Al-Hewar Center Presents: "Media and
Dr. Dan Rainey, Julia Morelli and Mohammad Hakki
Discuss Ways Community Can Counter Negative Images
On December 4, 1996, the Al-Hewar Center in Vienna, Virginia, presented a panel discussion on "Media and Image-Building." The discussion focused on perceptions of Arabs in the American media and ways in which the community can combat negative images.
Dr. Dan Rainey and Ms. Julia Morelli spoke from the Western point of view about how they view the role of the media in a democratic society. Both have had years of experience related to the media and are interested in inter-cultural issues related to conflict. Dr. Rainey has worked in the media as a writer, director, producer, cinematographer and has production credits in film, television, video, radio and print. He is currently president of Holistic Solutions, a consulting practice focusing on conflict management in the workplace. In addition to her work as Vice President of Holistic Solutions, Ms. Morelli is Operations Manager for The Capitol Connection which operates a wireless cable system and satellite uplink facility. She has experience as a videographer, manager and consultant. As a trained mediator, her work includes facilitation, organizational assessments, and conflict management.
The third panelist, Mr. Mohammad Hakki, presented an Arab perspective on the media and image-building. Mr. Hakki currently advises the Arab Network of America (ANA) and has over 40 years of experience in international affairs and communications. A journalist, author, and former Harvard and Wilson Fellow, he is a highly respected authority on Middle East affairs and has consulted for and in numerous countries throughout the world. He served as chairman of Egypt's state information service and was the official spokesman during the administrations of Egyptian Presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.
In introducing the panelists, the moderator of the evening, Ms. Alma Abdul-Hadi Jadallah, gave examples from her own life of the stereotypical ways in which people have approached her because of her heritage, concluding that "assumptions, perceptions and information have come to our friends and acquaintances through different sources, but without doubt, the media and its role in image building has been a major factor in contributing to the image of Arabs in this country."
Ethnic communities in America are not simply tied to media images, said Dr. Rainey. Although images may be formed by what is seen on television, day-to-day interactions between people also help develop perceptions, and mediates, to a great extent, what is seen on TV. It is somewhat different for Arab-Americans, however, because people in this country don't have a lot of opportunities to interact face-to-face with Arabs. Therefore, a lot of what many people know of Arab Americans and the Middle East, comes from the media, especially in smaller communities. It is different in some of the larger cities, such as Washington, D.C., which tend to be multi-cultural and in which more Arabs live, but the opportunity in much of the country to interact with people who are different is relatively limited.
That may be one of the reasons that the image of Arab Americans in this country is relatively undifferentiated, he said. "Arab" for most Americans is a very large undifferentiated block. It is a solid media image, without recognition of the variation and cultural differences among the Arab population.
Additionally, the longer an identifiable ethnic group exists in the United States, the more people begin to understand some of the variations, some of the texture of the ethnicity involved, and the culture begins to come out in the media images.
Most groups - the ones that have been around long enough- have more than one image, some good, some bad, he said, but these groups can deal with conflicting images because they have enough of a history in terms of being here long enough, to counteract negative images with other, more positive ones.
Positive, nuanced and realistic images of Arabs, or any other culture, can be found in "high culture," said Rainey, such as literature from that culture, for example, the works of Nobel Prize winning Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz. From high culture, you can get a very good idea of what other cultures are like and what their values are. The drawback is that you have to go out of your way to find it.
On the other hand, when you get into "popular culture," which is what most Americans consume and is very accessible, it is very rare for a group that is not firmly rooted in the United States to have real entrée into that market. So when we turn on the television or read newspapers or pick up pulp fiction at the airport, there are not a lot of writers who either know anything about the cultures that they write about or have a desire to write about them in any way except stereotypically. Therefore, the differentiation and the texture and the real knowledge about other cultures is lost at the level of popular culture.
It is also important to remember that all media in this country is profit-driven, Rainey emphasized. This makes media time and space very valuable. Writers do not have a lot of time to develop characters and bring out nuance about a culture, but, rather, must make maximum use of every minute they have. What they do, then, is use characters that the audience will recognize, as soon as they walk onto the screen. Consequently, stereotypes become very important to writers in popular culture. Although this not always a negative, the stereotypes of Arabs usually are. When writers want to portray a terrorist, or someone who is threatening, they put them in Middle Eastern attire, give them an accent and make them look Arab. That's a stereotype that is used often because it's very quick and easy.
