The Voice of NPR
National Public Radio (NPR), America’s premier tax-supported radio network, with a budget of $59 million in 1993 and an audience of more than fourteen million listeners per week through 458 affiliated stations, operates under a federal statutory mandate of “strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature.” Yet it has consistently violated this mandate by an anti-Israel tilt in its Middle East coverage.
A recent segment, broadcast September 16, 1992, is emblematic. Here NPR, marking the tenth anniversary of the slaughter of Palestinian Arabs by Lebanese Christian Arabs at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, dug up and replayed an interview taped just after the 1982 events. In that interview the NPR host, Noah Adams, is heard to ask Loren Jenkins, the reporter on the scene in Lebanon, “Do you have any doubt now of the complicity of the Israel defense forces there?” To which Jenkins responds, “There is no doubt in my mind that Israel aided and abetted the whole operation.”
Yet the Kahan Commission of Inquiry, convened by the Israeli government and lauded internationally for the independence and integrity of its investigation, did not find that Israel had “aided and abetted the whole operation.” Rather, it condemned the Israeli army for negligence in not anticipating possible attacks by angry Christians bent on avenging the assassination of the (Christian) Lebanese President, Bashir Gemayel. Later inquiries also revealed that, contrary to the impression conveyed by Jenkins, the overwhelming majority of the victims were not women and children, but men. Nevertheless, his ten-year-old account—now definitely known to have been incomplete, misleading, and inflammatory—was put forward by NPR as a responsible rendition of the truth about Sabra and Shatila.
There was more. The interview with Jenkins did not segue into a report on the many awful massacres that have afflicted Lebanon since 1982, including mass murders of Christians by Muslims and the Shiite-Palestinian “war of the camps” that took the lives of thousands. Nor did NPR go on to remind listeners of the plight of that country today under the boot of a 40,000-man Syrian occupation force. Nor was the opportunity taken to bring listeners up to date on the dire fortunes of the Christian minority that carried out the Sabra and Shatila murders. Instead, the story that followed the Jenkins interview was a recounting of Israel’s failed policy in Lebanon and the supposed disenchantment of an entire generation of Israelis with the Israel Defense Forces.
NPR’s selection of anniversaries to commemorate is itself revealing. Thus, while all this time was devoted to the tenth anniversary of Sabra and Shatila, not a word was heard on NPR about the tenth anniversary of the massacre of some 20,000 of his own people in the city of Hama by the Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. Of particular note, too, was NPR’s piece on the 20th anniversary of the 1972 Munich Olympics. The occasion was used not to recall the murder of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists, but to reminisce at length about the United States basketball team’s loss of a gold medal to the Soviets.
On NPR, even programs about the arts often show a penchant for biased treatment of Israel. An interview aired on July 21, 1991, for instance, probed the work of a playwright who saw a parallel between the suffering of Jews under the Nazis and that of Arabs at the hands of Jews. (The same day, yet another NPR segment drew a spurious comparison between Israeli detention facilities and Nazi concentration camps.)
As with the arts, so with journalism. Seymour Hersh was given three separate opportunities to promote his latest (and widely discredited) book about Israel’s villainy, The Samson Option. Gloria Emerson had her vituperative book about Gaza peddled on two successive weekly installments of Terry Gross’s program, “Fresh Air.” And the most recent assault against Israel by Leslie and Andrew Cockburn was featured within days of its appearance in the bookstores. By contrast, serious scholars publishing on Israel, or the authors of books about the Arab-Israeli conflict that fail to label Israel as the villain, rarely if ever get an airing.
In August 1991, CAMERA wrote to Bill Buzenberg, vice president of news and information at NPR, expressing concern about such biased coverage and asking for a list of guests heard on the network’s major programs in order to evaluate more precisely the dimensions of the problem. When Buzenberg did not respond, CAMERA wrote to the president of NPR, Douglas Bennet, repeating the request and proposing a meeting with network officials. Again, no reply.
More than three months later (apparently at the urging of an affiliate that had been subjected to increasing public complaint about the network’s Middle East coverage), NPR finally responded, through its managing editor, John Dinges. He did not supply the requested list, but he did offer the use of NPR’s library to CAMERA’s researchers. Dinges also stated in his letter that the network had begun “to compile a coverage review of NPR stories and interviews concerning Israel for the period August 8 to November 8, 1991.” In turn, CAMERA proposed to do an overlapping, but more extensive, study of the six months from July 1, 1991 through December 31, 1991. Comparing the results of the two inquiries would, it was assumed, prove illuminating.
