Alleged NPR Bias: A Matter For Congress?


Taking its complaints about biased reporting to a new level, a pro-Israel media monitoring group is urging Congress to investigate public radio’s Mideast coverage. In an April 2 ad on The New York Times opinion page, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, or CAMERA, skewered National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” news program for “distortion,” “error” and “endemic bias” against Israel.

The media watchdog in its “Open Letter to NPR Listeners and Contributors” called on the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which subsidizes many public radio stations, “to obey its federal mandate requiring ‘strict adherence to objectivity and balance.’ ”

“Those statutes are quite explicit,” said Andrea Levin, CAMERA’s executive director, citing the legislation establishing CPB quoted in the ad. “Tax dollars are funding this, people should know this and Congress should be aware of what’s happening.”

“The problem of NPR’s unrelenting bias and abuse of taxpayer funds will have to be taken to Congress, CPB and the American public,” the group avers on its Internet Web site. Levin said the issue would be featured prominently at CAMERA’s conference next week in New York City.

Levin suggested that Congress might have to hold hearings similar to those before a House Appropriations subcommittee in 1993 concerning PBS, the public TV network.

NPR, meanwhile, strongly defended the accuracy of its Israel coverage.

“Our news executives have had extensive dialogue with CAMERA representatives, and have addressed their complaints in a number of interchanges,” the network said Monday in an official statement. “This ad … adds nothing to a dialogue in which they have advocated their position without regard to the facts.”

In the ad, CAMERA offers two examples of what it considered biased NPR reporting, both from a March 1998 report on Jerusalem by Mike Shuster. In one case, the ad said, Shuster reported falsely that Israel had “suffocated Arab building in Jerusalem and destroyed ‘thousands’ of illegal structures in the city.”

CAMERA countered that “a building boom is under way in Arab neighborhoods.” In the last 30 years, the ad said, Arab housing construction had outpaced Jewish home building.

A review of the program transcript shows that while reporting on one Arab family whose home Israel had recently demolished, Shuster spoke of “thousands” of cases in which Israel had “ruled” that Arab homes must be destroyed.

Daniel Seidemann, a Jerusalem housing expert with Ir Shalem, a group advocating equal municipal services for the city’s Arabs, said Shuster’s assertion was “probably correct, technically, but it’s misleading. He nowhere draws the distinction between orders issued and orders implemented.”

According to Seidemann, Arab home demolitions actually implemented since 1967 were “in the hundreds, not the thousands.” But he added: “Arab construction has not outpaced Jewish construction. It’s far less.” Citing official city data, he added, “This is not a small fib. It’s big-lie tactics.”

Levin, however, challenged the methodology used by the municipality’s annual Statistical Yearbook in compiling the data Seidemann cited.

According to former editor and prominent journalism analyst William Kovach, whatever the merits of CAMERA’s case, its threat to involve Congress is serious — and legitimate.

“There was a fear all along, right from the establishment of CPB, that there could come [such] a time,” said Kovach, a former NPR board member who now administers Harvard University’s Nieman Fellowship for journalists. “Since it received funds from a political body — Congress — there could be political pressure.”

That has not happened yet “directly,” said Kovach. But if congressional involvement in NPR’s news content of the sort CAMERA now advocates were to occur, “It would be hard to describe it as anything other than political censorship.”

Still, as to the legitimacy of CAMERA’s tactic, Kovach said, “I think that’s what democracy is all about … I don’t consider it illegitimate for CAMERA to lobby.”

As long as Congress chooses to fund CPB through annual legislative appropriations that ultimately make their way to NPR, “[CAMERA has] no less right to lobby than the National Rifle Association, AIPAC or any other group,” he said. “The possibility of political interference by Congress is built into the system.”

Kovach noted that other countries, such as Britain and Canada, have insulated their public broadcast authorities from political interference by funding them with automatic tax levies on all radios and televisions.

Levin cited the 1993 hearing, in which she said CAMERA testimony before a congressional committee with control over public media funding seemed to have a striking impact. PBS ceased airing programs on Israel for five years after the testimony, she said. At the hearing, the group charged PBS bias in a long string of documentaries on the Jewish state, she said.

“It wasn’t that we wanted to stop them” from doing programs on Israel, said Levin. The network, in fact, broke its hiatus on documentaries about Israel in January, she added, with a program on Israel’s birth tied to its 50th anniversary. Levin termed that program “terrific.”