Mentally, We’re Back in Ramallah

“We’re right in their faces, and they look past us like we’re ghosts,” Ray Hanania was saying. “The only time people will listen to us is if we go to the airport and yell ‘bomb!'”

Hanania had called to vent. The National Arab Journalists Association, which he heads, held a weekend conference earlier this month at the Radisson O’Hare, and it didn’t get ink. By other measures it succeeded, but the mainline dailies didn’t cover it, even though their own people were on some of the panels. This shouldn’t have surprised Hanania, and probably didn’t–journalists don’t like to cover journalists, especially themselves; and no one would accuse Hanania, once the Sun-Times’s City Hall reporter, of not understanding how things work.

“Every day there are conferences, meetings, and conventions in Chicago, and the vast majority of them never get news coverage,” says Steve Huntley, who heads the editorial board of the Sun-Times and spoke at the conference.

Hanania knows this is true but he was mad anyway. “I’d like to look at society and see a reflection of us,” he told me. “I feel like I’m a vampire. If you don’t see yourself in the news media, do you exist?”

I hadn’t made it to the conference (and was feeling bad about that), so I asked him to tell me what happened.

He said about 125 Arab-American journalists showed up, about 30 of whom work for mainstream media. Three local radio stations were represented–stations “probably no one’s ever heard of.” And maybe 50 or 60 people from Chicago’s Arab community participated. It’s a community, according to Hanania, whose own heritage is Palestinian, that’s known nothing about the art of self-promotion. “If you ask them if they ever use the PR wire to send a press release, 95 percent will tell you they don’t even know what that is.” If they have something to say, they think they’ve got to say it in the New York Times. “I said, ‘No, you don’t. You’ve got to get it in the Southtown and the Daily Herald and the Reader.'”

One panel was composed of a delegation from the Tribune, which has been catching serious heat from Jewish readers who believe its Middle East coverage betrays a pro-Palestinian bias. All the more reason, Jewish leaders believe, to maintain personal relationships with Tribune reporters and editors. Arab readers aren’t as sophisticated. If, in their view, the Sun-Times has nothing to offer Palestinians but a nonstop pounding, then the paper’s a candidate for dismissal rather than cultivation. “I don’t think that Chicago Muslims are in contact with us anywhere near to the extent that Jews are with the Tribune,” Huntley E-mailed me after the conference. But largely because the Sun-Times seemed so alien and hostile, Huntley, who writes the Middle East editorials, won points simply for showing up.

“I think the thrust of most of our editorials about the Mideast situation depicts the problem with the Palestinians as one of failed leadership,” his E-mail went on, “not only from Arafat, but also from the Arab nations that have left Palestinians to rot in refugee camps, to in effect serve as cannon fodder for the Arab world’s unrelenting rejectionist campaign against Israel.”

Huntley sat on a panel whose nominal topic was news coverage after September 11. “I went to the conference prepared to talk about the paper’s editorial position, but I don’t recall being asked about it,” he told me. “Several references were made to it, but no one got up and asked for an explanation of the Sun-Times position on Israel.

“Much of the discussion centered on their complaints about bias in the news media against Muslims, about how Muslims and the Muslim world are treated in news stories. For instance, there were complaints about the use of specific words such as ‘retaliation,’ ‘militant,’ and ‘terrorist.’ I told them that I had heard those same kinds of complaints about news media bias from Jewish groups.”

(The Tribune is so accustomed to being accused of biased nomenclature that public editor Don Wycliff took up the subject in a March 21 column. “We know it when we see it,” he wrote of terrorism. “Clearly we saw it on Sept. 11.” Wycliff didn’t really disagree with Jewish critics–or Arab critics–who say the Tribune sees terrorism only when Americans suffer. “Our perspective is inescapably American,” he wrote, “which is to say it is not identical to that of any of the contending parties. To faithfully report and interpret the events [in the Middle East] for our American readers, we must refrain from consistently labeling either party as terrorists, because to do so is, in effect, to declare it illegitimate.”)

Hanania thought Huntley, whom he’s known for years, handled himself well. “When you get to know these editors a little bit better, you realize they’re not the bad people you ascribe them to be from reading their stories,” he told me. “He sits on a panel, and he defends his paper’s opinions, but he’s a little more reasoned–you could go up and talk to him and he won’t bite your head off. That’s the level of animosity that exists in our community–you’re either a monster or not a monster.”

I asked if Huntley had disavowed anything his paper had published.

“Not really,” said Hanania. “It was his tone. He was understanding. He listened. You’d think going in, this guy hates you, because you read the editorials and the editorials hate you and so you think, ‘Gee, the guy in charge must hate you too.’ And then you find out when you’re talking to him he’s just a typical person. He’s a nice person. He has a life outside Middle East issues. These are things you don’t see when you read an editorial that calls you a murderous terrorist.”

Anyway, said Hanania, “We’re not going to be screaming at the Sun-Times as much as we have been.”

A point made at the conference, he said, was that Arab-Americans need to understand where they are. “We’ve got to stop living like we’re still living in the West Bank–because we have people here who are physically living in Chicago, but they’re mentally back in Ramallah. They pay taxes, go to work, watch Everybody Loves Raymond, but when it comes to the Middle East they revert back to the Middle East mentality where you’re under siege. They don’t realize this country’s a different kind of country from the occupied West Bank or Jordan. The media’s not government controlled here.

