The ONLY active voice for American Arab Journalists.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The State of Arab American Journalism, presentation to the Community Media Workshop, Chicago June 12, 2008

Community Media Workshop
Co-sponsored by the National Arab American Journalists Association
Thursday June 11, 2008
Ray Hanania …. The Ethnic News Media

I was asked to give you some details about myself first:

I got into journalism in the 1970s wielding a sledge-hammer, determined to break the door down on the mainstream news media’s hypocrisies involving the inadequate and lacking coverage of Arabs in America. We were news when we were bad. We were off the radar screen when we were good.

That’s why people keep asking me, "Why don’t you people denounce Osama Bin Laden?" My people? I’m from Chicago’s "Sout Side," if you didn’t recognize the accent. To many Americans, Arab Americans are just not American enough and there isn’t anything we can do to ever satisfy the growing racism and bigotry that exists in this country.

I covered City Hall 17 years from Daley (75) to Daley (92). And because journalism isn’t controversial enough, I created my own news … moved on a bit to the other side …the dark side … of public relations and media strategy … and learned what it was like to be in the "glass fishbowl." I think every journalist, especially political reporters and columnist, really should experience that. It really does give you a fuller perspective on the "Good Stawwy" as my friend and colleague the late Harry Golden Jr., used to bark in his Brooklyn Accent.

I got into Ethnic Media, up to my nose. I realized that the Arab American community – my community whether some of my editors liked it or not – usually not – was not engaged in the media very successfully.

I got back into journalism after a whirlwind sabbatical in media relations and community activism, right after Sept. 11, 2001, and I’ve since written three books ("I’m Glad I Look Like a Terrorist: Growing Up Arab in America" – a humor book; "Arabs of Chicagoland," now a mandatory FBI manual; and "The Catastrophe: How extremists have hijacked the Palestinian Cause").

I have one book online called "Midnight Flight: Chicago’s Racial Heritage and White Flight" that is available off my web page

I manage several news and column web sites: The Arab, and The Orland And, I publish the National Arab American Times Newspaper, 64,000 newspapers in 48 states (

I write about politics, and fun, for the Southwest News-Herald Newspaper ( and for newspapers around the country and the world.

I host a weekly radio show on WCEV "Chicago’s Ethnic Voice," which is on sabatical too, pending a new major advertising sponsor. I’ll talk about later. And, I host a weekly TV show on Comcast Cable Channel 19, where I push what some viewers call "my Arab agenda" but also delve into other regional and national stories.

And, as if I didn’t already have enough on my plate, I perform standup comedy with the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour

I’ve also won my share of Journalism Awards, including three SPJ Lisagor Awards, and was named "Best Ethnic American Journalist" in Nov. 2006 by the New American Media. Doesn’t get me any work, though. Just a lot of abuse.

You can go to my web site at to link to any and all of my journalism, comedy and writing endeavors.

Being an ethnic journalist

The first thing you should know about being an "ethnic" is that it is a very undefined phenomena.

Being ethnic is about how you view yourself and how others view you. I didn’t realize how ethnic I really was until I started to look for a job.

Over the years, ethnicity is kind of imposed on you. You think it is fine, some people don’t. You also discover that the label "ethnic" brings along a lot of baggage, too. A lot of people just don’t like you.

Now, most of my freelance work involves the ethnic media, a long way from covering Chicago’s City Hall for 17 years from Daley to Daley, where my ethnicity was acknowledged, often in the pejorative.

Overview of the Arab American Community

We Americans mix up ethnicity and race a lot. And when you are Arab American, add to that mix religion. It’s amazing how few people, including in journalism, distinguish between Arab and Muslim.

There are 7 million Muslims in the United States – we think because the government really doesn’t want to count us – by the way, the census is both a means of empowerment and a means of oppression. If they count you, you can become more powerful. If they refuse to count you or come up with special categories to count you, they can suppress your community’s voice. It’s what I like to cite as the subtle oppression of American Democracy, the unfree part we pretend doesn’t exist.

Of those 7 million Muslims, only 22 percent are Arab. The majority of Muslims are Black Muslims, about 36 percent.

There are 4.5 million Arabs in the United States, the majority are actually Christian, not Muslim at all. But you wouldn’t know that from the American public. A woman came up to me after Sept. 11, 2001 and said, "I can’t believe you abandoned your Christian faith to become an Arab."

Chicago has about 250,000 Arab Americans, the majority from Palestine. Much of which you will recognize is Israel today.

They are divided into two major groups: Those in jail and those not. Actually, there are two large settlements, the largest on the Southwest Side and Suburbs from the 13th Ward all the way southwest to Orland Park, where I live. Everyone thinks we’re Muslim, as I said, but the majority of those Arabs are Christian Palestinian and Lebanese Christians, and a easily identifiable Muslim warren in Bridgeview.

