ARAB AMERICAN MEDIA (PP. 271-283)
By Kenneth K. Ayouby In Arab American Encyclopedia
Edited by Anan Ameri and Dawn Ramey
UXL (an imprint of the Gale Group), 2000. Detroit, MI. USA.
Before radio and television, people relied on newsprint for their information and entertainment. Newsprint includes newspapers, magazines, newsletters and other forms of printed material. Early on, people referred to the institutions that published newsprint as the Press. This term meant the business of producing newspapers and magazines designed to inform the public about issues of importance or concern. The art and craft of writing for the press, meaning the way information is gathered, organized and published, is called journalism. Benjamin Harris published the first American newspaper in Boston, in 1690. He called it, Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick. One of our national heroes, Benjamin Franklin, published the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729. So, we can see that journalism and the press are nearly as old as our modern American civilization.
The Founding Fathers of our country thought the press was a very important element of a free society. They believed that a free people must be able to obtain information which is not controlled by government so that the people can decide on their own about issues of the day. For that reason, when the Constitution of the United States (the basic rules under which our government operates) was amended, the press was guaranteed its freedom in the Bill of Rights, a set of changes that were added to the Constitution. This is why in the United States people are free to write about anything they want in the press so long as it is true and it does not give away any national secrets. Americans take freedom of the press very seriously, as a basic feature of their freedom of speech, but especially journalists, the men and women who make their living reporting the news.
Today, because of radio, television and, now, computers, the press has evolved to include these forms of news broadcasting and information dissemination. Not as often do we refer to news sources as the press; rather we call them the media, because they mediate between the newsmakers and the news consumers. Nowadays, newsprint and electronic sources of information are generally called the media. Obviously, the press relies on printing whereas the term “media” includes all types of information broadcasting, whether printed, digitized (such as newsgroups on the internet), or radio and broadcast television which make use of the airwaves, or cable and satellite.
Most American media make use of the English language, like your local newspaper or Time magazine or USA Today newspaper. Also, in electronic form, there are news broadcasts from local television stations or national ones like CNN or ABC and others, or Yahoo! on the internet. However, English is not the only language used in the media in the United States; in fact, there are many others like Spanish, Polish, Yiddish and Arabic among many more. The first Arabic language newspaper in the United States was founded in 1898. It was called Kawkab Amirka, or Star of America. It was published in New York by Najeeb Arbeely, one of the founding fathers of Arab American journalism in America. This chapter is the story of Arab American journalism, press and media, which, in 1998, celebrated their centennial, that is, one hundred years since their birth.
The Early Arabic Press
The need for Arab American media originated in the trauma of immigration and the need of early Arab Americans to deal with the problems of adjusting to the culture of the United States. Arab American pioneers in journalism founded their newspapers for two major reasons. First, to assist other Arab immigrants in the process of integration into the social, economic and political life of their new country, and, second, to maintain a sense of who they are by focusing on issues that are important to Arabs in America. Later, forms of community media continue to serve similar functions to various degrees.
The early Arab immigrants largely came from what is called Greater Syria. They identified themselves in terms of the villages, towns and cities they came from more so than any other identification. As a result, their publications reflected the concerns of the sub-communities to which the presses belonged. These sub-communities found their boundaries along religious lines. Thus, there were publications representing the views of the eastern Catholics, the Orthodox Christians, the Druze community as well as the smaller Muslim community.
Najeeb Arbeely founded the first Arabic newspaper in New York City in 1892. Kawkab Amirka consisted of one English and three Arabic pages whose focus was local community and homeland news. Al-Huda (the Guidance) soon followed in the same year. It was published by brothers Na’ uum and Salloum Moukarzil. Not long after, another newspaper was published: it was called Al-Bayan (the Explanation). Why did the first Arabic papers publish in New York City? The reason is because, like many other immigrants, New York was their gate to America, and Arab immigrants established a mother colony there from which many and their descendants relocated to elsewhere.
Providing for similar needs, many other publications followed the three pioneering newspapers so much so that, by 1907 twenty-one newspapers were established in New York City, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Lawrence, Massachusetts. The numbers grew even to fifty by 1930. However, the size of the community could not support such a large number of publications, which placed their continuity in jeopardy. The reason for this large number of publications can be attributed to the fact that each small community, regardless of its origins, religious affiliation or political leanings, had a news outlet serving its particular needs. What is more, the old Arabic press heavily favored cultural assimilation and Americanization to the degree that it did not strongly promote the maintenance of Arabic and as a consequence began to lose its readership through natural and political causes. The early Arabic press soon began to decline because members of the community who could read Arabic were dying, while new U.S. immigration laws restricted the flow of new Arabic readers. The new Arab Americans could not read Arabic even though many still had a connection to their ancestral culture. To that end, the Syrian World was founded in 1926 to meet the challenge of connecting the new generation with the Old Country.
