Oversight Failure: The Case of National Public Radio

September 21, 2004
George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

Members of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting board:

On behalf of CAMERA – the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America – thank you for this opportunity to raise an important issue.

CAMERA is a non-partisan, non-profit, national organization with more than 50,000 members. It monitors North American news media coverage of the Middle East in general, Arab-Israeli coverage in particular. As CPB board members know, CAMERA frequently has critiqued reporting of Arab-Israeli news by National Public Radio, a recipient of tax money through CPB. Our focus has, if anything, intensified as a result of NPR coverage related to the eruption four years ago of what is often called the Palestinian “al-Aqsa intifada” against Israel.

As you know, CPB is charged with providing federal funds on the condition that recipients demonstrate “strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature.” CAMERA had documented in studies over extended periods and in analyses of incidental coverage that NPR does not demonstrate “strict adherence to objectivity and balance” in its reporting of Arab-Israeli news. To the contrary, NPR continues to display an established pattern of anti-Israel, pro-Arab bias.

In the past, CAMERA forwarded its findings, and numerous complaints regarding NPR’s Arab-Israeli coverage to CPB. The corporation’s “Open to the Public” report to Congress for 2003, for example, refers directly to those complaints.

However, CPB’s oversight of NPR as reflected in previous “Open to the Public” reports is inadequate. It avoids the substance of CAMERA’s criticism and numerous other complaints. These complaints include not only the minority addressed directly to CPB, but the vast majority made to local NPR affiliates.

This oversight failure regarding NPR continues even though “Open to the Public” is submitted to Congress to illustrate CPB’s concern with assuring “strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature.”

According to “Open to the Public,” CPB “shares all substantive comments it receives with the public broadcasting system for review and response.” It may also “share comments on controversial programs with appropriate producers and programmers, and may seek further information or clarification if appropriate.” Among other things, CPB also “commissioned two polling firms … to conduct a nationwide survey and a series of focus groups to further explore” whether broadcasts of its recipients are considered to be objective and balanced.

But CPB does not, as “Open to the Public” confirms, consider the substance of specific criticisms and complaints like those made by and forwarded through CAMERA. Internally and with recipients of its tax-supported funds, CPB discusses and seeks clarification. Externally, it polls generalized sentiment. But it is not providing Congress, as required under the Telecommunications Act, any serious refutation of repeated, substantiated findings – like those made by CAMERA – of anti-Israeli bias in NPR’s Arab-Israeli coverage.

CAMERA has asked CPB executives on several occasions how the corporation actually enforces the requirement for “strict adherence to objectivity and balance.” They have replied pointing to their “Open to the Public” annual reports. But in addition, they have claimed a countervailing difficulty — the law also requires “maximum freedom of the public telecommunications entities and system from interference with, or control of, program content or other activities.”

Yet no one is demanding pre-broadcast interference with NPR’s news coverage. CAMERA as an organization and thousands of individuals across the country are simply insisting that CPB uphold the statute under which it dispenses tax money. The corporation must ensure by means of substantive post-broadcast review of criticism and complaints that NPR’s Arab-Israeli reporting meets the legal requirement of “strict adherence to objectivity and balance.” “Maximum freedom” for NPR as a recipient cannot mean absolute license and de facto exemption from congressional regulations CPB is bound to oversee.

CAMERA urges the board members of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to ensure that the agency fulfills its legal obligation when it comes to oversight of National Public Radio. This is an obligation, by the way, which the CPB board unanimously affirmed at its November, 2002 meeting. CAMERA believes this oversight must include substantive responses from CPB to substantive complaints, that the responses must be made in a timely manner, and that this oversight be based on accepted journalistic criteria such as those incorporated in the Code of Ethics of the Society for Professional Journalists. This, rather than vague generalities, is what CPB should be providing Congress in reports like “Open to the Public.”

CAMERA recommends that as a necessary step to carrying out such oversight, a unit be created within CPB, reporting directly to the president and the board. This unit would conduct substantive reviews of serious criticisms to ensure recipient compliance.

Again, thank you for this opportunity and for your attention to this urgent matter.

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