There are anywhere between 3.5 and 5.1 million Americans of Arab descent, according to figures from the Arab American Institute, yet relatively few work in journalism full time. While meaningful estimates aren’t known, as journalism scholars that conduct demographic research in American newsrooms do not typically tally newsmakers of Arab descent, the National Arab American Journalists Association counts around 250 members, and half of those work for Arab American ethnic news organizations. (It should be said that the US government estimates upwards of two million Arab Americans, but the federal government essentially surrenders authority on this figure, as census forms in 2010 still categorized Arab Americans as white).
I recently published a survey in the Journal of Middle East Media of Arab American journalists’ levels of professional efficacy. I scoured news organizations and professional associations across the country for prospective Arab journalists to complete the survey. Ultimately, the survey was sent to around 240 or so Arab American newsmakers, and just under fifty completed the questionnaire.
Despite a large and growing number of Arab Americans—concentrated in major media markets like southern California, Detroit, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York City—Arabs remain underrepresented in US newsrooms.
Why? While anti-Arab discrimination may be a partial cause, I’m not persuaded that it is the primary contributor. In many US newsrooms, for example, having a reporter partially or wholly fluent in Arabic is an asset. Anti-Islamic discrimination may play a role as well but, likewise, I’m not convinced this is the chief deterrent of Arab American journalistic participation (most Arab Americans are Christian, anyway).
The primary impediments standing between Arab Americans and mainstream journalism, rather, are due to what journalism often represents in Arab countries.
Arabs in America are predominantly Egyptian, Palestinian, Lebanese, and Iraqi, and many immigrated or fled to the United States to escape violence or other forms of repression. They left countries in which political change via a free press and meaningful elections was not likely. Historically, journalism in Arab countries has not provided a middle class existence with any more than a semblance of prestige, but is rather a field of meager pay that operates at the pleasure of autocrats.
Traditional power in Arab countries has been obtained through economic success and family connections, not populist political mobility. It’s cliché in the Arab world, then, like chuckling that the male motorist in America doesn’t like asking for directions, to joke that Arabs intend for their children to study medicine or engineering, or perhaps become an entrepreneur.
Engineering, in this view, rather than reporting a government’s packaged news, leads to a better life. Arab Americans maintain a gripping emphasis on higher education in financially rewarding fields. This is why Arab Americans’ median income is around 10 percent higher than the rest of the country, and around 45 percent of all Arab Americans have a bachelor’s degree or higher, a figure that is just 28 percent for the rest of America.
I met a young Egyptian American woman years ago at the University of North Carolina who was both pre-med and studying journalism. When I asked if she wanted to be a medical reporter, she said, “Well, my parents certainly don’t want that.” “No?” I asked. “They’re Arab,” she said, “so, no.” They wanted her writing prescriptions, not news stories.
The same influences that encourage many Arabs into fields other than journalism also affect their participation in political service. Arab Americans have not historically been as politically active as some other ethnic groups in the United States.* Arab participation in American politics and journalism differs sharply from that of Jewish Americans. Many Jewish Americans also fled regimes oppressive of politics and press, of course, but they have the example in Israel of a country in which elections and journalism are forces for change. Despite its many laws stifling some forms of speech (some of them specifically written to curb Palestinians’ speech) and ongoing usurpation of Palestinian hills, Israel has had many elements of political and journalistic openness for over sixty years.
Like Arab Americans, Jewish citizens in the United States are financial and educational leaders, but the utility of political activism and journalistic participation is a better understood part of the Jewish ethos. (I also need to acknowledge that it is possible, of course, that Arabs can also be, and are, Jewish. Nothing defies categorizations like the peoples and politics that emerge from the Middle East.)
Arabs certainly aren’t unaware of the power of the press. As Neil Lewis recently pointed out in CJR, it is common for Arabs to complain that the US press is detrimentally and unjustifiably supportive of Israel (and also common for Jewish observers to claim the reverse—a reflex some journalism researchers have called the “hostile media phenomenon”). And, again, some Arab Americans do work for mainstream news organizations. Anthony Shadid, America’s most decorated foreign correspondent among the living, is of Arab descent. There are also scores of stellar journalists chipping at the boundaries of change in Arab countries.
Following the Arab spring and with the partial opening of press systems in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, it is possible that more Arab Americans will be encouraged to serve the public in journalism or politics, and I hope they do. America’s approach to world affairs would be better for it. For now, though, many Arabs don’t view journalism as one of the keys to a better life, and I can’t blame them.
Correction: This article originally included the following line: “There are just two Arab Americans serving in the US Congress, according to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, neither of which are in the Senate.” As it turns out, there are five Arab Americans in the US Congress: Justin Amash, Richard Hanna, Nick Rahall, Charles Boustany, and Darrell Issa. This means that over 1 percent of Congress is of Arab descent. (Arab Americans only comprise 0.5 percent of the total US population.) The line containing the incorrect statistic has been removed from the piece, rather than revised, because the point that the author was making doesn’t hold up under this new data; the spot of its removal has been marked with an asterisk. CJR regrets the error.