Covering Up for NPR

Omerta, the oath of silence purportedly taken by Mafia recruits about mob activities, apparently has a news media counterpart. That would explain the Washington Post and New York Times’ omission of documentation of anti-Israel bias at National Public Radio—a media establishment colleague—in their coverage of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CAMERA’s substantiation of NPR’s slanted Arab-Israeli news is extensive and public, but virtually was blacked out of Post and Times reporting of CPB controversies this spring and summer.

Background to Controversy

Congress, through CPB, is a major funder—directly and indirectly—of NPR and television’s Public Broadcasting Service. The Telecommunications Act obligates recipients of corporation money to provide “strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature.” CAMERA has documented a pattern of anti-Israel reporting by NPR that violates the “objectivity and balance” standard.

CPB Chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson expressed interest in seriously investigating complaints of bias in NPR’s Arab-Israeli coverage. On April 5, CPB voted to create two ombudsmen positions to review public complaints on all subjects. CAMERA welcomed CPB’s possible examination of NPR’s Middle East coverage, and was cautiously optimistic that the ombudsmen might provide the agency a means to fulfill its mandate to assure objectivity and balance.

Top NPR executives objected to Tomlinson’s interest in complaints of anti-Israel reporting, and to CPB’s creation of ombudsmen. They noted that the network had its own ombudsman (created five years ago partly to deflect criticism of NPR’s coverage of the “al-Aksa intifada,” which CAMERA documented as frequently erroneous and chronically tilted toward Arab and Palestinian views).

In a related development, Bill Moyers used a speech to a national public broadcasters’ meeting to allege a right-wing attempt to control public television. Moyers also portrayed his former show, “Now,” as virtually above reproach.

Responding to excerpts of Moyers’ speech reprinted as a Baltimore Sun Op-Ed column, CAMERA noted in a letter-to-the-editor published on June 4 that “Now” itself has been marred by error and bias in commentary on the Arab-Israeli conflict. The letter pointed to a June 6, 2003 “Now” broadcast, for example, as riddled with factual errors and misrepresentations.

“Contrary to Moyers’ hysteria about an onslaught from the right,” the letter added, “11 Democratic members of Congress complained about NPR’s [anti-Israel] tilt in a 2003 letter to its president, Kevin Klose.” The CAMERA letter also noted that Moyers avoided the central issue of CPB oversight of recipients. It stressed that attempting to enforce the “objectivity and balance” standard should not be clouded by partisanship but encouraged to promote accountability to Congress and taxpayers.

CAMERA President and National Director Andrea Levin stressed that allegations by NPR of political meddling or censorship were either ill-informed or disingenuous. “NPR’s top executives should welcome, and cooperate with, efforts to eliminate any sort of bias, which can only improve the quality of the network’s broadcasts,” Levin said. CAMERA members e-mailed CPB more than 100 messages in three days in support of meaningful “objectivity and balance” review.

The controversy sparked headlines from April through July. The press, led by the Washington Post and New York Times, described the uproar as a struggle between CPB’s Republicans versus NPR and PBS on partisan and First Amendment grounds. Some House and Senate Democrats called for Tomlinson’s resignation; the CPB inspector-general opened an investigation into complaints about the chairman’s actions.

Intensifying the partisan aspect of the story was a House Appropriations Committee vote to reduce by 25 percent CPB’s anticipated $400 million allocation. Chairman Ralph Regula, (R-Ohio) cited overall budget constraints but opponents of funding reductions alleged a Bush administration desire to co-opt public broadcasting. The full House restored the cuts, and the Senate Appropriation Committee likewise backed full funding.

Meanwhile, the substance of CAMERA’s criticism of NPR was virtually unmentioned in the eruption over partisan politics. Focusing on CPB’s legal role as a shield for recipients like NPR and PBS from political intrusion allowed the Times and Post to essentially ignore the corporation’s companion obligation to uphold the “objectivity and balance” standard. Fixating on the partisan aspects of the clash also enabled the Post and Times to ignore the substance of CAMERA’s NPR criticism.

At CPB’s 2004 public hearing, CAMERA stressed that the corporation’s annual reports to Congress on compliance by recipients were no more than “vague generalities.” CAMERA urged CPB to assign staff the specific task of examining complaints according to established journalistic standards of accuracy, objectivity, balance, fairness, comprehensiveness and context.

