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Media Analyses





NPR's Robert Siegel Reacts (Badly) to Bias Charge


NPR Host Robert Siegel responded angrily to criticism of his coverage in a column by Andrea Levin that ran in the Jerusalem Post and was later circulated by IMRA, Independent Media Review and Analyis. Name-calling and insults featured in his rejoinder. The exchange follows:

April 7, 2005

IMRA Exchange: Robert Siegel [NPR] and Andrea Levin [CAMERA]

Robert Siegel of NPR contacted IMRA with comments about an item written by Andrea Levin of CAMERA that was distributed by IMRA. IMRA forwarded the comments to Levin and Levin's second response to Siegel, etc.

#1 Robert Siegel

In her March 18th column, On CAMERA, Andrea Levin characterizes an exchange between me and Neal Conan, host of NPR's Talk of the Nation as follows:

But Siegel does not just fail to counter distortions, he himself presents Palestinian views as fact. On March 1, for instance, he declared that “one of the real obstacles of the moment...is the security barrier...He added: “In many parts, it is pretty - although the word is disputed - it sure is a wall.”

In the Israeli view, “one of the real obstacles of the moment” is the ongoing failure of the Palestinians to eradicate the terrorist infrastructure, and the fence is a monument to Palestinians' refusal to control the killers in their midst. Nor is it accurate and professional of Siegel not to report the actual makeup of the security barrier, which is 95% fence and 5% wall.

Take away the ellipsis, the propagandist's best friend, and this is the exchange, as it actually occurred:

SIEGEL:…I should point out here one of the real obstacles of this moment is that in order for Israel to proceed with its withdrawal, it links that very closely to the building of the security barrier...

CONAN: Speaking of obstacles.

SIEGEL: ...right--which is a physical barrier, a physical obstacle. In many parts, it is pretty--although the word is disputed--it sure is a wall. It looks like a big highway barrier that we put up to block sounds from alongside an interstate. Around Gaza, there's a fence and there has been for several years, and the Israelis link their confidence in disengagement to the presence of these barriers, which they hope will limit the possibility of people getting into Israel to commit violent acts. These barriers are anathema to the Palestinians and they regard their presence alone as offensive but also the route that they take as also being political and being an attempt to draw unilateral and de facto boundaries. So again, another area of rather imminent argument.

My sin is evidently acknowledging both the Palestinian and Israeli views of the security barrier. To summarize my comments as she did is an example of editing that is unworthy of a serious journalist. In the same column Ms. Levin writes:

NPR's Robert Siegel spent several weeks in Israel, reporting from the region and filing at least fourteen stories. Although he was there during the February 25 terrorist attack on a Tel Aviv nightspot, he did not cover the breaking story or do a follow-up on the victims.

The impression given is that NPR did not cover the bombing on February 25th, (which occurred after 11:00 PM on the last day of my reporting trip). In fact, one of NPR's resident reporters in Jerusalem, Julie McCarthy, did cover it. She also covered other stories throughout the week when my stories aired from Jerusalem. While this may strike Ms. Levin as a fact unworthy of mention, in the next sentence:

There were predictable segments with Hanan Ashrawi, Nabil Shaath and Saeb Erakat.

... she includes McCarthy's use of Ashrawi and Erakat in her stories with my interview of Nabil Shaath, then the outgoing Palestinian Foreign Minister. (I never interviewed Ashrawi and used a brief clip of Erakat at Sharm el Sheikh, paired with a comment from Israeli Foreign Minister spokesman Mark Sofer.) She neglects to mention my interview with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom as well as my interviews with Israeli settlers in Gush Katif, or with retired Israeli Army Brigadier General Eival Giladi, the so-called 'father of disengagement', or my story on Prime Minister Sharon's news conference for the foreign press.

This is by no means a comprehensive accounting of the misrepresentations and distortions Ms. Levin has circulated about NPR over the years. It is simply a reply to demonstrable distortions of my work that she has made in her most recent column.

Ms. Levin is entitled to her opinions and to refrain from supporting public radio. She is not entitled to publish defamatory lies about other people's work the name of 'accuracy'.

Sincerely,

Robert Siegel,
Senior Host
ALL THINGS CONSIDERED
NPR NEWS

#2 Andrea Levin

Robert Siegel objects to my characterizing his coverage of events in the Middle East in February 2005 as skewed toward Palestinian views and he cites several specifics. First he claims I selectively quoted his remarks in a “Talk of the Nation” interview to misrepresent supposedly equitable statements acknowledging, he insists, “both the Palestinian and Israeli views of the security barrier.”

Neal Conan, host of the talk show, began the discussion in question with a query about whether the “politics” of the Israeli left had undergone change as had politics on the right. Siegel replied at length about the Labor and Likud parties, their roles in past peacemaking and in the present dynamics.

