June 3, 2005

Airing Bias on NPR

The attack by Samuel Freedman in a May 27 opinion article against the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, as well as his defense of National Public Radio’s Middle East coverage and his claims about initiatives by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting are alarming considering that he is a tenured professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism (“From ‘Balance’ to Censorship: Bush’s Cynical Plan for NPR”). His assertion that there is a “scheme” afoot, a “desire to censor” and an attempt to “destroy the editorial independence” of NPR merits a response. A few facts are in order.

Freedman neglects to mention a crucial point: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, an independent entity created to oversee the channeling of tax funds to public radio and television networks, is mandated by a 1967 federal statute to assure that recipients of its funds provide “strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature.” That is, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is required to assure that American tax dollars are not used to support partisan programming on contentious issues — an eminently reasonable stipulation. How to implement such oversight and yet avoid government intrusiveness is the difficult question.

What has always been missing in the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s previous efforts to assure objectivity and balance has been a mechanism for evaluating the merit of listener complaints. This has meant, for instance, that extensive documentation of partisan NPR coverage had simply been ignored; perhaps that is about to change. Freedman, however, chooses to term this evolution toward compliance with the law — and with common sense and journalistic ethics — “a scheme to place NPR’s programming under political oversight.”

He also excoriates anyone who criticizes the media, mocking the “professional scolds” who dare to fault “NPR, CNN, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times” — and in particular those of us who work at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, or Camera. In reality, Camera — a 25-year-old media-monitoring group with a national membership of 55,000 and a staff of almost 20 people documenting and researching coverage and publishing magazines and monographs — focuses on data and facts. We focus not, as Freedman suggests, on “conspiratorial” decisions by news executives or field reporters, but on what precisely is written or broadcast, whether it is accurate and complete, and whether there is a balanced presentation of views.

Fortunately, at many media outlets there is a commendably open approach by editors and reporters to readers, viewers and listeners who communicate on issues of fact, balance, completeness and even news judgment — a healthy and vitally important dimension of interaction between powerful institutions and the public they serve. Many of the most eminent print and electronic media are the most professional and systematic in addressing concerns on the merits and evince an admirable focus on getting the story right.

However, among the least amenable to public concerns is National Public Radio, the network Freedman vociferously defends. He cites as proof of NPR’s integrity a morning broadcast several years ago about “how Palestinian laborers were reduced to sneaking across the Green Line on foot or even donkey to avoid the Israeli army’s checkpoints and border closures.” He recalls, “As both a journalist and a Zionist, I listened closely for any explanation of why Israel had deemed it necessary to block Palestinian entry. To my satisfaction, the NPR correspondent noted that the policy had come in response to a wave of suicide bombings.”

According to the news database Nexis, there were two segments on NPR’s “Morning Edition” show making reference to a donkey and Palestinians at checkpoints. One aired on March 6, 2001 and the other February 25, 2002. The first includes three critics of Israel and one defender. The second opens with a sentence to the effect that Israel cites suicide bombings as cause for the checkpoints —and then presents only Palestinians deploring Israeli actions, offers no Israeli voices at all and is devoted to what is characterized as the humiliation, shame and anger of the Palestinians.

Contrary to warranting the praise Freedman offers, these segments typify an aspect of NPR distortion. Cumulatively, such one-sided presentations of Palestinian grievances with far lesser mention of Israeli perspectives amounts to bias. Numerous in-depth studies by Camera detail this and other elements of NPR’s skewed Middle East coverage.

Andrea Levin

Executive Director

Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America

Boston, Mass.

Misguided Mistruths

Leonard Fein’s May 20 opinion column showed that NGO Monitor won’t let truth stand in the way of its attacks on anyone who criticizes Israel’s human rights record. The response in a May 27 letter to the editor of NGO Monitor’s editor, Gerald Steinberg, could stand as Exhibit A of Fein’s case (“Watching the Watchers”).

