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Npr Responds to Criticism with Series on Mideast Conflict

October 2, 2002
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Millions of National Public Radio listeners are getting a history lesson in Zionism.

NPR, long blasted by some critics as reflexively anti-Israel in its Middle East coverage, launched a weeklong series Monday on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yet only two days into the series, questions and criticism began flying, with some hurling such epithets as “National Palestinian Radio” and “National Predictable Radio” at NPR.

One skeptic was New York Daily News columnist Zev Chafets, a co-founder of the Jerusalem Report magazine who participated in a panel on media treatment of the Middle East at Hadassah’s annual conference this summer.

Chafets, who hadn’t heard the first two parts of the series, sounded a pessimistic note that an in-depth series would change NPR’s tune after learning of the historians NPR lined up for the production.

“If a restaurant is famous for bad food, making the portions larger doesn’t solve the problem,” Chafets told JTA.

NPR has “such a relentless point of view that you know what it thinks if you listen to it, and you know what it thinks if you don’t.”

That kind of dismissal of NPR’s Mideast reporting echoes a longtime refrain by some critics like the media watchdog group the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, which for more than a decade has blasted NPR for an alleged anti-Israel slant.

CAMERA was quick to slam this week’s series, criticizing both its list of sources and its version of Mideast history.

“This is Palestinian propaganda repacked by NPR, not for the first time,” said CAMERA’s associate director, Alex Safian.

By the second day of the series, CAMERA had already posted two detailed critiques of the series. The first ripped NPR’s reliance on what it called nine anti-Israel historians and only three Israel experts.

Sitting in the anti-Israel camp were the so-called Israeli “revisionists” of Zionist history — those who challenged long-held views of Israel’s founding, including Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Avi Shlaim, Tom Segev and Benny Morris, CAMERA said.

Also among the Israeli foes were Palestinians Edward Said; Rashid Khalidi and Yezid Sayigh, CAMERA said, and William Quandt, a onetime U.S. National Security Council member under Presidents Nixon and Carter and a Brookings Institution fellow.

Only historians Michael Oren, Howard Sachar and Anita Shapira could be considered pro-Israel, CAMERA said.

“This list of historians looks like exactly the kind of thing we’ve been troubled by all these years,” said CAMERA’s executive director, Andrea Levin. “It’s a matter of constantly stacking the deck.”

NPR officials defended both the sources and content of the series, and maintained that the production was meant to offer context to a highly charged, complex and evolving story.

Bruce Drake, NPR’s vice president of news, said the series was not so much a direct response to longtime criticism of NPR from some circles, but an attempt to delve into history and “tell the story in a rich and helpful way.”

Often “history provides lessons and explication” about “how we got from point A to point C,” Drake said.

Still, NPR officials admitted they pay close attention to the criticism of NPR’s Mideast coverage, which is perhaps its most closely scrutinized programming with Arab Americans and Jewish Americans often responding.

“Obviously we’ve thought a great deal about this coverage and the best way to do it,” Drake said.

The series comes after NPR in June launched a major public relations effort in response to intensifying criticism about its reporting on the Middle East.

That criticism included calls for a boycott and even pushed some NPR backers to withdraw funding.

NPR hired the Washington-based PR firm DCG to reach out to Jewish and Arab groups, and hired an ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, who began acting as a kind of in-house auditor for NPR News.

Dworkin, Drake and NPR’s CEO, Kevin Klose, traveled to Israel over the summer on what spokeswoman Jessamyn Sarmiento called a “fact-finding” mission.

After NPR officials met with Israeli and Palestinian officials, academics and journalists, they returned to Washington and “brainstormed” about NPR’s coverage of the Middle East, Sarmiento said.

During these discussions, the executive producer of “Morning Edition,” Ellen McDonnell, suggested the extended series on Mideast history, Sarmiento said.

NPR brass agreed, dispatching veteran Mideast correspondent Mike Shuster to Israel to research and report the series, Sarmiento said.

NPR is also seeking to hire a third reporter based in Israel, in addition to Linda Gradstein and Peter Kenyon, a sign that NPR is committed to “getting this story right,” Sarmiento added.

Whether the series will answer longtime criticism of NPR remains to be seen, with CAMERA and others already questioning NPR’s use of sources for the series.

But Drake stood by NPR’s selections. “There are historians from both streams — there are revisionists and there are traditionalists,” he said. “There is a spectrum of people here.”

And “where there’s disagreement, you hear both sides.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., a self-described “avid” NPR listener and member of a House subcommittee on the Middle East, is still waiting for a report he requested analyzing NPR’s Mideast content.

Instead, last week NPR officials presented him with a list showing the numbers of Israelis and Arabs they’d interviewed for stories in June and July, and it showed more Israelis than Arabs having been interviewed.

However, Sherman dismissed the data, saying he needed more complete analysis. He said that what was said is what matters. He charged that NPR typically interviews anti-Israel Arabs, and often Israeli critics of government policy.

Since NPR relies on government subsidies as well as largely private donations for its budget, Sherman said, he wants NPR to make public its in-house report, and “demonstrate” that it can achieve a “balanced” approach to its Mideast reporting.

NPR’s Sarmiento would not comment on the meeting with Sherman, only acknowledging that NPR officials often “meet with all sorts of people on the Hill.”

As to the specific criticism about the first two days of the series, Sarmiento said it was “premature to judge” without hearing the whole series.

Other Jewish observers of NPR also preferred to wait until the series played out before passing judgment.

Martin Raffel, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said he would hold talks with JCPA’s member groups next week to decide on what response to make, if any.

“The Jewish community is listening very closely to this program, because of NPR’s reputation, deserved or undeserved,” Raffel said.

“This will be a very important test to see where NPR comes down on this” issue.

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