Following our publication of Special Report: NPR’s Linda Gradstein takes cash payments from pro-Israeli groups (19 February 2002) and Follow-up: NPR replies to concerns about cash payments to reporter, conflict of interest (20 February 2002), National Public Radio’s Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin’s Media Matters column of February 22nd discussed “NPR’s Middle East ‘Problem’ ” [link | archived PDF]. The following open letter to Jeffrey Dvorkin is our response.
To: Mr. Jeffrey Dvorkin, Ombudsman, National Public Radio
From: Nigel Parry & Ali Abunimah, The Electronic Intifada
February 25, 2002
Dear Mr. Dvorkin:
We read your latest column NPR’s Middle East ‘Problem’ with great interest. The column deals with criticism of NPR’s Middle East coverage coming from a number of directions, including from The Electronic Intifada.
You address the revelation that NPR’s Israel Correspondent Linda Gradstein has been accepting money from pro-Israeli groups — for years, in blatant violation of NPR’s policy regarding conflicts of interest — minimally and incompletely and only as one point in a laundry list of unrelated issues. This leaves serious questions unanswered.
We are particularly disappointed that, as the advocate for NPR’s listeners, you failed to urge NPR’s management to confront this matter and to make the minimum public disclosures necessary to begin to repair the damage done to the credibility of NPR’s Middle East reporting. The revelations in our special report were published on our website at electronicIntifada.net on February 19th, which usually logs around 60,000 visits a month (currently around 80,000 since we published the report), and were also broadcast on more than 55 radio stations nationwide on February 22nd.
Your column does make the useful suggestion that NPR should be more responsive to its critics and correct errors in a more public way. Your assertion that NPR’s guiding principle — when faced with campaigns to withhold donations — should be its journalistic integrity and not its financial interests, is highly commendable.
Unfortunately, your column did not always maintain a clear distinction between legitimate criticism of coverage on the one hand and attempts to undermine NPR’s journalistic integrity with blackmail tactics such as the withholding of funds on the other.
We will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that your conclusion that some pressure on NPR amounts to “a form of journalistic McCarthyism” applies only to those groups that have tried to pressure NPR financially, and not to FAIR, The Electronic Intifada, or to Ali Abunimah, all of whom are discussed in your column in addition to CAMERA, the pro-Israeli group that has organized campaigns to withhold funds from NPR.
We wish to make a few observations regarding your comments on Linda Gradstein’s acceptance of unethical payments from pro-Israeli groups.
1. You seem to have confused Ali Abunimah’s own personal website, for which he is solely responsible, with the Electronic Intifada. The story on Linda Gradstein was jointly written by the two of us, Nigel Parry and Ali Abunimah, and published on the Electronic Intifada’s website.
The Electronic Intifada is an international effort coordinated by four people, including a former Editor of MERIP’s Middle East Report, based in Canada; a former webmaster of Birzeit University, based in Minnesota; a writer, analyst and community activist, based in Chicago; and the Media Officer of Palestinian human rights organisation LAW, based in the Occupied West Bank.
You should correct the record to note the actual source of the story.
2. We find it curious that Ali Abunimah is the only person mentioned in your column whose ethnic background you identify. You do not characterize CAMERA, Linda Gradstein, or yourself by any ethnic group affiliation so the suggestion seems to be that Ali Abunimah’s views are somehow colored because he is Palestinian. Nigel Parry, who co-authored the special report about Gradstein, is Scottish.
3. You write:
“Linda Gradstein should not be taking money from any group that has a partisan approach to the conflict in the Middle East. But she has a First Amendment right to speak to whomever she wants. Indeed, it would be interesting if Mr. Abunimah and The Electronic Intifada would see their way clear to inviting her to speak to his group while she is in the United States. They might learn something too.”
You seem to suggest that we are advocating a violation of Linda Gradstein’s rights. Yet, the sentence might as well have been lifted from our original report, in which we unambiguously stated that: “We affirm that Gradstein has a First Amendment right to speak to any groups she chooses.” We have never had any disagreement on this point and it is entirely inaccurate to imply that this issue was ever part of our criticism.
4. Our strong objection is solely focused on Gradstein receipt of cash payments from pro-Israeli groups in violation of the most basic professional ethics and NPR’s own policy. On that point you state:
“Linda Gradstein should not be taking money from any group that has a partisan approach to the conflict in the Middle East;”
and you further note that:
”NPR has a policy, which forbids its journalists from accepting benefits, gratuities or monies from groups that have an interest in how the news is reported. NPR management must make sure that the policy is widely distributed and scrupulously followed.”
