Listeners Hear Same Israeli-Palestinian Coverage Differently

Journalist Helen Thomas says something outrageous and she loses her job. Commentator Michelle Malkin writes a book saying interning Japanese in World War II made sense and she's invited on ABC.

"Pat Buchanan says the country is becoming too brown, we need to restore a white majority and papers keep running his column and he gets invited on MSNBC," said Richard Prince of "Journal-isms." "What's acceptable and what's not acceptable? This is just an interesting development in that whole continuum."

Prince made that point last week when he and I were on NPR's Tell Me More. Prince's "Journal-isms" is a must-read blog on media diversity.

What Prince isn't factoring in is that Thomas was speaking about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Few other topics evoke such passion and disagreement. Ever since the May 31 Israeli raid on an activist flotilla bound for Gaza with humanitarian aid, I have heard from listeners around the country who are angry with NPR's coverage on this sensitive topic.

Some complain that NPR is biased against Israel and that NPR really means National Palestinian Radio – a reference that dates back many years. Others say that NPR is in Israel's pocket and fails to tell the Palestinian side of the story.

They are hearing the same stories but obviously hearing them very differently.

A point that NPR editors repeatedly make is to ask its audience to judge the coverage as a whole, not just on one story or even one day's coverage.

That is good in theory, but is difficult in practice since people listen to NPR while driving or doing other things, and very few people hear all of NPR's coverage on one topic.

For instance, in the first 5 days of the flotilla confrontation coverage, NPR ran 22 stories – averaging 4 minutes each – and one Daniel Schorr commentary. (The website also carried numerous news stories and blogs about the subject).

Everything on the air is put on the Web, often the same day. But it isn't easy to find the aggregated stories on this particular topic.

At the very least, NPR should create a special page when a big story like the raid occurs, make it prominent and put all related online material in an easy-to-find place so the audience can judge the coverage.

NPR does have two Web pages consolidating its radio and online coverage of the Middle East. One is called "middle east," and it includes a broad range of stories about the region, for example the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Another page is called "Israel-Palestinian coverage." That page includes stories directly or indirectly related to conflicts between Israel and its neighbors, particularly the Palestinians. That page would be the most logical place for all the coverage of the Gaza flotilla incident, but it is not highlighted on NPR's website and is difficult to find.

In addition to radio stories, both of these pages include staff-written blogs (including one called "The Two-Way"), Associated Press (AP) stories, opinion pieces and other coverage.

When the Gaza flotilla story broke on May 31, NPR's correspondent based in Jerusalem was out of the country. In her absence, NPR relied on a freelance reporter, Sheera Frenkel, who also writes for the McClatchy newspapers. NPR quickly dispatched its Cairo correspondent, Peter Kenyon, to report from Israel and Gaza.

The point of this posting is to try to clearly illustrate that people hear the same thing differently. This is particularly true when they feel passionate about an issue, such as the Middle East.

Israel-supporters, for the most part, were unhappy that NPR focused on the flotilla incident rather than on Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist faction that runs Gaza and calls for Israel's destruction. And Palestinian supporters were unhappy that NPR didn't go into excruciating detail about what they see as the horrors and unjustness of Israel's blockade of Gaza. And in some cases, listeners were upset about inaccuracies.

Below is a list of the first three days of NPR's coverage of the Gaza flotilla incident (and subsequent events), along with some emails about that coverage – and responses and clarifications.

MAY 31

Morning Edition did one story and All Things Considered (ATC) did two. Conflicting details defined the first day's coverage.

1. May 31, Morning Edition, NPR,Two-way with Sheera Frenkel and Rene Montagne, "10 Killed As Israelis Board Gaza Aid Convoy" (4:09)

2. May 31, All Things Considered, Correspondent report from Sheera Frankel, "Israeli Raid On Gaza Flotilla Draws Anger" (4:30)

3. May 31, All Things Considered, Interview with Prof. Henri Barkey (International Relations-Turkey and the Middle East, Lehigh University), "Raid Strains Israeli-Turkish Relations" (4:02)

Frenkel Got it Wrong

Henry Norr, of Berkley, CA, wrote: "I just heard Sheera Frenkel on Morning Edition telling Renee Montagne that there have been five previous humanitarian aid ships to Gaza, and 'only one was turned away,' with 'a minimal amount of damage to the ship,' during Operation Cast Lead. Unfortunately, Frenkel is seriously misinformed."

