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 issues that had only an indirect relationship to Arab-Americans, such as the role of religion in American life.
A milestone came in 2002, when Dergham signed a one-year contract to work as a news analyst for NBC and its cable station MSNBC. She had been hired in the past as a news analyst, but only on short-term contracts for one or two weeks at a time. Now Dergham was listened to, not just for her point of view, but also for objective analysis.
But Arab-American‘s increased public presence has raised new questions about the proper role of the Arab-American pundit. Prior to Sept. 11, many had been able to straddle the line between their Arab roots and their American citizenship, acting as spokespersons for Palestinians one day, and debating US foreign policy the next. That became much more difficult after the attacks, said Dergham.
“I decided to be identified as a ‘we,‘ Americans, because it was a must after Sept. 11,” she said.
In Zogby‘s view, this is exactly the role that Arab-American pundits should play. “I don‘t think it is good for Arab-Americans to be on TV as surrogates for what ought to be done by the Palestinians or Lebanese themselves,” he said. “Most of the media I do now focuses on Arab-Americans: the Arab-American vote, reaction to Patriot Act.”
Arab-Americans also grapple with the question of where to make their voices heard. With the blossoming of 24-hour cable news, there has emerged a plethora of combative talk-shows, including MSNBC‘s Scarborough Country and Fox News‘ The O‘Reilly Factor, whose hosts do little to hide their own anti-Arab biases.
Some Arab-Americans, most notably Ibish and Eltantawi, have become famous by appearing on these high-energy debate programs. “Fireworks get peoples attention,” said Ibish.
Zogby, however, holds a different view. “I don‘t think it serves us well to be in the position of shouting with the far right,” he said. But the far-right is clearly taking notice.
Pipes, who was recently appointed by the Bush administration to the US Institute of Peace, believes that only a limited number of Arab-Americans have proven to be effective communicators on television.
“I think that the effectiveness of Arab-American spokesmen and women depends ? in particular on the moderation of the extremism in their message and the willingness to disagree in a civil manner,” he said. He singles out Ibish and Eltantawi as poor examples. Referring to them as “motor-mouths,” and said that he would no longer debate either of them on television. “I feel I have to take a shower afterward,” he said. Pipes holds particular scorn for Ibish, who calls him a “wild-eyed extremist.”
Ironically, to Ibish, such caustic attacks are welcome. “After all,” he wrote in a response to Pipes editorial, “professional Arab-bashers would hardly go to this much trouble if the views of the Arab-American community were not reaching an ever-increasing audience with ever-increasing effectiveness.”