October 3, 2002
CAMERA Is Out of Focus
The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America's (CAMERA) Andrea Levin wants to start a boycott. She has urged Jewish listeners to stop supporting National Public Radio (NPR). Levin said that NPR's coverage of events in the Middle East amounts to biased reporting and a "defamation of Israel."
As the ombudsman at NPR, I have received much mail about NPR's coverage of the Middle East. My role is to make sure that the listeners' concerns are conveyed to management and to help NPR journalists understand how their reporting is perceived. Many of the criticisms have been very helpful. But some critics are not interested in bettering our coverage. The idea of a boycott falls into that latter category. Levin said it's not really a boycott, but ending funding for NPR is precisely what she wants, and that sounds like a boycott to me.
As history has shown, boycotts have had a dangerous role in the life of the Jewish community -- whether it is the Arab boycott of Israel or the calls today for universities to divest themselves of their Israeli investments.
I would like to speak against this dangerous proposal by CAMERA and why a boycott of NPR would work against the best traditions and best interests of the Jewish community:
NPR is one of the very few American news organizations to maintain a continuous presence in Jerusalem since 1982. In Israel, NPR has two permanent correspondents, Linda Gradstein and Peter Kenyon. A third correspondent will join them over the next few months. NPR reporting has been recognized as a leader in its international coverage from the Middle East and around the world. Other news organizations have reduced their presence overseas. Many news bureaus have been closed as money-saving measures. NPR now operates 12 foreign bureaus. CBS, once the gold standard for foreign broadcast journalism, now has only six.
That does not mean that NPR gets it right every time. Like every other news organization, it makes mistakes. But NPR does try to report this story with all its complexity and in context. NPR also reports on an hourly basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Like CBS and CNN and the Los Angeles Times, it makes mistakes. When they happen, NPR corrects them quickly -- both on the air and on the NPR Web site.
CAMERA, along with other media watchdogs, tells NPR when it has made an error. NPR acknowledges those mistakes and learns to be a better news organization as a result. One important result of the criticisms was to place all reports in written form on the NPR Web site (www.npr.org). Listeners can now go back and read the reports to decide for themselves.
Another result was to create a nimble corrections policy so that errors are caught and acknowledged in a much more timely fashion.
NPR has reinforced its own policies on attribution of sources, the use of interviews and the use of natural sound from the scene. It remains NPR policy that all reporting must be fact based and fair.
But for some critics, those improvements are too little and too cosmetic. Many listeners still feel that NPR's reporting on the Middle East remains subtly -- or not so subtly -- biased.
Some of that is because this story is enormously painful and deeply disturbing to many listeners -- both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian. We hear from people in both communities how the coverage seems tilted away from their concerns. The intensity of this feeling from the Jewish community has been powerful.
In July 2002, NPR's President Kevin Klose, along with News Vice President Bruce Drake and I went to Israel to see for ourselves. The goal was to talk to our correspondents, to meet with Israeli politicians, academics, pollsters and journalists and to meet their Palestinian counterparts. We came back with a renewed commitment to this story and a deeper understanding of the need to broaden our perspectives beyond the violence. While the terror attacks and the military pressure can't and mustn't be ignored, there are other stories as well. We resolve to tell those stories about the anguish along with the hopes of individuals and communities.
We also need to continue to report on the political and military events in the region and the effects they might have back here in the United States. As the United States continues to press the war against terrorism in Afghanistan and against Iraq, the situation in the Middle East becomes increasingly critical and dangerous. This is not a time to reduce our reporting, or to confine it to one side or the other. CAMERA would like NPR to do precisely that. When it comes to NPR, CAMERA sees only the faults and presumes only a malign intent.
We will continue to listen to the critics, and provide our stations with the most reliable information possible. The listeners deserve no less. But the most serious consequence of CAMERA's disingenuous appeal lies in what might happen to the entire public radio system if a boycott should succeed.
Most of NPR's funding comes from its more than 600 member stations. NPR collects dues for the programs it produces, and the stations subscribe to the service. So a boycott of NPR is really a boycott of the local public radio stations -- not just NPR. In Los Angeles, that includes several public radio stations such as KPCC, KUSC and KCRW.
Public radio has an increasingly important role for communities around the country. Not only do the stations provide quality information, the stations also nourish their communities by playing a critical cultural role. Many also have their own local news programs. There are more than 1,000 public radio stations throughout the United States. They represent a reflection of their communities by providing local information, music, drama and discussion of significant local issues. More than 30 million listeners a week now listen to public radio in order to find a serious source of news and culture that is, frankly, better than anything else that can be found on the radio. Public radio stations play that role brilliantly. More and more community groups around the United States are asking NPR how they can set up public radio stations in their towns.
NPR can always do better reporting. And it must. Public radio will continue to serve the cultural and information needs of all its listeners. But NPR also needs the support of all its listeners at this critical time in our history.
Public radio has always found some of its deepest support inside the Jewish community. It is because public radio's commitment to quality information and humanist culture finds a kindred spirit among many in the Jewish community. Rather than exacerbating community anxieties and tensions, a more useful role for CAMERA would be to redefine its role to that of media critic and gadfly. Every news organization -- NPR included -- can benefit from that kind of constructive criticism.
CAMERA needs to find a way to engage in effective feedback, something it has failed to do as it attempts to demonize the media. Should it do so, it might be surprised at the response from news organizations that now view CAMERA as shrill and unrepresentative of the community it purports to serve.
NPR and public radio are much more than just the Middle East coverage. In these times, never has public radio been more needed and more valued. Never has a call for a boycott seemed more shortsighted.
Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR's ombudsman, writes a regular column on media criticism at www.npr.org/yourturn/ombudsman/ and can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.