By Emily Landgraf
When Abdullah Erakat graduated from Rider in 1998, he never thought his future career would include ducking to avoid rocks and gunfire, or using an onion to reduce the effects of tear gas. Welcome to journalism in the Middle East.
Now Erakat uses his extensive experience as a news reporter to serve as the foreign press secretary in the Palestinian president’s office in Ramallah in the West Bank north of Jerusalem.
Erakat, who was a communication major, has held this post since November 2008.
“The best day would have to be when I got the call to serve as a press secretary,” Erakat wrote in an e-mail. “I was a senior anchor for a radio station and I remember reading hard, serious news with excitement. I felt so honored and thought, ‘Wow! Years of experience have really paid off.’ I even recall thanking God I chose Rider and not another university.”
Erakat has certainly earned the position he now holds.
“Basically, my job is to make sure the Palestinian president is briefed on all the stories concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the foreign press,” Erakat said. “It’s also my job to brief reporters and hold off-the-record sessions with them to help them report accurately and paint the correct picture of the institution.”
According to Erakat, this is a 24-hour a day job.
“When I say that, I mean that I have to be available to journalists at all times,” he wrote. “My phones do not stop ringing as I receive calls from all parts of the globe.”
When Erakat is not busy speaking with a global press corps, he writes statements for the press that reflect the positions of Palestinian leaders on various issues. He also organizes visits of officials to the Palestinian presidential headquarters.
“For example, I recently headed up the media committee for the visit of Joe Biden to the Palestinian territories,” he said.
Another day stands out in his mind as the most “arduous.”
“You know, I still have nightmares from the pope’s visit to Bethlehem last year,” he said. “There were thousands of journalists, delegates, security personnel and onlookers. We began preparing for His Holiness’ visit 72 days before he came, and even with all the schedules and ‘what if’ scenarios, it was still the biggest challenge to keep the situation under control. Luckily, it happened. Local and international press considered it being more successful than his trip on the Israeli side.”
Erakat begins his days by reading the major American newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Only the main headlines about the Israeli-Palestiniean conflict make the American papers, he said. Acknowledging that it is impossible for any one person to know about everything going on in the world, he noted there are many untold stories.
“Newspapers tend to ignore the stories which state that the Palestinian leadership isn’t going to talk to Israel, while [Israel] takes steps against peace vis-a-vis settlement expansion, building its separation wall [and] erecting and maintaining over 600 military checkpoints,” he wrote. “You read that there was a non-fatal rocket attack in Sderot which almost hit an Israeli daycare and look away when an Israeli F-16 destroys a whole school in Gaza.”
Erakat is well-prepared for interacting with the press. He worked at Fox News, The Financial Times, Dubai TV and a South African-financed radio show.
“I have been covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for over 10 years now,” Erakat said. “And there isn’t any special agency I have worked for that I fancy over the other, although it was pretty cool to be Geraldo Rivera’s producer while he was working for Fox News in the West Bank.”
The most important thing he has learned in his time of reporting from dangerous locations is how to be fair.
“I am Palestinian, and it is hard not to be considered biased,” he said. “Because I worked for foreign news agencies, at times it seemed I had to prove myself more than non-Palestinians.”
His experiences in the field have taught him that journalism is not the glamorous profession that it is often portrayed to be. He has been beaten and injured in the course of his work, and has suffered in other ways as well.
“And this prepared me for the job I am working at now. In dealing with journalists, I cannot forget that I was a journalist, too,” he said. “And in understanding what goes on inside the mind of a reporter, in an office or on the battlefield, I may know how to assist them to do their job better by providing the information they need.”
Erakat believes, though, that the profession of journalism is beginning to deteriorate. He feels that it has become too concerned with ratings and the quality of journalism is suffering because of it.
“Just a few short years ago, this medium meant something: messengers communicating to an audience via Internet, television or newspaper,” he said. “However, its priority [now] is to make money first, tell the news second.”
Erakat also says that the efforts of lobbyists and even militants to spread their messages through news agencies and garner support for their various causes have also hurt the media.
“I mean, whatever happened to just getting your news without the thought that this channel is pro-this and anti-that?” he wrote.
Erakat credits much of his success to the time he spent at Rider.
“I would not be where I am today if it were not for Rider,” he wrote. “This university planted in me the seeds to success. And what allowed me to grow was the unconditional support of my family, friends and Rider University’s top-notch faculty.”
Erakat spent much of his time at Rider in activities. He worked for The Rider News as a reporter and features editor, with Dr. Patrick Chmel to put on theater productions, and at the television studio.
“It’s important for students to take advantage of the many opportunities that Rider has to offer,” Erakat wrote.
Erakat noted that President Obama has stated that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a matter of national interest and has been a goal of the American presidency for the last 60 years.
“It’s crucial to cover because it is one of the most important conflicts in the world,” he wrote. “If this problem were to be resolved, it would be seen as a positive step to advance other peace initiatives around the world.”
Erakat said that during a brief conversation with Vice President Joe Biden, the American politician gave him some excellent advice.
“Mr. Vice President Biden said, ‘Keep hopeful,’” Erakat wrote. “And I think this is the attitude that many Israelis and Palestinians, whether citizens or officials, should follow, especially through the difficult times.”