NPR and Israel: June, July 2002

Yet another two-month study reveals National Public Radio coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict continues to be marred by factual distortions and disproportionate presentation of Arab and pro-Arab speakers. Skewed and serious allegations against Israel are, at times, aired in completely one-sided programs without giving Israel the right of response. Partisan language shades reporting, blurring the terrorist role of Palestinian groups and leaders and casting Israeli leaders alone as “hard-line.”

Among significant events during the review period (June 1 to July 31, 2002) were President George W. Bush’s June 24 speech on Palestinian reform as well as major terrorist attacks targeting Israeli civilians, including a bus bombing at Megiddo Junction that killed 17, a bus bombing near Gilo that killed 19, a street bombing in Jerusalem that killed seven, a bus and shooting attack near Emmanuel that killed nine and the bombing of the Hebrew University cafeteria that killed nine. A July 24 military strike by Israel killed Hamas Military commander Saleh Shehadeh as well as 14 Palestinian civilians, many of them children.

Lack of balance in speakers

A detailed review of all transcripts concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict on NPR news and interview programs (“Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered,” “Talk of the Nation,” “Weekend Edition Saturday,” “Weekend Edition Sunday,” “Weekend All Things Considered”) found continuing disproportion in the presentation of Arab/Palestinian or pro-Arab/Palestinian speakers versus those of Israeli/pro-Israeli speakers.

It should be noted that although a number of the Israeli speakers heard on NPR in the period of the study are known to be harsh critics of Israel, their views sometimes mirroring those of the Palestinians, all were included under the “Israeli” category.

Arab or pro-Arab speakers comprised 58.6 percent of the total while only 41.4 percent were Israeli or pro-Israeli. Moreover, the Arab/pro-Arab speakers were afforded 64.1 percent of the total words spoken (13,822 words) compared to 35.9 percent for Israeli/pro-Israel speakers (7,729 words). That is, the voices heard presenting Arab and pro-Arab views were clearly dominant both in terms of the numbers of such speakers heard and the amount of time (in words spoken) afforded them. Magnifying of pro-Arab views over extended periods (the same disproportion was documented in CAMERA’s Fall 2000 study) clearly tilts the message conveyed to listeners.

The most prominent single speaker–by far–during June-July was Saeb Erakat, whose comments were broadcast 12 times. (The most quoted Israeli, Zalman Shoval, was heard five times.) Erakat was the most frequently consulted Palestinian speaker despite his major role in previous months in falsely alleging Israel had committed a “massacre” in Jenin. He had claimed “more than 500” Palestinians were killed (eg: “CNN Live Today” April 10, 2002), when, in fact, there were 53 fatalities, nearly all gunmen.

Exclusionary segments

Thirty-one segments included only Palestinian, Arab or pro-Palestinian/pro-Arab speakers with no Israelis or pro-Israeli voices heard. Many of these exclusionary segments presented criticism of Israel, some of it highly distorted and false. On the other hand, there were just nine segments that included exclusively Israeli or pro-Israeli speakers and no Arab/Palestinian voices.

The segments that included only Israeli speakers did not contain harsh allegations against Palestinians. (Two focused on terror attacks, one on a funeral, one on a high-tech security gadget convention, one on Israeli demolition of Palestinian houses, and several on commentary by analysts presenting little or no direct criticism of Palestinians.)

Among the grievances and accusations against Israel leveled by Palestinians and others in the 31 segments excluding Israeli or pro-Israeli speakers were:

• Alleged Israeli brutality at checkpoints
June 4: Israeli checkpoints are said to cause terrible distress for Palestinians and are a form of “collective punishment.” An Israeli soldier is alleged to have knocked out the front teeth of a Palestinian for violating a curfew. Palestinians are termed “desperate” and “frustrated.” There is only passing reference by an NPR reporter to the purpose of checkpoints in an observation that the “Israeli government says it has imposed travel restrictions on the West Bank to stop suicide bombings…” No Israeli/pro-Israel speakers are included.

• Israel thwarting Palestinian reform
June 13: On the subject of Palestinian reforms, NPR host Liane Hansen states that the “shadow of Israeli tanks continues to darken the prospects for Palestinian reform.” In a discussion by Palestinians, one asserts that the biggest problem is the Israeli army. No Israeli/pro-Israel speakers are included.

