The Women in Media: AP’s Vivian Salama

Vivian Salama is not easily intimidated.

With a career that spans across continents and conflicts, Salama has built a reputation for always being in the thick of whatever is going on around the world.

When the war in Iraq broke out, Salama was the first to raise her hand to go and cover the story for the Associated Press (AP). When the Arab Spring erupted, she was on the ground covering it in the affected countries. And when ISIS was gaining power in 2014, she became AP’s Baghdad bureau chief.

Now, in the midst of a highly controversial and scandal-ridden presidential administration, Salama again finds herself in the thick of it all. She regularly goes toe-to-toe with White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, sitting front and center in the Briefing Room as a White House reporter focused on foreign affairs for the Associated Press.

“Just keeping up with things, it’s been a very, very intense pace since day one,” Salama told MediaFile. “(Trump) makes a lot of news just based off what he says on Twitter, and we just have to always be ready for it. So when he’s tweeting at six o’clock in the morning, one of us — or all of us — are at attention.”

Intense work environments are nothing new for Salama, who has spent the majority of her career abroad working as a foreign correspondent. After starting out as an associate producer for WNBC in New York, Salama left the channel shortly after the war in Iraq started, the network having rejected her appeals to be sent as a correspondent.

She instead moved to Cairo to work as a freelance reporter while simultaneously brushing up on her Arabic. Though she came from a background in television, on-air jobs were a rarity in Cairo, so she shifted to print, collecting as many clips as she could and hoping someone stateside would take notice. Eventually, TIME Magazine came calling, and Salama was hired to cover the highly-contentious 2004 U.S. presidential election for the magazine.

“A lot of people don’t really realize that even though the Arab Spring happened in 2011, a lot of it started to really manifest itself it in the early 2000s and mid-2000s,” said Salama.

Now fluent in Arabic, Salama (who is Egyptian-American) moved back to the U.S. to get her master’s degree in Islamic politics. However, her time stateside didn’t last long. After finishing her degree, she moved back to the Middle East, this time landing in Dubai, covering retail for The National, a magazine in the United Arab Emirates.

The glamour of Dubai, it turns out, was also short-lived. Soon, Salama found the “the call of the wild” luring her back into the field. Following the call, she quit her job, packed up her life, and moved to Pakistan.

“It was my first time working in a non-Arabic speaking country, so [I was] again learning a new language,” said Salama. “I had to kind of brush up on Urdu, and understand that culture and kind of figure it all out.”

After a few months of freelancing, Salama eventually returned to Dubai and began covering finance for Bloomberg just as the financial crisis reached the UAE. It was trial by fire for Salama, who had little previous experience covering finance. Eventually, she switched over to Bloomberg’s government and politics section.

“Just as they did that, the Arab Spring started,” remembered Salama. Suddenly, Salama was on the road constantly, bouncing around the Middle East and North Africa, stopping in just about every Middle Eastern country as protests erupted. She wrote from Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Libya among others. By the end of 2011, Salama says, she was fried.

Feeling the consequences of years on the road, Salama decided to move back to the States, but remained based out of the Middle East part-time. She would work for a few months from home in the U.S., then spend the next few months on the road traveling. Her area of focus expanded from beyond the Middle East; though she still covered countries like Morocco and Palestine, she would also go on to cover countries like Uganda and China.

Salama was freelancing at this point in her career, which she found more difficult later in life than it had been in her twenties. The Great Recession had cut into newspaper budgets, while the Arab Spring had inundated the region with journalists looking for a job. The Middle East journalism market was oversaturated and underpaid. To combat this, she began to seek out funded journalism fellowship positions rather than just short-term writing gigs. Salama was on an investigative journalism fellowship in Yemen when she got a call from the AP’s Bureau Chief in Iraq, an old friend of hers.

He would be leaving the job, he told her, and wanted to know if she would be interested in taking his place. For Salama, the opportunity was too big to pass up.

As usual, Salama’s timing was impeccable. Just two weeks after being hired in 2014, Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, fell to the Islamic State.

As the only female on a staff of fifty Iraqis, covering a war zone in a traditionally conservative Islamic country sometimes proved challenging, and Salama would occasionally face pushback from Iraqi military forces who were wary of taking on a female embed.

“I mean, I never really bought that, and I would never really take no for an answer,” Salama said of the challenges. “It gets a little bit complicated because we’ll sleep in the same quarters with them, and it’s not like you can really check into a motel down the road when you’re in Fallujah. You’re all going to have to bunk together.”

But, beyond some rooming complications, Salama says that she never found the Middle East to be the repressive society that many in the West often perceive it to be.

“That stuff makes me roll my eyes,” Salama remarked. “It’s not really that repressed.”

For example, Salama says that as a foreigner, she wasn’t generally expected to wear conservative clothing or wear traditional Islamic coverings when working.  The exception, however, was when she would go to the homes of local Iraqis to interact with civilians.

“If I was going to a personal home, I would cover myself because we didn’t want to give the impression that a foreigner was getting help from these people,” she explained. “And so I would cover myself to protect them, so that people don’t question if they’re collaborating with foreigners or things like that, because that stuff is taken quite seriously in Iraq.”

In fact, Salama says that being a woman in the Middle East allowed her access that wasn’t always available to her male colleagues. Men trusted her more, and women would speak openly around her.

“The women are the ones who talk,” said Salama, adding that some could be  “really catty and tell you all the good stories.”

After roughly a year and a half of working in Iraq, Salama was summoned back to the U.S. to help cover the 2016 Presidential election, a role that eventually brought her to Washington D.C. to work as a part of the AP’s team at the White House. Though Salama says that covering the often unpredictable Trump White House hasn’t necessarily been the easiest job, she is grateful to be working at such a “female-friendly” outlet, especially at a time when diversity and equality in newsrooms is being analyzed more than in the past.

“We’re definitely doing a lot better today than we were ten years ago, or twenty years ago,” she said.

Yet, Salama thinks there is still a ways to go in terms of gender equality in journalism. In war zones, for instance, Salama says that women will often have a difficult time being taken seriously. That said, Salama reveals that while she was in Iraq, the chiefs of AP’s Syria/Lebanon, Pakistan, and Afghanistan bureaus – arguably some of the most intense conflict regions in the world – were all women.

Salama’s seat in the from row of the White House press briefing room gives her a unique perspective on the current, and changing, field of political journalism. With years of foreign reporting and covering other cultures under her belt, Salama says that her challenge for now will be covering a President with an unprecedented relationship with the press – and with the truth.

“Our president is pushing back and challenging us in ways that we’ve never been challenged before,” she said. “In a lot of ways that’s great because it makes [us] even better. But we really have to stand our ground, and we have to really fight to just preserve the truth. Because without the truth, we’re nothing.”

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