All bias considered
Bizarre attack on NPR as "anti-Israel" shows how fringe groups are pushing Mideast debate.

By Camille T. Taiara

NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO is hardly a bastion of radical lefty politics. Some progressives fault NPR for being so timid in questioning official U.S. doctrine during the Bush administration's war on terror that they've come to refer to it as "National Pentagon Radio."

But the network has fallen into the crosshairs of some right-wing Zionist groups that charge it with catering to pro-Palestinian sympathies.

"We're calling on people who understand that Israel has the right to exist to withdraw their donations to NPR," Milada Belaya told the Bay Guardian.

A Latvian-born, 39-year-old tech-industry professional, Belaya joined some 50 mostly middle-aged protesters holding placards and American and Israeli flags at a demonstration in downtown San Francisco May 14. The rally was part of a coordinated protest in as many as 35 cities.

NPR, which takes pride in its attempts to provide a balanced picture and a broader context in its coverage of the Middle East, says the charges of anti-Israel prejudice are ridiculous. And respected progressive media watchdog groups like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting agree. If anything, FAIR argues, NPR has been a bit too pro-Israel.

But many of those familiar with the NPR-boycott campaign worry that, at a critical moment in the Middle East crisis, the public radio network has become the latest victim of concerted efforts by a few particularly conservative groups to curb any criticism of Israeli government policies. Those efforts, some critics say, have helped steer mainstream discourse on the issue further to the right.

"There is a very well-organized campaign directed at the media by pro-Israel groups," said Mitchell Plitnick, who was raised an Orthodox Jew in New York and now works as director of administration and communication for A Jewish Voice for Peace. "Groups like that tend to be pretty militant – supportive of Ariel Sharon and his sort of politics. And I don't think that that represents most Jews, certainly in the Bay Area."

Moral equivalence?

At face value, the protesters' criticisms don't seem unreasonable. "We're not asking for censorship, only for fair and honest reporting," said Belaya, who argues her case with professionalism and grace. From March 27, 2002, until April 5, when Palestinian suicide bombers killed 29 Jews celebrating a Passover seder in a Netanya hotel, and similar attacks in Haifa, Jerusalem, and the Israeli settlement of Elon Moreh claimed the lives of 19 more, "NPR didn't mention a single victim of this terrorist onslaught by name," she explained. "Not one family member or survivor was interviewed.... There's no moral equivalence there."

But NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin called such allegations patently untrue. "We named the victims who died," Dvorkin told us. "We spoke to their surviving relatives. We were at the grave sites; we went to shiva, the period of mourning."

Other key criticisms identified by protesters include NPR's alleged reference to suicide bombers as "activists" rather than "terrorists," and the network's supposed lack of reporting on anti-Jewish incitement in schools and media in the Arab world. They also blame NPR for failing to adequately acknowledge the 900,000 Jews who were expelled from or fled Arab nations in the years following the formation of Israel in 1948. Most of those refugees were absorbed by Israel.

"The problem with this issue is that it's very complicated," said San Francisco lawyer Laurel Rest, who organized the San Francisco protest alongside her husband, Bill Kedem of the Israel Action Committee. "The more you know about it, you can tell from a story whether they're purposefully leaving out facts and whether they're coloring it."

But those who support the campaign to divest from NPR tend to leave out some crucial details of their own – and base their criticisms of the network on some pretty biased evidence.

Behind the offensive

Activists in the campaign to divest from NPR rely heavily on data provided by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, a main player behind the offensive. Staffers at the media watchdog group pore over clippings, videotapes, and audio files of mainstream media coverage of the Middle East, meticulously picking apart language, sources, and themes. The organization issues reports, writes letters to editors, keeps close tabs on both outlets and individual reporters, and launches e-mail campaigns targeting those it perceives as expressing any "anti-Israel" views.

There's quite a list. Among the many organizations cited on the CAMERA Web site as harboring anti-Israel inclinations are the New York Times (yes, the New York Times), Harper's, ABC, CNN, the BBC (which Belaya referred to as "the worst enemy of Israel"), and Amnesty International.

"[The groups that launched boycotts of NPR] are people on the right wing of the right wing – Likudniks, whose job it is to try to intimidate journalists into being too afraid to criticize Israel in any way," said Ali Abunimah, cofounder of the supplementary news Web site Electronic Intifada. "Anything at all that shows Israel to be less than a utopia is by definition anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian. They're not able to recognize fundamental realities. For them, simply referring to a military occupation is a sign of anti-Israel hatred."

Indeed, CAMERA has issued "backgrounders" and statements objecting to references to Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza as "illegal" and referring to Amnesty International – which has repeatedly criticized Israel and its defense forces – as "an organization with an unfortunate record of severe bias against Israel."

Before NPR even began airing its award-winning, seven-part series "The Mideast: A Century of Conflict" on Sept. 30, 2002, CAMERA launched an offensive against the program, characterizing it as pro-Palestinian propaganda and stereotyping interviewed experts, such as Avi Shlaim of Oxford University, Benny Morris of Ben Gurion University, and Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said, as "revisionists" and anti-Semites.

"NPR will do more in-depth stories on Israel/Palestine," Plitnick told us. "They'll put some historical context on what they do. When you do that, Israel has a tendency to look worse.