In her report for Morning Edition, Frenkel said five previous ships had made their way into the Gaza Strip. "And the last ship was the only one to have been stopped," said Frenkel. "That was during Operation Cast Lead here, a year and a half ago. That boat was successfully turned away by the Israeli navy with a minimal amount of damage to the ship, and no injuries to the people onboard."

Frenkel is referring to an incident with the Free Gaza movement's ship "Dignity," which occurred during the Israel-Gaza war of 2008-09.

According to the Free Gaza movement's website, which has a complete list of the ships it sent and what happened to them, Frenkel was correct that 5 ships got through. But three ships were rammed, turned away or captured by the Israelis. The last incident occurred in June-July 2009, about five months after the Gaza war ended.

Here is a BBC and an Al Jazeera report on that last incident.

So, parts of her answers were wrong. The incident she's referring to didn't occur during the 2008-2009 Israel-Gaza war. NPR should run a correction.

Is Activist the Right Word?

Deborah Allen of New York City wrote: "It was a shock to hear the citizens of many countries who undertook a voyage of mercy to deliver humanitarian aid to the blockaded Palestinian territory of Gaza called 'Palestinian Activists' again and again on Morning Edition this morning. Why this strange descriptive, I wondered?"

As noted above, NPR's first piece was a conversation May 31 on Morning Edition with Montagne and Frenkel. NPR referred to those on board the Turkish flagship, Mavi Marmari as "activists" or "Pro-Palestinian activists." This is how the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) refers to them — not as "terrorists," which some Israelis and their supporters do. And it's how they refer to themselves on The Gaza Flotilla Archives.

Where's the Palestinian Side?

Barbara Brodersen of Iowa City, IA, was fairly succinct. She listed who Frenkel interviewed in her first reported piece that tried to explain what had occurred since the story broke the morning of May 31.

"Is it possible I just heard ATC's report on the Israeli raid on Gaza Freedom Flotilla and the only person interviewed was an Israeli spokesperson?" asked Brodersen. "My GOD, where are your journalistic ethics? Where was the interview with someone who represents the flotilla's side? People died for this cause and your station is a Israel-centric shill for the killers?"

Frenkel's piece included:

  1. A spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces.
  2. A military correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, which is a conservative, English-language Israeli newspaper.
  3. A military analyst for the Hebrew-language daily, Maariv.
  4. Paraphrasing a piece by Israeli journalist Ron Ben-Yishai, who was on board one of the Israeli naval ships.
  5. A few seconds of video from one of the activists.
  6. An unnamed Free Gaza Movement spokeswoman whom Frenkel paraphrased.

Frenkel ended the piece this way: "A spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement said that their fight will continue for days or even weeks to come."

So, the piece did include some information on both sides of the story. The AP reported that the Israelis kept the activists who had been onboard the ships away from reporters on the first day. If that was the case, Frenkel's piece should have made it clear why there was no tape from those activists.

Where's Israel's Side?

Cora Rubenstein, of Washington, DC wrote: "At 5:15PM Monday, a lengthy interview was held with Henri Barkey, who strongly condemned Israel. Certainly there should have been someone from Israel to speak. I have been trying to find Israel's position on the problem and cannot find it. I expected NPR to provide this information."

Rubenstein is referring to an interview by ATC host Melissa Block with Prof. Henri Barkey, an expert on Turkey and the Middle East at Lehigh University: "Raid Strains Israeli-Turkish Relations" (4:02)

Barkey did not strongly condemn Israel. Instead he explained the history of relations between Turkey and Israel and suggested that the flotilla incident will strain those relations.

In the other story that day on ATC, listeners did hear from an IDF spokeswoman who said the activists attacked first. "They planned this," said the spokeswoman. "They stacked sticks, knives and different kinds of metal objects. It's more than an attack. I describe it as a lynch because when you have one Navy Seal and 10 activists jumping on him trying to break his arms and legs, for me, it's a lynch."

Hamas Won the Election

Kathleen Magill of Oakland, CA wrote: "After listening to NewsHour and multiple newsbreaks on the radio today, my blood pressure is in the stratosphere and I'm yelling at the radio. Hamas did NOT "violently seize control" of the Palestinian government as the Israeli spokespeople are saying and your so-called journalists are parroting. Whether you like them or not, Hamas won an actual election. Come on, you guys, get it right!!!

