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Congressman joins lobbying to shift NPR Israel coverage

Originally published in Current, Oct. 4, 2004
By Jeremy Egner

Complaints about anti-Israel news coverage by NPR topped the list of concerns expressed at a CPB public forum Sept. 21 [2004], if judged in terms of turnout (three of the nine speakers), or emotion (the barely contained anger of one) or prominence of the speaker (a congressman).

The nine CPB Board members presided over the forum designed to draw public feedback on pubcasting issues. Views expressed were recorded for inclusion in CPB’s annual Open to the Public report to Congress.

The proceedings were civil, with a healthy mix of supportive and critical commentary on a variety of issues in the hearing at D.C.’s George Washington University. Speakers commented on right-left balance on PBS, pubradio’s role in music and unmet needs of Native American radio stations. Earlier in the day, CPB had announced funding of a new project to aid the Indian radio.

Specific criticism about the new conservative PBS public affairs shows, which have received attention from the press and advocacy groups, never materialized (story).

Ken Tomlinson, CPB’s newly re-elected board chairman, told Current he hopes the meeting’s relatively low turnout and general decorum indicate that public broadcasting is “moving into a time in which we’re amassing more support with less controversy.”

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) gave support to NPR for the general quality of its journalism but criticized its Israel-Palestine coverage, calling for an outside study of its fairness. Sherman is a member of the House Committee on International Relations.

While Sherman found the network’s Mideast coverage was improving, he said, “it’s clear NPR cannot be left to evaluate itself.” He said an independent consultant should assess how many minutes of coverage per month are given to each side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Tomlinson called Sherman’s presentation “extraordinary” and told him that CPB would make his trip to the forum “worth your while.”

In a later interview, the board chairman declined to say whether he agreed with Sherman or would support an independent review of NPR coverage but said CPB will respond to issues raised at the meeting in the near future.
Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, a frequent NPR critic, and private citizen Daniel Levinson, visibly angry about a particular BBC news report, also said public radio coverage favors the Palestinian cause. A 2002 boycott of NPR supported by CAMERA resulted in Boston’s WBUR losing more than $1 million in underwriting.

NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin told Current past coverage “may have been less sensitive” than it should be but contends that NPR consistently does a fair job with an emotionally charged issue. Once the subject of thousands of e-mails on both sides of the issue, concerns about bias in Mideast coverage have been eclipsed of late by the war in Iraq, he says.

NPR’s Code of Ethics and Practices, adopted in February, defines fairness as the presentation of “all important views” on a subject with “even-handed treatment” of each, news v.p. Bruce Drake says. He says persistent criticism of Israel-Palestine coverage comes from the fact “there is not simply one version of reality being presented around each event or incident, but normally at least two totally differing interpretations.”

NPR guidelines on Mideast coverage address everything from proper terminology to the editing process, Drake says, and the network reviews its performance four times a year. The self-assessments, as well as transcripts and audio of Mideast stories, are available without charge at NPR.org.

The network has never contracted an outside study of its coverage, according to NPR spokesperson Jenny Lawhorn.

Two speakers took opposing views on CPB’s support for new right-wing public-affairs hosts on PBS. Celia Wexler, v.p. for advocacy for the left-leaning public-interest lobby Common Cause, called for reforms in funding and a new system for appointment of the CPB Board to de-politicize the oversight of public broadcasting. Common Cause suggested that the White House choose board members from a slate of qualified nominees put forth by a blue-ribbon committee chaired by the head of the Library of Congress. She also urged CPB to propose legislation clarifying definitions of objectivity and balance, with the goal of balancing views across the broadcast schedule, and creating an independent funding mechanism to support both pubcasting and independent producers. “CPB should be above politics,” she said.

Andrew Apostolou, research v.p. for righty think tank the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, praised PBS’s addition of conservative voices on Friday nights, saying the programming should reflect the nation’s range of political views. PBS “should be controversial,” he said, citing such past shows as Firing Line as examples of the sort of “intelligent controversy PBS specializes in.” Apostolou said former CPB President Richard Carlson, father of one of the new PBS hosts, Tucker Carlson, is vice chairman of the foundation where he works.

The remarks of Michael Bracy ventured farther outside the usual orbit of politics. Bracy, co-founder of the Future of Music Coalition, said media ownership consolidation and consequent narrowing and homogenization of commercial playlists had made pubradio stations increasingly important as local music outlets.

Tomlinson, who lauded Bracy’s presentation and said he sent a personal e-mail after the forum thanking him for his contribution, told Current that one of his “great joys” was listening to niche music such as jazz and bluegrass on pubradio. “Media consolidation is both a problem for the country and an opportunity for public broadcasting,” he said.

Bracy urged CPB to support the development of low-power FM stations. Though the National Federation of Community Broadcasters has backed LPFM, NPR has opposed the addition of stations on the grounds that they would interfere with existing broadcasters.

Web page posted May 31, 2005
Copyright 2004 by Current Publishing Committee

RELATED ARTICLES

Right-tilting shows join PBS public affairs options.

NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin discusses his first year on the job and the balance of Middle East coverage, 2001.

LATER ARTICLES

CPB tries ombudsmen to handle input from public, May 2005.

LINKS

Objectivity and balance amendment to Public Telecommunications Act, 1992.

 

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