CPB’s creation of two ombudsmen might be a start. Though the board resolution setting procedures for the ombudsmen denied them authority to sanction violators, objections by PBS and NPR personnel to their existence suggested a desire to avoid meaningful oversight.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), also speaking at last year’s CPB public hearing, noted frequent constituent complaints about NPR’s Arab-Israeli coverage and urged the corporation to fund an outside study of the network’s reporting.

Avoiding Specifics

The Post ran 13 articles from April 22 through July 17 on the subject, 10 by reporter Paul Farhi, two by television columnist Lisa de Moraes, and one by reporter Philip Kennicott. None mentioned the substance of complaints about Middle East coverage.

Emblematic of Post coverage was Farhi’s magazine-length wrap-up, “Fairness in the Balance; Public Broadcasting Is Under Scrutiny. Neither Side Seems To Like What It Sees.” After citing sources on both sides of the political divide, Farhi asserts “it’s hard to make sweeping generalizations; there hasn’t been an independent and systematic study of the political content of NPR or PBS programs in years.”

But CAMERA’s independent, systematic studies have documented NPR’s anti-Israel biasand they were provided to Farhi several months before “Fairness in the Balance” appeared. CAMERA’s work establishing a standard by which to evaluate NPR’s Arab-Israeli coverage was referred to only once in the Post‘s 13 articles, and then obliquely.

Farhi reported, in “A Different Reception for Public Broadcasting; Agency Chairman Stresses `Balance,'” on May 20 that Rep. Sherman, “echoing long-standing complaints by a media watchdog group, expressed concerns about NPR’s coverage of the Israel-Palestinian conflict in early 2003.”

The New York Times said a little more about NPR’s Arab-Israeli reporting in the context of covering the other CPB-related controversies, but also avoided specifics. In “NPR Conflict with Overseer Is Growing” (May 16), staff writer Stephen Labaton wrote that

executives at National Public Radio are increasingly at odds with the Bush appointees who lead the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

In one of several points of conflict in recent months, the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which allocates federal funds for public radio and television, is considering a plan to monitor Middle East coverage on NPR news programs for evidence of bias, a corporation spokesman said ….

Late last year, without notifying board members or NPR, Tomlinson contacted S. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a research group, about conducting a study on whether NPR’s Middle East coverage was more favorable to Arabs than to Israelis, Lichter said. He added that although there were follow-up conversations as recently as February, officials at the corporation had not moved ahead with the project ….

Other officials said Tomlinson had heard complaints about the coverage from a board member, Cheryl Halpern, a former chairwoman of the Republican Jewish Coalition and leading party fund-raiser whose family has business interests in Israel. The corporation has also heard complaints from Representative Brad Sherman, Democrat of California.

Of course, CAMERA has conveyed its criticism, and the organization’s 2004 testimony is posted on CPB’s Web site. CAMERA criticisms of NPR are noted in the corporation’s 2003 “Open to the Public” report, also on the corporation’s Web site. And CAMERA’s studies of NPR were provided to all CPB board members last September.

The Times‘ seven other reports on the controversies over the corporation, its budget, and recipients’ programming contain no additional information on the matter.

CAMERA got the word out in other ways, including a May 17 Jewish Telegraphic Agency story, “NPR may be monitored on Israel; Jewish reaction is cautious optimism,” which opened and closed with quotes from CAMERA Associate Director Alex Safian.

This is something we’ve been calling on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to do for years. It’s potentially a move in the right direction, depending on what kind of analysis the Corporation for Public Broadcasting does,

Safian said at the outset.

The long article for Jewish publications world-wide concluded with Safian’s observation that CAMERA has done several studies of NPR’s Arab-Israeli coverage and found that the programming

not only offers “a preponderance of Palestinians voices,” but tends to give those voices longer chunks of air time. “The Palestinians guests were on longer and had much greater opportunity to put their views forth.”

CAMERA Op-Ed columns pointing out NPR’s violation of the objectivity and balance standard and the need for meaningful oversight by CPB appeared in Jewish weekly newspapers in the San Francisco Bay area, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. Meanwhile, CAMERA continues to provide congressional offices with documentation of NPR’s anti-Israel bias and will continue to urge CPB in meetings with officials, testimony and other communications — to uphold its “objectivity and balance” standard according to recognized journalistic guidelines of accuracy, objectivity, fairness, balance, and comprehensiveness.

Now is the time for these two major dailies and other leading news outlets to cease being timid about reporting on journalistic malpractice by other media. Their credibility depends on, among other things, forthright coverage of their own industry, coverage that tolerates no sacred cows.

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