•Edward Said assailing Israel and Sharon
June 23: A deferential interview with one of Israel’s most extreme detractors, Edward Said, includes his claims that American policy is controlled by the Christian right and the Israeli lobby. He also makes numerous sweeping charges against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Israel. NPR interviewer Lynn Neary herself introduces a comparison of efforts against Israel to those against South African apartheid. No challenge is presented at any time to Said. No Israeli/pro-Israel speakers are included.

•Difficulties of curfews and callous Israelis
June 24; A segment on the difficulties of curfews includes a student and teacher referring to being terrified and charging that Israel “does not want to see a life for the Palestinian people.” No Israeli/pro-Israel speakers are included.

•Israel preventing PA reform
June 26: On the issue of Palestinian reform (per the Bush speech) Palestinian Jonathan Kuttab said Palestinians have wanted reform from “day one” but Israelis have prevented this. NPR’s Linda Gradstein added that Kuttab doubted the United States “is really committed to Palestinian reform.” Saeb Erakat declared that, “Unfortunately, while Palestinians are engaged in reform, Ariel Sharon is engaged in deform. Palestinians are under full Israeli occupation.” Palestinian residents described their distress. No Israeli/pro-Israel speakers are included.

•Denunciation of Bush policy toward Israel
July 1: Correspondent Kate Seelye interviewed three Palestinians deploring the Bush speech and policy toward Israel. No Israeli/pro-Israel speakers are included.

•Israeli snipers target Gaza sewer repairmen
July 1: Peter Kenyon interviewed only Palestinian and international “activist” speakers who claimed Israeli snipers have been targeting sewer repairmen in Gaza for “six months,” thwarting efforts to protect the health of the residents. There is no mention of the severe dangers in the area to Israelis who face shooting virtually every day or of the network of smuggling tunnels bringing explosives and arms into Gaza. In a correspondence with CAMERA, Israel Defense Forces spokesmen categorically denied Israeli soldiers have been targeting repairmen and the spokesman’s office said NPR rarely, if ever, fact-checks stories such as this. No Israeli/pro-Israel speakers are included.

•No PA reform without end to Israeli “oc cupation”
July 5: On the issue of Palestinian reforms and the removal of Palestinian strongman Jebril Rajoub by Palestinian Authority leader Yasir Arafat, Mustapha Barghouti states that “You can’t separate the issue of reform from the issue of the need to end the occupation.” No Israeli/pro-Israel voices are included.

•Egypt radicalized by images of Israeli-Palestinian conflict
July 12: The segment focuses on a decline in “moderation” in Egypt, with the younger generation hating Israel and resenting U.S. policy. Images on television of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict inflame sentiment. There is no mention of the state-sponsored media’s role in promoting virulent anti-Semitism or the falsity of distorted broadcasting by the Al-Jazeera network. Seven Arabs speak. No Israeli/pro-Israel speakers are included.

Language bias

Partisan use of language is a near-daily feature of NPR coverage, sometimes in blatant form. Broadly speaking, NPR uses softened terminology to describe extreme and violent Palestinian groups and actions, while reserving “hard-line” references for Israel. Similarly, positive appellations such as “moderate,” “prominent” and “popular” are associated only with Palestinians or Arab Muslims.

• NPR: ‘Commandos’ Kill Children
An especially egregious case of evasive and inappropriate phrasing for what was unquestionably an act of terror was a report on June 21. Forty-year-old Rachel Shabo and three of her young sons were murdered by a heavily armed terrorist who broke into their home and opened fire. NPR reported the attack with these words: “Israeli officials say Palestinian commandos stormed a house in a Jewish settlement on the West Bank last night killing five people.”

Israeli officials said no such thing. As they routinely do, they termed the attackers “terrorists.” “Commando” is a word applied to elite, special operations military forces. Connotations of bravery and even rescue of hostages, not murder of women and children are implied. Under fire from listeners, NPR first claimed there was no such broadcast, then posted a correction on its Web site. The correction was never broadcast.

• IDF cites ‘terrorists,’ NPR says ‘gunmen’ and ‘militants’
A common NPR usage in the same vein appeared in a July 17 story concerning a terrorist attack in the West Bank in which a bus full of civilians, including women and children, was first bombed and then, as survivors fled, was fired on by Palestinians dressed in Israeli military uniforms. Nine were murdered, including three generations of one family. In reporting Israeli pursuit of the killers, NPR stated:

…the Israeli army says that an hour-long gun battle took place in the early-morning hours, between 4 and 5 local time, not far from where the ambush occurred yesterday. Both sides took casualties when they exchanged fire. The Israeli Defense Forces say one gunman, identified as a Palestinian militant, was killed. Israelis say there were two armed men in that exchange; the second one managed to escape.

