Two extremely skewed segments of National Public Radio’s popular Talk of the Nation news and talk program suggest that, despite past studies documenting anti-Israel bias in the tax-supported network’s coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict, NPR apparently has done little to improve ints coverage by ensuring fair and evenhanded reporting.
On Nov. 11, 2004, a Talk of the Nation segment dealt with the death of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. Slightly over a year later, on Jan. 5, 2006, another segment addressed the illness that unseated Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. One might think these segments, hosted by NPR’s Neal Conan, would feature both Israelis and Arabs discussing each of the two leaders. Or maybe Palestinians would be invited to speak about Arafat, and Israelis about Sharon. Or vice versa–Israelis could give their views on Arafat, and Palestinians on Sharon. But in fact, Talk of the Nation did none of the above. Instead, as is commonplace on NPR segments about the Middle East conflict, both segments relied heavily on Arab and pro-Arab speakers, to the exclusion of almost any pro-Israel voices.
The first guest on the segment about Arafat (“Filling the void left by the death of Yasser Arafat”) was Loren Jenkins, NPR’s foreign editor who in the past has referred to Israel as a “colonizer” and has linked Israel to Nazis in his writing. Jenkins was followed by Palestinian columnist Daoud Kuttab, who in turn was followed by Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American professor at Columbia University and a frequent critic of Israel. Next to speak was Robert Malley, best known for advocating the viewpoint that Arafat should not be held primarily responsible for his rejection of compromise at the Camp David negotiations. And making an appearance after these four outspoken critics of Israel was David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who is Jewish and could possibly be described as a supporter of Israel. In all, Israel’s critics were allowed about 4,200 words, compared with about 1000 words granted to the last guest.
The segment prompted by Sharon’s illness (“Considering Middle East politics without Sharon”) might have been even less balanced. Kuttab and Malley were again invited to speak. They were joined by Hebrew University’s Yaron Ezrahi. Although Israeli, the professor circulated a petition in mid-2001, after scores of Israeli civilians had been murdered in ongoing Palestinian terror attacks, calling for an international force to “protect the Palestinians from the aggression of the Israeli government” while expressing “solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom” and describing the Palestinian “revolt against colonial occupation” as “legitimate.” Also joining the program was Rami Khouri, the Palestinian editor of Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper, another regular critic of Israel. In addition, the Washington Post‘s Scott Wilson made a brief appearance. Here, the critics of Israel—Kuttab, Malley, Ezrahi and Khouri—were allotted about 4,300 words. Pro-Israel speakers: zero.
Sharon was described both by Kuttab and Malley as having “blood on his hands.” Host Neal Conan and Kuttab associated him with the massacres at Sabra and Shatilla, as did a caller who also added that Sharon is a “butcher.” Khouri weighed in by talking about “all the terrible things he’s done in his life, which we will keep criticizing him for,” suggested (as he did in a later NPR appearance) that Sharon is responsible for global Islamism, while taking every opportunity to opine that the former Israeli Prime Minister was a “failed political leader.” Conan even suggested the word “devil” to describe Sharon.
There was no one on the program to mention that Sharon was cleared of direct responsibility for the massacres in Lebanon, which were actually carried out by a Christian Lebanese Phalangist militia. There wasn’t a word from the guests or the host about incessant anti-Israeli attacks and terrorism that—regardless of whether or not one thinks Sharon’s operations were heavy-handed—were indisputably the cause of Israel’s counter-terror operations.
Arafat, by contrast, was spared such criticism. Whereas in his introduction to the Sharon segment Neal Conan noted that Sharon was “denounced for the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and for his part in massacres … in West Beirut,” his introduction to the Arafat segment said not a word about Arafat’s many deadly attacks as head of Fatah and the PLO. When Conan finally did address the late-Palestinian leader’s violence, he implied that the terrorism was unavoidable, saying that Arafat “was willing to spill blood if that’s what it took.” Jenkins minimized Arafat’s responsibility for Palestinian violence after the Oslo Accords–he said that Arafat merely “tolerated” the violence. He claimed, in contradiction to numerous reports, that the Palestinian leader “wasn’t corrupt”—again, asserting that Arafat only “tolerated” corruption, and labeled the longtime terrorist as the “George Washington” of Palestinian nationalism.
The choice of guests on the shows assured that listeners were predominantly exposed to the Palestinian narrative on other issues as well. From Rashid Khalidi, they heard that Mahmoud Abbas “was never associated with armed struggle,” and that he was systematically sabotaged by Israel. Of course, there was no hint that Abbas indeed was “associated” with the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics by none other than Mohammad Oudeh (aka Abu Daoud), who masterminded the Munich attack as leader of the Palestinian Black September terror group. This “association” was noted in various newspapers, as well as in Sports Illustrated, Slate and even the stridently anti-Israel magazine The Nation. It’s not surprising, though, that Khalidi, who as been described as “a Palestinian who wouldn’t harm the cause,” would obscure this point.
And when a listener phoned in to ask “what [Arafat] was really offered during the last Camp David,” Khalidi’s answer again was predictable: Ehud Barak was arrogant, the Palestinians had made a “historic compromise,” and “President Clinton understood that [Barak’s] offer wasn’t sufficient.” This Palestinian angle contradicts not only the Israeli view of Camp David, which of course listeners weren ‘t given the opportunity to hear, but also the view of Clinton himself. In the former president’s memoir, My Life, which details the Camp David negotiations, Clinton didn’t claim Barak’s offer “wasn’t sufficient.” What he did state, with a hint of frustration, was that Israel’s offer to give up “effective control over the Temple Mount and all East Jerusalem was not enough for Arafat …” (emphasis added). “Perhaps [Arafat’s] team really hadn’t worked through the hard compromises,” Clinton added. In addition, in a briefing after the negotiations, the President went out of his way to stress that Barak had gone the extra mile to try to reach an agreement, saying that Barak “came in knowing that he was going to have to take bold steps and he did it, and I think you should look at it more as a positive toward him than as a condemnation of the Palestinian side ….” (See more of Clinton’s comments here.)
In short, despite the obligation of recipients of tax dollars—such as NPR—to provide “objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature” listeners got a very one-sided view of both Arafat and Sharon. Judging by the program’s slate of guests, that seems to be just what the network wanted.