Again, ethnicity isn’t about what you are, but what people think you are. They see someone wearing a Hijab, a head covering that we used to call a Babushka in the 60s, and an entire community is defined.

Most of Arab Americans are wealthy. Most were professionals who could afford to leave their countries to come to this country. Some came as a result of conflict and oppression as refugees.

They’re doctors, lawyers, engineers, and business people. There are only about 250 Arab Americans in journalism. Sounds like a lot but it isn’t. Half are in the mainstream media – Hoda Kotbe, Jim Avila -- and the other half are in the ethnic media.

More about the Arab American ethnic news media.

Arab American media is at the forefront of social justice It is a fact that an ethnic community’s "health" and empowerment is reflected by the health and professionalism of its ethnic media. In that measure, the Arab American community is ailing. The Ethnic American media is at the forefront of the fight for justice, Democracy and free speech in this country. We are the front-line fighting for social change and fairness, and improving the livelihood of all Americans. But we have many challenges.

We have about 83 Arab newspapers and magazines, 12 radio shows including some mainstream like my own that are ethnic by default, and about a dozen cable TV programs. You can go to the web page of the National Arab American Journalists Association ( to get more information on those newspapers and their geographical location around the country.

About 125 people working for the 83 publications and a handful of radio and TV means we don’t have big staffs. In fact, only a few are really media in a professional sense, run by "journalists" as opposed to business people or activists.

Most of our Arab ethnic media reporting focuses on Middle East politics. There is a reason for that. The mainstream news media doesn’t cover the Middle East fairly or objectively. They’re biased and some columnists and reporters will openly boast that they are biased – it improves their careers.

Other mainstream journalists and talk show hosts will show their biased based on the absence of Arab guests on their shows when they address Middle East topics.

Only a few of the Arab American media focus on non-Middle Eastern political issues, like the growing social challenges Arab Americans face like all other Americans.

We have many great ethnic newspapers, besides my own, the National Arab American Times, of course, and the two newspapers in Chicago, The Arab Horizon and the Future News. They include The Arab News in Detroit, the Independent Monitor and the Beirut Times in California, and Aramica News in New Jersey/New York, and al-Nashra in Washington D.C. These are only a few. Some of the leading magazines include Islamica Magazine, Azizah Magazine, the Arab American Business Magazine, and the News Circle Magazine

But, we are American. And still, we are constantly under siege.

Most of the publications are in Arabic but there is a trend to publish more and more in English. We had 7 newspapers in Chicago before Sept. 11. After, only two survived, and one, that I published, closed months later. The survivor was thrown out by her printer who said he didn’t like her English articles about the Middle East, so she found a new printer and published only in Arabic for a while.

Today, we have two major Arab American newspapers in Chicago, the Future News and the Arab Horizon that do both Arabic and English and fill the void intentionally missed by the mainstream news media.

Unlike other Ethnic media in America, we have difficulty in distributing our publications. Many mainstream, non-Arab stores and business refuse to distribute our newspapers, although you will find Hispanic, Asian and African American media, for example, in many retail stores that are of other ethnic origins or are owned by Caucasian business owners.

We have a divide in our media. Many of our newspapers are published and run by political activists with an agenda that is not journalism. Many others are run by business owners in insurance, real estate and law who are seeking to promote their business endeavors or are championing causes. Journalism is a sidelight, rather than a main profession -- although they are dedicated to the cause of journalism.

So, as a result, about 75 percent of the news published in our newspapers is focused on the Middle East conflict. Only 20 percent of the publications, according to a recent survey of newspapers, include features or news that is unrelated to the Middle East conflict. Some newspapers are all driven by opinion columns.

Although Arab Americans are the target of aggressive anti-Arab campaigns by the Bush-Cheney administration, about 35 percent of our advertising – major advertising, comes from government agencies such as the U.S. Military, the FBI and the CIA. About 65 percent of the remaining ads are local businesses. Nearly 25 percent of the purchased advertising goes uncollected, and remains outstanding. The remainder come from service industries targeting Arab and Muslim consumers, such as money wire transfers and cellular and long distance telephone companies.

Only a few Arab American publications actually make a profit.

While other ethnic media can really on a steady stream of community support, most Arab American ethnic publications do not get direct support beyond some advertising. For example, few of the Arab American organizations, with the exception of a handful based in Washington D.C., produce and distribute press releases. Without press releases, the burden on the Arab American ethnic journalists is tripled as a steady flow of press releases is a necessity, indicating a community that engages and recognizes the importance of the Arab American ethnic media.

The absence of a public relations industry in the Arab American community reflects the lack of respect Arab Americans have for their own community press.

