Washington Report on Middle East Affairs 30 April 2002
In October 2000, a group of dedicated pro-Palestinian activists from around the world combined their efforts to wage an electronic intifada—a digital “shaking off” of the biases present in media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Four months later, Ali Abunimah, Arjan El Fassed, Laurie King-Irani and Nigel Parry officially launched the Electronic Intifada, a Web-based movement geared toward deconstructing the distraction tactics of “the Israeli media war machine” and highlighting the damaging effects those tactics have on accurate reporting. As co-founder King-Irani asserts, “What we’ve tried to do with the Electronic Intifada is to shake off traditional and conventional ways of viewing this conflict.”
More than a media watchdog, the Electronic Intifada “digs deeper,” first by demonstrating media biases, then drawing attention to the structural faults that cause bias. In his “Introduction to Media Coverage,” former Birzeit University Web master Nigel Parry quotes a study by Israeli lecturer Dr. Joel Cohen examining the 300-plus foreign news correspondents based in Israel: “A fairly large proportion among them are Jewish,” Cohen found, “most have lived in Israel for many years…[and] some are veteran Israeli journalists who report from Israel to the foreign media on a permanent basis.”
Most significantly, the report noted, the vast majority of these correspondents live in Israeli-controlled territory and have little or no daily interaction with Palestinians. These reporters’ perspectives are thus “reinforced by the perceptions of the society they do live in,” Parry observes, “which is Israeli society.”
A fair number of groups have come under the Electronic Intifada’s scrutiny, including the Palestinian Authority, CNN, and The Jerusalem Post. Most recently, a significant amount of attention is being paid to National Public Radio’s (NPR) Jerusalem-based reporter Linda Gradstein. Described by the Jewish student organization Hillel as “a Jew and a Zionist,” her pro-Israel politics, critics allege, have colored her newscasts and public speeches a deep shade of green: an Electronic Intifada expose has revealed that—in clear violation of NPR policy—Gradstein has habitually accepted cash honoraria for her speeches to Zionist organizations. The expose, reported on Feb. 19 by Abunimah and Parry, is the latest in a series of well-documented reports criticizing what the pair refer to as NPR’s “colonizer mentality.”
According to the Electronic Intifada, this mentality is reflected in NPR’s record, which “has tended toward the lavish reporting of all instances of Israeli suffering while evincing a marked failure to report simultaneously occurring Palestinian suffering.” In the six months between Oct. 30, 2000 and April 23, 2001, for example, NPR reported the death of one Israeli and the injuring of 5 others. Meanwhile, the deaths of 35 Palestinians went unreported, as did 88 Palestinian injuries. A report released Jan. 10 by the group known as FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) asserts that in six months of NPR coverage, 81 percent of Israeli conflict-related deaths were reported, as opposed to a mere 34 percent of Palestinian deaths.
In addition to these numbers, which speak for themselves, NPR reporters, particularly Gradstein, resort to semantics which ensure that the Palestinian voice is rarely heard. On Jan. 10, the Electronic Intifada quoted Gradstein as having said a week earlier, “You know, there’s been actually three weeks of relative quiet. Only one Israeli has been killed in those three weeks.”
What she failed to mention was that the three weeks in question followed Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s call for an end to all violence, a call most Palestinians heeded. Nor did Gradstein report that in the same period of “relative quiet” at least 28 Palestinians—11 of them children—had been killed.
Omission is, unfortunately, only one item in the list of Gradstein’s journalistic transgressions. She has been accused of inciting Israeli violence: in an interview following the Aug. 9, 2001 suicide bombing that killed 18, including 7 children, in Jerusalem, Gradstein responded to the question “Is Israel likely to retaliate?” with the following: “I think Israel has to retaliate.” After reviewing the issue, NPR representatives concluded it was a consequence of “less polished” live radio.
In another interview later the same day, Gradstein reiterated her bias by presenting deeply personal accounts of the Israeli victims while simultaneously dehumanizing Palestinians in general: she quoted the father of a bombing victim as saying “that he had survived a concentration camp, his parents had survived concentration camps and then they came to Israel to, as he said, ‘be murdered by people who were worse than the Nazis.’”
Then, of course, there is the question of the thousands of dollars Gradstein has accepted from Zionist organizations to speak on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is in direct violation of NPR’s conflict of interest policy, which on Feb. 8 did not allow reporters “to give speeches to groups they report on to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest.” This policy seems to have been amended in light of the Electronic Intifada’s investigation of Gradstein, as a later statement restricted only the acceptance of payment for such speeches. In a release entitled “NPR’s Middle East ‘Problem,’” NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin asserted Gradstein’s “First Amendment right to speak to whomever she wants.” However, the statement said, she “should not be taking money from any group that has a partisan approach to the conflict in the Middle East.”
Dvorkin’s statement described the pressure placed on NPR from various organizations, including the pro-Israeli group CAMERA (the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), FAIR and the Electronic Intifada. In addition to the usual criticisms, Dvorkin mentioned “financial pressures” being placed on NPR by some groups. “If NPR must choose between financial support and its journalistic integrity,” Dvorkin asserted, “it will choose the latter.” Much to his credit, Dvorkin acknowledged that “often, mistakes are shelved or worse, ignored. A mature journalistic organization like NPR must do better.”