“We have to be involved in our society as Americans. We have seven Arab newspapers in Chicago, six of them in the Arab language. They’re consumed with politics and news from the Middle East. They don’t even report on their own events. We’re not talking about Pete Dagher [who just ran for Congress from the Fifth District and whose ancestry is Iraqi and Lebanese]. We’re not talking about the fact that we don’t have any Arab-American aldermen in the City Council and school board. We can tell you exactly how many Palestinians were killed last week, but we can’t tell you how many Arab-American students there are in the public schools system. [Hanania thinks it might be as high as 20 percent.] We’re detached. We lead two separate lives.”

He wondered, “Are we at the table influencing what’s said? Do we have reporters at the papers? No. Whose fault is that? Everybody wants their kid to be a doctor in our community.

“But,” he said, “that doesn’t excuse the media. November was Arab-American Heritage Month in Chicago, and I didn’t see one story in a Chicago paper. You’d never know November was Arab-American Heritage Month, and I’m afraid if the city finds out they’ll try to cancel it. We have pent-up frustrations. Nobody wants to listen to us and when they do listen to us we unload on them. We need more jokes. We’re too serious–and that’s the reason fanatics and extremists have it so easy. We’re so emotional they take advantage of it.”

Wojcik Gets the Silence Treatment

Silence is no defense against people who know what you’re thinking. In the recent Democratic race for an open seat in Illinois’ 20th Senate District, neither candidate talked about abortion–strange as that might sound to zealots who can’t imagine having an election without it. Immigrants’ rights, schools, crime, the economy–those were the issues raised by Michael Wojcik and Iris Martinez, according to Brian Spinner, who covered the race for the neighborhood Leader newspaper. “Abortion never came up.”

But on the sidelines were pro-life and pro-choice organizations for whom no other issue matters. On the basis of surveys, voting records, and public statements, Illinois Citizens for Life graded candidates in every race from governor on down, from one for “fully pro-life” to four for “totally opposed to pro-life issues.” Wojcik and Martinez each received a “U,” for “unknown.” The Illinois Federation for Right to Life Political Action Committee endorsed every pro-life candidate it could find in every race; it passed on the 20th District.

But the federation’s pro-choice equivalent, Personal PAC, looked harder and saw deeper. President Terry Cosgrove explains that Personal PAC judges candidates by their voting records, if any, and by their reactions to a questionnaire that leaves no room for doubt. Candidates are bluntly warned: “Lack of receipt by Personal PAC of our questionnaire will result in our assuming that you are in opposition to our positions on reproductive matters.” Martinez mailed her questionnaire back in. Wojcik did not. Time went by, and Cosgrove sent him another one. He even talked at one point to Wojcik’s attorney. But Wojcik refused to respond. “I’ve been here 12 years,” says Cosgrove. “Candidates who don’t respond are candidates who want to hide their anti-abortion positions.”

So Personal PAC sent out a pamphlet endorsing Martinez for the senate. It said, “On Abortion…Iris Martinez believes you should make the decision. Michael Wojcik wants the government to make it for you.

“It’s a personal decison. A personal and private one. And nobody–least of all government–should be able to make it for you. That’s what Iris Martinez thinks. But her opponent, Michael Wojcik, doesn’t. Michael Wojcik opposes ALL abortions, even for victims of rape and incest. Michael Wojcik would make criminals out of women and their doctors for making private medical decisions.”

That’s gleaning a lot from silence.

Wojcik’s had a rough year. At the moment he’s still the alderman from Chicago’s 30th Ward, but the ward was redistricted out from under him, which is why he decided to run for the senate. Unfortunately he’s Polish, and the district, which runs from Logan Square up to Albany Park, is heavily Hispanic; Martinez was backed by the Hispanic Democratic Organization, which is to say by City Hall. She clobbered him.

Wojcik didn’t have a chance, and abortion had nothing to do with it. But he still isn’t talking. I won’t pretend to read his mind, but I will say that if I ran for office in his part of town and voters didn’t ask, I wouldn’t tell my position on abortion. I’d expect to lose votes whatever I said.

Cosgrove is astonished to hear a journalist sticking up for Wojcik’s right to silence. Wasn’t he a candidate? he asks. Wasn’t abortion an issue? Didn’t the voters deserve to know where he stood on it? Cosgrove did his duty and found out and told them. He admires Personal PAC’s questionnaire. “I don’t know how we can put it any more clearly. We’re being very fair, very straightforward. If they think they’re going to hide from us, we’re telling them that’s not going to work.”

Hearing his methods questioned, Cosgrove gets a little worked up. He makes sure I understand that neither Wojcik, nor his attorney, nor any of his supporters has ever offered even “a shred of evidence that we are in any way wrong” about Wojcik’s stand on abortion. He says this as if it seals his case.

I see nothing wrong with Cosgrove faulting Wojcik for remaining silent, and everything wrong with logic that concludes that what Wojcik didn’t say reveals what he thinks. You can give someone fair warning about what you’ll assume if he doesn’t answer your question, but fair warning doesn’t turn your assumption into fact.

Bill Whitmer, a pro-choice reader who lives in the 20th Senate District, received the Personal PAC pamphlet and was troubled by it. It was news to him that Wojcik was a pro-life absolutist. He did some research and found nothing to prove Wojcik was, and then he wrote Personal PAC. “While there are many reasons to vote for Iris Martinez,” Whitmer said, “your use of slander against Michael Wojcik is not one of them.”

News Bites

Editorial headline no Chicago journalist could have written in earnest: “Bush stands like an oak,” Sun-Times, March 25.

Since leaving the Sun-Times back in 1991, Ray Hanania has led a picaresque existence. He just dropped a note alerting me to his “Arab-American married to a Jewish wife stand-up comedy routine,” at Zanies April 11. i

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.