February 5, 2004
Daily Star - "Arab-Americans go to battle on television news networks"
The following article on Arab American efforts to communicate in the mass media, particularly television, appears in the Feb. 4 issue of the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star. It can be read online at:
Special to The Daily Star
WASHINGTON: Two years ago on a now defunct US television program, Hussein Ibish, communications director of the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee (ADC), was involved in a heated debate over the Israel-Palestine conflict with Daniel Pipes, a leading right-wing critic of political Islam and a strident supporter of Israel‘s Likud party. After a barrage of challenges from Ibish, an exasperated Pipes finally yelled at Ibish to “shut up.”
So incensed was Pipes that he followed up the outburst with an editorial, which appeared in both the New York Post and Jerusalem Post, accusing Ibish of everything from pushing a “far left agenda” to leading an “immoral lifestyle” and calling on the American media to “close their doors to someone so far removed from the mainstream of the American debate.”
Pipe‘s editorial blacklisting attempt backfired. Rather than being shunned by the US media, Ibish won new fans and was honored with a spot on The New York Press‘ Best of Manhattan 2002 list for Best TV Spokesperson for the Arab Cause.
“Pipes‘ column,” wrote the New York Press, “was pathetic, undignified and all-too-obvious and it demonstrates how Ibish can drive even his smoothest opponents completely batshit.”
Ibish represents the new Arab-American voice on television: generally young, articulate, and possessing an ingrown understanding of the Americans‘ political culture and 30-second sound-bite media.
On any given day, one can tune in to such popular cable news programs as MSNBC‘s Hardball with Chris Mathews, Fox News‘ The O‘Reilly Factor, and CNN‘s Crossfire, and find Ibish, Sarah Eltantawi of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, or any number of prominent Arab-Americans going head-to-head with the likes of right-wing television evangelist Jerry Falwell, Israeli spokesperson Raanan Gissin, or Pipes.
Arab-Americans, said Ibish, have found their voice. “I think that (we) have been collectively in search of the Holy Grail,” he said. “And that Holy Grail is a language that expresses a certain political idiom. We are coming much closer to building on the work of people before us who pioneered media criticism and understand what works and does not work in the American political context.”
But the journey from obscurity to media stardom has been long and arduous. People like Raghida Dergham, Al-Hayat‘s senior diplomatic correspondent and NBC news analyst, James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute, Hisham Melhem, correspondent for As-Safir, late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, and Fouad Ajami, Lebanese-American academic, began appearing on US news programs in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Back then, said Zogby, Arab-Americans did not receive the same level of respect that they do today: “We were not (seen as) experts. We were people with a point of view.”
That attitude began to change in the 1980s. The advent of CNN and the 24-hour news-cycle increased the amount of air time for political discussion, debate, and “expert analysis.”
During the first Gulf War, Zogby found himself running from news station to news station providing commentary on the day‘s events.
This trend only accelerated in the late 1990s. The arrival of Fox News and MSNBC created fierce competition in the 24-hour cable television market. In order to draw in viewers, stations aired ever more feisty political talk-shows and the divisive Palestine-Israel conflict made for exciting television debate.
“They (cable news channels) found a way to cash in on the pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian viewpoints,” said Eltantawi.
It was in this environment the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 occurred. Stations began reaching out to the Arab and Muslim American community for commentary and analysis, while Arab and Muslim American organizations suddenly realized that they needed to make their opinions and concerns known to the public.
The attacks were something of a watershed moment for Arab-American pundits, said Ibish. Pushed to center stage, their faces grew increasingly familiar to television viewers. Arab-Americans were asked to provide commentary, not just on Middle East issues, but on domestic matters such as civil rights post-Sept. 11, the Patriot Act and even on i