For years, American Arabs were either forced to play behind-the-scenes roles in the mainstream news media, or had to distance themselves from their heritage in order to maintain high profile news positions. Only a very few would wear their Arab heritage on their shoulders, usually facing immediate personal attacks and challenges from their media colleagues. But fortunately, things are changing, and today the American public is opening up to Arab-looking characters as successful members of the news media, even if they are not always Arab. One of the media helping to broaden acceptance or American Arabs is CNN and its smaller sister station, Headline News (HLN).
By Ray Hanania
When I first entered mainstream journalism in 1976, my first major job interview involved the newspaper editor lecturing me about my American Arab heritage and the views and opinions he believed would come with it if he hired me.
The editor of the Southtown Economist told me, “Keep your views on your side of the typewriter.” That caution also included not just not writing my views in stories but also not discussing them in the newsroom which back then had 23 reporters, editors and a handful of columnists.
Regardless, other reporters there constantly challenged me, especially the American Jewish reporters, because, as Jackie Mason’s wife/manager once famously declared in justifying kicking me off a comedy stage at Zanies in 2002, “Ray Hanania isn’t just an Arab, he is a Palestinian.”
And the pro-Israel leaning American public just couldn’t handle a “Palestinians” in 1976 or in 2002, and neither can so-called objective American Jewish reporters who for years ruled the newsrooms with no pushback from Palestinian journalist colleagues. American Jewish reporters took comfort in the fact that they could spin any Palestine-Israel story to reflect a pro-Israel bias under the false banner of being “objective” or “fair,” which was never the case, in my opinion.
Since the terrorism of 2001, though, the image of Arabs has been merged into one large coagulated stereotype, portrayed as all “Muslims” (including Christian Arabs) or Middle Eastern, and more often than not the “new Arab” which included Arabs, Pakistanis, Muslims and Iranians. The public doesn’t just focus on Palestinians, unless of course, pro-Israel extremists are driving that perceptions. They mix all Arabs into one big category of extremism, associated with violence, terrorism and extremism.
One defense was to assimilate to the extreme by abandoning the internal drive to assert your Arab-self into the media as other ethnic and religious groups like Hispanics, Blacks, Jews and others do all the time. Many prominent American Arab journalists — there are a handful — stay away from Arab-related controversy, but proudly identify themselves as Arabs. But how do they feel about Palestine? Israel? The War on Iraq? Anti-Arab racism in this country?
The opinions were AWOL. Because it wasn’t safe to their careers to be outspoken on fundamental issues like principles, fairness, and the reality of mainstream American Journalism which allowed many ethnic and religious groups like Blacks, Hispanics and Jews to assert their identities into the mainstream discussions and debates. Jewish reporters frequently write about their Jewish heritage, and frequently cover the Israel-Palestine conflict inserting their personal experiences and views to slant the “news” towards their favor.
But American Arabs, and especially Palestinian American journalists, were punished and castigated for doing the same, except in some extreme circumstances. It was a long fight to change that and it involved many sacrifices, not ignoring the other factor of the Arab community which has been raised to frown on professional journalism, having come to America from countries where they were conditioned by brutality and oppression to not express their views and opinions openly and where journalism was more an arm of the dictators and tyrants rather than real expressions of journalism freedom.
So it was with some excitement that CNN announced that its sister station, HLN (Headline News) would launch a new program called “The Social Life” that would be hosted by two journalists with “Middle Eastern” backgrounds.
Although the two hosts are not of Arab heritage, they are Iranian, to most Americans who can’t tell the difference between Arabs or Iranians or even Arabs and Muslims, the newest TV News show to slam the Mother-of-Pearl (Middle East version of the “Glass Ceiling) ceiling is “The Social Life” which was launched on HLN last February and has been building popular ratings every week, now in its 4th month.
The Social Life show, owned by Cable News Network, Inc. a Time Warner Company, is hosted by two Middle East looking journalists who are often confused as being “Arab” by members of the public, if you read everything posted on Social Media, of course. One of them is social media activist Ali Nejad.
Here is the video promo for the show featuring Ali Nejad.
A social media mainstay with nearly one million Twitter followers, Ali Nejad joined HLN in May of 2014 as a correspondent covering general news, and became host of the network’s dayside program, The Daily Share in January of 2015. He is also the host of the HLN Original Series The Social Life.
