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Rounding out portrayals of Arabs and Muslims in the news

Whenever pressure mounts on the American press to be more responsible, my reflex is to consult an ancient guide for wisdom.

Published in 1947, “A Free and Responsible Press” is the work of a World War II-era commission, sponsored by Time magazine founder Henry Luce and led by Robert M. Hutchins, perhaps the leading intellectual of his day.

Its formal name is “Report of the Commission on Freedom of the Press,” but its popular name is the Hutchins Commission Report. It’s a thin text of 140 pages. It includes a summary of five years of public hearings with participation by top scholars, including Archibald MacLeish, Arthur M. Schlesinger and Reinhold Niebuhr.

Its main thesis is that support for a free press is fragile, especially in the immediate aftermath of World War II government censorship, and that malpractice by the press undermines its freedoms. If the press, defined as newspapers, radio, books and motion pictures, does not police itself, others will step in to do the job.

Because the commission comprised eggheads from philosophy departments, its findings were easily dismissed, including by such journalism organizations as ASNE. But many say Hutchins and his team helped create the social responsibility theory of the press, their report a kind of charter for future work in journalism ethics.

As we consider contemporary attacks upon the press — from both citizens and governments — we can learn from a look at the past. This footnote appears on page 27 of the report:

A striking indication of the continuous need to renew the basic values of our society is given in the recent poll of public opinion by the National Opinion Research Center at Denver, in which one out of every three persons polled did not think the newspaper should be allowed to criticize the American form of government, even in peacetime. Only 57 percent thought that the Socialist party should be allowed, in peacetime, to publish newspapers in the United States. Another poll revealed that less than a fourth of those questioned had a ‘reasonably accurate idea’ of what the Bill of Rights is. Here is widespread ignorance with regard to the value most cherished by the press — its own freedom — which seem only dimly understood by many of its consumers.

So what are the “requirements” for a free and socially responsible press? A chapter lists five of them:

  • A truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning.
  • A forum for the exchange of comment and criticism.
  • The projection of a representative picture of the constituent groups in the society.
  • The presentation and clarification of the goals and values of the society.
  • Full access to the day’s intelligence.

These headlines are followed by persuasive prescriptions and examples.

One of them provides the key to understanding a problem — I am tempted to call it a failure — of the American media (both journalism and entertainment). If there is widespread distrust of Muslim and Arab Americans, it is generated, in part, by the narrow contexts in which Muslims and Arabs appear. That persistent context is obviously terrorism.

Let’s take “Homeland,” a popular TV show from Showtime that shows American spies (played by Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin) in constant struggle against Jihadists from the Middle East.

To its credit, there are good and noble Arabs and Muslims. Some are spies and soldiers. Others are victims of terrorism and other forms of sectarian violence. Whatever the content of their character, the only reason they are visible to us is that they are caught up in the web of evildoers.

We once faced the same issue with the portrayal of African Americans and other minorities. If they came from the world of sports or entertainment, we might see their faces and hear their words. Otherwise, they were represented (and pictured) as:

  • Criminals
  • Family members of criminals
  • Victims or family members of victims.

As W.E.B. DuBois so wisely described it, their presence in mainstream America was always as a “problem” the country had to solve. “How does it feel,” he asked his brothers and sisters, “to be a problem?”

He posed that question in 1903. More than a century later, a new American president condemns the “carnage” of the “inner cities” — a code word for Black on Black crime. He has trouble describing any place where Black people live without blowing this kind of dog whistle. Not only are Black persons problems, but now they live in an abattoir.

The American media has done a much better job in recent years of representing African-, Hispanic-, and Asian- Americans as threads of the national fabric. This cannot be said of the representation of Arabs and Muslims. Many Americans have been conditioned to see an image of a young woman wearing a hijab, or a man prostrate on a prayer rug, and immediately think of terrorism.

So what would fair and responsible coverage look like?

On this issue, Hutchins and his pals get it just right. I quote the relevant passage here — and remember, this was written at the end of World War II:

Responsible performance here simply means that the images repeated and emphasized be such as are in total representative of the social group as it is. The truth about any social group, though it should not exclude its weaknesses and vices, includes also recognition of its values, its aspirations, and its common humanity. The commission holds to the faith that if people are exposed to the inner truth of the life of a particular group, they will gradually build up respect for and understand of it.

I believe every newsroom in America should reflect on their content as it describes or involves Arabs and Muslims, both here and abroad. Look for examples that depict them in everyday jobs and concerns.

If you cannot find such examples, or don’t know how to find them, it may be time to flip the switch. Until we see Arabs and Muslims working with us in the newsrooms, playing beside us on the soccer fields, dispensing our medicines in the pharmacies, we won’t have a prayer of achieving the kind of tolerance and understanding that will lead us to the place where America deserves to be.

(via Poynter)