Both Sides Now: Palestinians And Israelis Unite Against NPR

***Image1***Although it has been relatively quiet of late, NPR’s reporting from the Middle East often results in protests from one side or the other — or from both at the same time. The accusation is always the same: that NPR’s journalistic processes are deficient at best and biased at worst.

‘Zionist Enemy’

The most recent difficulties with its Middle East reporting emerged when NPR said that Palestinian candidate (now president-elect) Mahmoud Abbas had referred to Israel as the “Zionist enemy.” The phrase evokes a time when Arab “rejectionists” could not bring themselves even to say the word “Israel” and when contact between Israelis and Palestinians was not allowed, let alone the possibility of a dialogue and peace process.

That use of the phrase in an introduction read by NPR’s Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition on Jan. 4 moved Ali Abunimah, a long-standing critic of NPR, to complain:

This intro highlighted the phrase “Zionist enemy,” and suggested that it was a deliberate appeal to Palestinian extremism. But Inskeep did not mention the shocking context in which Abbas used this, for him, uncharacteristic language. What Abbas actually said, at a campaign appearance was, “We came to you today, while we are praying for the souls of the martyrs who were killed today by the shells of the Zionist enemy in Beit Lahiya.”

The “martyrs” he was referring to were seven Palestinian children, the youngest of them aged 10, murdered by Israeli occupation forces in the northern Gaza Strip…

NPR often uses lead-ins to reports which have been filed earlier to provide updated information. But Inskeep made absolutely no mention of this atrocity, and NPR apparently decided that Abbas’ comment rather than the killing of seven children was the “news.”

NPR Regrets the Omission”

The next day, NPR acknowledged the error and Morning Edition ran a correction that said, in part:

The introduction failed to give the context for the remark. Abbas made the remark after an Israeli tank shell killed seven Palestinians in Gaza. NPR regrets the omission.

Some listeners described that correction as “stingy” and “pathetic,” because it failed to mention that the dead were Palestinian children who had been killed by an Israeli tank shell as they were picking strawberries.

“Returning Fire”

But listener Michael Powker thought the correction was stingy in another way:

As long as you took the trouble to put it in context, you should have provided the full context. The Israelis were not firing arbitrarily. They were returning fire. The Palestinians themselves later confirmed that a Hamas cell had launched a mortar attack from among Palestinian farmers, including children, and then fled the scene… I trust you will live up to your usual high standards, and provide the full context, and leave it to your listeners to decide who is to blame for the death of those Palestinians.

When ‘Next Month’ Is ‘This Month’

Could it be that NPR is not paying the attention it once did to the details of the Middle East story?

Avoiding this story may be, I believe, the cause of another on-air mistake when a Linda Gradstein report on All Things Considered on Jan. 4 referred, both in the introduction and the report to “next month’s Palestinian elections.” Sharp-eared listener Howard Stanislawski wrote to point out that the election was held this month.

When a Story Just Won’t Go Away…

In fact, the story was prepared in December and held until January. The intro and the report should have been updated to reflect that. The transcript online is still incorrect. Can it be that some journalists, along with some listeners, just wish this story would go away?

If so, this unspoken desire is not unique to NPR.

Most ombudsmen can attest that coverage of this subject draws constant allegations of bias. Anecdotally, I am told that some news organizations are now so battered that they tend to avoid the story as much as possible. Some of my colleagues at other news organizations say they report the story only when the outrages from one side or the other are too appalling to ignore.

At the same time, listeners and readers complain that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict gets too much coverage. They admit to “compassion fatigue” from weighing the claims and counter-claims of the two sides, and from following the reports of journalists who generally are unable or unwilling to determine which side has the high moral ground.

In contrast, the tsunami was a story with an immediately identifiable moral center, obvious to both reporters and listeners alike because there was nothing at all ambiguous about the event.

I sense in myself an occasional instinct to avoid the Middle East story, since it tends to fall under the category of “no good journalism goes unpunished (eventually).”

But NPR (and its ombudsman) must continue to pursue this story in all of its moral and journalistic complexities, without falling prey to the easiest solution: not reporting it at all.

Reporting this story in context means knowing when and how to report it… and even when not to. Perhaps the latter is a more difficult editorial choice than it appears.

NPR Ombudsman Jeffrey A. Dvorkin is the public’s representative to National Public Radio, serving as an independent source of information, explanation, amplification and analysis for the public regarding NPR’s programming.

Related Links

  • NPR hides an atrocity but highlights the reaction, Ali Abunimah (4 January 2005)
  • Challenging NPR’s cunningly worded “correction”, Nigel Parry (6 January 2005)
  • National Public Radio