He makes a factual error, unmentioned in my original critique. He claims:

when Menachem Begin made peace with Egypt years ago, it was not his own party, it was not Sharon's Likud Part that really supported it in Parliament. It was the Labor party that did it.

But when the Camp David Accords were voted on in the Knesset in 1978, two thirds of Likud members voted for them. This error should be corrected.

Siegel concluded this section of commentary citing rather detailed observations by a Labor minister who argues that “the party of Ariel Sharon” would not likely make the territorial concessions embraced by parties to the left.

Then Siegel declares:

I should point out here one of the real obstacles of this moment is that in order for Israel to proceed with its withdrawal, it links that very closely to the building of the security barrier...

Conan underscores: “Speaking of obstacles.” And Siegel goes on to say the characterization of the barrier is disputed but “it sure is a wall.” ( The barrier is, of course, 95% fence and 5% concrete wall but is termed a wall by Palestinians and other Israel detractors. Siegel evidently considers it journalistically defensible to promote this deception.)

A vast majority of the Israeli population and its leadership consider the security barrier a benefit, an asset, a protection, even a blessing in shielding them against terrorists. It is not, in their view, a political obstacle at all in the sense Siegel is presenting it.

On the other hand, most mainstream Israelis do believe that “one of the real obstacles of this moment” in making progress towards peace is the continuing existence of the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure — that is, men, guns, bomb factories, smuggling tunnels and all the other apparatus of violence that has been mustered against Israelis and has yet to be dismantled.

Siegel never mentions this Israeli view of the moment's key “obstacle” — only the Palestinian one.

In his next comment, before reiterating Palestinian opposition to the barrier, he makes a brief, oblique reference to the fence around Gaza, saying:

Around Gaza, there's a fence and there has been for several years, and the Israelis link their confidence and disengagement to the presence of these barriers which they hope will limit the possibility of people getting into Israel to commit violent acts.

This is indicative of Siegel-talk. It tilts, dodges and omits. The Israelis don't merely “hope” the barriers will “limit the possibility” of attacks. The fences have proven their effectiveness. As is well-known, the Gaza fence has been highly successful in containing infiltrators from that area, and even the partially constructed fence in the West Bank is credited with helping to radically reduce terrorist penetrations into Israel. This is also well-known.

Why the obfuscation on an entirely clear cut point? Again, for Israelis the fence has had an important, life-saving, beneficial impact, but the Palestinians despise the structure. Siegel skews to the latter.

But back to a separate problem in what Siegel said in the line I quoted. He claimed “in order for Israel to proceed with its withdrawal, it links that very closely to the building of the security barrier.” What linkage? Does he think the Gaza Disengagement is linked to fence construction in the West Bank? Actually — “closely linked”? The Gaza withdrawal is a separate policy, one scheduled on the calendar, while fence building moves in spurts, halted periodically by the Israeli courts. How are they closely linked??

NPR should also issue an on-air correction of this muddled nonsense.

Siegel also objected to my faulting him for not covering the February 25 Tel Aviv suicide bombing and for implying NPR didn't cover the event at all. My comments referred to Robert Siegel, Senior Host of National Public Radio, spending “several weeks in the region” and to what and how he reported. It was certainly of note that he failed to do anything on an event as significant as the first suicide bombing under the new Palestinian president in what was hoped to be a better, post-Arafat era.

Several of his stories had aired earlier that day, including a jocular report on stolen cars in Gaza. Others had centered on such topics as the dubbing in Arabic of the movie “Ghandi,” and the release of the film “Syrian Bride” about the difficulties of a Druze Israeli woman marrying a Syrian.

His rejoinder is that the bombing “occurred after 11:00 PM on the last day of my reporting trip” preventing him, he seems to suggest, from covering the event. Sounds like the Senior Host, supposedly a veteran journalist, punched out for the day while Israeli ambulances were picking up body parts in Tel Aviv. Many, if not most, journalists consider themselves on the job any time of day when an important story breaks.

Nor did Siegel take the opportunity to follow up on the terrorist attack story when he was back on the air Tuesday, four days later, doing the same Talk of the Nation session mentioned above. While a major part of the program was devoted specifically to Siegel's observations about his experiences in Israel in the prior weeks, he had virtually nothing to say about the attack in Tel Aviv. He did not tell listeners who the victims were, including, for instance, Yael Orbach, the 28 year old who brought wedding invitations to hand out at the festive evening she'd anticipated. Instead of attending her wedding, the family buried her.

He did not tell listeners how the official Palestinian Authority newspaper Al Hayat Al Jadida ran a large color photo of the bomber that Sunday, February 27, on its front page with the highly laudatory description, “martyr.” Other official papers were similarly eulogistic, but he mentioned nothing about this troubling message to Palestinians regarding the slaughter of innocent Israelis. That is, Siegel neither reported on the terrorist attack in Tel Aviv nor did a follow up when he had the opportunity to do so in an extended interview focused specifically on his trip to the Middle East.

