A journalist recalls an atmosphere of ignorance and bigotry
To mark that momentous day in April when invading U.S. forces captured the Iraqi capital, my boss, second-in-command at a major cable news network, decided to buy his staff lunch.
“Pizza and Salad,” he announced in an email to the newsroom, while on our air jubilant Iraqis hacked away at a statue of Saddam Hussein. The occasion?
“To celebrate the fall of Baghdad.”
Producers and reporters, tense after weeks of covering an action-packed military campaign, were delighted. As the only Arab at my network, and one of the few employees critical of the war, I cringed at the thought of celebrating the military defeat of a virtually helpless nation.
But I consider myself a journalist first and an Arab second, and I was dismayed that my superiors did not even try to feign objectivity. It was a newsroom where people had little understanding of what journalism is all about, and saw nothing wrong with taking sides.
I spoke up, as I had many times before, and as usual was brushed off with a facile appeasement. I already had the reputation of being a radical leftie foreigner who spoke funny- sounding languages and frequently questioned the veracity of White House statements. I was also affectionately nicknamed “terrorist” by colleagues who once asked why I used the English word “package” while on the phone to my parents in Egypt.
Somehow, after years of obliviously traipsing from one diverse workplace to the next, I found myself in a racist and homophobic environment hostile to all things outside the mainstream. Could this be where people on five continents get their news?
“Nobody will know the difference”
When I first started working at the channel in the spring of 1999, I was shocked. At a network with more international coverage than most, I heard comments like “Why do we have to see the Hang Seng [stock index]? Who cares about Asia?” from one of our main anchors, and “What do you expect, he’s African” when a star reporter complained to his producer about a poor interview with one guest.
Tim was made fun of for wearing a pink “fag shirt,” Anna faced jokes about Taco Bell because she was Dominican, and, when the occasion presented itself, loud howls rippled through the office at the sight of “disgusting” midgets on the Jerry Springer Show. The list is long, and few minorities were spared. Those of us on the receiving end felt powerless, and sometimes commiserated with each other. Don’t get me wrong; we were not maliciously targeted. It was just an atmosphere of ignorance and bigotry.
It might have been tolerable if the bigotry was contained in the newsroom. But day after day, those attitudes made it on the air. Foreign guests were discouraged, especially those with difficult names or accents. Having on too many Democrats angered one of our reporters, so we tried to stick with Republicans. Producers frequently banned “ugly” people, especially women. Middle East experts more often than not were pro-Israeli; pro-Palestinians were attacked on the air by the anchor of my show and therefore avoided by the producer, who wanted to spare himself a headache. And this was not even a politically opinionated talk- show; it was a financial program that claimed non-partisanship.
Some would argue the network intentionally spun the news, scheming to manipulate viewers. But usually, decisions were made on the basis of what was quickest, caused the least amount of resistance and boosted ratings. As a result, facts in stories were often changed, context eliminated and statements made up.
“It’s OK, nobody will know the difference,” one of the producers who trained me once said, when I resisted a change he had made to a source’s statement in my script. He was right— the change was minor; and the audience would never have known. But it altered the content of what my source had said, and I wasn’t about to tamper with the truth. When he left I changed it back to the original wording, but it was a tiny victory in a battle I had no hope of winning.
It didn’t take long for me to realize I worked in the wrong place, but I decided to stick it out. For the sake of survival, I ignored my surroundings as best I could, and tried to get the most out of my experience.
Then came September 11.
“Let’s just nuke everyone”
In the days that followed, as more information about the hijackers, Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda trickled down, anger with Arabs and Muslims began to boil up in many of my colleagues.
I kept a low profile and tried not to provoke anybody into saying something that would hurt. It was bad enough that John, who sat across from me, tightened his fist when footage from the Middle East flashed across the screen, blurting out “let’s kill them all,” “let’s get those fuckers” and “let’s just nuke everyone.”
It wasn’t just anger; the fallout from September 11 revealed new layers of ignorance from those who were in charge of daily programming.
“What’s all this about? Why are they fighting?” one of my colleagues exclaimed, exasperated one day after a spate of Palestinian suicide bombings. This from a native Manhattanite with a master’s in broadcast journalism from Columbia University. It’s not that she didn’t understand that there was a territorial dispute over Israel; she just didn’t know why the dispute existed. “I mean, if there was no one on that land, and the Israelis just took it, what’s the big deal?” she asked.
Her boss, one of the people who rarely strays far from his home state, in this case New Jersey, but who seemed to have a fairly solid grip on the history of the region, tried to explain the situation to her. Still, she couldn’t understand and in the end, he simplified it.
“You see this tie?” he asked, grabbing hold of the one knotted loosely around his neck. “It’s like this tie. Let’s say you want it, and I want it. We both want it. That’s basically what it’s about,” he explained. It was clear she still didn’t understand, and she nodded uncertainly and went back to writing scripts for the afternoon shows.
“Change the system from within”
As time went by, I felt more comfortable about my position as an Arab and a Muslim in the newsroom, and less afraid to provoke.
I told John it amounted to racism when his mother, a nurse, reported a Middle Eastern patient to the FBI just because he arrived for his appointment holding a “suspiciously” marked map of New Jersey. I told Gina it wasn’t funny to call me a terrorist. I argued more persistently about our criteria for choosing guests, and sometimes I prevailed. I tried to write provocative scripts that didn’t treat government statements as undisputed fact.
At the end of last year, as it became increasingly clear the U.S. was going to attack Iraq, I stepped up my efforts to make sure different voices from the debate were represented on our air. And while I was able to guarantee some form of diversity during my show, my efforts were nothing in the grand scheme of things. When I looked around, the mostly one-sided coverage on the other shows and networks depressed me, and I felt a crushing sense of futility. After swimming against the current for three years, I was worn out. I knew I had to leave, and give up any aspirations to work in mainstream television news.
In early March, I started planning my exit. I went home to Egypt for the first three weeks of the war, so I wouldn’t have to participate in the “patriotic” cheerleading at work. When I came back, I spent a few weeks preparing for a new career as a freelance writer, and then gave my notice.
It has been suggested to me that I betrayed my ideals and duty as a journalist by leaving a place where I could have made a difference. “You were in a perfect spot to change the system from within,” some argued. There was a time when I would have agreed, but I now know it takes more than the passion of a single journalist to tackle the ills of television news.
Manal Ismail is the pseudonym of a journalist who worked at a national cable news network. The names of her colleagues have also been changed.