NPR reacts to charges of anti-Israel bias in coverage

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WASHINGTON — Nat-ional Public Radio has mounted a public relations campaign among Jews and Arabs in an effort to avoid being known as National Protest Radio.

At the same moment that the president of NPR was addressing Jewish newspaper editors in Chicago about coverage of the Middle East, the ombudsman for NPR was talking about the very same thing to an Arab group in Washington.

The speeches last Friday were part of an outreach effort by the nonprofit radio organization to convince its listeners that its reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is both fair and unbiased.

NPR, along with other major media outlets, has been accused by both Jewish and Arab audiences of unfair coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The outreach comes after Jews boycotted some major newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post because of a perceived anti-Israel bias.

Arabs have complained bitterly as well, citing what they see as a pro-Israel slant to many stories in the New York Times and Washington Post, among other media.

Kevin Klose, president and CEO of NPR, acknowledged the complaints against his organization.

"We're not immune to that," he said in a telephone interview. "We pay a great deal of attention to criticism."

Klose is looking for more dialogue with both communities and he believes NPR is trying to be as careful as possible about its reportage.

"But we're not indifferent to errors," he said. "We change; we correct the record."

Part of the problem is the nature of the story, Klose told Jewish newspaper editors gathered last week in Chicago at the annual meeting of American Jewish Press Association.

"This has been nothing but a terrible story for 20 months," said Klose, a former reporter and editor at The Washington Post.

And people with close ties to the issues, he said, "listen with an extraordinary intensity."

NPR has hired a public relations firm, DCS Group, that does work for Arab and Jewish groups, including Birthright Israel, to help with its outreach to both communities.

NPR serves an audience of more than 19 million Americans each week via 680 public radio stations and the Internet and in Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa through NPR Worldwide.

Jeffrey Dvorkin, the NPR ombudsman, says the outreach effort is to help the organization understand the communities better and to encourage people to help NPR do its job better.

"If there's a boycott, then it's too late," he said.

NPR's outreach to the Jewish community includes visits around the country and speaking to the national convention of Hadassah this summer.

Dvorkin told JTA he spoke recently in a synagogue in Maryland where he heard from "a lot of angry people," but in a visit to the Miami Jewish federation he said people seemed to understand NPR's efforts to be fair.

Last month, the NPR Web site started posting full transcripts of its reports from the Middle East so people could see the full text, officials said.

While most of the critics respond with letters, e-mail and voice mail complaints, there have been some financial repercussions as well.

Some major donors to a public radio station in the Boston area stopped their funding because of what they saw as an anti-Israel bias in NPR.

At least six underwriters have withdrawn their support to WBUR, according to Mary Stohn, spokeswoman for the local station.

She said that other smaller donors had also not renewed their support and the station anticipated further action on the part of both smaller and larger donors.

According to Stohn, WBUR has already lost at least $1 million in funding because of protests about NPR's coverage of Israel.

NPR officials said they were not aware of any other stations that have lost funding as a result of their Middle East coverage. And NPR president Klose said that in general, financial support for public radio is up.

Two of those who withdrew their support in Boston were members of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, or CAMERA, a group that has long criticized NPR reporting. CAMERA has called for people to end their support of their local stations because of NPR's "anti-Israel distortions."

According to a CAMERA study of NPR coverage during two months in late 2000, less airtime was afforded to Israeli speakers, and many programs excluded Israeli voices entirely. In an updated survey from March and April 2002, CAMERA evaluated 57 segments and found 16 Israeli speakers, 43 Arab speakers, 21 neutral commentators and six pro-Arab speakers.

CAMERA also charged that NPR did not do human interest stories on Jewish victims of terrorism.

Aside from a story on Jewish victims last month, CAMERA doesn't see any recent alterations to NPR's coverage and believes NPR continues to skew its stories.

"People are more concerned about the Middle East and NPR is subject to heightened scrutiny," said Alex Safian, CAMERA's associate director.

"The Jewish community is not as willing to overlook this sort of thing," he said.

NPR's Dvorkin questions the group's findings and says his evaluations of coverage have shown different results.

Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs have been meeting with NPR for several years to discuss concerns about Middle East coverage.

A recent study by the ADL said that NPR is not fundamentally biased against Israel, but that it had "significant imbalances in coverage," particularly when Israel responded militarily after Palestinian suicide bombings.

"NPR has demonstrated that it can be objective and fair-minded in its presentation of Israel's perspective as well as that of the Palestinians, in terms of personalizing the suffering on the Israeli side as well as the Palestinian side, and in terms of interviewing as many mainstream Israelis as Palestinians," said the report, which ADL decided not to release.

"However, this must happen on an ongoing basis, not only when Israelis are victimized and showing restraint, but also when Israel decides it has an obligation to protect its people militarily," the report said.

For their part, some Arab Americans also take issue with NPR's coverage of the conflict.

Hussein Ibish, communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said NPR does not have an anti-Arab bias, but its reporting can be problematic and there is a "radical imbalance" in its commentary.

He said his group makes practical suggestions to NPR and encourages it to do better.

Meanwhile, NPR has its Jewish fans as well.

Edith Everett, a major contributor to NPR, says counting the minutes given to each side doesn't necessarily tell the whole story.

In general, Everett, a philanthropist who lives in New York, said she finds NPR coverage outstanding and adds that NPR officials have been receptive to her comments about problems with Middle East reporting.

If there are problems with the coverage, though, Everett does not think a boycott is the way to go.

"You don't stop subscribing or underwriting, you alert them," she said. "I'm not in the camp that says move away."

Michael Kotzin, the executive vice president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, agreed, calling for a constructive dialogue between the Jewish community and the media.

Speaking alongside Klose at the American Jewish press association meeting last week, Kotzin said the media needed to take a serious look at how they are treating the Middle East conflict.

He also said he was concerned that the media is increasingly dismissive of their critics as "emotional advocates for one side."

At the same time, he said he believes the Jewish community "needs to demonstrate the same kind of fairness and understanding about the media that we are demanding of them.''

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