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Media Analyses





On the Lookout for Bias at NPR


National Public Radio's (NPR)  news coverage of the Middle East often leaves the impression that Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Jerusalem is the main obstacle to an accord between Israel and the Palestinians. Meanwhile the unrelenting villification of Jews by Arab media, religious leaders and government institutions remains a largely taboo subject at the public network. During the Second Intifada, NPR's coverage had become so unbalanced that it prompted a flood of complaints from members of the Jewish community, who traditionally were staunch supporters of the public network. CAMERA produced numerous studies documenting the tilted coverage and ran full-page ads calling attention to the issue. The blatantly one-sided reporting diminished in the face of sustained public protest and NPR began to provide more balanced coverage, including more segments highlighting facets of Israeli life separate from the grinding conflict with the Palestinians. But recent examples make clear, the temptation to revert to old habits is ever-present and the need for constant vigilance in holding NPR accountable remains.
 
Again, NPR (falsely) blames Israel for housing discrimination
An All Things Considered segment by NPR's Jerusalem bureau chief, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, on Nov. 26, 2009, describes the eviction of Palestinian families from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. In a familiar scenario, a Palestinian spokesman's allegations are amplified by a human rights organization and an oft-quoted Israeli activist. Token balance is supplied by including a brief statement by an Israeli official that fails to address the specific charges leveled. Genuine balance could be provided by Israeli experts who have studied the problem, but they are not called upon. The story promotes the charge that Israel uses discriminatory practices to uproot Arabs from their neighborhoods in East Jerusalem in order to establish a stronger Jewish presence. Garcia-Navarro generalizes a specific dispute over the demolition of illegally built homes into the accusation of a broad pattern of Israeli discrimination.
 
Garcia-Navarro interviews Daniel Seidemann, an activist whose work focuses on preventing Jews from purchasing property and living in East Jerusalem. He has been the go-to man for similar pieces by NPR, the Guardian, NY Times, The Forward and the Washington Post, alleging discrimination against Arabs in the permitting process and in the selective enforcement of laws concerning illegal structures. Seidemann misrepresents the situation, but since the piece omits a direct response to his charges the impression is conveyed that his statements are unassailable.
 
Indicative of the lopsidedness of the piece is the word count: Seidemann, Human Rights Watch and the Palestinian advocate, Fakhri Abu Diab are given 277 words to argue their case against Israel. In addition, much of Garcia-Navarro's own narrative lends support to them. On the opposing side is Israeli Deputy Prime Minister, Dan Meridor, whose 59 word statement focuses on the need to negotiate all the issues of contention between Israel and the Palestinians.
 
One charge repeated by Garcia-Navarro is
Palestinian and international rights groups say that since 1967, only a few thousand building permits have been given to Palestinians in East Jerusalem, even though the Palestinian population since then has almost quadrupled - to 270,000.
Two experts capable of rebutting these charges are Justus Reid Weiner, a scholar of international law at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA), and former Jerusalem city planner, Israel Kimhi, from the Jerusalem Center for Israel Studies. Both have authored books on the subject of the NPR segment. But neither appeared on NPR. The question of discrimination in providing building permits was the basis for a study done by Weiner titled Illegal Construction in Jerusalem: A Variation on an Alarming Global, and published in 2002 by the JCPA. Weiner examined Jerusalem municipal records and found no evidence of discrimination.
 
Contrary to the claims voiced in the NPR piece, as far back as 2000, the Jerusalem municipality's Department of Policy Planning approved plans to authorize the issuance of 33,000 permits for new housing units in the Arab sector of Jerusalem. Permit issuance was hampered by the Arab habit of going around the system and not applying for a permit. The motive for evading the official process may be to avoid the cost — which is identical for Jews and Arabs alike — or to build in a location where it is already suspected that a dispute will arise.
 
For those who chose to work within the system, Weiner determined that a similar percentage of permit applications were approved in the Jewish and Arab sectors of Jerusalem for the years covered by the study (1993-2001). This refutes a key element of the argument often made that Israel is Judaizing the city, tipping the balance of the population more towards Jewish preponderance. In fact, the trends are the opposite, as an increasing proportion of Jerusalem's population is Arab. In 1967, Arabs were 25% of the population of the city, while today they constitute 35%.
 
