill O’Reilly lecturing anyone on fracturing the country is like asking the arsonist outside the house fire, “Hey, how upset has this fire made you?” O’Reilly and Fox are at the heart of fracturing and polarizing and dividing this country. In terms of the wider argument, are a lot of news organizations preaching to their choir? I think that’s undeniably true in some ways, but I don’t think that’s wittingly. I don’t think you find journalists saying, “I hope I can find a bunch of people to agree with me.” In fact, it’s the opposite. All we do—and I’m sure you have this at Slate—people sit around editorial meetings and say, “How do we reach that person? How do we get this new audience member?” Everyone in the corporate and public relations side is always trying to get more viewers, more noise, more attention. The idea that we are happy in our bubbles or our cocoons is absurd. It’s a weird conspiracy, and I don’t buy that. But I do accept the reality we live in a very tribal age.
After Brexit, I remember British friends and family members of mine were like, “How did this happen? Nobody I know supports Brexit when I looked online.” Yeah. You’re only friends with people online who agree with you politically. That’s a wider problem that none of us can deny, which applies to social media, to TV, to print, to our everyday lives. That’s a much wider problem in America. The media in some ways reinforces it, but it also reacts to it.
But do you think cable news specifically feeds off of and deepens divisions? What do you see as your responsibility there?
I’m not going to slice and dice network news and print media. I think all of us in what is usually called the mainstream media—the “fake news media,” as the GOP would call it—all of us have to understand our role in this moment. We are in a deeply historic moment. In many ways, we are cursed by the pressure we’re under, by the craziness that’s going on. On the other hand, as journalists, we’re blessed. A lot of people who lived in the quiet in the 1990s might say, “This is a moment where it’s actually a time for us to prove ourselves.” We’re all under pressure to get this right. It is not the role we played in the past—not that I think it was right in the past, either—this idea that we shouldn’t have “biases.” We should. The fourth estate is part of democracy. If democracy is under attack, we are under attack. We should have a pro-fact, pro-reality, pro-democracy bias.
You used to work alongside Glenn Greenwald at the Intercept, known for its investigations and left-wing politics. And now, we’re seeing him become a regular on Tucker Carlson on Fox. Does his trajectory tell us anything about the current media environment?
If I were you, I would have come to this interview with that question as well. I’m going to say that Glenn and I have been friends for many, many years. I hope we will always stay friends, but his and my politics have diverged. There was a time when people at the Intercept would worry if we filed at the same time, because it would be like, “Are they writing on the same story? We don’t want two pieces at the same time on the same thing.” I think there’s no danger of that now. He knows I don’t agree with a lot of his perspectives right now on domestic American politics. I would hope we still agree on a lot of foreign policies. But you know what? He and I, we have our arguments in private. We don’t tend to argue publicly because I don’t like having arguments in public with friends of mine. Glenn and I have been friends for almost a decade, man.
You two have had your public moments …
We try and keep them to a minimum simply because Twitter is a horrible platform for engaging with nuance or engaging with friends. You do it in private. In the past, we’ve aired our healthy disagreements. Glenn knows my views on Tucker Carlson. I know Glenn’s views about MSNBC. He’s not a fan of this network, but I think Tucker Carlson is one of the greatest dangers that American democracy has seen in the modern era.
What do you think about how the American media cover the Biden administration? The administration itself has complained quite a lot about it.
My view is we should hold Biden to a standard that is not the “not Trump” standard. There are some people who say, “Well, he’s not Trump.” That’s not good enough. Let’s take immigration. Is he taking kids from their parents at the border? No, he is not, but are children still suffering in our immigration system at the border? Yes. Did the Biden administration just recently walk away from a compensation deal with those families, shamefully, after Fox News attacked them? Yes, and they should be called out for that. I do on my show, I’ve done many segments on the subject. On the other hand, have they done good things? Yes, they have, in my view. I’m very clear on my show where I agree with the Biden administration, where I think they deserve credit. Take COVID. I think they’ve done a very good job on the vaccination front despite all the constraints and all the crazy propaganda from Fox and co. On the other hand, testing is a debacle, and the failures on rapid testing—I don’t think they’ve taken it seriously enough. I call it as I see it.
You recently said you were exhausted with the coddling happening for the people on the right who don’t believe various things. Who’s doing that exactly?
I do still get frustrated at both sides of some media outlets. There was a New York Times piece recently about email—they have great journalists but occasionally they can’t help themselves—where they went through hundreds of political candidates’ emails to see what they’re telling people. Listen to this paragraph, Aymann. “Both parties delivered heaps of hyperbole in their emails. One Republican, for instance, declared that Democrats wanted to establish a ‘one-party socialist state,’ while a Democrat suggested that the party’s Jan. 6 inquiry was at imminent risk because the GOP ‘could force the whole investigation to end early.’ ” Only one of those statements is false. We still see this both-sides nonsense in a lot of our political coverage, and it drives me mad. We live in an age where there are not two sides of this, sadly. There is one party that has a lot of problems, but still believes in democracy as we know it. There’s another party that is basically working towards overturning the next election result. We know more every day that they tried to prevent the 2020 votes from even being counted. Look at the texts to Mark Meadows from Republican lawmakers.
Do Democratic voters believe in silly things? Yes. Americans have always had crazies on both sides, no doubt about that. But right now, it’s Republican voters who are rejecting science and dying at disproportionate numbers. We can’t just shy away from that because we don’t want to offend people. That is a reality. Tens of millions of people in this country are getting the rest of us ill and killed. A lot of them disproportionately are Republicans. We can’t shy away from that fact.
It’s amazing to me that as soon as you became a card-carrying American, Jan. 6 happened. We hit the one-year anniversary. Do you have any complicated feelings about that?
A lot of friends of mine across the pond said to me, “Why? Why would you become an American now?” They said that to me in October 2020. I feel like that question’s even more relevant in January. What I would say is I am an American. I love this country. I loved this country before I was American, even as a visitor. I’m married to an American. I’m not covering this stuff as a dispassionate foreign correspondent wandering through. I’m covering this as someone who has skin in the game, who wants to save this country for my kids and my grandkids. I’m covering as someone who cares what my kids read and see. It’s so depressing to me to see my kids are growing up in an era where they don’t know what to trust online. They don’t know what to read. News is so messed up that those of us who work in news have a great responsibility to a younger generation who is switching off, who doesn’t watch cable news, and are streaming and TikToking. As an American, I care about the future of the American media. I care about the future of American democracy. It’s very personal to me.
Correction, Jan. 18: Because of an audio transcription error, this post originally misstated that Joe Manchin had appeared on Mehdi Hasan’s Peacock show.