BROOKE GLADSTONE: Recently a series of public service announcements has begun to air on television and radio stations promoting a message of tolerance. It's one of the most visible efforts to combat discrimination and hate crimes against Muslims and Arab-Americans. And as Michelle Brier reports, the PSAs are part of a larger public relations campaign for a community that now finds itself under seige.
MICHELLE BRIER: It was perhaps the best publicity Muslims and Arab-Americans could have dreamed of. NBC's popular White House drama The West Wing this week aired a special episode dealing with the aftermath of the September 11th attacks with an overt message of tolerance. Entitled Isaac and Ishmael, the story focused on a group of students and their questions about terrorism. In this scene, deputy chief of staff Josh Lymon [sp?] played by Bradley Whitford offers his explanation of why the terrorists hate America.
BRADLEY WHITFORD AS JOSH LYMON: ...streetcorners; lined church next to synagogue next to mosque; newspapers that can print anything they want and women who can do anything they want! This is a plural society. That means we accept more than one idea. It offends them.
MICHELLE BRIER: The program also tried to correct some of the misconceptions about Islam, a religion that man Americans have come to equate with violence and anti-U.S. policies.
DR. JAMES ZAHGBI: There is the assumption of collective guilt.
MICHELLE BRIER: Dr. James Zahgbi [sp?] is president of the Arab-American Institute in Washington, DC. He says the general public knew little about Muslims or Arab-Americans before September 11th, and now mis-information and fear is filling in the gaps. Media coverage can be blamed for adding to the confusion, says Richard Lehrmer [sp?], a public relations expert in New York City.
RICHARD LEHRMER: Unless you are educated or really spend a lot of time reading, you know, the Economist and Harper's and what have [LAUGHS] you where they actually break these things down, you're getting tabloid press! And the tabloid press has done a very bad job of discerning between the cultists as I call them, the people that were running the missions that, you know, killed so many people here in New York, and, and the rest of these practicing Muslims.
MICHELLE BRIER: Muslim leaders in the U.S. say the lack of information has prompted a backlash against anyone who even looks Middle Eastern. Adinah Leckovich [sp?] is a spokeswoman for the Muslim Public Affairs Council based in Los Angeles.
ADINAH LECKOVICH: Our community's trying to deal with the loss as anyone else is of their family and friends, and yet they're being faced with this double burden of being associated with-- criminals! And as much as we try to make clear the distinction between people who act-- in the name of faiths for political purchases, that distinction isn't-- getting across to all Americans.
MICHELLE BRIER: Lehrmer says what Arab-Americans and Muslims need to do right now to fix that is launch a massive public relations campaign. He suggests the community first must identify a spokesperson with stature.
RICHARD LEHRMER: A visionary must come forth and speak to the American people about the problem, and the problem is that the people who are the cultists that have destroyed the World Trade Center -- they're not, they're not - they, they, they're not speaking from the Koran! They're not Islamics. They are - they're, they're nuts!
MICHELLE BRIER: He adds there isn't any obvious choice for someone to stand out in front to defend Islam, but the Arab-American Institute's James Zahgbi says many prominent Arab-Americans are stepping forward.
DR. JAMES ZAHGBI: The wonderful collection of people, but people don't know that they're Arab-American! Like Doug Flutie or Spencer Abraham or Jamie Farr or-- Bobbie Rayhall [sp?] the, the race car driver -- all of them Arab-Americans. People don't know that.
MICHELLE BRIER: Even so, those names may not resonate with all Americans the way other ethnic and religious leaders might. Catholics, for example, have the Pope while Scientologists count megastars like John Travolta and Tom Cruise among their members. Lehrmer points out that the most famous Muslim-American, Muhammed Ali, is ill and cannot play the role of traditional spin doctor, although his appearances since the disaster have been moving. Zahgbi says it's not just well-known Arab and Muslim people speaking out in defense of Islam, Muslims and Arab-Americans; the radio and TV spots promoting unity that begin airing this week feature Attorney General John Ashcroft and pop singer Mandy Moore [sp?] among others!
MANDY MOORE: We all know our country's experiencing rough times, but that's no reason to hate people who don't look like you. This is Mandy Moore, and I'm here to tell you that discrimination and violence against Arab and Muslim Americans is not what this country is about and will not be tolerated.
MICHELLE BRIER: Moore is not a Muslim nor an Arab-American. MAN: Right! But she cares, and, and that's the great thing is that people care to get out the right message.
MICHELLE BRIER: While many publicity experts say these kinds of ads will certainly help, Richard Lehrmer points out that Muslims are on the defensive now. MAN: It's not the preferable way to do PR, because you're already at a disadvantage. You're talking to people who already have their arms folded. They're not really that interested in hearing what you have to say because they already believe that they know the answer.
MICHELLE BRIER: In the face of all that resistance, tolerance can be a tough sell. In the effort to get across the message you can further victimize the group trying to have its voice heard and even alienate the audience. That's what the producers of The West Wing found out this week. The special episode was criticized for having a weak plot and pompous speeches.
The Atlanta Journal and Constitution called it "a somber civics lesson," while USA Today called it a crashing and condescending bore.
And no one knows for sure if the program had any lasting impact in changing viewers' minds. For On the Media in New York I'm Michelle Brier. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]