However, you do not address at all the fact that for most if not all the time that Linda Gradstein has been reporting on this conflict for NPR, she has to all appearances been accepting money only from pro-Israeli groups among those who have an interest in how the conflict is reported. A simple slap on the wrist and telling her not to do it again does absolutely nothing to restore NPR’s credibility, particularly when our investigation revealed that Gradstein was still slated to receive money for a February 19th lecture even after Bruce Drake’s February 18th assurance that Gradstein would “adhere strictly” to NPR’s policy.
At a very minimum NPR should disclose how much money Gradstein has accepted over the years and from whom. The public can then reach its own conclusions as to whether or not this has affected NPR’s coverage.
Much of your column is devoted to complaining about groups that campaign for contributions to be withheld from NPR, in order to influence coverage. It seems, therefore, that you ought to take as strong a stance when special interest groups make payments to your reporters, as pro-Israeli groups have for years to Linda Gradstein.
Unfortunately, the vastly unequal attention you pay to these matters, and the cursory treatment you give to Gradstein’s conduct suggest that you do not view the independence of NPR from these two different kinds of inappropriate financial pressure to be equally important to the integrity of the network.
5. As for inviting Ms. Gradstein to speak to any group we are involved with, we think it is noteworthy that over the past six years Ali Abunimah has written hundreds of letters to NPR, many of them concerning Ms. Gradstein’s work in particular, all of which were sent directly to her.
Some of these letters were in praise, but most were critical. Not once in six years has Ms. Gradstein seen fit to comment on any issue in even a single one of his letters directly.
This is unprecedented in our experience communicating with journalists and editors and is not even typical of NPR editors, producers and reporters, many of whom have responded to criticism, if only to dispute its nature.
Gradstein’s silence bespeaks an amazing and singular arrogance. As far as we are concerned, Ms. Gradstein has made it quite clear that she has no interest whatsoever in speaking to anyone who does not share her Labor Zionist politics or who is strongly critical of her.
Over the years, we and others have made many suggestions of people who could provide NPR’s listeners with a deeper and more textured perspective on the Palestinian experience and diversity of viewpoints, with very little success. But let us make you an offer: when NPR is ready to take our advice about who it should interview, then we will be happy to take yours about who we should invite to speak to groups to which we belong.
A fundamental question remains outstanding which neither you nor NPR’s management have yet answered — when is NPR going to come clean about the details of Linda Gradstein’s years of receiving unethical cash payments from Zionist groups?
Nigel Parry & Ali Abunimah
The Electronic Intifada
Anyone who wishes to contact NPR and express their views on this matter should immediately write to Jeffrey Dvorkin, National Public Radio Ombudsman via firstname.lastname@example.org
Please write an original letter and do not simply copy & paste the information above. As always, be brief, polite, quote accurately, and include your name, address, and telephone number (which most publications require to ensure publication).
NPR is usually one of my favorite stations for getting unbiased and insightful news stories, but it seems even NPR is not immune from the overwhelming pro-israeli bias exhibited in the American media. America’s unbelievable and overwhelming support for Israel is one of the biggest scandals of the last 100 years. The Israelis continue to violently repress and occupy the indigeneous population of the region, but instead of condemnation from the United States, we continue to pump billions upon billions of dollars for their ethnic cleansing. NPR should report this and fire any reporter who excepts money to cover up the truth. Please enforce your lecture policies for all of your reporters, including Linda Gradstein.
From a correspondent in Atlanta, GA
I have been listening to NPR most of my adult life. I have also contributed to WHYY in Philadelphia. I know that Linda Gradstein is only one of several journalists for NPR who have reported on the Arab-Israeli conflict, so this letter is not about the overall quality of the reporting though it has always been clear to me that Ms. Gradstein usually confines herself to the official position of the Israeli government. What shocks and disturbs me is her apparent willingness to contravene standard ethical practices of reporters as well as the stated policy of NPR by accepting honoraria and contributions for public speeches organized and funded by groups part of whose stated objectives is to communicate a Zionist pro-Israel perspectives. She has a right to speak to any group she chooses and to say whatever she wants, but accepting cash rewards time after time from such organizations should not be tolerated by NPR. Until this matter is seriously addressed, I will no longer contribute to NPR.
From a correspondent at the University of California
I have written several times before regarding the biased news coverage Linda Gradstein gives on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Today I learn that she has been taking money from Jewish organizations for various speaking engagements. Not only is this a conflict of interest, NPR’s reaction is unconscionable.