Quick point. PBS – not NPR – produces The NewsHour. I could not find an example where NPR used the words "violently seize(d) control," except for a May 28 AP story posted on the website.

Even so, it is true that Hamas seized control of Gaza during a very violent confrontation with the then-ruling Fatah faction in June 2007. Yes, Hamas did win Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, but that victory did not give it control of Gaza.

JUNE 1

Morning Edition did two stories: one general news report and one discussing how the flotilla incident might affect the Turkish-Israel relationship.

4. June 1, Morning Edition NPR Correspondent report from Sheera Frenkel, "Israeli Raid On Flotilla Draws Condemnation" (4:12)

5. June 1, Morning Edition Two-way with Steve Inskeep and Hugh Pope (International Crisis Group), "Turkey Protests Israel's Raid On Gaza Flotilla" (4:30)

There Were Other Media on the Flotilla

Todd Albertini wrote: "I would like to call out the Israel-based reporter, Sheera Frenkel (on the show on 6/1/10), on being less than truthful about the media presence on the Free Gaza Aid Flotilla. She claimed that there were "no sort of media crews onboard to just film the entire thing as it went down" when in fact Al Jazeera was broadcasting live from the Mavi Marmara and had a webcast of the whole event."

Frenkel did not say that there were no media on board.

She did say, "There are no images of the ensuing events in which nine activists were killed and dozens more wounded yesterday."

I took this to mean that in the competing video narratives made public as of June 1, neither the Israeli military video nor the activist video provided unedited evidence that documented the killings.

But Frenkel could have been clearer. It should be noted that Frenkel also said stories from eyewitnesses on the ship were just beginning to emerge.

Talk of the Nation

6. June 1, Talk of the Nation did a 30-minute segment with Frenkel and Aaron David Miller, former advisor to six U.S. secretaries of states on Arab-Israeli negotiations between 1978 and 2003.

Nina Sakun of Hartford, CT, wrote about TOTN: "Once again this show's guests presented an extreme Israel bias. One of them said, 'we' when he was referring to Israel! He did this repeatedly. Occasionally he would correct himself, to say 'they.' I thought NPR was an American institution run on American donations. Is NPR actually Israeli-based? In that case you should have the host announce this at the beginning of the show.

In this case, the transcript provides the best response. Neither guest – Frenkel nor Miller – said 'we' when they meant 'they.' When either guest said 'we' they used it to mean "we the reporters/ we the American people and/or we the other people observing this development." Neither said it to side with Israel or Palestine.

All Things Considered did four stories.

7. June 1, All Things Considered, Correspondent report from Peter Kenyon, "Activist's Account Of Raid Differs From Israeli Version" (4:19)


8. June 1, All Things Considered, Two-way with Michelle Norris and Michele Kelemen, "The Diplomatic Fallout Of Israel's Flotilla Raid" (3:27)


9. June 1, All Things Considered, Two-way with Robert Siegel and Huwaida Arraf (Activist, Free Gaza movement), "Flotilla Activist Shares Her Account Of Deadly Raid"(4:11)


10. June 1, All Things Considered, Two-way with Robert Siegel and Mark Regev (Spokesman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), "Israeli Spokesman On Commando Raid" (4:14)

One was a piece by NPR correspondent Peter Kenyon, who reported from Jerusalem on the differing accounts from the Israeli military and those on board the ship where the deaths occurred, the "Mavi Marmara."

Host Robert Siegel interviewed Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Regev argued that Israel must blockade Gaza to prevent weapons from falling into the hands of Hamas, which advocates for the destruction of Israel.

This interview was paired with an interview with an American activist, Huwaida Arraf, who helped organize the flotilla for the Free Gaza movement. She described what she saw from another flotilla boat, the "Challenger One." She was not on the boat where the men died.

The fourth report dealt with how this confrontation could affect U.S-Israel relations, especially since Netanyahu had planned to meet with President Obama in Washington but suddenly canceled the trip to return to Israel.