Another claim put forth in the NPR piece is that while Palestinian illegal buildings are subject to demolition, "Jewish groups that built illegally here are not subject to the same consequences." The JCPA study actually found just the opposite — that a higher proportion of illegal structures built in the Jewish sector were demolished than in the Arab sector. In part, the hesitation about demolishing illegal Arab building has to do with the negative media publicity that often results when Israel seeks to remove unlicensed structures.
 
Kimhi's book, Arab Building in Jerusalem 1967-1997 delves into the difficulties Arabs have faced in Jerusalem, but unlike Seidemann and NPR, he clarifies that these problems are not due to discriminatory practices. According to Kimhi, one of the problems is that cooperating with the city's planning and permitting authorities might be viewed as collaboration with the Israelis, something that East Jerusalem Arabs are loathe to do. Kimhi also explains that differences between past Jewish and Arab land registration practices complicate the process.

The NPR story also misleads by leaving out crucial information about the site slated for demolition that would offer an alternate explanation to alleging that Israel seeks to drive Palestinians out of Jerusalem. This explanation was given in an article appearing in the left leaning Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz on Dec. 10, 2009:

The 88 houses at issue were constructed without permits in the Al-Bustan area of Silwan and are slated for demolition. They stand in an area known as the King's Garden, defined as being of great archaeological importance by the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The Ha'aretz article goes on to mention a recommendation to relocate the residents to homes in other parts of Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem municipality may offer to voluntarily relocate some 1,500 Palestinian residents of the city's Silwan neighborhood - currently living on top of an archaeological site - to alternative lots in East Jerusalem, residents say.
Ignoring hatred spewed against Jews
 
There is chronic refusal at NPR to report candidly on the hatred of Israel and Jews that is widespread and active in Arab and Muslim countries. This is once more evident in two recent segments on frayed relations between Israel and its erstwhile friends in the region.
 
Peter Kenyon introduces an All Things Considered segment on Oct. 26, 2009 by describing the chill in relations between Israel and Egypt and Jordan with the strikingly misleading assertion, "The Arab media is rarely sympathetic to Israel." The piece then discusses the Arab media boycott directed towards Israel as due to their "outrage against the Jewish state" for its treatment of the Palestinians. Unmentioned is the extreme bigotry and paranoid hatred directed at Jews and Israel in the Arab media. MEMRI and Palestinian Media Watch, sites that translate Arab media, routinely carry examples of these expressions. Two examples below are all too typical.
 
On Oct. 1, 2009, the Egyptian government sponsored newspaper, Al-Ahram, published a piece claiming that the troubles in the region proved the truth of the infamous 20th century anti-semitic forgery, the "Protocols of the Elders Zion" stating:
Although we refuse to recognize the protocols with which the Zionists seek to deceive us...
Every escalation [in the region] proves [the truth of] these protocols' every letter and every implication...
For centuries, the Zionists have had a secret plan to bring down the regimes of all countries and to replace them with [their own] tyrannical regime...
They fight every emergence of excellence and distinction among the ignorant, using women, money, intrigue, and schemes to do so – and all as part of a black Jewish plan.
On April 25, 2009, Egyptian official and former advisor to UNESCO, Muhammad Yousef 'Adas, used some choice words to blame the Jews for the world's economic problems and at the same time deny the Holocaust:
The reason for the whole issue is that [the Jews] meddle with the economy, thus gaining control over nations. They finance wars. They are the cause of wars and economic corruption. They helped other countries to shackle Germany, by means of the World War I treaties, with which we are familiar. [...]
Like Roger Garoudy said, the number of [victims] is very controversial. These figures emerged from a myth, not from facts. [...]
By the time 'Adas was finished with his rant, the Holocaust was described as a scheme to loot Swiss banks and resulted in no more than 5,000 Jewish dead in total.
 