From a correspondent in Greensboro, NC
For close to thirty years I have been a financial supporter of my regional NPR station (WCNY/WUNY). Both early in the morning and in the evening I have depended on NPR and its news service to provide accurate news as well as intelligent commentary on the events of the day. In recent months I have been especially distressed at the extraordinarily pro-Zionist bias of your reporting of events in the Near East. Half facetiously I suggested to friends and colleagues that Linda Gradstein must be on the payroll of the Sharon government, so transparent was her lack of fairness in reporting events that were covered so vastly more objectively in the European—and, indeed, Israeli—media. Now it has been revealed that Ms Gradstein has repeatedly received money for speaking to pro-Zionist groups. If NPR wishes to maintain the support of its listeners, it must relieve Gradstein of her duties as a journalist or reassign her to a part of the world where such a blatant conflict of interest will not undermine her journalistic credibility. In the meantime I will rely on the European media to provide more reliable news coverage.
From a correspondent in Clinton, NY
The payments merely confirm what any even-handed listener could hear from [Gradstein’s] reports without the benefit of knowledge of her acceptance of money from such organizations as Hillel. It is well known that the USA, politicians and media, are massively and unrelentingly pro-Israel. This has the effect or outcome that stories which might explain the Israel/Palestine conflict from a Palestinian viewpoint are NOT broadcast, generally, whereas stories which elucidate matters from an Israeli viewpoint are frequently broadcast. The result is unacceptable bias.
From a correspondent in Brooklyn, NY
This is not a case of trivial significance: US policy towards Israel is under close scrutiny during this time of terrible violence there and in the occupied territories, violence quite possibly related to that in New York and Washington on September 11 of last year. Your listeners deserve the broadest and most unbiased reporting possible under these circumstances, and Ms. Gradstein’s popularity as a paid speaker on a circuit clearly representing one side of these issues suggests that she is not only in violation of your policy on honoraria but that she is totally compromised journalistically. I would be most interested in knowing what NPR will do, and when it will do it, with respect to this matter.
From a correspondent in Livermore, CA
Ms. Gradstein is an enthusiastic propagandist. She has that right, of course. She should NOT be an NPR reporter in Israel. She taints NPR reporting from the Middle East, perhaps NPR journalism generally.
From a correspondent in Portland, OR
As a Jew who grew up in a Zionist household, spent a year in Israel on a kibbutz and maintains a lifelong interest in Israeli issues, I have never really understood why NPR’s coverage of Israeli issues was so bad—little information, lots of Israeli propaganda. Now I discover that Linda Gradstein, your primary middle east correspondent, gets thousands of dollars from the pro-Israeli lobby, despite NPR policies to the contrary. I don’t expect NPR coverage of any issue to be “objective”. On most other issues, your reporters are pretty open about where their sympathies lie and make an honest effort to report news. Gradstein never has done either of those things. It’s not just (as I used to think) that she’s a bad reporter—she’s a dishonest one. If you intend to keep her, maintain some intellectual honesty by clearly labeling her as the editorialist she is and get a real reporter as your middle east correspondent. I get more reliable news about the Middle East from my local paper than I do from NPR. I contribute heavily to NPR because it remains a primary source of news for me for most areas. If the Car Guys and Short Stories are all that I can rely on, it makes contributing a whole lot less appealing.
From a correspondent
As a devoted listener of NPR for the past seven years, I was deeply disturbed to hear of Linda Gradstein’s behavior in accepting honoraria over the past several years from organizations with an obviously pro-Israeli agenda. Regardless of whether or not Ms. Gradstein discontinues this behavior as a result of NPR Vice President Bruce Drake’s most recent directive, it is clear that NPR’s journalistic integrity in its coverage of the Middle East has suffered nearly irreparable harm. Unless I hear that Ms. Gradstein has been released by NPR, reassigned to a different position, or is, at the very least, introduced as a paid advocate for Israeli interests prior to her “news” reports, I will, unfortunately, be relegating NPR to the scrap-heap of mainstream, commercial news media which masquerade as objective news reporting organizations and tuning into my local community, volunteer-run radio station for actually independent coverage of the Middle East.
Fom a correspondent in Monticello, IL
Related links: EI’s Linda Gradstein cash payments exposé
This special report/action item (#25, 25 FEBRUARY 2002) was prepared by Ali Abunimah and Nigel Parry.