The seemingly incessant, and often distorted, media coverage in the United States concerning the Middle East is a matter that is surely deserving of attention. The present analysis will focus on a number of key phenomena, or occurrences, which are often most disturbing to Middle Eastern readers. Observations with respect to possible solutions and viable suggestions for improvement of the Arab image in the American press will also be offered.
One of the primary concerns among Arab readers of American press releases is that American journalists frequently misrepresent the viewpoints and perspectives of the countries they describe, notably when writing about Arab nations. This misrepresentation, which also affects media interpretation of Islamic events and activities, is largely due to the relative insularity, or isolation, of the American people. Similarly, American reporters, invariably non-Arabic speaking, are rarely stationed in Middle Eastern nations for any length of time and therefore do not develop an in-depth authentic perspective of Arab ‘reality.' It is also valuable to state that distortions in the press occur due to purposeful ethnic or religious differences.
To illustrate the foregoing assertions, let us examine several noteworthy instances of misrepresentations of Arab and Islamic culture in the American press. Images of wealthy Middle Eastern sheiks are plentiful in the American press, and often cast Arab leaders and executives in a shadowy or unethical light. During the days of early OPEC pricing negotiations, Middle Easterners were portrayed as avaricious and insensitive to the concerns and priorities of American businesses These corporations were, in contrast, depicted as honest and forthright institutions working on behalf of the American people and their values. Indeed, distortions occur even to this day in coverage of current events, whether they pertain to clothing, behavior or personal tastes. There are also cartoons or caricatures of Arabs which prevail in the popular press in the United States, many of which are frankly distasteful and offensive. They portray Arab symbols, such as minarets or Moorish arches (Kramer, 1993), within contexts which are sometimes discriminatory or reflective of biased interpretations of the Islamic Faith.
The truth of the matter is that Arabs dress ordinarily, do not parade about in royal robes or make hourly pronouncements concerning the price of oil. Daily life in the Middle East is, in fact, very much the way it is in North America, where concerns revolve around careers, food, housing and family life.
By way of an explanation of these unfair and often unwarranted opinions, it is necessary, as with any social phenomenon, to look toward the past. There is certainly an historical context for such poor media coverage. It seems to have started in the West during the days of World War II when Semitic peoples were the object of outright and blatant propaganda. It may be true that the Jewish people were generally singled out for discrimination, but the net effect of the Nazi ideological and racial assault against them created a precedent (Zogby, 1998). In today's press, as a result of the precedents set, few Middle Eastern political or financial figures are spared discriminatory treatment.
The recent War in Kosovo can be used as a valid example of one unfortunate outcome of such ethno-centrically edited portrayals in the media (Butt, 1999). While proportions have in no way reached these levels of hatred in the United States, there is an underlying danger that more than simple, subtle discrimination could result from such inflammatory media coverage. We might, therefore, ask how can any level of discrimination be overcome by simple "removal" of such material from the media? More is certainly involved. Attitudes must be modified; policies must be changed and stereotypes must be overturned. This takes time and effort, well beyond the media, but also through proper use of the media. There seem to be solutions available, yet considerable analysis of what directions must be taken is currently underway in academic and professional circles.
Luckily, within this context, there have been conferences at such institutions as Columbia University during which analysis of the apparent bias against Islamic customs and traditions in the American press has been minutely discussed (Kramer 1993). By proceeding with a series of such seminars and conferences at various locations throughout the United States, positive influence from within academic circles can be brought to bear on the now-distorted image of Moslems in the American press. Nonetheless, there are notes of caution which must be observed. By inflaming certain sensitive issues during these conferences, counter-productive results might also be mistakenly achieved. This apparently happened in the case of the Columbia conference, after which the FBI made a series of unexpected arrests. Unfortunately, the situation in the U.S. with respect to the Arab image and the American media is still in the developmental stages of uncertainty. However, it is important to realize that people change, images evolve and circumstances fluctuate. It is entirely possible that, with effort in political circles, throughout academia, and within journalistic institutions, improvements can be made in the public's perception of Moslem and Arab thinking. Indeed, change can occur from either end of this sociological spectrum (encompassing the full array of politics, universities, and media) and may well be promoted, firstly, through initiatives taken on the part of the media.
Briefly, therefore, it can be readily seen that potential solutions to anti-Arab perceptions in the US media can be achieved through joint efforts on the part of several segments of society. To progress beyond the hatred and discrimination that such bias creates, a special effort to undo the errors of the past must be made. Nothing can be achieved overnight; however, there is certainly hope that professional writers and reporters will begin to appreciate both the impact and the consequences of their inflammatory and rhetorical coverage of the Middle East.