Arab-American Media Still Battered by 9/11
Arab Americans are in an unprecedented media spotlight following the events of 9/11, the war on terror and the fall of Baghdad. But even as reporters and marketers search for information about Arab Americans, many publications created by and for the community are struggling to survive. "Sept. 11 did not just destroy the Twin Towers. It took us down as well," says Nouhad Elhajj, whose Detroit, Mich. bi-weekly Arab American Journal eventually folded in 2002.
With the demise of the journal, the Arab American community lost an important gateway into America. Elhajj feels that the post-9/11 interest in all things Muslim spawned more seminars and interfaith meetings but little advertising. His ad revenues fell 35 percent in the four weeks following Sept. 11, 2001. The trend never reversed.
It is, of course, hard to distinguish between those who pulled their ads because of a general economic malaise and those who refused to advertise in Arab media specifically. "But when people who have advertised for several years stop returning calls or meeting face to face, you get the message," says Elhajj.
Like most ethnic media in the United States, Arab media, whether published in English or Arabic, subsist on a mix of advertising from local mom-and-pop businesses and major corporations like AT&T and Albertson's.
Though Arab-owned businesses have provided the bulk of Arab media advertising revenue, 9/11 made them step back as well, says Wassim Bruno Kalifa, editor-in-chief of At-Turath / An-Nahar in Whittier, Calif. "People want to keep a low profile," Kalifa says. "No one wants a stone thrown in their restaurant window."
When Massachusetts high-tech company Akamai Technologies recently declined to help Arab news channel Al-Jazeera deal with hacker attacks, Al-Jazeera ascribed it to "political pressure."
But Kalifa says Arab media would be fooling themselves to think the discrimination started with 9/11. "This has been a problem from the beginning," says Kalifa. He ticks off a list of California public health campaigns he claims neglected Arab media. "Arabs are heavy chain smokers, but we did not see a cent from the millions of dollars spent on tobacco education," he says. He has plenty of big-ticket items to add to the list -- breast cancer prevention, a bone health campaign, MediCal and the Healthy Families Program.
"We will never have enough money to serve all the different groups out there," says Colleen Stevens, chief of the media campaign for the Tobacco Control Sector at California's Department of Health Services. Faced with budget cuts of up to 60 percent, Stevens says her department has become even more stringent in its choices. "We are looking not just at populations, but also whether they can speak English. We heavily target those who cannot."
Many of the agencies that specialize in garnering ads for Asian businesses focus on East and South East Asian media, leaving Arab papers out in the cold. Greg Chew, creative director of DAE Advertising, a leading Asian-American advertising agency, admits that Arab Americans are much lower on the priority list for major corporations, who earmark their marketing dollars for large Asian populations such as Chinese Americans. "Arab media need to make more noise, attend conferences, panels, and get on the radar," Chew says. "For years, gay and lesbian markets were untouchable. Now they are looped in."
As times get tougher, Kalifa predicts Arab media will have to invest in standard marketing procedures such as getting their circulations verified. "We can challenge discrimination, but only with proper data," Kalifa says. "We have to get our house in order so people cannot use excuses like, 'Your circulation is based on hearsay.'"
Even in lean times, some Arab publications have chosen advertising carefully. "We turned away ads from organizations like the NSA (National Security Agency) because we did not want to be perceived as lackeys of an administration whose policies are viewed by so many as anti-Arab and anti-Muslim," says Nidal Ibrahim, who publishes the Arab American Business Magazine out of Huntington Beach, Calif.
Ibrahim's English-language journal has lost several advertisers in the past year. He speculates that media that publish or broadcast in Arabic are harder hit than English-language Arab American media. "If I were an advertiser, it would make me a little apprehensive if I didn't know what the publication was saying," Ibrahim says.
Some still say they can turn the new interest in Muslims into a commercially viable business enterprise. New York-based Bridges Network, Inc., announced in April it would launch Bridges TV, the first-ever nationwide English-language Muslim television channel. In its inaugural press release, Omar Amanat, founder of an Internet brokerage firm that is spearheading the venture, said, "I realized that the only way to undo misconceptions was to create our own media forum." The company has netted 1 million dollars in seed capital from investors and is trying to gather 10,000 paying members to demonstrate its market.
Elhajj says anything that combats stigma and stereotypes is welcome. But he does not expect things will improve for Arab American publications in the near future. "Who will advertise in a small Arab American community paper while Arabs and Muslims are the enemy?" he asks.
Sandip Roy is host of "Upfront" -- the Pacific News Service weekly radio program on KALW-FM, San Francisco.