The question remains, however, whether NPR’s commitment to “independence and integrity” will extend beyond statements and into action. Specifically, as noted in the Electronic Intifada’s response to Dvorkin, the ombudsman’s statement “[did] not address 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…Telling her not to do it again does absolutely nothing to restore NPR’s credibility.”
The Electronic Intifada’s position is that NPR should, in attempting to restore its own credibility, disclose the full details of Gradstein’s financial transactions with organizations that have a vested interest in NPR’s Middle East reporting.
Does NPR have a responsibility to address these concerns? Should Gradstein, who has maintained a six-year silence to all criticism, be forced to reveal the exact nature of every payment received for her public appearances? Conversations with Electronic Intifada co-founder Abunimah and NPR’s Dvorkin, while leaving many questions unanswered, offered some suggestions as to how the two sides viewed the issue.
On the topic of financial disclosure, Abunimah asserted that making available to the public the details of Gradstein’s relationship with Zionist organizations would “allow the listener to make up his or her own mind as to whether that relationship affected Gradstein’s reports. Disclosure is always the first and foremost way of dealing with any conflict of interest.”
In clear violation of NPR policy, Linda Gradstein has accepted cash honoraria for her speeches to Zionist organizations.
Dvorkin offered his assurances that Abunimah’s comments are “taken with great seriousness. [NPR’s] reputation,” he said, “is our most precious possession.” As to the possibility of disclosure, Dvorkin said, “that’s a managerial issue.” NPR’s management, he added, had been informed of the situation.
Abunimah also expressed his dissatisfaction with Gradstein’s approach to public criticism. “She hasn’t replied in six years to a single letter,” he said. “I receive replies from journalists all the time, and by no means do they all agree with me. But Gradstein feels totally unaccountable, and clearly she is, because she’s been allowed to get away with an enormous conflict of interest. The contempt NPR shows its listeners in this regard is incredible.”
Dvorkin defended Gradstein, insisting that her silence was not directed solely at Abunimah’s criticism. “I don’t think Ms. Gradstein has responded either to CAMERA,” he said. “It’s up to management to respond, and we do so all the time.”
Still, Abunimah notes that this does not explain why reporters other than Gradstein have been held accountable for breaking with NPR’s conflict-of-interest policy. In particular, he noted the example of former NPR reporter Maureen Meehan, who was fired in 1995 because “she did not adequately disclose to NPR that her husband was an adviser to the Palestinian Authority.” (Since then, Meehan has written frequently for the Washington Report.)
When asked to comment on the reasons behind NPR’s perceived reporting bias, Abunimah noted that NPR has two reporters in Israel, neither of whom is based in the occupied territories. While most of the violence is occurring in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, both NPR reporters (including Gradstein) are based in West Jerusalem. “Their day-to-day lived experience is that of middle-class Israelis,” Abunimah said, “so that’s the perspective that leaks through” in their reports.
Dvorkin said that the possibility of stationing a reporter in the occupied territories had been considered by NPR’s Foreign Desk. However, he said, “the pro-Israel critics would think that locating in Ramallah or Gaza would only accentuate their perceived pro-Palestinian bias.”
The issue Dvorkin brings up is a tricky one, as groups like CAMERA have indeed accused NPR’s reporting of being biased in favor of the Palestinians. The difference between CAMERA’s criticisms, however, and those of the Electronic Intifada, are obvious after even a cursory glance. As Abunimah states, “CAMERA relies solely on omission and distortion to make a case.” In one month, CAMERA found two examples of NPR reporting that were quotable as being possibly pro-Palestinian. In their report, however, they neglected to mention another 20 instances, including the aforementioned “Nazi” allusion, that tell a vastly different story.
Dvorkin declined to comment on the differences between CAMERA, whose complaints generally oppose reporting of the Palestinian position, and the Electronic Intifada, which seems to advocate a more even-handed approach. He did note a difference in their tactics, however, saying that “CAMERA is able to use a certain amount of economic clout” to achieve its objectives. As long as pro-Israel groups like CAMERA continue to exert financial pressure on NPR and other news organizations, therefore, it seems unlikely that Abunimah’s suggestions will be heeded.
Despite this discouraging fact, Dvorkin, who throughout the interview maintained a tone of respect for Abunimah and the Electronic Intifada, noted that “the pro-Palestinian side has raised the level of its ability to impress its point of view on news organizations, not just NPR.” The fact that a group of concerned individuals has managed to do so without the use of financial pressure tactics, and the increasing receptiveness of NPR and other news organizations to well-documented, transparent criticism, are encouraging developments in the struggle to “shake off” the media’s biases in covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. q
For more information on the Electronic Intifada, NPR, and Linda Gradstein, visit www.electronicintifada.net. For NPR’s response, go to www.npr.org.
Nizar Wattad is a recent graduate of The George Washington University and founder of Pen Pals for Palestine.