As conflict escalates in the Middle East, there is a new war emerging in the U.S. é a war waged on the American people. This is not a war of tanks, missiles or military, it is a struggle for public opinion.
The most powerful weapon in this war is the media. Mainstream media coverage is unquestioned fact to the unsuspecting novice on Middle East affairs, and almost screaming an unbearable bias to the expert. It has proven to view Arabs through a lens focused on one sided policy. News coverage of the Arab world has taken a firm smoke and mirrors approach. Selective information is disseminated to the public only after a strict filter process.
According to Norman Solomon, columnist and media expert who authored, The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media: Decoding Spin and Lies in Mainstream News, the media contains, “biases that are fundamentally anti Arab and anti Moslem,” and an “element of Judeo-Christian chauvinism.”
With regard to the most current and publicized situation in the Middle East, there is an evident sidestepping around the root cause of the Israeli/Palestinian turmoil. A 35 year occupation is seemingly invisible in media reports. The public is never told that resisting occupation is a right protected by international law, not terrorism. The ironic and repeated claims of Israel to be a pillar of democracy while aggressively pursuing an agenda of ethnic cleansing is another vital fact absent from media coverage. There is seldom any mention of the endless number of UN resolutions of which Israel stands in violation. Ariel Sharon’s colorful past complete with war crimes and terrorism, also never spoken of.
With these basic principles conveniently omitted from mainstream media reporting, viewers are left with gaps of unanswered questions. Newsmakers are equipped to fill those gaps with basic public relations techniques.
The hearts of Americans are a popular media target. Drawing on emotions is an effective tool in swaying public opinion. People overwhelmed by emotion somewhat lose the ability to function with logic é yet another added benefit in the eyes of the media.
Images are critical in winning public sentiment. Americans are moved by pictures and the media plays on that well. Television news takes on a key role in implementing this strategy.
When a Palestinian is killed, he rarely has an identity é no face, no name, no family é often just an unreported statistic.
Conversely, an Israeli killed in the conflict is a real person, a tragic story, a fallen hero. Television screens are flooded with scenes of a crying Israeli mother, devastated family and friends, mourners at the funeral service and even the blood of the deceased spilled on the street. All powerful images intended to evoke sympathy and compassion.
Palestinians are not extended the same media courtesy. Images far more common in reality, yet seldom shown on television news include: the massive numbers of bulldozed Palestinian homes, the destruction of hospitals and schools, the ambulances loaded with bullet holes and the use of poverty stricken refugee camps are Israeli sewage dumps.
While Palestinian casualties do not make headline news, suicide bombers do. Images that produce negative reaction are just as critical as those that produce sympathy in the emotional battle.
Full coverage of suicide attacks is immediate and large scale. In depth reports include the damage caused by the attack, reactions of a scared and shaken community and repeated broadcasts of casualties. The underlying message: Palestinians are the aggressors, Israelis are the victims.
In a recent article titled “The Media War We Are Losing, But Can Win”, James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington DC, comments on this form of media reporting.
“When Israelis are victims of a Palestinian bomb attack, the coverage is intense and intimate and footage of the coverage is repeated. We are shown the Israeli victims and the shaken Israeli survivors. We hear the families stories and we know that they were loved. In short, we can empathize with Israeli suffering because we are made to understand their loss,” says Zogby.
Spotlighting suicide attacks gives way to yet another media tactic used to manipulate audiences. With the nation in a mode of patriotism, the media has been given a unique opportunity to identify a common enemy. There is a constant need to keep negative images of Arabs fresh in the minds of American viewers. Repetition of these images reinforce the concept of the Arab enemy.
Perhaps the most detrimental bias the American press is guilty of is misplacing blame. There is a classic “blame the victim” propaganda in Mideast coverage. The tool of choice in this battle is a simple one é language. Exploitation of words can be powerful in spinning a story in a desired direction.
Palestinian deaths are explained away as results of a “retaliation” é implying some provocation never specifically cited.
According to Zogby, “Palestinian attacks are always presented as the initiators of violence that create the necessity of Israeli retaliations. Palestinians are never seen responding to either specific Israeli attacks or an accumulated pattern of Israeli abuse. The Israeli losses are decried as ‘senseless victims of terror,’ while Palestinian deaths are not only depersonalized, but allowed to appear as the logical consequence of the violence initiated by their compatriots.”
Palestinian children “die” in “crossfires” while Israeli children are brutally and savagely “murdered”.
Descriptions such as “defense force”, “military tactics” and “security operations” are reserved for Israelis, while Palestinians are “gunmen” or “snipers”.
The recent Jenin massacre was cleverly disguised under the “war on terrorism” umbrella é which apparently makes mass murder excusable by media standards.
Brief reports of a Palestinian woman and her two children shot dead (nameless and faceless) were considered justifiable because they were “accidentally mistook” as snipers.
It is an endless list of excuses for Israeli aggressions, exoneration from punishment and rationalizations for acts of violence. There are constant demands made to end Palestinian terrorism but never a demand to end decades of Israeli occupation and oppression.
As tension continues to mount in the Middle East, so continues the media war on Arabs in the United States. The media’s strongest ally in this war is Hollywood, which exponentially magnifies the already rampant repercussions of media bias.
In film, Arab men are typically portrayed as hot tempered oil sheiks or the ever popular bomb obsessed, fanatic terrorists attempting to destroy humanity. Arab women, who are without identity and usually mute, are always oppressed, and often times only appear in the backdrop as an insignificant part of a harem of women catering to the needs of the billionaire sheik.
Painting negative and distorted images, the media creates, while Hollywood reinforces stereotypes to a vulnerable American audience who can no longer differentiate between the truth about Arabs and the ludicrous depictions forced on them by filmmakers. The portrayal of Arabs has produced damage that is twofold. Adverse effects fall on the shoulders of every American é Arab and non Arab.
The general public harbors ill feelings towards Arabs. This has been most evident in the recent spurts of hate crimes and accounts of discrimination. Drawing from force fed stereotypes, there is an overall fear and resentment towards people of Arab descent.
“If negative images are constantly repeated in ALL aspects of media over and over again, and those are the only images people see, what are Americans supposed to walk away with?” comments Dr. Jack Shaheen. Shaheen is a long time expert on stereotypes in Hollywood and internationally acclaimed author of Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People and The TV Arab: Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture.
This has also shifted the stance on foreign policy, as Americans blindly endorse support for attacks on Arabs abroad. Encouraging a nation to hate, resent or dehumanize a group, forces the public to attach little value to the lives of those in that group.
With regard to Arab Americans, the damage inflicted by the media may be even more severe. There is a common sentiment within the Arab American community of bias against them. This bias stems from the media and how it has handled stories of the Middle East, quick to portray them as inherently negative.
Fighting stereotypes is an almost impossible daily battle. Some even shy away from or reject their heritage, in an attempt to blend into this new landscape where being Arab is an obvious downfall.
“One effect of stereotypes is to neutralize young people to not be proud of their heritage, to not be proud of their culture, and to some extent, that has proved successful,” says Shaheen.
Some Arab Americans become intimidated and afraid to speak their minds and voice their opinions. This brings about feelings of frustration, isolation and exclusion in a nation that boasts of being a melting pot of cultures. There is a hostility and concern about a seemingly anti-Arab US foreign policy.
“US foreign policy is on the side of the angel and anything that gets in the way is on the side of the devil,” Solomon.
Arabs have been accused of being anti-American for nothing more than defending their ethnicity.
“It’s a heavy burden, I would imagine, to be Arab American,” admits Solomon.
This media war has paved a very difficult and challenging road for every Arab American.