NPR's Middle East 'Problem'
By Jeffrey A. Dvorkin
National Public Radio
NPR seems to have a problem regarding its reporting of the Middle East. The problem appears to be that whenever it reports this story, it provokes the ire of one group or another.
In the past few weeks, NPR has had to deal with the following issues:
1. CAMERA (The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) www.camera.org, began another campaign to protest against what it perceives to be NPR's supposed pro-Palestinian slant. CAMERA's tactic is to encourage some businesses to stop underwriting for public radio stations. Some stations, notably WBUR in Boston, say that they have noticed the loss of support. While no station admits that it has lost a lot of money, station managers in a few key stations say they've noticed a drop in financial support from some longtime underwriters.
2. FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) www.fair.org, launched a campaign around the same time to protest against NPR's supposed pro-Israel bias. Specifically, FAIR says that NPR failed to report the deaths of more than 30 Palestinians while reporting the region was in a period of "relative calm," because there were few Israeli injuries or deaths.
3. Steven Emerson has renewed his claims that he continues to be banned from appearing on NPR -- a ban he says goes back more than three years. Emerson, who has made a reputation as an anti-terrorism expert, was last heard on NPR in August 1998, and -- in the interests of full disclosure -- when I was VP of News at NPR.
Since Sept. 11, Emerson has been interviewed on many media outlets over his contention that Arab terrorist cells have deep roots inside Arab-American communities. Emerson has claimed that he has been banned from NPR because of his ideas. Bruce Drake, now NPR's News VP, has stated repeatedly that there is no ban and that any program or reporter can interview Emerson. But among all the experts interviewed by NPR, Emerson has not been heard. Emerson's cause and continued criticism of NPR has been taken up by a newspaper columnist in the Boston Globe, a report in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and by an editorial in the New York Post.
4. Linda Gradstein, NPR's Jerusalem correspondent, has been invited to a speaking tour of colleges and universities in the United States. Pro-Palestinian activist Ali Abunimah, who has a Web site called "The Electronic Intifada" www.electronicintifada.org, has pointed out that Gradstein's expenses plus an honorarium for the speaking tour would be paid by Hillel, the Jewish Students Society. When informed of this, Bruce Drake reaffirmed NPR's longstanding policy against accepting money from groups that may have an interest in how the news is reported. The result? Gradstein will not accept money from the students' society.
All journalistic organizations experience pressure from one group or another at various times. But it is rare, in my experience, to see the pressure mount in such an unremitting and continuous manner.
These groups are aware that NPR is an organization that depends on public largesse, and they know NPR may be more vulnerable to financial pressures than other media. Newspapers or commercial broadcasters seem more able to withstand financial or community pressure in part because they are private companies.
NPR needs to respond publicly to these groups. Not because of the financial pressure, but because of NPR's obligation to its listeners and to the public radio community. In my opinion, there are solutions that speak to the public broadcaster's sense of mission and commitment to be an independent provider of reliable information.
But NPR must also be prepared to say that if NPR must choose between financial support and its journalistic integrity, it will choose the latter.
More Nimble Corrections
NPR's Middle East coverage is, in my opinion, reliable for the most part. NPR does make mistakes of omission from time to time. When they occur and when they are pointed out by CAMERA or by The Electronic Intifada or by FAIR, there should be a mechanism that deals with the error in a public way as quickly as possible. Often, mistakes are shelved or worse, ignored. A mature journalistic organization like NPR must do better.
Steve Emerson's ideas may be unpalatable to some, but they are worth hearing, discussing and arguing over. As I have said before in other columns, NPR's value is that it gives voice to people who might surprise us. If NPR is given the benefit of the doubt (rare these days), it should be restated that Emerson was not banned by any newsroom policy. But the way it usually happens is that other ideas and their advocates probably pushed for other experts. It's time to hear what Emerson has to say.
More 'Arms-Length' Relationships
Linda Gradstein should not be taking money from any group that has a partisan approach to the conflict in the Middle East. But she has a First Amendment right to speak to whomever she wants. Indeed, it would be interesting if Mr. Abunimah and The Electronic Intifada would see their way clear to inviting her to speak to his group while she is in the United States. They might learn something too.
NPR has a policy, which forbids its journalists from accepting benefits, gratuities or monies from groups that have an interest in how the news is reported. NPR management must make sure that the policy is widely distributed and scrupulously followed.
Putting Pressure on NPR
But there is another danger in all this pressure and counter-pressure on NPR.
NPR needs and will profit from reasoned discussion and intelligent media criticism. Sometimes, these critics help, sometimes not. What we do not have is a place where these passionate discussions can happen without acrimony and with the ultimate goal of improving NPR's reporting. The issue has become so fraught, that even internal discussion or criticism of NPR's Middle East coverage is now rebuffed as being on the side of one pressure group or another. As an unintended consequence, the pressure groups have lowered the standard of media criticism inside and outside of NPR.
We hear much from NPR's critics on its Middle East coverage. But we never hear from listeners who find it useful and insightful. Non-NPR journalists also seem to be staying away from this story -- worried that any discussion of the economic pressures on NPR might be perceived as feeding into anti-Semitism.
NPR should, in my opinion, find a way to report on this story -- in effect to report on itself. It will be subject to much criticism for doing so, but the greater danger is to pretend that this is a story that is unimportant or of little interest to its listeners. NPR also needs to respond publicly to these pressure groups. Not to do so would only increase the impression that NPR is on the defensive.
The stakes here are, in my opinion, important both for NPR and for American journalism in general -- no less for NPR's ability to report on this and any other issue with independence and credibility.
If NPR, with its deep tradition of fairness and openness can't find a way to address these issues, other media that feel that they are now immune to such pressures may be deceiving themselves.
But ultimately, NPR's independence and integrity are what count. In my opinion, the pressure on NPR from these groups can constitute a form of journalistic McCarthyism. It may be that at the end of the day, once a reasonable and detailed discussion with its critics has taken place, NPR may lose some of its longtime supporters. But that may be the price it must pay for not losing its journalistic soul.
Listeners can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.