Stop Saying the Israelis Were Attacked

Responding to the interview with Regev, Linda Jansen wrote: "Stop repeating [Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spokesman] Mark Regev's charges that they were attacked aboard the humanitarian ship. It makes you ridiculous. You are taking the wrong side in a story the rest of the world sees much differently. Sound bites should at least be equal to both sides if you are not going to mention how immoral the Israeli blockade of Gaza is in the first place. It is state terrorism. Trying to change the mind of the people of Gaza by starving them into dumping Hamas is terrorism by definition.

Dan Morhaim wrote to criticize Robert Siegel, who conducted the interviews with Mark Regev and Huwaida Arraf. "Siegel was overly sympathetic to the flotilla activist. He asked no hard questions or even informative ones ("Why didn't you deliver the goods via Egypt, if that was your main goal?), but he worked over and interrupted the Israeli speaker. Regardless of one's views on the subject, Siegel was biased, and it showed."

I think Siegel did ask one tough question when he said: "I want to ask you to respond to what Mark Regev, the spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said. He said, unfortunately these people - he means you and the others who were on the ships, wanted a confrontation and they charged our blockade. Is that a different but a reasonable interpretation of what happened or not?"

JUNE 2

11. June 2, Morning Edition, Correspondent report from Michele Kelemen with Ahmet Davutoglu (Turkish Foreign Minister), "Turkey Wants Obama To Condemn Israeli Raid" (4:01)

12. June 2, Morning Edition, Two-way with Steve Inskeep and former Ambassador Edward Peck, "Former U.S. Diplomat Witnessed Israeli Raid" (4:31)

13. June 2, Morning Edition, Two-way with Steve Inskeep and Sheera Frenkel, "Israel Deports Activists From Gaza-Bound Flotilla" (4:21)

14. June 2, All Things Considered, Correspondent report from Peter Kenyon with Benjamin Netanyahu (Israeli Prime Minister), "Netanyahu Defends Israeli Raid On Flotilla" (2:30)

15. June 2, All Things Considered, Two-way with Robert Siegel and Myron Nordquist (law, University of Virginia), "Did Israel Raid Violate International law?" (4:09)

16. June 2, All Things Considered, Correspondent report from Daniel Schorr, "Israel's World Standing Hits A Low Point" (2:39)

Did the Raid Occur in International Waters?

Jay Moynihan of Shawano, WI, writes: "I have been listening to coverage on NPR and the BBC of the recent attack by Israel on civilian vessels on the high seas. I do not understand why, the obvious has not been reported, or some "guest" experts used for the following: International Law: An attack on a civil vessel in international waters, where the flag of the vessel is not the flag of the attacker, is illegal at best and piracy at worst. Passengers and crew had the right to repeal boards under this circumstance, and use deadly force if necessary. Israel is responsible for all damages."

On June 2, Siegel interviewed Myron Nordquist, a University of Virginia legal expert on the Law of the Sea. This interview clarifies that Israel's position is that because of its acknowledged conflict with Gaza, Israel had the right to board the aid ships. The activists believed that Israel had no right to attack because they were in international waters. Nordquist says both sides were correct, but only to a certain extent.

Listen to the full interview for details.

JUNE 3 and JUNE 4

Most of the complaints came during the early days of NPR's coverage of the flotilla story. Even so, I'm including links for the stories on June 3 and 4 below if anyone wants to independently analyze the coverage. Exactly what happened early on May 31 is still difficult to ascertain because of conflicting accounts from both sides. Israelis said they fired in self-defense. The activists said they were attacked.

JUNE 3

17. June 3, All Things Considered, Correspondent report from Jackie Northam, "Turkey Honors Activists Killed During Israeli Raid" (1:56)

18. June 3, All Things Considered, Two-way with Robert Siegel and Julia Rooke (reporter), "Details Emerge On Slain Pro-Palestinian Activists" (3:34)

JUNE 4

19. June 4, Morning Edition, Two-way with Peter Kenyon and Steve Inskeep, "Turkey Refocuses Attention on Plight of Gazans" (4:31)

20. June 4, Morning Edition, Correspondent report from Sheera Frenkel, "Once Close Allies, Israel, Turkey Clash on Raid" (3:42)

21. June 4, All Things Considered, Correspondent report from Peter Kenyon, "As World Focuses on Gaza, Grim Lives Go On" (4:29)

22. June 4, All Things Considered, Correspondent report from Sheera Frenkel, "Pressure Mounts For Israel to Change Gaza Policy" (3:50)

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