It might be tempting to believe that there is a conspiracy to portray Arabs in a negative light all the time, said Rainey. But, in his opinion, the truth is that most writers don't know enough to engage in conspiracy. It happens, he said, because writers don't have a reason not to make it happen. The only conspiracy most writers engage in, said is the conspiracy to make more money. If that means they have to use a Middle Eastern stereotype, then that is what they will do. "Now that's sad," he said, "but it's also the key to how you can start addressing those media images." A lot of it also occurs from ignorance, he added.
During her presentation, Julia Morelli talked about the American cultural impact on the image of Arabs, stating that tit affects other ethnic groups as well. One of the challenges that the Arab American community faces, she said, is making the rest of the population aware that the image of Arabs in the media is almost always negative. Most people in the mainstream population do not realize this, or even notice, unless it is pointed out to them.
Another challenge of the Arab American community is to develop or create a willingness in this society to change the image of Arabs. But in order for this to happen, the Arab community must understand how the United States developed and how ethnic groups become incorporated into this society.
There are a number of ways of looking at the negative image that Arabs have. It is much more complex than just a conspiracy theory, or on the other end of the spectrum, the notion that is completely unintentional. There are many issues involved, she said.
One of the ways of discussing this image is to look at the effect that the American culture has on ethnic groups, and especially on Arabs. There have been waves and waves of immigrants into this country and as each new wave arrives, the "pecking" order shifts. In other words, there is always a group on the bottom, who becomes the brunt of the jokes and winds up getting the negative image and stereotypes. But as these groups start becoming incorporated into this society and "moving up the ladder," those stereotypes begin to change. Arab Americans are still relatively close to the bottom of the pecking order in terms of being accepted by this country.
Even though Arabs have been in this country for quite a while, they are still frequently considered outside of the mainstream. Although there are a lot of reasons for this, one of the most important reasons is the complexity of the Arab ethnic identity, she said. Even within the community itself there is an ongoing debate about the Arab identity. Because of this complexity and nuance, it is difficult for mainstream society to understand it.
Ethnic groups can be identified in a number of ways, for example, by names, language and self-identification (that is, how a person chooses to be identified). But, there is a very strong push in US culture and society for conformity. This is particularly true in three areas: in business, in advertising, and with on-air talent (such as news broadcasters). In business, for example, there are dress codes that may either be written or just understood. This affects the Arab community when, for example, women are told that they may not wear the hijab. One of the best ways to get the attention of management and change this code is to do things like engage in threats of lawsuits.
In advertising, it is more common today to find other groups besides the white middle class. We now see more Blacks, Asians and Hispanics than before. These three groups also happen to be the ones most recognized in the American "diversity," which is usually seen as these groups plus the category "Other."
Morelli talked about an article that appeared a few years ago in Advertising Age entitled "Untapped Markets: Ethnics in the US." Among other things, the article defined a category of consumers in American society which it called the "New American Pioneers." It was a list of new groups or "others" - including Arabs. What this indicates, she said, is that the Arab community is large enough to be identified as a consumer block; but then the article went on to advocate that advertising for these groups occur in "ethnic" media. In other words, that they are not yet strong enough to be taken it into the mainstream.
The third area in which there is an obvious push toward conformity is the news media. We now see Asians and Blacks on TV, but we don't hear Black vernacular or Asian accents. On-air talent is expected appear like the general population - the dress and appearance is conservative and the language is plain English without accent. In this society, she said, there seems to be a "rite of acceptance" which brings about a need to put aside some of the ethnic identifiers in order to be accepted into the mainstream. That, of course, has implications for people who are put in the position of having to chose to change their names, dress, and other things.
So what does all of this mean to the Arab American community? Rainey and Morelli suggested a number of specific actions that the community can take to change its image:
1) Counter negative stereotypes by offering positive alternatives. Use articulate spokespeople to intelligently identify the community's values. Most other groups have an ongoing, very controlled, very focused effort to do this.
