WAMU-FM recently completed its spring on-the-air fund drive. WETA-FM has placed its pledge campaign on hold, programming changes minimizing classical music and emphasizing talk and information coming first.
That means metro-D.C. area listeners who care about public broadcasting but cannot abide National Public Radio’s Arab-Israeli reporting can set our checkbooks aside. Besides, NPR President Kevin Klose acknowledges he doesn’t really need our money.
Klose was testifying recently on NPR’s budget before a House Appropriations Committee subcommittee, simultaneously claiming journalistic excellence and crying poverty. Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.) told him that public radio "is a wonderful service." But, said Walsh, the more he became involved with issues as a congressman, "the more I realized NPR is portraying a … liberal-oriented slant" to the news. And, he said, members of the Syracuse Jewish community have complained to him that NPR news carries a strong "anti-Israel bias."
Syracuse-area audience members are hardly alone. On May 14, 2003 approximately 100 Washington-area listeners protested the network’s anti-Israeli tilt during a noon-hour demonstration in front of NPR’s Massachusetts Avenue headquarters. Similar protests took place at several dozen affiliates across the country.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is supposed to oversee NPR compliance with requirements for "objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature" in exchange for federal funds. CPB continues to receive listener complaints of an anti-Israel spin in NPR news. So do affiliates across the country.
Picking up on Walsh’s comments, subcommittee member Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) reminded Klose that she had discussed charges of anti-Israel reporting with him previously. In fact, Lowey was one of 11 House members to sign a 2003 letter to Klose asserting that "for many years, National Public Radio programs have presented a view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is too often biased against Israel."
Another of the signers, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) told a CPB open forum last September that the problem persists.
Klose insisted to Walsh that "we have a very strong ethics, news and editorial code … Our goal is objectivity." He added that "if we’re satisfied that mistakes were made, we do on-air corrections and post them on our Web site."
Under pressure. Many of those corrections result from errors documented by the organization I work for, CAMERA– the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. Correcting mistakes is vital, and NPR deserves recognition when it does so. But the process often seems grudging, unnecessarily lengthy, and requires repeated requests and documentation.
Yet NPR’s pattern of mistakes in its Arab-Israeli coverage continues. These errors virtually always tend in one direction – falsely portraying Israeli actions as illegal, excessive, or stubborn, and unjustifiably excusing or softening Arab aggression, rejection, and responsibility.
This unobjective, imbalanced coverage results neither from shortage of funds nor staff.
NPR’s current annual budget totals $119 million – but the network received a $225 million bequest, announced last year, from the estate of McDonald’s Restaurant heiress Joan Kroc, and a $15 million grant in 2003 from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Together, the gifts equal two years’ worth of network operating budgets.
Rather than mention the found money to the subcommittee, Klose lamented "decreasing financial support from state and local governments" for public radio, and "federal financial support [that] has not kept pace with increases in listeners or with our expanding mission to cover the news …."
Yet somehow – the network president didn’t explain – "while other news organizations downsized over the past several years, NPR News added reporters, correspondents and offices worldwide." Klose noted that last summer National Public Radio "announced a major expansion of its news operation with plans to invest $15 million over the next three years to add reporters, editors, producers and managers, and to open new domestic and international bureaus."
So, NPR News has the staff and financial wherewithal to produce coverage meeting journalism’s highest standards, according to its president. Since its Arab-Israeli reporting chronically fails to do so, Congress and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting ought to find out why. Meanwhile, public broadcasting supporters should make future support dependent on NPR coverage that meets the network’s legal – not to mention journalistic – obligation to objectivity and balance.
This article originally appeared in the Washington Jewish Weekon March 31, 2005. An earlier version of the article appeared in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent on March 19, 2005.