Muslims Try to Get Media-Savvy

When he's not chasing down stories for ABC News, Andy Field acts as a media and presentation coach for clients who want to look good on Oprah or 20/20. A little over a week ago, his classroom was a hotel banquet hall in Arlington, Virginia, and his students were several dozen Muslim activists from across the country. The students were of mostly of Arab or South Asian descent, with the men sporting beards and blazers and many of the women wearing hijabs, or headscarves. Their goal: learning how to present themselves and their faith better on-camera.

Given the doom-and-gloom that surrounds Islam these days, Field knows he's grappling with some heavy stuff. But he has a light touch, showing funny clips from "The Bob Newhart Show" (in which Bob is ambushed by a nasty talk-show host) in an effort to convey the artifice of TV news and the need to be prepared.

The workshop was organized by CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations, as part of its annual conference (see one of CAIR's recent PSA's, below). Field wanted the class to leave with basic media skills. Like staying on message, smiling on camera and not getting distracted by opponents who scream a lot. And then there's the question of headscarves and other traditional clothes. Should you wear them on TV? Field said 'no.'

"You don't want to take away from your message," he told his students. "If they can't get past the headscarves, or the hats or the beards, or anything else, if they cannot get past that, they're not going to hear what you're saying."

Surprisingly, perhaps, many in the room nodded in agreement. Some of the attendees said they feel under siege as practicing Muslims, and they feared things won't get any better until they learn to represent themselves, and their faith, more effectively. In recent months, they've watched as critics of Islam have successfully raised doubts about Muslims and Muslim institutions, most notably Park 51, also knows as the Ground Zero Mosque.

Yasmin Hamidi, a New York-based PR specialist, said the lesson of Park 51 is that Muslims need to constantly think about how any initiative will be perceived, from Day One, or how one comment about U.S. foreign policy can become a vicious loop on cable news. She also thinks Muslim groups need to appoint two sets of spokespeople before unveiling a project: Muslims from within the community, as well as non-Muslims who can voice support.

"It's a situation where you're really learning under the most difficult circumstances imaginable, and the stakes are so high for the community," she said of Muslim groups coping with intense media scrutiny. "I think the organizations are sort of moving forward and doing the best that they can, while putting out fires on a daily basis."

Some observers think the effort to provide Muslims with media skills will yield limited results, given that many of the spokespeople for Muslim groups are immigrants. Shahed Amanullah, editor of AltMuslim.com, said Muslim groups would be better off putting forward young, American-born spokespeople.

The way to combat the notion that Muslims are "some kind of foreign implant," he said, is to find people "that aren't separated from the larger American community. That can speak the cultural language of America. That can speak about their love of things American and their participation in the American system."

But he also thinks Muslims need to change the message itself, by acknowledging the fear that some Americans have of Muslims, and the fact that some Muslims are terrorists.

"We're not addressing that fear at its root," he said. "First of all, you have to respect the fear in order to address it. And to just simply dismiss or say you're being irrational is not going to get us there."

Muslim intellectuals and activists appear to have a favorite source of TV news: "The Daily Show," which reliably skewers critics of Islam and Islam-based hysteria, and is in all likelihood the only program with a Senior Islamic Correspondent, in Aasif Mandvi.

More serious, but equally edgy is LoonWatch, a relatively new Web site whose editors want to remain anonymous. The people behind LoonWatch (which bears the faux-alarmist tagline, "The Mooslims! They're Heeere!") said their mission is to expose "anti-Muslim loons, wackos, and conspiracy theorists" on the Internet.  One of their most widely-circulated articles was "All Terrorists are Muslims... except the 94% who Aren't," and was based on FBI statistics showing that only 6 percent of terrorists since 1980 have been Muslim.

DePaul University professor Laith Saud said LoonWatch is not only funny and incisive, but much better at addressing Islam and critics of Islam than the mainstream media.

"In terms of the intellectual claims being made by Islamophobes, those really go unchallenged," he said. "What the mainstream media is really concerned with is how Islamophobia is playing out politically in this country, in terms of Republicans and Democrats, in terms of voter registration and voter drives.

But a number of Muslims say the opportunity to actually humanize Muslims lies in not in news but in cultural media -- movies, TV shows and the like. That's the reasoning behind an animated series known as "The 99," which is set to air on the Hub TV network.  The creators have said the series, centered on 99 superheroes, won't be religious so much as Islamic-inspired, but the very premise of the show has conservatives writing in opposition to it.

Another project on the horizon is the documentary "Fordson," which recalls Friday Night Lights (view the trailer below) but for the fact everyone on this high school football team is Muslim, and practice at night so they can fast during the day.

The trick, according to comedian Aman Ali, is not sounding preachy. Ali was half the duo behind "30 Mosques in 30 Days," a road trip across America that caught the attention of CNN, ABC and many other networks. He says Muslims would get wider, and better coverage if they just told stories about their lives, not necessarily didactic tales about racial profiling and hate crimes.

"If you want to know about my life, it's hanging out with my little brother and singing Phil Collins in the car," he said with a laugh. "That's the lifestyle that I live."

Ali thinks critics of Islam have been successful at shaping the media narrative because there are so few Muslims in the media, who can counter misinformation. But he thinks that's set to change, as the community recognizes the value of having journalists, comedians and screenwriters on their side, and not just doctors and engineers.

Beyond creating media, writer Reza Aslan (who also helps Boom Gen Studios) thinks Muslims need to hold media accountable. He said older Muslims don't appreciate their own economic clout, about $170 billion in annual spending. But he thinks younger Muslims do, and will eventually make demands of corporate America, whether it's networks or advertisers.

Muslim youth, he argued, should issue a message to those companies, "'We are a very large, very powerful consumer market. And you not being aware of that, and not reaching out to us, is going to be to your detriment.'"

There are signs that Muslims are more willing to take on the media. On Sunday, a group of demonstrators stood outside the studios of Fox News, in midtown Manhattan, waving signs and shouting "Fox promotes racism. Shut them down!"

They were upset about host Bill O'Reilly's comments that, quote, "Muslims killed us on 9/11," on the ABC show "The View." Afterward, O'Reilly said he's not anti-Muslim but argued that  terrorism has been "committed under the banner of Islam."

Despite the anger, the crowd was small -- only about 15 people, and no camera crews showed up. Demonstrators say the event was quickly put together and that many of the people who promised to show up, didn't, saying they were worried about a backlash.