Jewish Journal

NPR Israel Coverage Sparks Protests

by Gaby Wenig

Posted on May. 8, 2003 at 8:00 pm

"The Palestinian uprising and subsequent Israeli offensive in the West Bank stirred enormous sympathy for the Palestinians throughout the Arab world.... Over the past year, scores of Egypt's top singers have come out with songs about the Palestinian uprising. Most are accompanied by music videos featuring slain Palestinians, weeping families and homes destroyed by Israeli tanks...." -- "Weekend All Things Considered," May 22, 2002

The above quote is from a National Public Radio (NPR) report "Egyptian Empathy for Palestinians Manifests in Art." But some Jewish groups think the quote says a lot more about politics at NPR -- or what they call "National Palestinian Radio" -- than it does about Egyptian art.

The Committee for Accurate Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) and the Los Angeles-based StandWithUs are among the Jewish groups that see examples of this bias in many of NPR's reports about the Middle East conflict. They charge that the language NPR uses when reporting about Palestinians often sugarcoats the reality of the situation, for example, using the innocuous sounding word "uprising" instead of the more evil sounding "terrorism," and the evocative references to Palestinian suffering but no mention of Israeli suffering caused by Palestinian terrorism.

On Wednesday, May 14, they will join pro-Israel groups across the country in holding demonstrations outside NPR affiliate stations in 33 cities, including Los Angeles. In addition to the protest, called "NPR: Tell the Truth," the Boston-based organizers are asking participants and corporations to withhold financial support from NPR stations until the alleged bias is halted. In Boston, the tactic has been so successful that the NPR affiliate, station WBUR, reportedly lost more than $1 million in funding.

This is not the first time a media outlet has been accused of bias against Israel. In the last two years alone, Jewish groups have called for boycotts against media outlets ranging from the Los Angeles Times to The New York Times. As the conflict in the Middle East comes to the end of its second year with no clear solution in sight despite the "road map" (see story p. 18), advocacy groups -- on both the Israeli and Palestinian side -- in America increasingly go after the media for biased reporting.

NPR representatives said they are constantly reviewing their Middle East coverage, and denied it is biased. They pointed out that pro-Palestinian groups and media watchdogs, such as FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), charge NPR with being too pro-Israel.

NPR programs such as "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered" and "Talk of the Nation" are distributed to 700 affiliate stations and have an audience of more than 21 million, making it one of the most widespread news sources in the United States.

CAMERA, a pro-Israel media watchdog, has been monitoring NPR for 10 years and has issued numerous bulletins alerting listeners to alleged instances of bias and inaccuracy. The Massachusetts-based organization has lobbied to get NPR to issue corrections, which, according to CAMERA, it did in four instances.

NPR discounted many of CAMERA's criticisms, saying they come from a group with an agenda.

"CAMERA is an organization that has an absolute commitment to making sure that the Israeli issue gets covered from a certain viewpoint, and they do a damn good job," said Ruth Seymour, general manager and program director at local NPR station KCRW. "NPR is a journalistic organization, and it has other obligations."

But NPR critics discount the denials, saying that NPR doesn't want to be held accountable. On March, 11 congressman, including Reps. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) and Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) sent a letter to NPR President Kevin Klose, requesting an internal audit of coverage. Klose denied the request because, he said, it would "open a door to political interference."

"When NPR is funded at the expense of us all, then a statute [from the Public Telecommunications Act] applies that it has to be balanced," said Sherman, who is considering action on a bill that funds operations like NPR.

Most of NPR's funding comes from membership dues, program fees and contributions from private individuals, foundations and corporations. Federal grants make up a small percentage of its financing. The amount of government funds, NPR says, is only 1 percent or 2 percent of its total budget. NPR critics say the percentage is much higher.

"It's very dangerous to have an unbalanced government information service. The attitude I get from NPR is that they are above criticism, which is an amazing position to take," Sherman said.

The question of bias often enters into a circular "he said, she said" debate with either side unable to prove their cause. "Bias is in the eyes of the beholder," said Murray Fromson, a professor of Journalism at USC, who has worked as a journalist for more than 50 years. "I listen to NPR every day, and there are pieces that are favorable to the Palestinians, and pieces that are favorable to Israel. There are pieces [on NPR] that absolutely outrage me, but on the whole I think there is a balance," he said.

In Los Angeles, the protest against NPR is sponsored by StandWithUs and is scheduled on May 14 at 11 a.m.-1 p.m. outside of KCRW, 1900 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica.

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