Arab American journalists under siege
Arab American journalism is under siege in America, not just from anti-Arab and anti-Muslim activists, but also from mainstream American journalists themselves. Mainstream American news media have been the primary source to fuel rising anti-Arab discrimination and stereotypes; they have done everything to suppress Arab voices, barring them from media participation.
Mainstream news media have fought to keep us out; even when we do get “inside,” they fight to keep us silent. There were very few Arabs in American journalism when I pushed my way into the profession in 1976. The editor who hired me warned me about criticizing Israel, ordering me to “keep your views on your side of the typewriter.”
Today, a dozen Arabs have risen to heights of professional journalism, but they have been forced to curb any criticism of Israel or promotion of Palestinian rights. It is unfair because journalists of other ethnic and religious backgrounds are encouraged to write about their experience, their culture and even their political beliefs. Not so for American Arabs.
We are muzzled. We are bullied. We are vilified. We are marginalized. Every effort is made to keep Arabs out of the profession, especially those Arab-American journalists who tend to focus on the bias and distorted reporting that defends Israel in this country.
Here is a snapshot of the ongoing war by the journalism industry against Arab Americans. In 1999, after launching the National Arab American Journalists Association (NAAJA), we organized a conference in Chicago that drew 300 attendees, including many young Arabs who wanted to pursue journalism as a career.
The conference was covered by Mike Mansour, an Arab American journalist who worked as a reporter and anchor at the Chicago Tribune-owned TV station, CLTV. After doing his report, he was called in by his bosses, including one very pro-Israel activist, and was fired.
In 2007, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) President Christine Tatum invited NAAJA to establish an Arab American journalism section called “Al-Sahafiyeen.” It was the first of several special sections addressing its ethnic membership.
SPJ’s Al-Sahafiyeen translated the SPJ Code of Ethics into Arabic, outlined plans to encourage Arabs to join and launched a blog where issues facing Arab American journalists could be addressed.
President for one year, Tatum left a strong mark on professional journalism. She had the courage to expose journalism’s hypocrisies. She listed numerous ethical lapses of other “professional journalists” that year, angering many journalists who love to criticize others but hate to be criticized themselves.
We are not asking that Americans be biased in favor of Palestine and the Arabs, we are asking them to stop being biased in favor of Israel and start to be fair, professional and objective.
Al-Sahafiyeen was put under review by Tatum’s successor when Iraqi journalist Muntadhar Al-Zaidi threw his shoe at President George Bush during a press conference on Dec. 14, 2008.
After conferring with many Arab American journalists, Al-Sahafiyeen felt the need to explain Al-Zaidi’s actions, defending the principle of the protest.
They noted that it was an Arab tradition even American soldiers celebrated when they pulled down Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdaus Square, in downtown Baghdad, on April 9, 2003, in a hail of thrown shoes. The blog post was removed, deemed “inappropriate.” So much for free speech.
His next two successors, including the SPJ’s first-ever Israeli president, went further, closing Al-Sahafiyeen in 2010 without any discussion with SPJ’s Arab members.
2010 was a bad year for Arab American journalism, which was now under all-out assault. On May 27, a pro-Israel rabbi confronted Helen Thomas, whose coverage of the White House dated back to the 1950s, to the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower. He asked her about Israel.
One of the toughest women in journalism, Thomas was fearless in confronting the double standards of American presidents and their failure to speak out about Israel’s atrocities. Thomas often asked about Israel’s brutality against Palestinian civilians and Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal while other journalists squirmed uncomfortably or with ridicule.
No wonder pro-Israel activists hated her.
When Thomas responded to the rabbi that Israel should “get out of Palestine,” meaning end the occupation, her critics turned it into “anti-Semitism.” The Hearst Newspapers, her employers, forced her to resign.
In December, the SPJ board headed by the same Israeli president “retired” the SPJ’s prestigious “Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award,” which was established in 2000. The SPJ said it was the result of other opinions Thomas expressed, including that Israel “controls” the “Congress, White House and Hollywood.” The meaning of her statement was clear to Arab American: That pro-Israel activists and interests block support for Palestinian issues and produce hateful movies that exaggerate racist Arab stereotypes.
SPJ’s core principle is to defend “free speech.” But in America, “free speech” is not “free” when it involves criticism of Israel.
In July 2010, CNN fired Octavia Nasr after she tweeted praise for a Hezbollah leader, Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah. Nasr was referring to Fadlallah’s progressive efforts to defend women’s rights in Iran, but her free speech had a cost, too.
In July 2014, Palestinian-Israeli journalist Rula Jebreal was fired by MSNBC for protesting the major American networks’ one-sided coverage of Israel’s siege of the Gaza Strip. She noted that Israeli officials were interviewed repeatedly by MSNBC during Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip but never invited Palestinians to give them equal time. Jebreal said she protested network bias many times, but was rebuffed because she was Palestinian.
These are just some of the highlights of America’s war against Arab American journalists and free speech involving criticism of Israel’s government. Arab American journalists are on the frontlines, fighting for Arab rights in America. It is not possible for the Arab world to make any headway in America without the support of this small but important segment of American society. I hope journalists in the Arab world would take time to recognize the struggle of Arab American journalists and make our cause a major part of their agendas.
We can make a difference when we insist that America’s mainstream news media must be professional and fair in reporting on Israel, Palestine and the Arab world. We are not asking that Americans be biased in favor of Palestine and the Arabs, we are asking them to stop being biased in favor of Israel and start to be fair, professional and objective.
• Ray Hanania is an award-winning Palestinian-American former journalist and political columnist. Email him at [email protected].