Again, in keeping with the pervasive bias of the network, on the "Talk of the Nation" segment Siegel singled out for mention stories involving Palestinians: one, again, the bantering Gaza stolen car segment; another on the "Palestinian young guard." Also notable is the four listener calls taken by this national talk show: three made pro-Palestinian and/or anti-Israel statements, some vehement; a fourth asked about Palestinian refugees.

(Many callers sympathetic to Israel have given up trying to get on the air because of screeners who evidently prefer pro-Arab views. In fact, some pro-Israel callers have gotten on the air only by using Arab names.)

This is another aspect of NPR's bias.

Siegel also claims he was not responsible for a segment involving Hanan Ashrawi and Saeb Erakat. According to NPR transcripts, he's listed as senior host of the program. He asks why I didn't mention his interview with, for instance, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. I would have been glad to include reference to that segment – space in an op-ed permitting – because it, too, is indicative of Siegel's bias.

Compare the February 23 Shalom interview with the February 22 Nabil Shaath one. Siegel chats with the Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister in genial fashion, making vacuous, small talk with questions like:

What is the bottom line here? When people ask from America, “Well, what does it add up to?” Is it a moment of hope in the West Bank? Is it a time when Palestinians and Israelis think optimistically about the future? Are people skeptical? What's your answer?

Shalom gets different treatment. The Minister says the Palestinians are not doing anything to tear down the terrorist infrastructure and that the appearance of calm is deceptive. When Shalom states that the Palestinians are still trying to carry out attacks, Siegel replies that there haven't been attacks in recent days, since the Aqaba summit.

Shalom counters that “only the day before yesterday terrorists were on their way to carry out an attack against us. It was only a miracle that they didn't succeed to do it. So – ”

Siegel jumps in: “Where was that? Where was that attack?” The Minister responds that he can't reveal that information and then goes on to say that Israel has “two major problems with the Palestinians” — Kassam missile-firing from Gaza and attacks on Israelis.

With Shalom having just sketched a picture of continuing arms build-up and inaction by Palestinians to halt violence, Siegel proposes:

...should you not remove roadblocks until you see that sort of thing happening?

The Minister replies:

I want you to know that during 2004, we moved and canceled 90 roadblocks. And the only reason we could have done it is because we build the security fence. While we have this preventative measure that don't (sic) allow them or giving them the possibility to come from the territories into the state of Israel, we don't' need those roadblocks anymore. And...

Siegel interrupts:

But the Palestinians will say that's because you've replaced 90 small roadblocks with one enormous roadblock.

Again, as though flakking for the Palestinians, the NPR host interjects their view of the fence.

Not only did interviews with Israelis and Palestinians reflect such discrepant dynamics, but taken as a whole Siegel spent substantially more time with Arab speakers who were routinely given softball treatment. Including his stories filed from Egypt, there were double the number of Arabs interviewed. (In a segment with young Egyptians that supposedly probed their views of democracy efforts in that country, he did not raise the critical issue of the imprisonment of Ayman Nour, the preeminent democracy figure. Instead the segment tended toward the same vacuous queries about whether the young Arab interviewees are optimistic or not.)

Anyone who would like to judge for themselves the merit of the criticism can find transcripts of Siegel's interviews on the NPR Web site at

www.npr.org.

#3 Robert Siegel

If I have recalled Likud's support of Camp David incorrectly, I apologize for that. As for linkage of withdrawal to the barrier, I don't apologize. Israelis connect the disengagement from northern Samaria to construction of the barrier there. Further disengagement from West Bank settlements not in the major blocs near the Green Line would require further construction of the barrier; there's an obvious conflict coming over that, since the Palestinians are neuralgic on the subject of the barrier.

Otherwise, Ms. Levin seems to insist on her assertion that I present Palestinian positions as fact. She offers no apology for that, or for mixing up my work with others. As for when my reporting ended in Israel, when NPR needs a shrill Likud polemicist to handle its assignments, I'll check with her when it's time to knock off on a reporting trip.(sic)  As I wrote in my first letter, Ms. Levin is entitled to her opinions. To present this is “accuracy in reeporting” (sic) as opposed to advocacy is ridiculous.

#4 Andrea Levin

Again Mr. Siegel resorts to name-calling, the familiar refuge of those at a loss for substantive answers.

He did concede making an inaccurate statement regarding support for the 1978 Camp David Accords. Will NPR now broadcast a correction for listeners?

[Robert Siegel opted not to respond]

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The same contempt toward NPR's critics was evinced by the network's Ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, in an exchange with a listener who asked for NPR's response to the Levin column.


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