WCEV – the show is temporarily off the air because we found that many mainstream advertisers won’t advertise on a radio station that is filled with ethnic voices … it was amazing how many advertisers complained because the shows on the station were ethnic … Polish, Irish, Italian … it isn’t just about being Arab American … many Americans hate the "hyphen" but they are the ones who hyphenate us …

Challenges just being an Arab let alone an ethnic publisher

When people come up to me and call me a terrorist lover, I like to point out I served during the Vietnam War, my brother was a Marine and my dad and uncle served more than four years each in World War II. I ask if they served. They usually say no. And I wonder, what’s stopping them? I offer to walk them to the recruiter so they can channel their hatred in the right direction, against usually innocent prisoners who have been denied their basic human rights held at Guantanamo. You can beat, torture and even kill them, and no one will care.

But we feel we are constantly under attack in this country, including way before Sept. 11, 2001. And it’s justified. When I was honorably discharged from the Air Force in 1975, the FBI immediately opened an investigation into my life. Two years. Because I was "Arab."

Yet the Arab American community is both an asset and a resource for this country, and they are a market.

You know, if the mainstream media had done its job in covering our community, they would have been all over the Tony Rezko story long before it broke. They would have had actual video footage of Rezko and Gov. Blagojevich hugging and shaking hands at community award ceremonies. Instead of stealing the picture of Rezko from my book Arabs of Chicagoland and using that without attribution until Rezko finally appeared in court.

Most of the 83 publications are regional papers, which means they are published in one city, saturate that city but try their best to extend beyond their borders. Working with a national food distributor, though, I’ve managed to break that barrier publishing 65,000 copies of my newspaper (80 percent English and 20 percent Arabic language – the National Arab American Times) to Middle Eastern grocery stores in all 48 states. It took me a long time to find an Arab store in Wyoming.

Given the state of the world today and the real threat we face from terrorists and extremists in the Middle East, and the Muslim World, Americans owe it to themselves to learn more about Arab Americans and Muslims. And, to understand there is a difference.

My biggest critics not only are mainstream Americans, but also from extremist groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), which has attacked me because of my criticism of Islamic extremism, which is a real and genuine threat in this country and in this city that mainstream Muslim groups do not fully denounce – they denounce the vague threat of terrorism and the extremists and the clearly identified leaders of the foreign terrorist organizations, but they fail to denounce the extremists among them that makes that foreign terrorism possible.

But Americans wouldn’t know any of this because Americans can’t tell the difference between Arabs and Muslims. It’s so much easier to cover us as a "stereotype" than as an ethnic community.

And I might conclude by reiterating that we Arab American journalists face real challenges not just from the lack of education in the American public but also the lack of education and professional practices by the mainstream media.

The very people who should be supporting us either ignore us or are so busy fighting their own battles, they can’t see or hear us as "comrades in struggle."

The non-Arab and non-Muslim ethnic media doesn’t support us enough. One community that does support us is the Asian American community because of the large number of Muslims (non-Arab Muslims) in their countries.

Instead of supporting us, they are shutting us out, or ignoring us, or not responding to our obvious needs.

Next month, UNITY: Journalists of Color will be hold their quadrennial Convention right here in Chicago. For the past three years, we’ve been asking, as Arab Americans, to participate, and they have refused us … thanks to the Asian American Journalists Association, we will have one panel on Arab American issues, that includes many non-Arabs on it … but it is a shame when the very ethnic and minority media of Blacks, Asians, Hispanics and Native Americans are so insecure about themselves, they are afraid to open the door to Arab American journalists who are also of color.

Part of the problem is the Arab American professional journalism community itself. Although viewed and stereotyped by outsiders as a monolithic, negative presence in America, the Arab American community sees itself as a coalition of division. We don’t work together. We don’t support each other. We permit the politics of the Middle East interfere in our organizational needs. We don’t come together because Lebanese and Palestinians don’t get along, or Syrians and Egyptians don’t get along, and more often than not, Muslims and Christian Arabs do not work together. In fact, while the Christian Arab community is larger than the Muslim Arab community, the Muslim Arab community empowerment is driven by non-Arab Muslims who have a huge influence in America but that also have priorities that do not match the priorities of the Arab community.

We want to protest UNITY, rather than support it, but when minorities are discriminated against by other minorities, not even a protest can make a difference.

One day UNITY will open its doors and recognize that the path now being taken by Arab Americans is one they took years before in their own fights for equality. You can’t be equal if you find excuses to treat other unequally.

To borrow a malapropism from the great late Mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley, and adapt it into our own challenges, "We Arab American journalists are not here to cause dis-UNITY at UNITY this summer … we’re here to preserve dis-UNITY."

That’s my sout-side ethnicity coming out …


Ray Hanania

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