Palestinian-American Challenges Old Narratives: Interview with Ahmed Shihab-Eldin

(HBO)

Ahmed Shihab-Eldin is arguably the most prominent Arab-American journalist of his generation. The California-born son of Palestinian refugees graduated with honors from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism (2007) and was a digital producer for PBS and the New York Times before he made his first big mark at Al Jazeera English (AJE) in 2011. At AJE, Shihab-Eldin co-created and co-hosted The Stream, an unparalleled show that generated news stories from trending discussions on social media. In 2012, Shihab-Eldin joined The Huffington Post, where he co-created and hosted the live-streaming news network HuffPost Live.

In 2012, Forbes named him to their 30 Under 30 list of “young disruptors, innovators and media entrepreneurs impatient to change the world” and last year Arabian Business put him on their list of the 100 most influential young Arabs. Shihab Eldin recently left VICE on HBO and is currently working with a digital news start-up soon to be launched.

Palestine Square recently spoke to Shihab-Eldin about being Palestinian in the American newsroom, “objectivity” in journalism, and the birth of citizen journalism.

What sparked your interest in journalism? 

I was always a curious child. I grew up without having a home that was singularly identifiable because I grew up moving around all over the world, so I was always trying to figure out my own identity and place in the world relative to my surrounding. Even though I was extremely social, I was always a bit of an outcast as a kid; in the Arab world I always felt very Western and then in the U.S. I’d always feel super Arab. That led me to be very curious about why people are the way they are, why we act certain ways individually or as a community, and what influences our individual and collective culture. Whether I was in California or Egypt, I was comparing and contrasting cultures even before I realized I was.

Is being a journalist of Palestinian heritage a handicap in the American media? 

It can be. But I try not to see it that way. My identity either works for me or against me. Working as a Palestinian in the American media can be tricky (especially when covering that story) given that for far too long Palestinian identity and culture has been framed by the mainstream media as one of violence and terrorism, and therefore incongruent with American and Western values; when in reality, Palestinians are fighting for American values of freedom, dignity, and liberty and justice for all. By the time I started working as a journalist there was a lot of interest in newsrooms for people who have Arabic language skills and understand technological apps and social media. So being Palestinian in this sense was a plus. Beyond that, it remains true that if you report on stories that are critical of Israel’s government, you are immediately targeted as antisemitic, as someone who is against Judaism as a religion, as a Hamas-sympathizer and so on and so forth. Haters are gonna hate. You can’t let it get to you, as relentless as it can be sometimes.

In your experience, did you often feel like you were facing a wall of misperception? 

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pitched a story about the Arab world that has nothing to do with, violence, sectarianism or terrorism and editors are like, “No one cares.” When you talk about anything related to Arabs and Muslims in the American mainstream media it’s always a battle trying to convince people to cover things that don’t fall into what we’ve come to associate the entire region with. As someone from the region, I know that there’s so much more complexity in Arab society beyond what we hear. I have access to a lot of people and stories that challenge stereotypes; I’ve always tried to highlight those stories.

How should journalists continue to push stereotype-defying stories in the face of editorial opposition or indifference? 

I think what’s incredible is that the mainstream media is being forced to tell more stories because a lot of young Arabs and Muslims are taking matters into their own hands and publishing snippets of their own stories that defy conventional coverage. This citizen reporting is humanizing those who have been dehumanized. The most important thing is to find a way to connect with people and challenge what is “Arab” or “Muslim.” This happened naturally during Ferguson and the war in Gaza. The more that happens the more there’s going to be a shift away from the tired old narrative that we’re all accustomed to.

Journalism often effaces power relations when, for example, reporting on occupied Palestinians and their occupier Israel. How should journalists frame stories so that audiences understand what’s actually happening?

With the Palestinian narrative what’s missing more than anything is the framing and the context. Not only that there’s a disproportionate power dynamic in the wars that are waged between Israel and Palestine, but also in the reality of how the two populations live their lives. I think the best way to cover it is by focusing on the human rights situation. That should be the entry point. You have to start with the reality on the ground and the glaring power disparity.

Should journalists then avoid the aspiration for so-called objectivity?

I don’t think objectivity can ever actually exist in journalism, even if many aspire to it. In the same exact context and the same exact space, there other people and I are going to tell that story differently even if we talk to the same people and ask the same questions. Aspiring to objectivity or trying to show two sides to the story in any topic does yourself a disservice. The aspiration for objectivity has been an excuse in some instances for not being bold and telling it like it is, as you see it sincerely. In the last documentary [on Palestine] I did for VICE on HBO there is a line that I regret made it into the film – both sides have suffered massive casualties – while it is true both sides suffer casualties, this line disregards the huge discrepancy in lives lost and the broader power dynamic. This is an unfortunate example of how aspiring to be “objective” undermines the viewers’ understanding of the story.

VICE is popular among younger Americans for its reputation as the “cool” newsroom because they reportedly tell against-the-grain stories. How was your experience at VICE telling the Palestinian story? 

The year I spent reporting for VICE on HBO was some of the most difficult reporting I had done; it was an invaluable experience to report in the field, with that kind of access, at that kind of caliber of a company. Even though I was very grateful to have had the opportunity to tell a story from a Palestinian point-of-view, unfortunately when it came to the story we did in Palestine, I regret that there were some incredibly poignant and powerful moments that we filmed that really illustrated the entire conflict – the plight of the Palestinians and spoke to the belligerent role of settlers in the occupation – that didn’t make it into the piece. Even though this is common, when you shoot so many hours, it was particularly frustrating because this is one of those stories where you really want to simply show the reality on the ground, to break through all the re-reading of history in most other coverage.

Has the American media begun to shift its perceptions of Palestine? 

I think there’s been a slow incremental shift towards a much more nuanced and contextual understanding of this conflict. I think it’s mainly a product of technology and young people on the ground sharing their own stories. If you look at how the most recent Gaza war (July-August 2014) was covered by the media, that was unprecedented and a product of how much raw information and footage was being shared in real-time on social platforms online. To see a combination of first person narratives dispelling the PR spin machine that has been used to obscure the reality of what life is like on the ground – that forced the mainstream media to be much more fair and less censored when it comes to reporting on the occupation as it actually plays out on the ground.

Over the last decade working in journalism, what story are you most proud of? 

Even though many Palestinian friends wrote to me to suggest the documentary didn’t go far enough in explicitly “criticizing the Israeli government” for the occupation, I’m most proud of the story I did for VICE in Israel and Palestine. For much of the audience it was the first time that they were hearing directly from Palestinians, where young Palestinians were humanized in a way American audiences could relate to. It had the potential to shift perceptions. For me that’s the real measure of success. The reaction I got from family, friends and strangers – I had young Jewish Americans emailing me, and coming up to me after the screening asking me dozens of questions – was really powerful. I like to believe it made people think twice about their predispositions about the conflict, what the problems are, and what the solution might be.

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(Ahmed Shihab-Eldin Instagram)

Interview by Khelil Bouarrouj.

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