Hakeem candidacy exposed media bias


In the contest for Minneapolis mayor, Green Party Candidate Farheen Hakeem says that her biggest fight was not with her opponents, but rather with the media — both mainstream and community. The struggle to get reporters to represent and interact with her fairly was unrelenting, she says.

In an email message that was widely distributed this summer, Hakeem wrote, “Monday, June 18th, John Manamaker from WCCO radio interviewed many Green party candidates, and his first question to me was, ‘Is Minneapolis ready for a Muslim woman mayor?’ He did not ask my colleague Dave Bicking if Minneapolis Ward 9 is ready to have a white male council member. I’m sure he felt a little left out.

“Monday, June 18th, Beth Sliver from the Pioneer Press printed a story about the Mayoral race, and labeled me as a ‘Black Muslim from Chicago.’ Although I am quite flattered and honored to be seen as African American, I’m not. I hate to break [it] to you Ms. Silver, but not all people of color are Black. Besides, when do I get to read her write about R.T. Rybak as ‘White Christian from Linden Hills’ or Peter McLaughlin as ‘White Christian from Standish- Ericcson?’”

At issue, says Hakeem in a recent interview, is objectivity. “I was told over and over again by many reporters, ‘Well, normally you don’t see this. Well, typically this isn’t usual.’ And then I had to be like, ‘Typical in whose world?’

“And I would say, ‘If you’re walking down the street, it’s very normal, it’s very typical. If you are stuck in your office all day typing about politicians, well, I guess yeah, it’s very different for you.’”

The paradox, Hakeem says, is that while the novelty of a young Muslim woman running for political office was what piqued most journalists’ interest in her (since the Greens rarely receive much attention, especially from the mainstream press), it was also what prevented them from taking her candidacy seriously.

“I wanted to make the race interesting by talking about more of the issues,” says Hakeem. “I had the chance to really twist the arm of the media, because they kept on wanting to stick to my race and my gender and my youth and my religion, and I would always have to say, ‘What does that have to do with anything?’ I felt that as a person of color, I really had the chance to work it to my advantage and hold the media accountable.”

Hakeem believes that although there are many White reporters who are intimidated by her now, there are a few who have grown from the experience of discussing these issues with her. “I think Craig Cox [Minneapolis Observer editor and publisher] and Rochelle Olson [Star Tribune reporter] definitely think differently now,” she says. “But I don’t think I got David Brauer [Skyway News and Southwest Journal editor] or Scott Russell [Skyway News reporter] to think differently.”

Hakeem took issue with the fact that Russell asked her if she was an angry person during an interview, a question which both Russell and Brauer stand by as fair and legitimate.

“I think journalists need broad latitude to ask sensitive or politically incorrect questions,” says Brauer. “That gives us the raw information with which to apply our news judgment. I think what ends up on the page is far more important than a candidate for public office restricting those questions before they are asked.

“And let’s not forget, Farheen was a candidate,” Brauer says. “Like all candidates, she does whatever she can to manipulate coverage to her liking. She was making hay with her base about being dismissed and marginalized by the mainstream media — we got swept into that, even though our coverage was substantive and, in my opinion, fair. It was interesting that I heard no complaints from anyone other than Farheen about what we wrote about her, and I know that our audience is at least somewhat diverse, politically if nothing else.”

Hakeem and Brauer tried to discuss the issue over email, but ultimately could not come to a shared understanding of what had happened.

“For them [Brauer and Russell] to apologize means that there’s something wrong with what they’ve done, both as journalists and as human beings,” says Hakeem. “And they don’t want to say that anything’s wrong, which was David’s argument the whole time. They did not want to accept how they were perpetuating racism.”

At least one local journalist, the Star Tribune’s Doug Grow, has written a story about how his own prejudices initially informed his coverage of Hakeem. In Grow’s October 16 column “Funny woman, serious activism,” he begins, “Reality keeps messing with my deeply held stereotypes. Stereotype: Muslim women in traditional garb are not exactly rib-tickling funny. Reality: Farheen Hakeem is a stand-up comic who wears a hijab (head scarf) and modest garb.”

Grow, who was contacted for this story but did not respond, concludes the article with, “I know I learned a lot in a few minutes with Hakeem. I now know, for instance, that Muslim women in traditional garb sometimes laugh, and that they never mix a bikini with a hijab.”

AM 950 Talk Show Host Wendy Wilde, on the other hand, felt insulted by her interactions with Hakeem. In a May 24 interview on the local Air America station, Wilde (WW) asked Hakeem (FH) to elaborate on her platform. The following exchange ensued:

FH: Public safety’s a real hot topic. People are worried about if there’s enough funding for firefighters, and if there’s enough funding for cops. And before we can increase that funding, we need to make sure that our communities trust our police officers, and are willing to go the extra mile and pay the extra tax for that.

But that community-building needs to happen, and we need to have some real difficult discussions in order to do that—

WW: So the minority communities believe that the police are racist?

