Almost 15 years ago when I and a few other American Arab journalists launched the National American Arab Journalists Association (NAAJA), we had hoped to build a support network to encourage more young American Arabs to become journalists. Instead, we found ourselves in a battle from day one. At our first National Arab Journalism Conference in 1999, a local American Arab broadcast reporter and anchor, Mike Mansour, was fired from CLTV, a WGN and Tribune owned company, when he got into a fight with his editor over wanting to do a story about the conference. The editor, who was Jewish, won, and Mansour, who was Arab, was fired from his job.
I was surprised when no mainstream American journalism organization like the Society of Professional Journalists or the Chicago Headline Club, would come to his aid. A media critic and longtime friend who worked at the Chicago Sun-Times bashed Mansour and ridiculed his claims that he was discriminated against, treatment that no other ethnic, racial, gay or religious individual would have to endure. The columnist and I had become friends and colleagues when we worked together, so needless to say the issue caused a major problem between us for years to come.
We worked hard to bring American Arabs into the mainstream. The biggest obstacle became the mainstream news media itself. A young reporter hired at WBEZ, supposedly a progressive place to work, was told point-blank, remove your hijab or be fired. It took years for her to accommodate the media racism against Arabs with her journalism career.
In late 2005, a light broke through the wall of anti-Arab hatred when the President of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), of which I had been a member all my journalism career since 1976, called to say she wanted to help all ethnic community journalists enter the profession. It was amazing. No one in journalism had responded to our calls to open doors and shatter the glass ceiling of racism and hatred against American Arabs: Except Christine Tatum, a professional journalist from the Denver Post and Tribune Company who really believed that journalists had to be objective, fair and balanced. Before she left to launch her own journalism company Media Salad in 2009, she helped create the “Arab Journalism Section” at the SPJ. The idea was to have a place where American Arab and Muslim journalists already at the SPJ, like myself, could organize and attract more American Arabs to join the profession, as professionals. We helped rewrite the overview of how to cover Arabs and translated it into Arabic, too.
I had been in the middle of a war with Arab activists who opposed professional journalism and spent all their time writing Op-Eds that bashed Israel. There was a middle ground in the Israel-Palestine conflict and a middle ground even after Sept. 11, 2001 in the American Arab community. We had to find it and encourage it to stand up and speak out. But of course, much of what was written focused on Israeli and Palestinian issues which after 2000 the contention became almost unbearable. And very personal.
Tatum was a rare breed in American journalism, someone who practiced what she preached. Journalism was a profession to her, not a political weapon to use against those you dislike.
Tatum’s term ended in 2010 and by 2011 a backlash pushed an Israeli journalist to the helm of the organization. The new president and her allies took a very strong position against engaging American Arab journalists and were also involved in stripping the name of Helen Thomas off of a Lifetime Achievement Award that had been set up to honor the first Woman Journalist and Dean of the White House Press Corp.
That was coupled by an assault from a group that claimed itself as “UNITY: Journalists of Color.” The problem was UNITY didn’t have room at the table for another ethnic minority group. The seats were already crowded by African American journalists, Hispanic Journalists, Asian Journalists and Native American Journalists. Bringing in Arab journalists, they thought, would have reduced their own clout and taken jobs away from them. They shut Arabs out.
Worse is that the American Arab community, which has been living in a political headlock at the hands of fanatics and extremist activists who hate the news media as much as they hate Jews, refused to help. Arab extremists have one goal. They want the conflict because they believe if there is peace, they will all lose the lucrative jobs they have created through grant funding and the speaking circuit and writing books that repetitively talk about how Palestine was stolen and how Israel has to be destroyed.
I support peace based on compromise, and was very vocal against the use of violence. And that didn’t sit well with the Arab fanatics. But my criticism of Israel’s government and Israeli leaders, also didn’t sit well with the pro-Israel activists who openly hide behind bylines at the major American newspapers, radio shows and broadcast stations. They didn’t care whether an Arab was pro-Peace or a bomb-thrower. The only good Arab to them was a dead Arab, dead in the sense of being excluded, marginalized, lumped together as one, and shut-out of journalism jobs. They portrayed all Arabs, regardless of their views, as extremists because they criticized Israel.
Several other Arab journalism organizations formed, too, but they diluted the role of Arabs and were driven more by a non-Arab agenda. Many of their members are Iranians who were tired of being criticized as “Arab fanatics” because mainstream Americans can’t tell the difference between a Palestinian or a Pakistani, an Iranian or an Indian. To the haters, we are all the same. Dark-skinned and Middle Eastern. (After Sept. 11, 2001, 14 Americans who “looked” Middle Eastern were murdered in the hate-backlash that swept America and no major media cared to explore the racist backlash that took place so violently. Many of those killed were not Arab but were Pakistani and Sikh.)
Many of the American Arab organizations want to silence American Arab journalists, too, because they are run by “presidents-for-life.” If the American Arab journalists succeed, the dictators who run many of the Arab organizations in the United States will lose power, and the focus will shift from hatred of Israel to a measure of balance, fairness and objectivity. As long as there is conflict, those organizations have a reason for existence. When it ends. They end. Their jobs end. Their cause collapses.
There are more than 10,000 people in professional Journalism today. Only about 250 are American Arab, and that number includes about 120 who are really business people who publish ethnic Arab and Muslim publications but have no professional journalism training or commitment. They are striving to reflect and repeat the conflict news from the Middle East. Very few of them care about the existence of Arabs in America.
NAAJA folded in 2013, after 15 years of a struggle to organize American Arabs to recognize their rights and to force the mainstream media to open their doors. You can’t blame our supporters for fearing the backlash that they would face if they stood up to defend American Arabs. They would be isolated, marginalized and booted out of jobs, too.
All you have to do is look around today and see how few American Arab voices there are in professional journalism, to understand that there must be a problem that makes that fact a reality. Yet no one in the mainstream American journalism profession cares.
I care. That’s why I launched the website, The Arab Daily News which strives to be the newspaper of record for American Arabs and gives writers an opportunity to hone their skills as bloggers. Our struggle today is finding experienced journalists of American Arab heritage to write the thousands of features stories and news stories that are out there about American Arabs but that no one else writes, except for a small handful of great publications. The Arab News in Detroit, the Beirut Times, Al Sahafa Newspaper in Ohio, The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs in Washington DC., the Future News in Chicago, Al Manbar in Florida, Aramica Newspaper in New York, and a few more. There’s also USA Arab Radio in Michigan, too.
There is a growing audience of American Arabs who want to read more than just the rehash of the Middle East conflict that is cut and pasted from Arab World newspaper, in Arabic. They want to read it in English. They want those stories to also be read by mainstream Americans. And they want the mainstream American news media to hire more American Arabs, write more stories about American Arabs and to quit defining us as one religion, Muslims. (The majority of Muslims in America are non-Arab.) They don’t care if the media writes stories critical of the American Arab community, as long as the media is also writes the stories that showcases our successes, our achievers, our activities, our events, our communities, our businesses and our lives as Americans, too.
One day, America will become the nation it claims to be.
(Ray Hanania is the managing editor of the Arab Daily News. Email him at rayhanania@theArabDailyNews.com.)