NPR Examination of Mideast Coverage Misleads

A former NPR foreign editor, a current NPR vice president, and NPR’s ombudsman are all congratulating each other over (what else?) NPR’s fairness and accuracy.

The judgment was passed down by John Felton, who in the 1990s was the broadcaster’s foreign editor, and who until recently was paid by NPR to examine its coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict. His final quarterly report on the topic, published in recent days, concludes that over the past 11 years his employer has been “remarkably accurate” and “generally met basic standards for fairness and balance.” The ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, lauded Felton’s work and his findings. The vice president for news, Margaret Low Smith, agreed that he did a “superb job.”

Balance — More Than Meets the Eye

But at least one of the report’s findings could substantively mislead readers. The document speaks at length of the balance of Israeli and Palestinian voices, specifically referring to a “discrepancy” between how often NPR listeners hear from the former compared to the latter. “NPR listeners hear more often, and more regularly, from Israelis than they do from Palestinians in general,” Felton concludes. A closer look at the report, though, shows the reality of this claim is far from what it seems. In fact, in reports related to the conflict between Palestinians and Israel, the opposite appears to be true.

By Felton’s count, NPR-produced programs in the last quarter of 2013 broadcast comments by 55 Israelis and 33 Palestinians, a discrepancy that closely resembles what the report portrays as an imbalance of Israel and Palestinian speakers over the past four years. Put that way, it certainly does sound like “NPR listeners simply are not getting enough information from the Palestinian territories, in contrast to what they hear from Israel,” as Felton argues.

That is, unless one remembers what the report says many paragraphs earlier. There, Felton explains that nearly half of the NPR segments examined during the quarter — 26 out of 56 — didn’t deal with the Palestinian- or Arab-Israeli conflict at all, but rather with tensions between Israel and Iran. Clearly, this explains why listeners heard from Israelis more than Palestinians. Not because Israel’s side of that conflict was heard more than the Palestinian side, but because Israel was in the news for reasons unrelated to the Palestinians.

Consider this analogy: NPR broadcasts in the upcoming months will mention Russia overwhelmingly more frequently than they do Chechnya — again, not because Chechen views of that conflict are under-represented, but because NPR will be devoting much coverage to skiing, ice skating and other Olympic events taking place in the Russian city of Sochi.

Israeli voices about the Arab-Israeli conflict were not over-represented during the three months covered in the report.  They were under-represented.

Felton offers several reasons that a discrepancy does not necessarily amount to bias; for example, he argues that Israel would be expected to “generate more news” than the Palestinians because the former “routinely has elections and changes of governments” whereas the latter does not. But he fails to acknowledge the most significant factor causing the discrepancy — the prominence of the Iran story — and as a result reaches the wrong conclusion.

CAMERA quickly re-examined NPR’s coverage from October-December 2013 in a bid to control for the Iran variable. While it is impossible to exactly replicate Felton’s study without knowing which broadcasts he considered, and because there is some unavoidable degree of subjectivity involved, our best attempt to approximate his findings nonetheless allows for a more precise understanding of NPR’s coverage, and makes clear that, in an apples-to-apples comparison, Israeli voices about the Arab-Israeli conflict were not over-represented during the three months covered in the report. They were under-represented.

The Numbers

Felton examined 56 broadcasts, 26 of which were about Iran. We found 39 NPR programs that made substantive mention of either Israeli-Arab or Israeli-Iranian tensions, 18 of which were about Iran, not the Palestinians. Although our overall numbers were different, it is helpful for the purpose of this comparison that both Felton and CAMERA’s examination found 46 percent of relevant programs were about Iran. We also reached remarkably similar conclusions about the proportion of Palestinian speakers across all programs. We counted 49 Israeli speakers and 31 Palestinian speakers in total, putting Palestinians at 39 percent of the total. According to his numbers, there were 55 Israelis and 33 Palestinians — that is, 38 percent were Palestinians. In short, while we each counted separately, and he looked at a few more broadcasts, our subsample matches neatly with his larger sample. What is true of ours should be true of his.