Origins of the Contemporary Press
In the years following the Second World War (1939-1945), many Arabs came to the United States as immigration laws were changed. The new immigrants were in the main Muslim (believers in Islam) and pan-Arab (nationalists who believed in Arab unity and solidarity). These new comers felt that the mainstream American press did not represent their concerns and looked toward the Arabic press as a source of unbiased news about the Arab world (particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict) and their situation in this country. Also, descendants of the older community who felt connected to their ancestral homelands needed a press that could communicate to them in English. As a result, the new press tended to be bilingual and to focus on national Arab and Arab American issues. This phenomenon reached its zenith in the early 1980s, coinciding with the rise of a national Arab American identity whose mark is cultural awareness and pride in ethnicity. The new demands on the press revived Arab newsprint and paved the way for other forms of media later in the century. The publishers and editors of the new press worked to develop Arab American community solidarity by providing information through a bilingual (English/Arabic) format-- a necessary measure for opinion formation and group mobilization.
Nowadays, every area of major Arab American presence in the country has the benefit of a newspaper or magazine. Southern California has Beirut Times (a news-oriented publication published by Michel Bou Abssi), Al-Jadid, a quarterly newspaper published by Elie Chalala, and is devoted to culture and the arts. The News Circle, a magazine established by Joseph Haiek in 1972 to serve the information needs of that growing community. Along with covering Arab American affairs, the magazine offers a wide variety of publications, including books and the Arab American Almanac, a national guide on the community. In Detroit, Michigan, where the largest Arab American population is said to live, many newspapers and magazines can be found. One of the oldest newspapers there, Sada al-Watan (the Homeland’s Echo, founded in 1984) is a national tabloid that focuses on political news. Its publisher, Osama Siblani, is a frequent guest on national news programs, serving as an analyst and commentator on issues pertaining to the Middle East. Detroit Chaldean Times (founded by Amir Denha in the early nineties) is a local outlet, serving the Chaldean sub-community in metropolitan Detroit. The newest addition to the world of newspapers in Detroit is the Arab American Journal (founded in 1997 by Nuhad El-Hajj and Mohamad Ozeir) to deal with issues of national concern from the perspective of Arab Americans in Detroit and Southern California. In Washington, D.C., Arab American media presence is also strong. The national capital region boasts of several newsprint outlets: Al-Nashra (The Report), a monthly newspaper published by Hikmat Beaini, and Al-Hewar (Dialog) magazine, founded by Subhi Ghandour in the late eighties to address the national community’s concerns in the capital. In Chicago, where there is a major Arab American population, Al-Bostaan (The Orchard) is edited by Ghassan Barakat and is dedicated to local news. Another two newspapers in Illinois are Al-mahjar (The Diaspora) which is published by Khaled Damisi in Burbank, and Al-Ufuq al-Arabi in Bedford Park. In Clifton, New Jersey, we have Al-itidal (Moderation), edited by Abdalla Tahan, and Phoenicia Newspaper (published by Ali Ballout) in Princeton, Florida. Of course, the previous account of the available newspapers in the country is not exhaustive—it is a sam.
The history of Arab American electronic media is linked to technological developments in that area. As in the mainstream media, Arab American radio broadcasting preceded all other forms. As early as the 1960s and across the nation where Arab Americans lived, there were Arabic language radio programs on ethnic radio stations devoted to informing and entertaining members of the community. The format of such programs followed a certain prescribed course of music entertainment, some voice plays, news and commentary. Some programs were bilingual and fewer still were in English only. Perhaps, Detroit was and remains to be the largest Arab American market for radio broadcasting. Since the sixties, Detroit has had strong and continuous Arabic language radio programming. The Arab Voice in Detroit, the best known and longest running show of its genre, began its broadcasting in the mid-sixties and ceased production in the early nineties, when its producer and media pioneer Faisal Arabo retired. Arabo also explored the medium of television late in the seventies. He developed a show of the same name and was aired on WGPR in Detroit, an independent TV station. The program was a weekly show of a few hours on Saturday and represented the most successful attempt of its kind at the time. Another show, Middle East Television, was produced by Gregory Mitri in the eighties and early nineties and was aired on the same channel. Both shows went off the air when the TV station was bought out by CBS in the Detroit market.