The study CAMERA did was based on NPR’s own Program Library Geographic Report, which lists, by country or region, all stories more extensive than brief, headline-like glosses. Titles of five to eight words describe the subject of each broadcast and allow some evaluation of the issues discussed. The Geographic Report also allows for a comparison of the coverage of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict with the coverage of other issues in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.
What emerged from a careful analysis of this material was a devastating indictment of NPR’s record. The index cites 278 stories on Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Of those, not a single one reported on the balance of military power between the Arab states and Israel. Not a single one reported on the threat to Israel posed by Arab acquisition of nuclear, biological, chemical, and missile technology. And despite frequent references to the issue of territorial concessions by Israel, not a single one addressed the strategic significance of the West Bank and Gaza to the nation’s security.
Furthermore, NPR turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to anything and everything casting doubt on the Arab world’s willingness to make genuine peace with Israel. Thus (to cite only a few of the cases detailed in the CAMERA report) :
- Notwithstanding the much-discussed offstage consultations between the PLO and the Palestinian Arab delegation to the peace talks then going on with Israel, no coverage was given to the PLO’s “two-step” plan, which advocates the acquisition of whatever territory can be gotten through negotiation as a first step toward the annihilation of an enfeebled Israel. Nor were any reports aired on the continuing endorsement by PLO leaders of this “two-step” plan.
- No stories were devoted to the goals and actions of Hamas (the fundamentalist Islamic Resistance Movement). Yet this organization’s adherents comprise an estimated 40 percent of the population of Gaza and the West Bank and vehemently oppose any peaceful accommodation with Israel.
- NPR provided no coverage of the Teheran conference in October 1991, whose theme, emblazoned in banners at the gathering, was “Israel must be destroyed.” Nor did NPR report that the president of the Palestine National Council (the governing body of the PLO), the speaker of the Jordanian parliament, and an official Syrian delegation all attended this conference.
- Arab anti-Semitism—rife in the media, the arts, and the schools and universities of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq—received no coverage on NPR.
- Another obvious barometer of the region’s willingness to accommodate a Jewish state in its midst—the plight of non-Arab, non-Muslim minorities in the Middle East—was ignored, with one exception. Only recently discovered by NPR in the context of the Gulf war, the Kurds were covered in 15 stories out of 154 on Iraq. But the ongoing war of the Islamic fundamentalist Arab government of Sudan against Christian and animist blacks of that nation, whose plight has been characterized by the director of Human Rights Watch as more deserving of the label “genocide” than any oppression in recent years, went entirely unreported. Muslim-Christian tensions in Egypt, Lebanon, and the West Bank were likewise ignored.
- In general, the intensifying pressure of Islamic fundamentalism, whose central tenets include the destruction of Israel, received only negligible coverage (two pieces on Algeria and one on Pakistan). There were no reports on the impact of Islamic militants in Egypt or Lebanon or among Palestinian Arabs.1
- No stories dealt with the spiraling number of Palestinians murdered by other Palestinians, a phenomenon that in 1991 took three times as many Palestinian lives as were lost in clashes with Israeli soldiers.
- In a subgroup of 39 segments randomly selected on the basis of the NPR crossfile heading “peace,” 43 Arabs (36 of them Palestinians) were interviewed. No representatives of Hamas or of the so-called hardline factions of the PLO were included. The Palestinians selected were primarily Western-oriented and moderate-sounding. By contrast, only half as many Israelis (22) were interviewed, and their political makeup was virtually the converse of the Arabs’. While 12 were representatives of the Likud government then in power, the remaining 10 consisted of 7 from the far Right and 3 from the far Left. No speaker from the centrist Labor party was chosen, and no speaker was heard to advocate territorial compromise (as opposed to complete withdrawal) or to voice the concern over security that is felt by the vast majority of Israelis in connection with the territories.
As insidious and harmful to public understanding as these cavernous omissions by the network has been the tendentious nature of the news actually proffered. Linda Gradstein, NPR’s “Middle East” correspondent (though in reality she reports almost exclusively on Israel and only rarely on the other states in the region), has employed her position to project personal political views. Those views have been expressed in public statements advocating the creation of a Palestinian state, urging the Israeli government to engage in direct negotiations with the PLO (whose nondemocratic and violent character she consistently blurs or over looks in her NPR reports), and opposing the right of Jews to live in the West Bank.
