NPR Mideast correspondent broke ban on speaker fees

Partisans on both sides of the conflict in the Middle East see bias in NPR’s coverage, but a recent wave of complaints included a less debatable ethical charge: Israel-based correspondent Linda Gradstein has accepted honoraria from pro-Israeli groups.

Last month, editors of Electronic Intifada, a website monitoring media coverage of Palestinians, claimed Gradstein had accepted two honoraria from U.S. university groups and was expecting another on Feb. 19, for a speech at the University of Minnesota. Gradstein has toured universities to discuss events in the Middle East and share her journalistic experiences.

NPR policy bars reporters from accepting money or other benefits from groups with a vested interest in its news coverage.

The talks in question were sponsored by Hillel, a pro-Israeli Jewish student organization with campus chapters. A Hillel chapter at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., confirmed to Current that it paid Gradstein $2,500 for a talk last April. Most of that money came from Hamagshimim, a group that describes itself on its website as “a dynamic pro-Israel/Zionist movement for young adults.”

After Gradstein’s appearance, GW Hillel posted an online report on the talk to help chapters planning similar events. It said, “Ms. Gradstein is a Jew and a Zionist, and represents a moderate, yet pro-Israel stance.” Electronic Intifada found this item on the Web and linked to it.

The pro-Palestinian group alleged that the Minnesota Hillel chapter was planning to pay Gradstein for a Feb. 19 appearance. A chapter director who confirmed this said the group had discussed the honorarium with Gradstein when it booked her.

Finally, Electronic Intifada said a New Jersey fund that supports “Zionist youth movement activities” paid Gradstein for a talk last year at Princeton University. Current was unable to confirm this claim.

In e-mails to NPR Vice President of News Bruce Drake, Electronic Intifada co-founder Ali Abunimah asked if these incidents amounted to a violation of NPR’s conflict-of-interest policy.

Drake said in an interview that he was aware of Gradstein’s Minnesota engagement before getting Abunimah’s e-mail, but had noted that it was cosponsored by Minnesota Public Radio and thought that it was an MPR event. The Electronic Intifada e-mail prompted him to re-examine details of the event’s sponsorship, he said, and in the end Gradstein did not accept the honorarium.

In declining the honorarium, Gradstein was following the “same conflict-of-interest principle that we apply across the board,” Drake said. “Some things slip through the cracks. But the policy that I have told staff again and again is that the perception of our integrity is important. Not that I’m suggesting that Linda Gradstein or anyone else was going to sell a story for money, but even in the best of worlds we have to err on the side of caution to not get involved.”

Listeners complain to NPR Board

In a Feb. 18 e-mail to Electronic Intifada, according to Abunimah, Drake wrote, “Ms. Gradstein has been told clearly what NPR’s policies are on this matter and that, in the future, she is to adhere strictly to it.”

But Drake said he would not examine Gradstein’s past acceptances of honoraria, as Electronic Intifada wanted. “At this point, to go making a review of the past doesn’t get us anywhere,” Drake said. “It’s been made very clear that this is our policy, and we expect all reporters to respect it going forward.”

Abunimah disagreed. “I think the public has a right to know,” he told Current. “If a politician who is investigating Enron has taken contributions from Enron, we have a right to know how much. And I think it’s simply inadequate that [NPR] says, ‘She won’t do it again,’ and then carries on as usual.”

Gradstein declined to comment for this story.

NPR Ombdusman Jeffrey Dvorkin, who regularly fields hundreds of e-mails charging bias in NPR’s Middle East coverage, addressed the Gradstein issue in an online column. NPR’s management must see that its conflict-of-interest policy “is widely distributed and scrupulously followed,” he wrote. [Dvorkin’s ombudsman page on NPR’s website.]

The matter arose again at an NPR Board meeting March 7, when Baltimore listener Michael Brown addressed board members, expressing concern over what he called Gradstein’s “ethical lapse.” NPR listeners rarely attend board meetings to complain about programming.

Two other listeners, who sit on the Middle Eastern Concerns Committee of the Washington Episcopal Diocese’s Commission on Peace, showed up to level general charges of pro-Israeli bias against NPR. Listener Philip Farah accused NPR of underreporting deaths of Palestinians in comparison to Israeli deaths, a complaint also lodged by Abunimah as well as Fairness and Accurary in Reporting (FAIR), a left-leaning media watchdog group.

Brown said NPR handicaps its coverage by stationing both Gradstein and its other Middle East correspondent, Peter Kenyon, in Jerusalem, making it difficult for them to talk to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

After conferring with board chair Jon Schwartz, NPR President Kevin Klose said NPR tries “to find fairness and accuracy in our reporting…. The Middle East is no doubt one of the most difficult stories that American media has been challenged to cover.”

“We also realize we can make mistakes,” he said.

Drake told Current that he has considered putting a reporter in the occupied territories, but that having both reporters in Jerusalem does not guarantee bias.

Gradstein’s critics on both sides

Like many other media outlets, NPR has grown accustomed to criticism over its reporting on the conflict. Watchdog groups from both sides have peppered the network with complaints for years — indeed, Electronic Intifada has posted many accusations against Gradstein and other reporters of pro-Israeli bias. (Abunimah does credit NPR for being more balanced than most other American media, however.)

But visitors to the website of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), a longtime critic of NPR, can read a number of past reports accusing Gradstein of pro-Arab bias.

Though CAMERA has mounted pressure campaigns against NPR, Dvorkin told NPR’s board last week that since Jan. 1 NPR had received almost 3,500 e-mails accusing it of pro-Israeli bias, compared to about 500 from the other side. Complaints about NPR’s Middle East coverage actually fell over the past six months, he said, even as the total number of comments rose.

NPR might err, but it provides fair coverage of the Middle East, Drake said. As for the claims of underreported Palestinian deaths, he said, “We try to do our best, to give context. Sometimes we make mistakes in judgment, but I think for the most part we are evenhanded in our reporting, as far as recognizing that the value of life knows no nationality…. Everybody plays their own numbers game.”

  • Current, the biweekly newspaper that
    covers public TV and public radio in the United States.