Mehdi Hasan: “We don’t value Palestinian life” (2024)

  1. Encounter

15 May 2024

The combative Zeteo CEO and former MSNBC host on the media’s moral failures.

By Harry Lambert

Mehdi Hasan: “We don’t value Palestinian life” (1)

Mehdi Hasan – who has tweeted 167,300 times since April 2010, or 33 times a day for 14 years, in a tone that tends towards righteous and accusatory – is more agreeable in person than you might expect. His combativeness is more puckish than caustic. We met in April in Washington DC, where he has worked since 2015, to walk the Mall, from the Capitol to the Washington Monument. We argued for an hour.

Hasan is the frontman and CEO of Zeteo, one of the most successful new media companies in the US, which he set up after losing his weekly prime-time show at the cable news network MSNBC in December. His trenchant views on Gaza may have lost him his job, but he could not discuss the terms of his departure. To fund Zeteo, Hasan raised $4m from Muslim-American businessmen whose identities he did not want to divulge (“You associate with me, and the Donald Trump Juniors of the world come for you”). The site’s success has been remarkable: it has generated an estimated $2m in revenue from 25,000 paid subscribers since it launched on 27 February.

Hasan, 44, has become a flag-bearer for the American left, having only moved to the country a decade ago. In doing so, he followed a path set by Christopher Hitchens, a predecessor of his at the New Statesman, where Hasan worked from 2009 to 2012. Hasan, a teetotal Muslim, may be the closest thing to a contemporary successor to Hitchens, who was as well known for his love of alcohol as for his atheism. His critics on the right will find that comical but Hasan, like Hitchens, knows the power of moral stridency and a will to argue. Both were prolific columnists, but it was viral clips of them defeating others in debate that inspired devotion, and have proved so profitable for Hasan.

“I watched him on Fox and CNN and PBS. I watched all those clips. I watched Hitchens for years,” Hasan told me. But it was Piers Morgan who was on his mind when he emigrated in 2015. “I was thinking about how he got sent back” – Morgan’s show on CNN had just been cancelled – “and I thought, ‘Am I going to fail too, and get chucked out of America?’”

Had Hasan lost his MSNBC show then, he might well have struggled to remain relevant. But journalists with large followings can now strike out alone online, and be paid by their supporters to start their own news network.

Gaza is the central concern on Hasan’s network. Mainstream coverage of the conflict has shocked him. “What’s so interesting about Gaza is that it happened a year after Ukraine. If you hadn’t had Ukraine you could make some case that Gaza is a faraway conflict of which we know little, and the media can’t take activist positions. Ukraine’s blown all that out the water. We were very clear: foreign occupation is bad, illegal invasion is bad, bombing civilian neighbourhoods is bad, targeting [the food relief charity] World Central Kitchen [in Ukraine, as Russia did in 2022] is bad. It’s a genocide, said Joe Biden, very casually.

“But with Gaza, everything is now ‘complicated’ and the media must remain neutral. The American government says it can’t comment on the legality of things. Where are colleagues? Where is my industry? Why are they not standing up for journalism? The answer is we don’t value Palestinian life. Everyone knows that if any other country was doing what Israel was doing, Western capitals and media organisations would join the global outrage.”

I asked if he thought the mainstream media was abetting a genocide. “Indirectly, yes. In the language that we use, in the coverage we choose to do, in the passive voice that we deploy, in the lack of platform that we give people on the ground and in our failure to spell out what Israel is doing by keeping foreign media out. Yes. History will judge us harshly.”

This is the key to Hasan’s appeal: the way he will easily unfurl – on air, on stage, walking down the Mall – clauses full of conviction, without hesitation. Fluency, persistence and a platform can bring great rewards online, especially if you have the right politics. The viral internet rewards two types: progressives and their opponents. Scepticism towards all offers nothing like the same audience as being a member of a camp. Hasan is in one of them, although he was reluctant to see himself that way. “My side? I don’t have a side,” he said to me, days before he would be the subject of an adulatory 6,000-word profile in New York Magazine.

He has not always had such good press. The Spectator (and Hitchens’ son) tried to get Hasan fired from the New Statesman in the early 2010s after a clip was unearthed of him at a mosque speaking disparagingly of non-believers. A New York Post reporter posted the clip in November after Hasan started speaking out on Gaza. It duly went viral. Hasan shrugged it off. “People try and throw that at me as some kind of gotcha. I wrote a long Twitter thread about it five years ago. No one actually thinks that I’m some kind of secret Islamist.”

Hasan’s formerly “pro-life” views on abortion are more interesting. He wrote in favour of halving the British abortion limit to 12 weeks in a 2012 New Statesman piece, stating that “a woman has a right to choose what to do with her body – but a baby isn’t part of her body”. That is anathema to progressives, but the issue hasn’t hurt Hasan’s standing. He told me that “people misunderstand the piece. I support a women’s right to choose as I don’t see a legal set-up that correlates with my moral views.”

Zeteo is sold on the premise that Hasan will say what others won’t. “The media won’t say the F-word. We’re in a fascist moment. After 6 January, the entire media said, ‘Wow, we had just had an insurrection.’ And then over the last three years, we’ve just slowly reset and we’ve gone back to 2015.”

If ten more Republican senators had voted to convict Donald Trump during his impeachment trial in February 2021 (seven did so), he could have been barred from office. Why didn’t they? “Mitt Romney [the Republican senator, who did vote to convict] says it was because they were worried for their family’s lives. Shouldn’t that be a bigger story? Most Americans don’t know that. The right rebranded the insurrection as a patriotic tourist movement, and an inside job by the FBI.” Yet five in nine Americans remember Trump’s presidency favourably. Hasan sighed. “This is a country of amnesiacs.”

Mehdi Hasan walks away from no debate, so I asked him to resolve the fraught issue of those born male competing in female sports. “I start from a position of inclusion,” he said. “I read a piece that said actually a lot the swimming stuff is exaggerated.” I asked him about other sports. “Why are we even talking about this? I don’t give a sh*t about weightlifting.”

I suggested that the right have seized upon such equivocation on this vexed issue in order to hit the left. “You get around them by questioning the entire premise of the debate,” he replied. But should rights be based on sex or gender? “Your rights should be based on your humanity.” After a pause: “I haven’t thought long and hard about this. Perhaps I should. It’s a big issue, apparently.”

Zeteo is now chasing the success of another new media company, Bari Weiss’s The Free Press. Its ideological outlook, on Gaza and the left, is the mirror image of Hasan’s. I asked if Weiss was an inspiration. He questioned the accuracy of the stories she runs, then added: “Is she good at getting attention? Yes, amazing. Is she good at building a media company? Obviously. I’m going to learn from her that it is possible.”

[See also: George Robertson: Why Russia fears the European Union]

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Topics in this article : Gaza , Islam , Israel , Magazine

This article appears in the 15 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Stink

Mehdi Hasan: “We don’t value Palestinian life” (2024)
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