Nejad also appears on the HLN program “The Daily Share” which includes co-host Yasmin Vossoughian and Nejad and Vossoughian discuss the latest news and controversies of the day. It seems as if the two programs are merged a bit.
Vossoughian, also Iranian American, was born in New York, the youngest daughter to Dr. Ahad and Shamsi Vossoughian. She is fluent in 3 languages- English, French and Persian. After attending Northfield Mount Herman School, Yasmin went on to pursue undergraduate studies in History and Economics with a minor in theatre at Occidental College, in Los Angeles, CA. She also studied broadcast journalism at the New School in New York City.
At 16, Yasmin was one of the youngest interns on Capitol Hill for former Congressman Benjamin Gilman, the head of the International Relations Committee at the time. After graduation from college, Yasmin started her career at E!: Entertainment Television as a production assistant. She then went on to produce for the Style Network. At that time, Yasmin obtained her first on-air job at the German-based internet TV station DTV. During her time at DTV, Yasmin covered events such at the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the New York City Mayoral Race. She also did red carpet interviews with such celebrities as Salma Hayek, Tom Cruise, Susan Sarandon, and Robin Williams.
Yasmin then went on to be a correspondent for Current TV, an internet and broadcast network driven by viewer created content from around the world. Current TV was owned by former Vice President Al Gore, who sold the station to Al Jazeera America, which is now broadcast on mainstream American Cable TV 24/7 on its own channel.
During her first assignment at Current, Yasmin traveled alone to Tehran, Iran to produce a documentary on the underground youth culture there. Traveling alone, shooting, producing, reporting, and editing, Vossoughian brought a story to life for millions of viewers who had never seen this side of Iranian culture. In 2006, she was awarded the CINE Golden Eagle Award for her work. She’s also covered stories from countries such as Afghanistan, Liberia, France, Ghana, Senegal and the United States. Yasmin also currently does Watch and Decide segments for AOL.
This morning Nejad and Vossoughian discussed the growing controversy involving the display of the Confederate Flag, which critics claim is a symbol of anti-American hatred (it was the flag flown by the pro-Slavery Confederate nation and military during the US Civil War) and defenders who have managed to keep the red “Rebel” flag flying over statehouses in several Southern states argue it is a symbol of Southern culture and nothing more.
The massacre by a White Man of nine African American worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where the “rebel” flag is often flown. It was flown by the accused mass murderer — the news media won’t label him a “White Terrorist” though — Dylann Roof, 21, of Columbia, South Carolina, before he walked into the church service and gunned the unarmed civilians who were praying down and injuring others.
Nejad and Vossoughian did a great job of leading the discussion. And the show will do much to shatter the discrimination against not just Arabs but all of the people from the Middle East and the near East — Iran is not really a part of the Middle East but try arguing that with mainstream Americans.
Although many Iranian American journalists don’t like to be associated with American Arab Journalists — whcih is ironic, really — the Americans don’t see the issues that some Iranian separatists use to create a “Middle East” journalists association and opposed strenuously the formation of the National American Arab Journalists Association. The opposition from the Iranian journalist members of the Middle East journalists was so strong they even refused to work with us.
To them, the issue of “Palestine” and criticism of Israel is a deathblow to any American journalism career. And given the history of the anti-Arab Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) which established the Arab Journalism section and then several years later cancelled it under the direction of pro-Israel, anti-Arab national board members, why would any American journalist want to associate with Arabs. (In fairness, the SPJ’s Chicago Chapter, the Headline Club, was very open and supportive of diversity and opposed the national SPJ’s anti-Arab policies. So did Chapters in a few other SPJ states including South Florida.
Yet regardless of the history of internal fighting and journalism censorship and bullying, Americans only view Iranian Journalists and Arab Journalists as being one and the same.
Discrimination to some is driven by how the victim feels, but it is really defined by how the perpetrators or the public views the victims. Americans are the most educated people in the world, but sadly, the least educated about the world and cannot tell the difference between Iranians and Indians, or Palestinians and Pakistanis.
Despite internal issues, the rise of the “stereotyped” image of the Arab journalist (Asians, Iranians, Arab, Muslims, Palestinians and Middle East) continues to change and one day Arab journalists in America will be free of the oppression, discrimination and the racism that often originates at the corridors of professional American journalism.
(Ray Hanania is an award winning former Chicago journalist and co-founded of NAAJA. He is the managing editor of The Arab Daily News online newspaper which receives more than 800,000 page views each month. He can be reached at email@example.com.)