Nobody is better at interviewing America’s most powerful public figures than Mehdi Hasan. To watch the MSNBC host interrogate people like John Bolton, Erik Prince and Vivek Ramaswamy was to witness a masterclass in political accountability. Hasan typically comes armed with documents, meaning that if an interviewee contradicts a claim they made previously or offers an evasive non-answer, they can expect to be called out on it.
This style of adversarial journalism, more common in Hasan’s native Britain than in the US, is crucial for a functional democratic society because it ensures politicians’ lies are actually exposed. Precisely because it is effective, confrontational journalism is intolerable to the political establishment, which tries to eliminate it at all costs – hence Hasan’s departure from MSNBC, announced on Tuesday.
To the extent that MSNBC aspires to be a serious journalistic organisation, then, Hasan was a major asset to the network. But on his MSNBC show, Hasan applied his critical style to the government of Israel as it continues its assault on Gaza. His viral interview with former Israeli ambassador to the UK Mark Regev included a jaw-dropping moment in which Regev refused to accept that Israel had killed any children in Gaza (Doctors Without Borders estimates that over 100 children a day are being killed). Hasan’s scepticism of Israel, and the Biden administration’s support for Israeli policies, was apparently too much for the network, which cancelled Hasan’s show in early December (Hasan was initially announced to be staying on as a contributor, but ultimately quit the network entirely, in circumstances that have not been made fully clear).
Media suppression of dissident voices in times of war is not new. During the Iraq war in 2003, MSNBC fired Phil Donahue, who was thought to be too much of an anti-war voice. The US media failed spectacularly in that war to interrogate US government claims, resulting in the public supporting an invasion based on flimsy falsehoods. The Iraq episode demonstrated conclusively why journalism needs to antagonise governments, and why having journalists like Hasan who ask tough questions is necessary to protect the population from being deceived.
Critics of Israel in particular are often censored or marginalised within US political discourse. Since the 7 October attacks, and Israel’s much deadlier retaliatory attack on Gaza, Palestinian cultural events have been cancelled and the country’s only Palestinian American congresswoman has been formally censured. Human Rights Watch reports that Meta has “been silencing voices in support of Palestine and Palestinian human rights on Instagram and Facebook in a wave of heightened censorship of social media.” Threats to pro-Palestinian speech are escalating; recently, a Wall Street Journal op-ed called for pro-ceasefire protests to be labelled “domestic terrorists” for blocking traffic.
Even liberal outlets are often skittish when it comes to criticism of Israel. I know this from personal experience, having been fired as a columnist for a liberal newspaper after a single tweet critical of US military aid to Israel. Marc Lamont Hill was similarly ditched by CNN after calling for a free Palestine (in the bizarre world of pro-Israel discourse, calling for a free Palestine is treated as a coded “call for genocide”). Hill has co-authored a useful book on how many US liberals are “progressive except for Palestine”.
Nobody has argued that Mehdi Hasan got anything wrong factually, or did bad work. In fact, he was probably one of the more scrupulous researchers in American journalism. But the heads of giant corporations don’t have to give justifications for their decisions. Hasan was controversial, and so his show was ended.
Hasan’s final show poignantly “featured an interview with Motaz Azaiza, a Palestinian photographer who talked about the danger of working in Gaza during Israeli military operations”. Hasan paid tribute to the large number of his fellow journalists killed in the Israeli assault. This kind of solidarity among journalists has been notably absent from the response to Hasan’s ousting. The Washington Post’s Perry Bacon Jr penned a column accusing the MSNBC brass of “pushing the network in the direction of being the television arm of the Democratic Party leadership”, while representatives Ilhan Omar and Ro Khanna criticised the network’s decision to cancel Hasan’s show. But for the most part, Hasan’s departure has been met with silence.
This is shameful. American journalists should be united in defending one of their own and in protecting dissident voices. Otherwise, they risk reinforcing the perception that the media is little more than an elite propaganda apparatus designed to manufacture consent. It’s worth reflecting on what we lose by the departure of Hasan from MSNBC. Think of the interviews that won’t be done, the questions that won’t be asked, the lies that will go unchallenged. Hasan’s work was important. It needed to be done. He’s also not the only one being punished.
By effectively hounding him out, MSNBC has put everyone else at the network on notice that they too need to watch themselves if they want a career there. Journalists will inevitably be more likely to self-censor, to ask themselves before saying anything about Israel or Palestine whether it’s likely to get them into trouble. That is an Orwellian environment in which independent critical thought cannot possibly flourish. Hasan’s exit from MSNBC is no small incident. It is an embarrassing chapter in the history of US journalism, and everyone who believes in the importance of a free press should unite opposing it.
Nathan J Robinson is the editor-in-chief of Current Affairs.