Among the most pernicious techniques in Gradstein’s reporting is the equating of grossly dissimilar actions by Arabs and Jews. On October 10, 1991 she uttered this unforgettable comparison:
But the hardliners and religious fanatics on both sides are fighting against peace. In radical Islam, there is no room for Israel as a Jewish state. And in messianic Judaism, there is no place for Muslims on the Temple Mount.
In other words, the many millions of radical Muslims who destabilize whole nations, who kidnap and kill innocent people, and who advocate the destruction of Israel (not to mention the conversion of all non-Muslims and the subjugation of women), are no different from the nonviolent handful of Temple Mount Faithful whose greatest provocations are parades, newspaper ads, and speeches.
Gradstein’s own fringe political views are frequently presented as though they reflect the actual geopolitical interests of the parties. On October 16, 1991, she stated:
. . . the biggest issues remain what they were at the beginning: who will represent the Palestinians? And if a conference is convened, will Israel be willing to trade land for peace?
Absent as always was the full Middle East context which reveals that for Israel “the biggest issues” are not those involving the Palestinians but those related to war and peace with heavily armed neighboring Arab states.
Gradstein’s misrepresentation of the geopolitical issues is under-girded by her “human-interest” stories. In the spring of 1992 she reported on the funerals of two young victims, one Jewish and one Arab. The Jewish victim was Helena Rapp, a fifteen-year-old Israeli girl who was stabbed to death by a Palestinian Arab on her way to school. Her funeral was mentioned by Gradstein on May 25, 1992, in four sentences, three of which consisted of critical references to retaliatory skirmishes in which angry Jews accosted Arabs.
Three days later, on May 28, 1992, Gradstein delivered an 80-sentence report on the funeral of twenty-two-year-old Anton Shamili, who was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier on the West Bank. Interwoven with sympathetic detail about Shamili (“He liked music and soccer and his friends say he was always quick to tell a joke and to laugh”) were allegations by an Arab group that Israel employs “death squads” to hunt down Palestinians.
In effect endorsing these allegations, Gradstein asserted: “One fact is clear; Israeli soldiers are killing Palestinian men in increasing numbers.” But the one fact that is clear is the opposite. The number of Palestinians dying in clashes with Israelis has declined since 1989, from 282 that year to 99 in 1990 and 86 in 1991. In contrast, the number of Palestinians who have been killed by other Palestinians has risen from 58 in 1988 to 238 in 1991.
In the Israel of Gradstein’s reports, not only does the government harass Palestinians and dispatch death squads, but the average Israeli small businessman exploits poor Arab workers. On March 27, 1992, Gradstein did a piece on the difficulties of a young Arab named Khalid at the “slave market,” a rendezvous point for day laborers. Describing Khalid as “twenty-six, with warm brown eyes and a stubbly beard,” Gradstein stated that “the workers take home only about $30 a day.” NPR’s Middle East correspondent neglected to mention that the average Israeli service worker earns even less on a per-diem basis, just $496 per month; that the average Egyptian worker earns $40 per month; and the average Jordanian $68 per month.
Having thus established that Palestinians are exploited by the Israelis, as well as harassed and displaced, Gradstein concluded with this signature insight about cause and effect in the cycle of Palestinian-Israeli violence:
. . . as the economic situation in the territories gets worse, more Palestinians will be drawn to violence and more violence will cause an even harsher Israeli crackdown.
Presented with these and all the other findings of the CAMERA study, NPR’s response was to express pride in the work of its staff, and to concede only that it had made a few minor factual errors. (A typical example of this stonewalling was an NPR official’s explanation of why no speakers from the violent and openly anti-Semitic Hamas organization had been interviewed during the coverage of the peace talks and related events: “because Hamas doesn’t talk about peace.”) There was no mention of the study NPR itself had ostensibly undertaken and which had guided the structure of the CAMERA evaluation.
NPR vice president Bill Buzenberg has said that “our role is not as an advocate, but as a sounding board for the most extensive discussion possible.” Surely, however, this protestation is belied not just by NPR’s systematic suppression of essential information about the Middle East, but by the contemptuous disdain with which the network has treated a carefully documented analysis drawn entirely from its own archives.
1 For a fuller discussion of Islamic fundamentalism today, see the article by Martin Kramer, beginning on p. 35.—Ed.