Now let’s do what Felton did not, and remove from the equation programs solely about Iran. Without those 18 broadcasts, we are left with — and here is the more useful comparison — 24 Israeli speakers and 31 Palestinian speakers. That is, the numbers reflect the opposite of what Felton’s report says.

(Just as in baseball a tie goes to the runner, we tallied two uncertain cases — one American journalist who once lived in Israel, and another British journalist who currently lives there — to NPR’s benefit, and considered them as Israelis. If they are not, there were only 22 Israeli speakers.)

It is also worth keeping in mind that it is much more common for Israeli NPR guests criticize the Israeli government than for Palestinian guests to criticize the Palestinian Authority. (Hence headlines like “Israelis Disagree On How To Keep Iran From Nuclear Weapons” and “Shavit’s ‘My Promised Land’ Examines Israel’s Complexities.”) According to Felton’s summary of one segment, Israeli journalist Ari Shavit “expressed deep sympathy for the ‘tragedy’ Palestinians have faced in the hundred-plus years since European Jews came to occupy the land of Palestine.” None of the Palestinians heard during the quarter expressed deep sympathy for the Israeli plight. (And it’s hard to imagine that being much less true over the course of Felton’s 11 year tenure.)


Felton also praised NPR’s accuracy during the quarter, explaining that “no substantive errors have been brought to my attention and I found none in my own review.” But a true commitment to accuracy requires more than an absence of substantive errors.

Consider a Weekend Edition Saturday broadcast that occurred several days after the end of Felton’s tenure. During that program, NPR correspondent Mike Shuster asserted that, from the moment Ariel Sharon became defense minister in 1981, “it appeared that he was planning Israel’s next war. The Palestinians in Lebanon, to Israel’s north, were threatening Israeli territory, and Sharon wanted to end it.”

The assertion is narrowly accurate. But as a CAMERA analysis points out,

Palestinians in Lebanon did more than “threaten” Israeli territory. They also frequently attacked Israeli territory, killing civilians, including many children. For instance, Palestinian terrorists from Lebanon carried out the massacre of Maalot school children in 1974, murdering 22 children; the May 20, 1970 assault on a school bus in Avivim near the Lebanon border, killing 12 Israeli civilians, including nine children; and the March 11, 1978 attack of a tour bus on the coast south of Haifa, killing 34, including mothers and children; in addition to the ongoing bombardment of the Galilee. In the week of July 14-21, 1981, 33 towns and villages in northern Israel were hit by more than 1,000 shells and rockets, forcing residents of Kiryat Shemona, Metulla, Nahariya, and Kibbutz Dan, and dozens of other communities, to live in shelters for days on end.

On that same day, in a broadcast of All Things Considered, NPR’s Emily Harris stated, “Palestinians remember Sharon’s visit to Islam’s holiest spot in Jerusalem, widely credited with triggering the second intifada, his building of the separation barrier in and around the West Bank, and Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon led by Sharon, which included massacres in two Palestinian refugee camps.”

Again, narrowly accurate. But again, effectively inaccurate. “Islam’s holiest spot” in Jerusalem, which in the broadcast Sharon seems to have intruded on, is also the holiest Jewish spot in the world. NPR has a journalistic obligation to inform readers of this obviously relevant fact. And while it is true that Palestinians and their supporters formally charge Sharon with “triggering the second intifada,” they have in more candid moments admitted that the violence was pre-planned. (Jeffrey Goldberg more correctly described the intifada as “an uprising allegedly, though not actually, triggered by an infamous Ariel Sharon walkabout atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.”) Finally, the claim that the Israeli invasion of Lebanon “included” massacres in Palestinian refugee camps would lead listeners to believe, wrongly, that Israel engaged in those massacres. In fact a Lebanese Christian militia carried out the attacks.

The sloppiness of those recent broadcasts underscores that NPR needs more scrutiny, not less. And the misleading finding in the final report by the now-defunct independent reviewer makes clear that even NPR’s scrutiny could use more scrutiny.

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