Arabs and Muslims have an image problem in media and entertainment as a result of a pro-Israel political agenda. So claimed Edmund Ghareeb and Jack Shaheen, professors at American and New York Universities, respectively, on June 11, 2014, before an audience of forty middle-aged individuals at Washington, D.C. Jerusalem Fund think tank.
Ghareeb and Shaheen's presentation, "Portraying Arabs: 30 Years Later," commemorated their respective 1984 publications, Split Vision: The Portrayal of Arabs in the American Media and The TV Arab. Drawing upon personal experiences, Ghareeb decried a "lack of balance" in Middle East news coverage in Israel's favor, although groups such as CAMERA and Honest Reporting routinely demonstrate the reverse. According to Ghareeb, this allegedly biased media stereotyping "dehumanizes a people" and "allows for the use of force" against Arabs.
As evidence for this dubious claim, Ghareeb relied upon equally dubious sources such as Senator William Fulbright, who announced on television in 1973 that "Israel controls the United States Senate" and later became a registered lobbyist for Saudi Arabia. Ghareeb also praised the reporting of Peter Jennings as an isolated example of balanced Middle East coverage and labeled Orientalism author Edward Said an "important figure" for writing, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World. He then cited Muhammad Hassanein Heikal, longtime editor of Egypt's semiofficial Al Ahram newspaper and government minister under Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser, two individuals who inspired little confidence.
Shaheen began his presentation by recounting how, in 1974, his children told him about "bad Arabs on television," prompting him to study Arabs and Muslims in popular entertainment. For his interest in this subject, Shaheen claimed he was "tagged the Arab professor" and had his research dismissed as "not academic; it's propaganda." A Rockford Files producer, meanwhile, allegedly rejected his interview request with the statement, "I hate Arabs."
Hollywood prejudice has now "spread its wings" from Arab Muslims to Muslims in general. Shaheen claimed, noting in a subsequent article on the event that "Islamophobia [has] joined Arabophobia." He objected to headlines involving "Islamist extremists" in stories where Islam is not a factor, although he neglected to provide any examples. He did concede that, when pertinent, religion "should be part of the story."
Shaheen alleged that "people who have a political agenda" play a significant role in creating such stereotypes, while entertainment involving an "Israeli connection" is "pervasive." Eight seasons of the television crime show NCIS, he noted, featured American intelligence cooperation with an Israeli Mossad agent, not with a Palestinian or Yemeni agent. Yet despite CIA cooperation with Palestinian and Yemeni agents, American ties with Israel are clearly much stronger and mention of them in a TV show involving spies simply reflects reality. Vaguely referenced "friends of Israel" in the media are "much more influential, powerful," than their opponents, Ghareeb added conspiratorially.
After the event, this reporter asked whether there was an analogy with consistently negative portrayals of Germans, given their authoritarian and aggressive past. Shaheen called this a "totally different issue." He then reiterated his 2002 Nightline comments that Americans "were at war with a country" in the World Wars and not with Islam's supposedly "lunatic fringe, al-Qaeda." Yet decades-long conflict with various Islamic terrorist organizations and dictatorial regimes is hardly a "fringe" phenomenon.
Undeniably, Hollywood's dream factory and the media can stand more realism, but Shaheen and Ghareeb's often cartoonish views condemning a supposed pro-Israel political agenda offer little benefit. Substantial evidence of anti-Israel media bias, however, does exist, and despite Ghareeb and Shaheen's dubious sources and wishful thinking, art does, in fact, imitate life when it depicts violence among Arabs and other Muslims. Ignoring these facts in deference to the professors' fantasies would be the real fiction.
Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project; follow him on twitter at @AEHarrod. He wrote this essay for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.