2) Sensitize producers, directors and writers. If they don't know what they are doing, and many of them don't, tell them. Individual responses do matter to media people. A well-written, thoughtful letter explaining that offensive programming has turned people off as a consumer group, and is wrong, will have an impact.
3) Show solidarity and monetary clout. A group does not necessarily have to be very large in order to do this, it just needs to be focused. The World Jewish Council is a good example of this. It is a small group, but it sounds big, and its acts like it has a lot of clout. It lobbies very effectively and gets paid attention to.
4) Get Arab Americans into the ranks of writers, directors and producers. The most extreme change of images takes place when people from the ethnic group begin producing the media. On-air talent who are identified as "Arab" would also be very helpful in letting the general population see a positive image and letting them know that Arabs are good people. Name recognition carries a lot of power.
5) Focus on messages outside of the Arab American community instead of keeping them just within. It is fine to have Arabic radio, television newspapers and magazines, but in order to reach the greater society, we must begin to target messages outside of the Arab community.
6) Sensitize non-Arab viewers to negative stereotypes. If you see something that bothers you, talk about it with the people around you. Most people don't consciously notice a negative message unless it is about them or unless it is brought to their attention.
Mr. Mohammad Hakki spoke about the media as an "insider" both in terms of being an Arab and as a person involved in the media. He noted that Arab Americans should not feel alone in feeling discriminated against as there are and have been many other biases in the United States, including against women, African Americans, Catholics, even conservatives (80% of the editors in this country identify themselves as liberals, he noted), and others.
The bias may be a reflection of the ignorance of the American media, said Hakki. US media is lacking not only with regard to the Middle East, he said, but on any number of regions and issues - even Canada. He added that of the 1548 daily newspapers in the United States, only a tiny handful of them have anything of substance in terms of international coverage. By way of contrast, every major capital in Europe has at least one, and often several very good newspapers. London, alone has at least seven decent daily newspapers, he said.
Possibly because of the problems during the Cold War, the American media used to send very good correspondents to cover the Middle East in the 1950-60s. Today, he said, there are very few good correspondents, and even when one tries to do a positive story about the Middle East, which is extremely rare, that person is attacked for doing it.
Most importantly, Arab Americans must admit to themselves that they have an identity crisis. There are very few books about Arab Americans, where they came from, who they are. Additionally, fifty percent of the Arab American population immigrated to America in just the last 35 years. They still think of themselves as Egyptians, or Palestinians, or Lebanese, etc. They must ask themselves whether they should begin to act like Americans and relate to others like Americans. Children are often the biggest victims of this as they are expected to fit in with the others kids in their schools while at the same time cling to their Arab identity at home. Second and third generation Arabs, he said, have already gone through this and now identify themselves as Americans. But even those who are fully assimilated should be celebrated as part of the community as well.
There was a time when we had giants in our community in this country: Kahlil Gibran, Mikhail Naimi, Elie Abou-Madi, Amin Rihani. Unfortunately, today, we have things like a small, insignificant newspaper in Houston that lives on blackmail, and we pay it! We should not reward that kind of behavior - we should change it, he said.
We must celebrate the people in our community who have made achievements, or other people who have become involved in the community or been exposed to our culture, he said. For example, Maya Angelou lived in Egypt for over three years when she was married to a South African freedom fighter. Yet none of us has talked about her memoirs of Egypt, or invited her to speak. We must also take steps to invite Americans over to the Arab world to let them experience it first hand. Israel does this constantly, and it has been very effective.
When Boutros Boutros Ghali was elected to the UN Secretary General position, fully half of the Arab media was against him. Instead, he should have been honored, or at least recognized for having attained such a position, Hakki said.
Literally thousands of Arab Americans are leaders in this society - people who have contributed and done great things for this country. We must begin to honor those people, as other ethnic groups do, he stressed.
Nevertheless, he added, the situation is not as grim as some people would believe. We have many good institutions and major organizations that are doing good things. We should look at these many points of light and string them up! We must also pool our efforts and resources and begin to work together, he concluded.
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