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Media Panel Shows the Heat of Jews’ Passions on Mideast Coverage

Even before Zev Chafets arrived for a media panel here, he was being goaded by his peers.

The conservative columnist for the New York Daily News said he had received quite a few e-mails instructing him, in “genteel terms,” to “kick”the “ass” of National Public Radio president Kevin Klose.

Along with New York Times contributor Samuel Freedman, Chafets and Klose appeared on a panel at Hadassah’s 88th annual convention here Monday and Tuesday, addressing media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The issue has been a widespread source of dismay for the Jewish community, which complains that much reporting falsely portrays Israel as the aggressor.

In fact, Klose’s presence on the panel outraged CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, which sees NPR as vigorously anti-Israel.

While civil and even jocular, the Hadassah forum demonstrated American Jews’ frustration with the media. And NPR — widely regarded by Hadassah activists, who represent all religious streams and political ideologies within American Zionism, as skewed against Israel — became a lightning rod for criticism.

After waiting in a long line for their turns at the microphone, activists faulted NPR and other major media outlets for alleged sensationalism, ignorance and lack of context and follow-up.

They lambasted the media for biased word choice and inaccuracy, and for encouraging a “moral equivalence” by their treatment of Palestinian terrorist attacks and Israeli military responses.

Chafets, the panelist representing the right wing — Freedman apparently was picked as the centrist and Klose as the liberal — seemed to have the audience’s allegiance.

His opening speech, which called for pro-Israel spin, earned sustained applause.

Major American media organizations like NPR and The New York Times are not anti-Israel or anti-Semitic, or even inaccurate, Chafets said.

They simply “are balanced organizations in a situation where balance” is inappropriate, he said.

“In a war between America’s enemies and America’s allies,” the free press should take a clear stand on the side of democracy, Chafets said.

Its tone should be “unsympathetic to the bad guys” and “understanding” of “the right side.”

Klose responded that advocacy is not NPR’s role.

Freedman agreed that the media is not there to “reify Jewish solidarity with Israel.”

When complaining to news outlets, activists should include some positive feedback with their criticism, advised Freedman, a professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. He also blasted the idea of boycotting media outlets perceived as pro-Palestinian, as some pro-Israel activists have urged.

Freedman said that those who protested Klose’s inclusion on the Hadassah panel — he appeared to be alluding to CAMERA — were spewing an “odious idea.”

He also suggested that American Jews may believe the American public should be partial to Israel, and they then direct their frustration over the conflict at the media — a notion that offended some activists.

Audience members praised Klose for holding a dialogue with a group that is critical of his network, yet most remained skeptical of his message.

“He had me” until he refused to call suicide bombers murderers, said Eileen Chepenik, president of the Charleston, S. C., chapter of Hadassah.

Indeed, Klose was booed when he said that it was not up to NPR to decide if suicide bombers were murderers.

“We’re not going to make a finding of guilt,” he said. “Murder” is a determination that only the court system can make, he said.

“That’s ridiculous,” Chepenik said.

A former editor of a Jewish newspaper in Charleston, Chepenik said Klose “represents a hurdle for us” in terms of communicating the message that suicide bombers are terrorists, plain and simple.

“How can anyone in their right mind not take sides when it comes to suicide bombers?” she asked.

“Murderers are blowing up innocent civilians,” and reporters should describe it as such, she said.

If that’s considered taking sides, “then yes,” reporters “should take sides,” she said.

Charlotte Jacobson, Hadassah’s national honorary vice president who moderated the panel, agreed.

“We don’t agree” that reporters should be detached from the story, she told JTA after the session. If something is wrong, then “you say so.”

As for the panel, “I think they heard the voice of the people,” she said.

Iris Geller, 51, from San Juan, Puerto Rico, has regarded NPR and other major media as slanted against Israel. But Klose seemed “sincere,” she said, and the station has the “possibility of improving.”

She was pleased when Klose said the station is planning a piece on the history of Israel.

“If we could have” such dialogues with other network heads, the Jewish community “would be much better off,” Geller said.

Carol Towbin Greenberg, 46, from Savannah, Ga., thinks things already are looking up.

CNN’s recent effort to highlight the personal stories of Israeli terror victims shows that the media responds to the Jewish community’s objections, she said.

Indeed, the possibility of “useful dialogue” is precisely what drew him to the convention, Klose said.

Scribbling notes furiously during the question-and-answer session, Klose kept his cool when responding and offered his business cards, phone number and e-mail to the crowd to continue the discussion.

Since May, NPR has responded to complaints of unfair coverage by posting transcripts of its Middle East reportage on its Web site. It also aims to bolster coverage by adding a third staff member to its Middle East bureau.

But attendants at the Hadassah conference said they would monitor NPR’s coverage to see how the network proceeds from here.

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