The IDF actually said this:

An IDF unit intercepted a terrorist group near the Kene River. A battle was engaged. The officer was killed and three soldiers were wounded. One of the terrorists was also killed. IDF troops are continuing to search for at least one other terrorist who managed to escape from the scene.

Contrary to NPR, the Israel Defense Forces did not identify the “gunman” as a “Palestinian militant.” NPR routinely alters the statements of Israeli officials, recasting them to eliminate the word “terrorist.” While refusing to apply “terrorist” to the killers of Israeli civilians, NPR routinely refers to those who attacked the Pentagon and World Trade Center as “terrorists.”

• ‘Hard-line’ – Israelis only
Only Israeli leaders are called “hard-line” or “hard-liners.” National Religious Party Knesset member Effie Eitam (four times) and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert (twice) are always called “hard-line.” The term is used twice with regard to Arabs but only in the abstract–never with regard to specific leaders or organizations. Neither “hard-line” nor any other similar adjective is ever used to describe Hamas officials. Usually, they are referred to by title alone, without any adjective, as in “Hamas official,” “Hamas spokesman,” “Hamas founder,” “Hamas leader.” Three adjectives do appear, however, in NPR’s description of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin; they are “spiritual [leader],” “charismatic” and “popular.”

• ‘Popular’ and ‘Prominent’ – Palestinians only
NPR reported on the burgeoning “popularity” of various Arab leaders, including Marwan Barghouti, Ahmed Sadat, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. In contrast, there were no similar reports dealing with the popularity of Israel’s current government or opposition parties, and–unlike Palestinian leaders–no Israeli or Israeli leader was ever described as “popular.” (In the same period, the New York Times published multiple articles regarding the popularity of the Israeli government.)

Similarly, the adjective “prominent,” when used to describe people from the Middle East, was reserved exclusively to describe Palestinians or Palestinian leaders: Marwan Barghouti (July 12), Sari Nusseibeh (July 12), Mustapha Barghouti (July 5) and Hanan Ashrawi (June 20). No Israeli or Israeli leader was ever described as “prominent.”

• ‘Moderate’ – Arabs only
In its Middle East coverage in the June-July period, NPR reserved the term “moderate” for Palestinians and Arab Muslims. Sari Nusseibeh is routinely referred to as a Palestinian “moderate.” The term is also conferred upon Khalil Shikaki, Madi Abdel Hadi and Imad Adin Adib (by his own description). Likewise, “moderate” is the adjective used to describe the Egyptian government, including various of its officials, and the Saudi government. In contrast, no Israeli or Israeli leader is ever described as “moderate.”

NPR’s (Im)moral Compass

A particularly astonishing example of NPR’s skewed coverage of Israeli and Jewish-related issues was a story on the role of “show trials.” In a July 25 interview with Prof. Lawrence Douglas of Amherst College, Susan Stamberg, to the apparent surprise and discomfort of her guest, defended Nazi official Adolph Eichmann, minimizing his culpability in the Holocaust and expressing concern for the possible abridgment of his rights. Stamberg, in effect, repeats Eichmann’s own defense–that he was a mere “functionary”–not a monster. Here is the exchange:

DOUGLAS:…One of the most important things that the Nuremberg trial did was it established a treasure trove of documents that became an invaluable resource for historians who then studied the period. The Eichmann trial, I think, was a little bit different. In that case, as you described, it provided witnesses and victims, survivors the opportunity to share their experiences in a courtroom.

STAMBERG: Let’s remind listeners the Nuremberg trial was the trial of Nazi criminals from the Second World War. Eichmann took place later in 1961; it took place in Israel. And that was an interesting trial because essentially he was not one of the grand monsters, but a rather banal Nazi functionary. Isn’t one of the dangers here in the case of a trial like that of Eichmann that injustice can be done to him because the accusations against him get blown out of proportion, his own role?

DOUGLAS: Though, again, I’m not sure if I would characterize him as just a middling functionary and bureaucrat. And he is someone who played an extremely responsible role in the architecture of the destruction of European Jewry.

STAMBERG: But there is a possibility that in playing out his drama in a court that his own rights can become abridged.