Modern McCarthyism

Despite its reactionary bent, CAMERA – through sheer perseverance and political know-how – has managed to carve out an important role for itself behind the scenes of the public debate on the Middle East. Last November the respected Jewish weekly newspaper the Forward named CAMERA executive director and regular Jerusalem Post contributor Andrea Levin America's fifth most influential Jewish citizen, saying "Media-monitoring was the great proxy war of the last year, and its general is Andrea Levin." CAMERA associate director Alex Safian told us the organization has more than 50,000 members, approximately 15 full-time staff, and expects its annual revenues to exceed $2 million this year.

NPR has had the unfortunate distinction of emerging as one of CAMERA's favored targets. In CAMERA's hometown of Boston, CAMERA and the Boston Israel Action Committee have succeeded in costing local NPR affiliate station WBUR 90.9 FM between one and two million dollars in sponsorship funds, according to WBUR spokesperson Mary Stohn. Safian explained that in addition to calling on individual donors to divest from the network, the group has concentrated on targeting NPR's underwriters, many of which he said contribute $50,000 to $100,000 at a time to the network.

CAMERA charges NPR with allotting a full 77 percent of its Middle East coverage to pro-Palestinian views – an allegation stemming from a study conducted by the organization over the two-month period of Sept. 26 to Nov. 26, 2000, and echoed repeatedly by the May 14 protesters.

"Nonsense," responded NPR's Dvorkin, who bristles at the allegations. In a telephone interview with the Bay Guardian, Dvorkin accused CAMERA of using selective citations and subjective definitions of what it considers pro-Palestinian bias in formulating its findings. "I don't think they're particularly interested in accuracy," he said. "I think they want us to tell one side of the story.... It's a kind of McCarthyism, frankly, that bashes us and causes people to question our commitment to doing this story fairly. And it exacerbates the legitimate anxieties of many in the Jewish community about the survival of Israel."

Dvorkin reports that out of 45,000 e-mails he received last year in response to NPR's coverage, 25,000 were related to programming on the Middle East. As a result, NPR has made transcripts and audio files of all its Middle East reporting available, for free, on a prominent and specially dedicated page of its Web site (www.npr.org/news/specials/mideast/index.html). What's more, "we have gone back to our journalists and reinforced our own policies on attributions, use of sound, writing, commentary balance," Dvorkin said.

In NPR's most recent self-assessment of its coverage, for Jan. 1 to March 31 of this year, the network found a predilection toward relying most heavily on Israeli government sources, with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Major Sharon Feingold accounting for the top two most frequently quoted voices, respectively. (NPR president and CEO Kevin Klose argued that coverage of the Israeli elections during that time period accounted in part for the extra reliance on such sources.)

Safian said NPR's latest self-evaluation figures "seem outright ridiculous." He challenged anybody to inspect his organization's research and charged NPR with consistently refusing to correct "severe errors" in its coverage.

Yet accusations of Palestinian favoritism at NPR seem just as ridiculous to analysts with the Electronic Intifada and FAIR. Last year NPR had to remind Linda Gradstein, one of its veteran Middle East correspondents, not to accept payments from political organizations after Electronic Intifada reported that she had accepted speaking fees from pro-Israeli groups. (Ironically, even Gradstein has come under fire from CAMERA for expressing allegedly "pro-Palestinian" views in her reporting.)

In a study of all NPR news coverage of fatal attacks on Israelis and Palestinians over the first six months of 2001 – during the decisive first year of the current intifada – FAIR found there was an 81 percent likelihood that an Israeli death would be reported on the network, but only a 34 percent likelihood that a Palestinian death would be. The disparity was more pronounced in reporting on children and youths under the age of 18 who were killed. (NPR reported on the deaths of 17 of the 19 Israeli minors killed during that time period, but covered only 6 of the 30 Palestinian minors killed.)

"These numbers suggest that NPR may attempt to pair reports of Israeli and Palestinian casualties in an effort to appear balanced," wrote FAIR's Seth Ackerman in the November-December issue of Extra!.

Nonetheless, critics like Abunimah and Plitnik acknowledge that NPR has also done some worthy programming on the Middle East crisis – especially as compared to other outlets.

"Mainstream American media is extremely narrow in its political focus," Plitnick said. "There's a box around coverage of Israel. And I don't think NPR is getting out of that box. [But] they are going further in-depth and that makes them a better source than ABC, NBC, and the New York Times. Since they're more liberal on the issue than most mainstream outlets, they're going to get hit from both sides on this."

Will it backfire?

While CAMERA and company's crusade against NPR has placed the network's Middle East coverage under a microscope and brought journalists under intense pressure, in the long run, there are some signs its strong-arm tactics may have begun to backfire.

"No journalist wants to be seen as caving in to that sort of crude pressure," Abunimah said. "For these groups, diversity of opinion is the enemy.... That's not a credible position."

Dvorkin seems to agree. He reported a rise in listeners in the past year and speculated that other sponsors may be stepping in to make up for funds lost through the divestment campaign.

"We're not going to be intimidated by organizations like CAMERA or anyone else that want us to be their advocates," Dvorkin asserted.

E-mail Camille T. Taiara


May 28, 2003