In two stories posted on npr.org in less than a year, NPR has underestimated the number of Israeli Jews living in settlements in the West Bank and Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.
NPR was wrong simply because the source it used – the much-respected CIA "World Factbook" – is wrong on that point and has been for several years.
In June 2009, NPR reported the total number of settlers as 250,000 and then corrected the figure to "460,000 to 480,000." An even better current estimate, based on the State Department, the Israeli government, and other sources, would put the figure at around 500,000.
On May 11, NPR reported the number at 365,000, and Henry Norr, of Berkeley, CA, demanded a correction.
"How can NPR possibly have so much trouble getting straight the basic facts about the Israeli occupation of Palestine?" wrote Norr, a Jewish Palestine-solidarity activist.
Here's why: From 2003 to 2008, NPR's source, the CIA's Factbook, has reported the same figures each year for the settlement population of Israeli Jews living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Here is the note, under "population" in the Factbook's current chapter on Israel:
note: includes about 187,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, about 20,000 in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, more than 5,000 in the Gaza Strip, and fewer than 177,000 in East Jerusalem. [see graphic.]
This despite the fact that the total Israeli population went from 6.1 million in 2003 to 7.4 million in 2009, according to CIA figures.
That CIA note is also wrong about Gaza. Israel closed all Jewish settlements in Gaza in August 2005, forcing all settlers to leave. As a result, the figure of "more than 5,000" Israeli settlers in Gaza has been wrong for nearly five years.
"The Factbook relies on population data provided by the international programs division of the U.S. Census Bureau," said CIA media spokeswoman Paula Weiss.
When I asked Peter D. Johnson of the U.S. Census Bureau's International Program Center about the mystery, he replied, "The information I got is the numbers may have come from some open public source but we don't know which one."
He added that "it is one of those things that if no one complains, the numbers stay up."
NPR should complain.
Each agency is pointing fingers at one another, and the media and others are left relying on incorrect data.
"I'm surprised and displeased, and it makes me wonder what other information is out-of-date or incorrect in the CIA World Factbook," said Chuck Holmes, foreign editor for NPR Digitial.
In the two cases where NPR relied on the CIA's settlement figures, the wrong information appeared only on the Web site — not on air.
The most recent example occurred on May 11 with, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro's story for Morning Edition: "Israeli Military Orders Target West Bank 'Infiltrators."
Holmes added the following paragraph to the Web version of her story:
"About 365,000 Israeli Jews live in settlements in the West Bank and Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, alongside 2.5 million Palestinians. Another 1.6 million Palestinians live in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. "
Holmes, who was then unaware of the numbers mistake, told me the CIA Factbook has been "a source NPR and others rely upon for dependable global data."
"Please know that the numbers in Garcia-Navarro's story were based on a reputable source and there was no intention to underreport the Jewish population of the West Bank," wrote Holmes. "In fact, I added the paragraph because the context is important — there are not small numbers of people living in the West Bank. Whatever decision is made on the fate of the West Bank in a future peace agreement will affect hundreds of thousands of Jews and millions of Palestinian Arabs."
Holmes said a reader complaint about the CIA numbers prompted a conversation with Doug Roberts, NPR's Middle East editor, and Garcia-Navarro to find an agreed-upon source. He said in the future, he will attribute the source – something NPR did not do in either the June 2009 or May 5 story. Attribution is important because it allows others to make judgments about NPR's sources and check them out, if they wish.
The Israeli government's Central Bureau of Statistics, estimated 301,000 Israelis live in Judea and Samaria, the biblical name for the West Bank, as of Sept. 1, 2009.
The Israeli government doesn't provide a separate population figure for East Jerusalem because it considers that part of the city to be Israeli territory and part of Jerusalem. Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem has not been acknowledged internationally, by the United Nations, the United States, or most other countries.
The number of Israeli Jews living in East Jerusalem is generally believed to be between 180,000 and 200,000. One source for that estimate (a source apparently not used by the CIA), is the State Department.
Its most recent annual human rights report said: "Approximately 190,000 Israeli citizens, including a small number of Arab citizens of Israel, also lived in East Jerusalem; Israelis in the West Bank numbered approximately 300,000."
Numbers matter for journalistic accuracy and credibility – and, in this particular case, for an internationally important practical reason.
Israeli settlements in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem have been a central issue in every attempt to negotiate a long-term peace agreement in the Middle East.
Palestinians claim that for decades the Israeli government has been building settlements, and encouraging Israelis to move into them, to create "facts on the ground" that will block any peace deal from turning the West Bank and any part of East Jerusalem over to the Palestinians.
Israel doesn't officially acknowledge this as a motivation for the settlements. But many settlers (backed by powerful political allies in most recent governments) say their presence guarantees permanent Israeli control of the land – and so more settlers equals more certainty for this goal.
With that in mind, my suggestion is that in the future, when reporting on Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, NPR should use the figure of "nearly 500,000," attributed to the State Department. For now, the CIA numbers are not reliable.
NPR's foreign desk now agrees and will use the 500,000 figure in the future, said Roberts.
But this is also a reminder not to rely on only one source.