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Jewish World Review June 17, 2002 /7 Tamuz, 5762

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Consumer Reports

NPR Strikes Back

Public radio disdains critics while reaching out to Jewish donors | In the eyes of Kevin Klose, his current task in life is nothing less than to act as the guardian of a national treasure - National Public Radio, the source of most of the news and arts programming for the 680 nonprofit radio stations around the country.

But in the view of a growing number of pro-Israel activists, what Klose is actually doing is serving as chief apologist for a biased radio network that is subsidized by our tax dollars and the tax-deductible donations of a great many American Jews.

Are they right? Or are these critics, as Klose and his supporters claim, merely shrill gadflys who know little about news-gathering and engage in ad hominum attacks on distinguished journalists?

For years, critics of NPR have flayed it mercilessly for its perceived left-wing bias. For many on the right, the network's programming was a facade behind which leftist journalists operated as a publicly funded platform for the left-wing of the Democratic Party.

Indeed, in the aftermath of the Republican victory in the 1994 Congressional elections, NPR and the rest of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting world was slated as a leading target of the intended budget cuts of the GOP majority.

But hiding behind the popular feathers of Sesame Street's Big Bird, NPR and the rest of the public broadcasting system survived the onslaught of the Contract With America crowd. Newt Gingrich's career is history, but NPR lives on.

Lately, however, another threat to NPR's future has arisen, and Klose knows that this time neither Bert nor Ernie will be able to croon his network out of trouble. These days, NPR's most troublesome foes come from the one demographic group that the network's affiliates count on most to write checks to pay for their shows: American Jews.


NPR-affiliate stations provide most of the classical music and arts programming available around the country and generous Jewish support for the arts and culture in general in this country is so commonplace as to be unworthy of notice. Thus, you don't have to be a demographer to know that Jews provide a disproportionate amount of NPR's public donations.

That support has, however, been endangered by the widespread perception among Jews that NPR's news is dangerously slanted against the State of Israel. The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) has been blasting NPR for bias against Israel for a decade, but the coverage of the last 20 months of Palestinian violence and terrorism has raised the profile of the critics and the volume of the criticism.

Though NPR is far from the only news outlet whose reports on Israel have been deemed unfair to the Jewish state, it receives more than its share of such brickbats. But, in contrast to the confident indifference to Jewish pleas for fairness that has characterized the response of the major commercial broadcasters as well as most of America's major daily newspapers, NPR is acting as if its life depends on convincing Jews that the critics are wrong.

The reason for this panic is clear. While some friends of Israel may think anchormen like ABC's Peter Jennings are incorrigibly biased against Israel, even the most quixotic of Jewish media monitors know that attempting to pressure ABC or its corporate master, the Disney Corp., to do something about it would make jousting with windmills look like a competitive sport. The same is true for AOL/Time Warner's CNN or The New York Times company.

But NPR is a different story. Their dependence on public contributions raised during on-air fundraising drives makes them acutely vulnerable.

Indeed, Boston's NPR affiliate WBUR has already admitted to losing at least six major underwriters and other small donors, who gave a total of more than $1 million, because of dissatisfaction with their Israel coverage.

Thus reaching out to Jews has become a priority for Klose. That's what brought the NPR CEO to Chicago last week to address the American Jewish Press Association's annual conference.

In a private meeting with this writer and a few other Jewish editors, as well as in his address to the conference, Klose made it clear that his goal is "dialogue" with the Jewish community, "in a search for common ground."

But his desire for a rapprochement does not extend to critics like CAMERA, which clearly irritates the former Washington Post editor. He said he would not address CAMERA'S detailed criticisms of NPR because he considers them "polemics" whose aim is to discredit his organization, not improve its coverage.

Yet CAMERA and the increasing complaints about NPR's coverage are not going away. CAMERA's Web site ( provides a litany of studies and analyses that document problems with NPR's Israel coverage.

Klose admits NPR is far from perfect but insists that its dedication to getting the story right should not be questioned. What he does not seem to understand is that the reason CAMERA's attacks have been gaining credence is that they reflect the gut reactions of ordinary NPR listeners to the way the network has covered the last 20 months of terrorism.

At NPR, moral equivalence between Palestinian terror and Israeli self-defense often appears to be the rule of the day. A reflexive desire for "balance" leads them to give air time to apologists for terror groups and to juxtapose moving accounts of Israeli funerals for terror victims with those for Arabs who died - however different the circumstances - as a result of Israeli fire. Even those listeners who can't point to data feel that the tone of NPR's anchors, the direction of their questions, as well as the slanted views of most of the "experts" they interview, reflects a negative view of Israel.

Yet when confronted with this widely held perception, Klose and NPR ombudsmen tend to dismiss it.

Klose is right when he says his news programs are light years ahead of the commercial networks in seriousness (though that is to be damned by faint praise). But NPR's ability to give stories in-depth coverage makes it all the more dangerous and damaging when that coverage proves faulty.


The question is, how do those of us who understand that NPR has a problem address it. Do we seek to join Klose in "dialogue" or do we attempt to use the available financial leverage to force NPR to change?

On this point, Klose and NPR may have found some allies within the Jewish community. Even some of those who are critical of the network are not eager to go to war with it. Continued access to NPR is seen by some as a positive value that outweighs any desire to attack it openly.

And what started out as a dispute between the pro-Israel community and NPR may end up being more about an argument between organizations like CAMERA, who don't care about making nice with bigshots like Klose, and more establishment groups like the Anti-Defamation League. In fact, the ADL recently commissioned its own more equivocal study of NPR's coverage though it did not release its report due to what I am told is opposition from some of their major donors.

Where you come down on this question depends upon where you sit: either with those who prefer to retain influence inside the prestigious world of public radio or on the outside with the gadflys intent on exposing bias.

As much as Kevin Klose and NPR would like this argument to disappear, the story has legs.

More on this next week.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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