‘Rediscovering’ Arab Americans

James Zogby’s Column

My children are fond of teasing me about my age.  They say, “it must be fun being 55 years old, because you get to meet new people every day.”

This is their not-so-subtle way of noting how often I forget the name and faces of their friends-which means that I have to be reintroduced to them many times before I remember who they are.

I used this little story two weeks ago at the opening of my remarks to a convention of newspaper editors and writers.  I had been asked to deliver the keynote address to their meeting.  My assigned topic was “Discovering Arab Americans”.

There is, in fact, enormous U.S. media interest in the Arab American community.  From the national networks to local TV stations and newspapers across the country, producers and reporters have been assigned to do stories about Arab Americans.  Since the overwhelming majority of these pieces have been very positive portraits of the community and have been most helpful in diffusing the backlash, the entire enterprise has been most gratifying.  Defeating negative stereotypes and helping Americans know us, as we really are, is, after all, what we have worked to achieve.

But it is also a little intriguing and even humorous, since this has become an old story.  In fact, every few years, especially when there is a crisis in the Middle East, the U.S. media “rediscovers” Arab Americans.

I say “intriguing” because I am continually struck by the fact that although I live in a society that appears to have unlimited access to information and the ability to get that information instantaneously, we all too often do not retain that information. 

News reporters, in particular, seem to be special victims of this phenomenon of “information overload”. 

One of the consequences of the impact of technology on information is that the average newscycle, that is the timespan of a news story’s release, has shrunk from 24 hours to 6 hours.  This means that when a reporter is writing a story, it has to be researched, written and filed quickly before it becomes outdated-that is, eclipsed by new developments.

One danger of having too much information available is that too little of it can be used or absorbed.  When writing a story, a reporter doesn’t want too much context-after all, they will say, a news story is not a dissertation.  All too often, the reporter settles on too little context, in which the only relevant background information included is what occurred yesterday, or what is generally accepted as “conventional wisdom” (or the prevailing prejudices) and, therefore, by definition, doesn’t “require too much explanation”.

One by-product of this “overload of information” and the rapid movement of stories and events is not only that reporting is frequently done without contexts, but that reporters and editors often forget their own stories after they’ve done them, and they fail to establish the connection between what they’ve already written and what they are currently writing.

A recent case in point.  Since the major occurrences of anthrax contamination took place in Washington, DC, The Washington Post has been covering the story daily.  A number of reporters have been assigned to cover different aspects of the story, from the infectious outbreaks to the treatment of Washingtonians with antibiotics.  Since the most common treatment prescribed has been a 60-day dose of Cipro-an extremely powerful antibiotic-there have been a number of stories on that drug.  It has been estimated that over 10,000 individuals were prescribed Cipro, mainly as a precaution, with an even larger number of people taking it on their own without a prescription.

The stories on Cipro that have appeared have focused on topics ranging from the impact of this crisis on the pharmaceutical company that makes the drug, to stories dealing with Cipro’s possible side affects.  Those side effects noted include possible gastrointestinal problems and a negative effect on the body’s immune system.

Ignored in all of this coverage is a potentially more devastating side effect.  Cipro has been found to produce dangerous levels of depression and anxiety in some individuals.  In fact, there are several reports of people on the drug committing suicide or having nervous breakdowns.

Where did I find out this information?  In a 1994 Washington Post feature article on Cipro.

What was, of course, distressing was that while I remembered the story, no one at the Washington Post did, and so there was no mention of this danger in any of the articles written over the last month.

Which brings me back to my original storyline.  Arab Americans are being discovered, or should I say being rediscovered, by the same papers and networks that have discovered us twice before in just the past decade.

As I speak to those assigned to do the story, they discover yet again the diversity of my community.  The fact that we are not a new ethnic group in America (we’ve been here for 120 years).  That most Arab Americans are not Muslims (in fact, only 20% are).  That most Arab Americans are not recent immigrants (in fact, almost 80% are born in the U.S.).  And that many Arab Americans have achieved prominence and acceptance in America (two proud Arab Americans, Spencer Abraham and Mitch Daniels, serve in President Bush’s cabinet, and Donna Shalala served in Bill Clinton’s cabinet).

Much of this comes as news to those reporting the story.  Many actually seem surprised to hear about the reality of the Arab American community.  Even though the story has been written before, and we might think “everyone knows it”, in fact, if it has not been retained, then it is a new story.

And so we have learned an important lesson; when speaking to the press, take nothing for granted.  Tell the story each time as if you are telling it for the first time-like my children reintroducing me to their friends.  And know that if you do not tell it all and tell it right, what will be reported will either be a partial story or a story grounded in the reporter’s prejudice, or limited by the reporter’s lack of information.

Because Arab Americans have been thorough and smart, for the most part we have succeeded in having our story told well.  It has been told often, but I believe that it is a good story. And a good story bears repeating.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.