NPR’s Middle East Coverage
December 22, 2001
BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. NPR has long been under fire from advocacy groups who allege the network's coverage of the Middle East is biased. The charges have come from advocates for Israel as well as the Palestinians. Many critics who believe NPR is unfair to Israel have stepped up their complaints in the last year, targeting the network and several major market stations with letter-writing campaigns, newspaper ads and now financial protests, leading to questions of journalistic responsibility and fiscal fallout. Philip Martin reports from Boston.
PHILIP MARTIN: For 15 years, Hillel Stavis, the owner of Wordsworth Bookstore, a landmark Harvard Square establishment, has taken his entire advertising budget and put it into public radio.
HILLEL STAVIS: We're not talking about a lot of money. You know, we're not a chain bookstore. We're a small independent bookstore, and it certainly was under 15,000 dollars a year. But for us it was significant.
PHILIP MARTIN: Potentially significant for others too, principally WBUR-FM, a respected award-winning NPR member station that serves the Boston area. All together corporate underwriters such as Wordsworth make up one third of WBUR'S 20 million dollar annual budget. So when Stavis decided recently that he would no longer contribute to the station to protest what he calls "WBUR's and NPR's anti-Israel editorial bias," the decision was viewed only one way.
JANE CHRISTO: With regret.
PHILIP MARTIN: Jane Christo is WBUR's general manager.
JANE CHRISTO: I regret the fact that anybody would withdraw their support of the station, particularly now in a downturn economy and when we as well as other public radio stations and other media outlets have suffered from lack of underwriting or lack of advertising. However I think that he has every right to do that if that's the way he feels.
HILLEL STAVIS: Their work in general is wonderful and that's why we support them. They do terrific community stuff. On the other hand, there's been an accretion of bias, misrepresentation and factual error that's been going on for so long that I think at some point I just said enough is enough.
PHILIP MARTIN: Stavis says that NPR's use of terms like "activist" to describe what he says are Hamas and Islamic Jihad "terrorists" is an example of journalistic bias. But the breaking point for him was WBUR's airing of a locally produced one hour documentary last April by veteran correspondent Michael Goldfarb called This Year in Jerusalem. WBUR says the documentary was fair and balanced. Stavis says that it included what he considers false elements of history. For example, the 1967 War, he says, was described as a surprise attack by Israel and its neighbors while the Yom Kippur War was described simply as the 1973 War, and he says that no mention was made that Arab states attacked Israel. Stavis says that while some might regard this as historical nitpicking, for him it is a critical differentiation.
HILLEL STAVIS: To my mind that would be like National Public Radio reporting December 7th, 1941 with the following report. At 8 o'clock this morning at Pearl Harbor American forces opened fire on Japanese aircraft.
PHILIP MARTIN: Hillel Stavis sits on the board of the Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America or CAMERA, a pro-Israel watchdog organization that claims 50,000 members nationwide. Andrea Levin, CAMERA's executive director, says the group focuses on all mainstream U.S. news organizations but has found NPR's coverage to be particularly biased.
ANDREA LEVIN: Our observation in listening for many years is that the coverage is tilted largely towards reflecting the Arab or Palestinian perspective to the detriment of a mainstream Israeli perspective.
PHILIP MARTIN: Shortly after Hillel Stavis announced his suspension of funding for WBUR, his action was followed by Robert Shillman, the CEO of the Cognix [sp?] Corporation, a Boston area technology firm that has donated more than 120 thousand dollars to WBUR over the past 5 years. He sent out a letter to about 40 other business executives across the nation urging them also to protest NPR's alleged anti-Israel bias by withholding funds from local public radio outlets. WNYC in New York which produces this program, WBEZ in Chicago and KCRW in Los Angeles have received complaints about NPR's coverage.
WOMAN IN VOICEOVER: Fayez Asheh [sp?] had hoped to have his harvest finished by now, but he hasn't even started yet. That's because his trees are inside the security fence of the West Bank Jewish settlement of Oranit [sp?]. For weeks Asheh and his family have come to the gate of the settlement hoping to get in. Every day they were told to wait, and hours later they left, disappointed. Standing near the entrance of the settlement--
PHILIP MARTIN: This story, which aired on Weekend Edition November 24th, was one of the reports that CAMERA complained about. Andrea Levin of CAMERA.
ANDREA LEVIN: The reporter, Linda Gradstein, was relating that Palestinians were being prevented from harvesting olives because of Israel's harsh policies. It was introduced by Scott Simon who says that this has been a, a contentious issue and that in fact settlers had recently this year killed an 18 year old Palestinian girl who was picking olives with her family and the, the rest of the piece-- then is given over to some Israelis from the far left who condemn Israel.
PHILIP MARTIN: NPR describes this kind of criticism as quote "partisan," one element of a decade-long campaign. NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin admits the network could do a better job of reporting the underlying politics of the conflict more fully but finds little merit to CAMERA's overall objections, and he adds that listeners express their confidence in public radio journalism in a recent poll commissioned by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
JEFFREY DVORKIN: It shows that of the thousand people interviewed, 10 percent think that the coverage on public radio has been pro-Israel; 8 percent thinks it's been pro-Palestinian and just under 60 percent thinks it's been pretty fair, with the remainder not having an opinion on it. And I think that that's not a bad indication of the mail I've been getting which seems to try to push on one side or the other but basically thinks that NPR has been doing a reasonable job on covering the Middle East, a very difficult subject at the best of times.
PHILIP MARTIN: Groups representing Arab interests also have complained over the years about NPR's coverage. The Palestinian-run Media Monitors Network* for example says that NPR downplays violence against Palestinians.
ALAN STAVITSKY: To assess whether the issue has been covered fairly, you need to look really at the totality of the coverage over a sustained period of time.
PHILIP MARTIN: Alan Stavitsky [sp?] is the author of Independence and Integrity: A Guideline for Public Radio Journalism. He is associate dean of the University of Oregon Journalism School.
ALAN STAVITSKY: I think if you apply that test then I think NPR has done a very fair and balanced job of hearing from all sides of the controversy, but if you focus on an individual story or commentary or documentary, then it might appear that there was not balanced coverage.
PHILIP MARTIN: And that in some ways is the crux of the matter -- the individual story versus the sweep of coverage over a long period of time, a difficult issue to navigate says Stavitsky, given the complexities of the situation and the relatively little air time available to tell a story. As emotion builds in the aftermath of each suicide bombing, the protests are likely to get louder and the financial impact sharper. NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin.
JEFFREY DVORKIN: Well the principle has to be the same whether it's 20 dollars or 20 million dollars. If we think that our journalism is strong, then I think that people will listen and support public broadcasting. But if we can be changed or diminished by a lobby group, I think that would be a real shame and a real loss to American journalism.
PHILIP MARTIN: WBUR's Jane Christo says there may yet be a silver lining to the controversy over coverage of the Middle East.
JANE CHRISTO: If nothing else, it definitely keeps us aware and on our toes. If we are questioned about the stories that we do, then we will have a tendency to question ourselves as to the balance and fairness that we are reporting.
PHILIP MARTIN: Within the last week, WBUR lost another underwriter. Jewish groups held meetings with NPR and WBUR executives to discuss the situation. They plan to meet again in the coming weeks. According to one participant, the only agreement arrived at so far is the recognition that coverage of the Middle East may always prove difficult for reporters who, like the Israelis and Palestinians themselves are stuck in interminably contentious territory. For On the Media, I'm Philip Martin in Boston.
*Correction: the Media Monitors Network is not Palestinian-run.