FH: Well, um, I refer to them as communities of color—

WW: (Snickers)

FH: —number one, and number two, I feel what I’ve heard, and being also a representative of a community of color, there are trust issues with police officers. To make a bold statement like that, I think you, Wendy Wilde, have to go to communities of color—

WW: I am a person of color, and I actually live in a community that is 50 percent non-White. And I’m not really White, I’m beige, which is kind of a combination of different colors. But you’re right — I’m not a member of a racial minority community.

But I guess I don’t like being told I don’t understand, either. I live in a community that has one of the higher crime rates in Minneapolis, and we chose to live there because we wanted our children exposed to a great diversity of people, and all of the cultural benefits that they would gain from that.

FH: Well, good for you! That’s good to know.

Later on, in the interview:

WW: It seems in our conversation, you’re actually the one who’s labeling. You’re labeling persons of color, you’re labeling persons of privilege, whereas my family chose to live in a highly diverse neighborhood because we value the true, American cultural experience, and actually don’t run around labeling. So I think it’s real interesting that we’re talking so many labels.

FH: Well, what’s interesting to me is that you are using the word “choice.” Because you have the right to choose to move into a—

WW: I never said choice. I’m sorry — when did I say choice?

FH: (Laughing) Well, that’s what choosing is…

WW: Okay, okay, I’m sorry.

FH: You’re choosing to move to that neighborhood. Some people, they can’t choose that. Personally, I don’t think of it so much as labeling. Because I know that personally, I don’t like the word “minority,” which is why I felt like I needed to tell you what I prefer. Because to me, it sounds like, “You’re minor, you’re less important than me.” And I like being called a person of color because it feels empowering to me.

But I wanted to finish the rest of the issues that I’m running on…

WW: Of course.

In a later interview, Wilde said, “I thought everything was fine until Hakeem’s comment, ‘There are we people of color, then there are the rest of you people of privilege.’ I was personally insulted.

“You heard the response of someone who felt indignant, not angry. If [McLaughlin or Rybak] made a comment about ‘women like you,’ I would be just as indignant and insulted as I was by Hakeem’s comment about ‘you people of privilege.’ I really didn’t want to be used by someone who just wanted to say sensational and insulting words to stir things up for the sake of getting attention… I got the distinct feeling that is what Hakeem was doing.”

Janet Roberts, AM 950 station manager, supports Wilde’s position completely, although she said she was very disappointed that the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder would be printing excerpts of the interview “out of context” and that the station hardly ever releases interviews to the public.

“I never would have given you a copy of the show had I known you would use it in this fashion,” said Roberts. “I will never give your media outlet another copy of anything, or work with you.”

Roberts encouraged this reporter to “think carefully about what you’re doing,” as Air America “was the only major radio outlet willing to give Hakeem a full half-hour interview. We try to be as fair to the community as possible, and get their voices on the radio. We pride ourselves in doing a lot with the Muslim communities, the Hmong communities. One of my concerns is that this excerpt makes Wendy look racist. I think anybody who reads that will think that Wendy’s racist, when anyone who knows her knows that she’s not.”

But Clay Steinman, a professor of media studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, says that racism and prejudice, especially in the media, are not as clear-cut as many of us would like to think.

“I think that people can be liberal on lots of issues, but still not get the idea that the viewpoints of communities of color need to be taken seriously, and that people have a right to define themselves. And so, I think that’s what’s happening here,” says Steinman.

“As liberal as Air America is, it seems to me that accepting the viewpoints and self-understanding of a person of color is a problem for them, at least in this instance.”

Addressing the specific argument Hakeem and Wilde had in the interview about the term “minority” versus “people of color,” Steinman says, “To the extent that people feel diminished by the word minority, they should not have to be called minorities.

“It does seem to me that it is an aspect of Whiteness that White people feel that they have the right to define everybody else. It’s historically the case that White people have defined everybody else — we know the history of scientific racism.”

Steinman added that this phenomenon has largely come about and continues to be unchallenged because of segregation. “The failure of people to think of people as human just like they’re human is due to the persistence of segregation,” he says. “Schools have become increasingly re-segregated. Even if you have fair housing laws, they’re unevenly applied.”

Regarding Roberts’ statement that the station will never release another interview to the public, Steinman says, “An issue of prejudice is an important public issue. And the issue of hosts on liberal radio stations seeming to speak with prejudice is an issue that Air America needs to deal with.

“I think it’s completely reasonable to hold the local Air America station accountable. I would think that a progressive radio station would welcome being held accountable and doing a better job with different kinds of community.”

Hakeem, for her part, is busy recovering from campaigning and challenging the media. Although she doesn’t know where it will be and in what capacity, she does know that she will run for office again.

“I want to run because after the actual primary, for the first time ever, they stopped talking about an Asian American woman or an Arab American woman running for office,” she says. “I mean, they stopped talking about my ethnicity. They finally stuck to the issues.”

Hakeem, who shocked the establishment by garnering 14 percent of the vote in the primary, says that this change is due to one thing and one thing only: “They’re basically recognizing a political power that they’ve never recognized before.”

Whatever happens going forward, Hakeem says that she will not apologize or even explain who she is to make others feel more comfortable. “A long time ago, I was talking about how they’re going to get you somehow anyway, so you might as well be yourself and be happy. So I might as well do exactly what I believe in.”