How al-Arabiya Landed Obama's First Interview

02/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How did a journalist for an Arabic-language broadcaster score the first television interview granted by President Barack Obama? Well, at first, Hisham Melhem, 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 Melhem'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, Melhem 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. (See pictures of Barack Obama's campaign behind the scenes.)

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

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