Similarly, a Morning Edition segment on Oct. 16, 2009 on strained relations between Israel and Turkey obfuscates rising prejudice against Jews in that nation. It describes the furor over a Turkish television program's vivid portrayal of brutal acts by Israelis in Gaza. The segment supports the proposition that Turkey's new political orientation distancing itself from Israel was exacerbated by Israeli actions in Gaza. But NPR ignores a crucial part of the story. In 2006, a widely popular Turkish movie with American actors called Valley of the Wolves featured a Jewish doctor who specialized in cutting out the organs of Iraqi prisoners to sell to wealthy clients in the West. This revival of the ancient blood libel against Jews is endemic in the Muslim world (and parts of Europe as well). It raises the question as to whether Turkish opinion is turning against Israel out of revulsion with events in Gaza or reflecting an ideological turn towards Islamism and superstitious demonization of Jews.
 
Because of NPR's prevailing perspective that Israeli actions are the driving force for events and attitudes in the Middle East, this topic remains unexplored — and listeners are deprived of a full understanding of events.
 
Language bias skews the story
 
Garcia-Navarro's piece is not the only one to expose NPR's too-frequent institutional slant. On November 11, veteran commentator Daniel Schorr offered a brief update on efforts to get Israel and the Palestinians to the negotiating table. Schorr portrays Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as unyielding and dismisses his efforts as insufficient, arguing
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not halt settlement activity, and he offers only restraint, a nonstarter for peace negotiations. Netanyahu calls for immediate negotiations looking towards an independent Palestinian state. But his precondition is a demilitarized state, another nonstarter. A state that cannot defend itself is not a sovereign state.
Schorr then describes the Palestinian president who rejected Netanyahu's overtures, as
the moderate Mahmoud Abbas.
But whose position is really more moderate? Schorr's comment appears to be based on a fundamental disregard for Palestinian aggression. He dismisses out of hand the notion that a Palestinian state has to be demilitarized, despite the record of Palestinian violence and the ongoing incendiary rhetoric against Israel. He reflexively dubs Abbas a "moderate," ignoring the fact that in August, Abbas hosted the Fatah Party Congress, which rejected the legitimacy of the Jewish state and affirmed the right to launch "resistance"(violence) at a future time of its choosing. Netanyahu, meanwhile, has reiterated his willingness to enter negotiations for a two state solution.
 
This habitual negativity in judging Israel was on display recently as well in a Nov. 20 interview with Farah Pandith, a State Department official responsible for outreach to Muslims. Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep asks:
You don't get any questions, for example, hypothetically, why is the United States such a blind supporter of Israel?
There are many ways Inskeep could have framed the question. He could even have addressed a reality overwhelmingly ignored on NPR: "Do you find yourself having to address the scapegoating of Israel by various regimes seeking to deflect attention from their own conduct and domestic problems?"

America's alleged blind support is a  recurring theme at NPR.  Inskeep and Garcia-Navarro discussed this same topic on June 3, 2009 during which Garcia-Navarro stated,

You know, for the past eight years under the Bush administration the general consensus here is among analysts and even among government officials, is that Israel was pretty much allowed to do whatever it wished.
In fact the Bush Administration's Road Map demanded significant tangible concessions on Israel's part as has every peace initiative supported by the US. Yet Inskeep and Garcia-Navarro only see blind support for Israel. Who is blind here?
 
Inskeep and Garcia-Navarro's perception of blind support for Israel is also reflected in the inordinate coverage given to J-Street, an organization established to counter traditional Jewish support for Israel. NPR devoted two segments over the course of a few days to this fringe organization that advocates positions opposed by most of the Jewish community in the United States. Considering J-Street's marginal status in the Jewish community, one can only attribute this attention to the support it has at NPR.
 
As these examples make evident, although NPR has climbed down from its extreme, biased treatment of Israel during the Second Intifada, the problems with its coverage remain everpresent. NPR could break from tradition and substantially improve its coverage if it would start to focus on the endemic prejudice against Jews that permeates the media in Arab and Muslim countries.
 
Why not a series exploring how Jews and Israel are portrayed in Muslim/Arab schools and textbooks, in news coverage, in the themes of the culture — films, books, television — and the messages of the mosque? Perhaps listeners could then judge whether Israel's conduct — such as the policy of granting building permits in Jerusalem — or Israel's existence itself rankles its neighbors.

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