In this new regular feature, I will break down media reporting about issues of interest to Arab Americans. The U.S. media have a responsibility to tell our stories accurately and to include our perspectives. This is unfortunately not the case, though there has been some improvement over the years.
This column will present media trends, instances of skewed reporting, and profile Arab American responses to media coverage. It should shed light on how media develop stories and frame issues.
Most importantly, this column seeks to advance a constructive dialogue between journalists and the Arab American community. Blaming bias and pointing fingers are not going to get us anywhere. Level-headed and fair critique is necessary.
Missing the story on Gaza
In late February, when 5,000 Gazans formed a 25 mile long human bridge in one of the largest non-violent coordinated mass actions to have happened there, mainstream media were too busy covering the Oscars to report on it.
It was not until Hamas unleashed a new volley of rocket attacks that Gaza came back into the news stream. When Israel counter-attacked with excessive force, most American media portrayed it as they were sold it: as an Israeli response.
What was missing from this is the idea that Hamas might be retaliating for a brutal closure and crippling embargo, the undermining of their electoral gains, and decades of continued direct Israel control.
If Hamas had half the media saavy and PR budget the state of Israel does, this reporting might turn out a little differently.
No shame in being Muslim
Naomi Klein, a journalist, syndicated columnist and bestselling author, took Barack Obama to task in “Obama, Being Called a Muslim Is Not a Smear,” in the March 17, 2008 edition of “The Nation” magazine.
She writes that Obama has responded to whispering campaigns claiming he is a Muslim with an inadequate focus. He denies he is Muslim, giving credence to the implied negativity of it.
Klein writes, “the (problem with the) campaign’s response is that it leaves unchallenged the disgraceful and racist premise behind the entire ‘Muslim smear’: that being Muslim is de facto a source of shame.” This is a sharp analysis that has not been echoed much in other media coverage on this issue.
This is in contrast, as my friend Fadi pointed out, to John McCain’s renouncing of shock jock Bill Cunningham for his religion-baiting. At a rally for McCain, Cunningham repeatedly stressed “Hussein” when he said Obama’s full name. The DJ has sinced revoked his support for Senator McCain.
Of course, this may be a luxury of having a clear lead for his party’s nomination.
Tampa media gets better on Al-Arian story
The never-ending saga of Dr. Sami Al-Arian, the Palestinian professor and activist detained in the U.S. since 2003, continues. Though he was found not guilty on most of the charges against him and struck an agreement to get himself deported, U.S. prosecutors are again calling on him to testify in another trial. He refused last time, citing it as a violation of his agreement.
Al-Arian who was charged with supporting the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad, is protesting with a hunger strike. His last hunger strike was life-threatening, yet failed to buy his freedom.
A report in the Tampa Tribune about the latest developments gave a substantial amount of space to the professor’s supporters and his lawyer, a professor of law at George Washington University, in D.C. Nearly half of the paragraphs were devoted to them.
This is in stark contrast to the early, hysterical days of Al-Arian’s travails. The rabid local press referred to him as a terror suspect.
In the 2006 Senate campaign in Florida, both candidates used Al-Arian in talking points against each other. Florida media largely failed to challenge their assumptions.
Since the government’s case against him fell flat, the local media has begun reporting his case more responsibly. Yet, the outrage of this injustice is still largely missing. That a political prisoner of his visibility merits little shock is a telling example of media complicity in the war on terror.