Although regular “air-broadcasting” was on the way out, the new cable technology allowed for locally originated programming to flourish. Again in the Detroit area, the suburb of Dearborn, where twenty percent of that city’s population is of Arab background, the local ethnic origination channel boasted of a full line-up of Arabic language, locally-produced shows. TV Orient began airing in 1987 the first syndicated cable show in the area that was telecasted on a nightly basis by several major local cable companies. These shows followed the same format as radio broadcasting: news, views, entertainment and commentary plus the visual element. Arab American TV producers were met with success, according to scene observers, because the medium naturally appealed to Arabic and to Arab American English speakers, regardless of competence in either language. That is very much different from the demands of newsprint where reading competence is a necessary ingredient for the success of a newsprint outlet.
Arab Network in America and Other Networks
The creation of the Arab Network of America (ANA) in the late eighties revolutionized the Arab American world of media and mass communication. ANA is a national-level broadcaster and cable-caster, which covers not only the United States but also Canada and parts of central and South America. It’s creation marked a giant leap for Arab Americans in media, from little steps taken at the local ethnic origination cable-casting to a transcontinental and fully professional network. ANA began its operation as a radio broadcaster, centered in the vicinity of Washington, D.C., in 1988. Later, ANA TV was inaugurated in 1991. Both ANA Radio and Television represent a major breakthrough for Arab Americans in the area of binding them, presenting and reflecting their issues, entertaining and informing while helping in forging a national community aware of itself and its assets. The ANA signal covers all the areas of Arab American presence through local cable systems or direct satellite broadcasting. ANA Radio is syndicated in major U. S. cities, such as Detroit, Chicago, Houston and others.
Another broadcaster of Arabic radio programming is the government of the United States. The Voice of America, which is a part of the United States Information Agency, broadcasts in many world languages, including Arabic, which is signaled to the Arab world countries. The VOA broadcast can be picked-up by short wave radio, meaning sets which can pick-up certain types of radio waves.
Today, the internet is a major source of information dissemination. Along with the mainstream of websites and search engines, there are those devoted to serving the Arab American community. The first Arab American internet service provider is Visitus.net, a Dearborn, Michigan company whose website offers Arab-related links. Another interesting innovation on the internet is the creation of the first electronic community newspaper, the Arab American Mirror, edited by Adham Rashidi. The “paper” can be viewed at www.alif.com/mirror. What is more, the chat rooms that are available on the internet represent a form of media communications. There are several Arab American-related “chat –rooms”, which can be visited at www.ArabChat.com and www.Arabic-words.com . Currently, visitus.net is planning to add a server for chatting and similar communications.
Film, Video and Theater
Before the advent of the now common video cassette recorder (VCR), some enterprising community individuals experimented with the idea of exhibiting Arabic language movies at movie houses by special arrangement. The practice was generally successful given that the mass audience was not large enough to maintain an enterprise of this kind. The success of these special shows depended on nostalgia, the longing of Arab immigrants for scenes of Arab life on the silver screen. The growth of the Arab American population in the seventies and eighties, which gave rise to the success of radio and TV broadcasting, also promoted the growth of video-renting establishments where Arab concentrations existed. Renting and buying Arabic films is now a big business.
In the early nineties, Arab Film Distribution, a film library company, was established to promote and provide to American and Canadian theaters, universities, museums, and media centers and outlets with good Arab films. The company, which grew out of the Arab Film Festival at the 1990 Goodwill Arts Games in Seattle, also provides films on video for private home use. Theater is also an area of Arab American interest. In the main, it is the enterprise of amateurs and semi-professionals, and it can be found in places where a population can support these shows through attendance. Again, the Detroit area can boast of an active community theater. The Arab Theatrical Arts Guild is one example of a theater group working to bring the Arab American experience and sensibility to the stage.
Community media systems are created in order to facilitate communication and the flow of information and entertainment in a community. Media outlets not only service their communities; the overall needs of the communities they serve and the overall trends of American life impact them. The basic purpose of community media is to inform the audience about issues and events, as well as to provide entertainment for the public. Moreover, media operators serve the economic base of the community through advertising by promoting local and Arab American businesses. In turn, advertising brings in revenues that sustain operations for these media outlets. Also, the provision of information and entertainment augments the information function of the mainstream media. However, one of the most important responsibilities of the Arab American media is to serve as “watchdogs” of community organizations in order to protect the community’s interest by informing on what goes on in the public arena. In essence, the media in the Arab American community are used for diversion and entertainment as well as for their informative functions. In short, the media serve to keep the community connected to all its parts, to the ancestral culture, and to the issues that concern its members. Also, the community media are used to promote group solidarity and unity to be effective as a political bloc or as a pressure group. To that end, mobilization, meaning active organizing to achieve a certain goal, can be facilitated through the involvement, presence and pressure of the media.