Steinberg’s claim that Human Rights Watch “support[s]” the British boycott of Israeli academics is pure fiction. When questioned, he does not even pretend to have a basis for it. He just made it up.

Steinberg accuses Human Rights Watch of playing a “role” in the 2001 Durban conference’s condemnation of “Zionism as racism” and Israel as an “apartheid” state, leaving the impression that we supported these reprehensible charges. In fact, the only role we played was trying to prevent adoption of these calumnies and, when that failed, issuing a public denunciation carried by newspapers around the world.

Steinberg claims our Israel researcher “wrote for” a pro-Palestinian Web site simply because — like the use of our material worldwide by press of all political views — it once reprinted an article of hers published elsewhere. He trumpets his “quantitative analysis” of our reporting on Israel while ignoring the comprehensive, five-year figures he was given proving no disproportionate attention to Israel.

Steinberg evidently calculates that however many times his lies are exposed, some people will believe him. Yet he does Israel no favor by rejecting unpleasant truths in favor of defensive mistruths. Only those who foolishly believe that telling tall tales will win Israel friends subscribe to such systematic distortion.

Kenneth Roth

Executive Director

Human Rights Watch

New York, N.Y.

The Omer’s Meaning

Fast Forward writer Saul Austerlitz notes various meanings assigned to the Omer period with the passage of time (“In Marking Time: Recounting the Omer,” May 20). While he mentions the biblical commandment to bring an offering of new grain to the Temple on the 50th day following Passover, he does not expand on this agricultural link.

Nogah Hareuveni does exactly that in his book “Nature in our Biblical Heritage.” He writes, “The day of offering on which new grain was brought to the Temple was called by the talmudic sages the closing of Passover. It is this day which closes the cycle of the fifty nerve-racking days counted off.”

Only at the end does the daily trepidation for the fate of the grain crop and the early development of the fruit of the seven varieties have a joyful conclusion. Naomi Shemer, in her beloved bittersweet song “Al Kol Eleh,” took note of this in asking God to “Watch over the little I have… over the fruit that has not yet been ripened but which has already been harvested.” This is a time of danger, this is the watchfulness in the counting of each day of the Omer.

Menorah Rotenberg

Teaneck, N.J.

Offensive Journalism

A May 27 article raises the ridiculous possibility that Malcolm Hoenlein had knowingly let two hecklers sit in a reserved section at an event for Prime Minister Sharon co-sponsored by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (“Hecklers Nabbed VIP Seating With Help of (Former) Friend”). The article’s authors implied as much, though they cite no one either by name or anonymously who made such an accusation.

Usually journalists present both sides to a dispute. What are the two sides here? Hoenlein clearly denied any foreknowledge of the hecklers’ intention to interrupt the prime minister at the event he initiated and worked on tirelessly. The heckler himself denied that Hoenlein could have had any expectation of his behavior. Even Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director termed in the article as “one of Hoenlein’s main critics,” called the accusation unfair.

On the other side, there is an unattributed conspiracy theory that offends common sense. The Forward asks its readers to consider the possibility that Hoenlein would even think of this, let alone risk his reputation and position to allow the two hecklers — who were already in the auditorium — to be seated a few rows closer to the stage. No responsible person would do or think this.

No responsible newspaper would run a headline that implied so, as the Forward did. The orange protesters, we expected. The yellow journalism, we didn’t.

James Tisch


Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations

New York, N.Y.

Editor’s note:

The Forward’s report on the heckling at the May 22 Sharon rally did not present two sides to a dispute because there was no dispute. At no point did our report suggest that Malcolm Hoenlein had advance warning of a disruption by the individuals he waved into the VIP section at the rally. On the contrary, we quoted three sources — Hoenlein, the heckler himself and Abraham Foxman — stating plainly that the event was unforeseen and probably unpredictable. Nowhere did we ask the reader to think otherwise.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.
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June 3, 2005

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