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Npr May Be Monitored on Israel; Jewish Reaction is Cautious Optimism

Word that the head of the federal corporation overseeing public radio and television is mulling a proposal to begin monitoring National Public Radio’s coverage of the Middle East for bias is being met with cautious optimism by Jewish officials and U.S. legislators. “This is something we’ve been calling on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to do for years,” said Alex Safian, associate director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, a media watchdog group. “It’s potentially a move in the right direction, depending on what kind of analysis the Corporation for Public Broadcasting does.”

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) recommended the move to monitor NPR’s Mideast reportage when the corporation met in Washington last fall. At the time, he told JTA on Monday, he suggested that about $50,000 be earmarked for a study of NPR’s Mideast coverage.

Long criticized by some as reflexively anti-Israel, NPR ought to be striving for a balance in its Mideast coverage where “half the story’s comments are favorable to the Israeli government and half are opposed,” Sherman said.

“Ethnic balance” — in which equal numbers of Arabs and Jews are interviewed — is insufficient, he insisted.

“Plenty of Jews are harshly critical of Israel,” he said, adding that while there may be Palestinians who support Israeli policies, “they’re all dead so you can’t interview them.”

A spokesman for the corporation told JTA that “no one was available” to comment on the NPR situation.

The spokesman did make available a small portion of congressional testimony about polls on perceptions of public broadcasting, including Middle East coverage, that the corporation had commissioned over the past few years.

Most recently, according to the corporation’s testimony, its polling data demonstrated that nearly 80 percent of people who listen to public radio believe Middle East coverage is balanced. Eight percent think it has a pro-Israel bias, while 5 percent feel it favors the Arabs.

“Given its polling results, we are surprised that the corporation would be considering additional study on this subject,” Andi Sporkin, NPR’s vice president of communications, told JTA in an e-mail exchange, referring specifically to surveys conducted for the corporation by two outside firms in 2002 and 2003.

“As the only broadcast news organization that has increased its international news resources in recent years, NPR has always recognized the unique sensitivity among listeners to Middle East coverage,” she added. “For that reason, we are committed to doing the best job possible and we present all important views of these subjects with balance, fairness and accuracy.”

In April, the corporation created two new positions to independently assess public programing, but not necessarily related to the Middle East. Former NBC newsman Ken Bode and a former Reader’s Digest executive editor, William Schulz, were named to the ombudsman posts.

According to a report in The New York Times, the corporation’s chairman, Kenneth Tomlinson, believes public television programming is tainted by a liberal bias and is waging a campaign to correct it.

Late last year, the Times said, Tomlinson talked to S. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, about looking into the balance of NPR’s Middle East reporting. The corporation has not yet gone ahead with the project, Lichter told the Times.

“I think there’s a concern that the motivations are political as much as they may be journalistic,” NPR’s ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, told JTA.

“There are a lot of organizations that monitor NPR’s coverage and not just on the Middle East, and CPB does have an obligation to make sure that the programing it supports is fair — so I don’t think that looking into this is entirely unexpected,” he said. “But CPB also has an obligation be a firewall between broadcasters and the interest groups. That’s the part that has people confused.”

One shouldn’t assume that all American Jews oppose NPR’s coverage of Israel, said Martin Raffel, acting executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

“The community’s not monolithic in its approach to NPR,” he said. “There are some people who believe that NPR’s coverage is just fine.”

For his part, Raffel said he believes “there is an issue here that needs to be addressed — or a series of issues.”

In 2003, Sherman, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and nine other U.S. legislators asked that NPR assess its own coverage of the Middle East. What they got back, Sherman said, was a self-exonerating report with no data to back up its conclusions.

“We have concluded that we are fair and we refuse to give you the data underlying this report,” was Sherman’s characterization of NPR’s response.

But in the past year or two, he said, he believes NPR’s coverage of the Middle East “may have been ameliorated just by them covering the Arab-Israeli conflict less.”

“If one of your indicators is the number of times I hit the roof, the roof of my apartment and my office has been dented less in the last 12 months than during the 12 prior months,” he said.

Jean Abinader, a member of the board of directors of the Washington-based Arab American Institute, said he’d like to believe the corporation is attempting to ensure balance in NPR’s reporting, but he’s more inclined to see the consideration of a plan to monitor Mideast coverage as “political correctness.”

“Balance in the United States in general means focusing on Israel’s security needs,” he said. “This is potentially another nail in the coffin on an open debate on what U.S. Middle East policy should be.”

CAMERA’s Safian said his group has done several studies on NPR’s coverage of the region and has found that the programming not only offers “a preponderance of Palestinian voices,” but tends to give those voices longer chunks of air time.

“The Palestinian guests were on longer and had much greater opportunity to put their views forth,” he said.

After intense criticism about its reporting on the Middle East, NPR hired a Washington-based public relations firm to reach out to Jewish and Arab groups in 2002, and hired its own ombudsman, Dvorkin, who began acting as a kind of in-house auditor for NPR News.

Dvorkin said that “NPR has done a lot to improve its coverage on the Middle East to make sure that the story is as fair as it can be when it is perceived in such an emotional way.”

Still, he said,”I don’t think that we’ll ever make people completely happy on either side.”

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