In a May 27 column in the Forward Samuel Freedman, a tenured professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, excoriated critics of the media, in particular of National Public Radio. He also made groundless charges that recent moves by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting are a “scheme” and “a desire to censor” as well as to “destroy the editorial independence” of NPR. Freedman termed groups such as CAMERA “professional scolds” for citing problems of error and/or bias in “NPR, CNN, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times” — all of which media outlets, it should be noted, have published his writing or interviewed him.
What kind of instruction goes on, one wonders, in the journalistic ethics classes at Columbia? Does Professor Freedman teach and adhere to the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists that includes the following under the “Be Accountable” category:
Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.
- Clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct.
- Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media.
- Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.
- Expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.
- Abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.
CAMERA Letter Rebuts Freedman
FORWARD, 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” as well as to “destroy the editorial independence” of NPR merits 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 decision[s] 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 judgement – 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 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 presentation 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.
Committee for Accuracy in
Middle East Reporting in America