DOUGLAS: That’s right. I mean, on the other hand, I mean. I think some of the core requirements of fairness in a trial are things such as making sure that every accused has an opportunity to interrogate the witnesses who are called against him. All these kinds of core notions of justice were certainly satisfied in these trials. The charges were not trumped-up…

NPR’s response to public complaint

• Stonewalling, deceptive ‘corrections’ and continued bias
The publicly supported network’s response to public concerns about accusatory, distorted and one-sided reporting is troubling. The example of the July 1 Gaza sewer-repairmen segment is indicative of the network’s apparent lack of interest in getting the story straight and providing full facts to its listeners. Under fire for this particularly egregious one-sided report, NPR posted on its Web site a statement expressing “regrets:”

NPR regrets that a comment from the Israeli Defense Force spokesman’s office about the situation in Gaza was not included in Peter Kenyon’s report. Kenyon did in fact contact the IDF for their comments before writing his report. The IDF spokesman said that he would investigate the incident and “get back” to the reporter but did not do so. The spokesman would neither confirm nor deny that Israeli troops had shot at those trying to repair the sewer line. As a result Kenyon did not include the spokesman’s comments. He should have.

Contrary to the NPR statement, senior officials in the IDF Spokesmen’s Office told CAMERA they had never been called about the Gaza charges and they denied categorically that Israeli soldiers were targeting innocent repairmen.

The NPR “correction,” however deceptive and unsatisfactory, was not even broadcast to listeners, but only posted on the network’s Web site. In contrast, NPR had broadcast 31 of 35 corrections previously made, many of which concerned name misspellings and other trivia.

Nor did NPR run another segment to set straight the unfair, false and one-sided segment broadcast.

Nor, most importantly, has NPR ceased the indefensible practice of broadcasting distorted, accusatory segments assailing Israel while excluding speakers who would present the response of mainstream Israelis.

NPR’s apparent unwillingness to provide equitable balance and a full picture of events is demonstrated by its continuing the practice of airing reports that include only Palestinians or their advocates leveling charges, with no Israeli voice. After the period of the June-July study, for instance, an Aug. 31 program with reporter Anne Garrels presented a grossly one-sided, distorted and inaccurate picture of the problems of water resources and distribution in the West Bank. Garrels, who is prone to editorializing in blunt anti-Israel terms in her stories, presented six Palestinians leveling grievances at Israel. No Israelis were included.

Garrels repeatedly stated that only half the towns in the West Bank have tap water. She did not mention that all West Bank towns had been given the opportunity decades ago to be connected to Israel’s national water carrier, that many took the opportunity, but that others refused on political grounds, not wanting to recognize Israel’s authority. Her report suggested, instead, that Israel callously deprived Palestinians of “tap water.”

The segment was especially emotive and incendiary in presenting Israel as enjoying abundant water and green lawns while depriving West Bank Arabs of their most basic needs. The depiction is false and irresponsible. Israeli towns also suffer water shortages in a time of severe drought that affects the entire region. Israelis follow much stricter conservation methods themselves and have, in the context of the Oslo agreements, rigorously implemented their commitments to add to the amounts of water available to Palestinians. Garrels’ references to water agreements under Oslo were deceptive and distorted.

She repeats and amplifies Palestinian charges:

And when villagers here turn toward the hills overlooking the village, they see the Israeli settlement of Itamar with its green lawns, flower gardens and swimming pools. This just inflames hatred of Jewish settlers even more and re-enforces the perception that Israel is trying to starve them out.

The airing of a segment as distorted as this one only weeks after the network came under criticism for a similarly skewed piece reinforces the serious concerns about NPR’s flouting of journalistic standards and unresponsiveness to legitimate public complaint.

Once again, under fire, NPR issued a statement of “regret” one month later, stating:

In a story that aired on All Things Considered on August 31st, we reported on water shortages in Palestinian communities on the West Bank, including the fact that half of those communities had no tap water. We reported the Palestinian view on the issue, but we should have also included an Israeli response. We regret the omission.

Obviously, such a “correction” does nothing to correct the substantive misrepresentations. Nor does it redress the overall inflammatory misinformation broadcast. Nor has there been a subsequent report providing a true picture of water issues on the West Bank. The false one remains the only one aired for listeners.

• Hiring a public relations firm for damage control
In the face of widespread and escalating criticism of its Middle East coverage, NPR has hired DCS, a public relations firm, to shore up the network’s reputation and stanch financial losses incurred due to withholding of contributions by irate donors. Key to the network’s PR strategy is the continual appearance of NPR officials at Jewish community meetings, where Chief Executive Officer Kevin Klose and Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin are regularly faced with unhappy listeners. The real question is why these officers don’t instead direct their efforts toward redressing NPR’s bias.

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