CAMERA Responds to its Portrait
January 18, 2012
Back in November I wrote a report that described the effort by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) to insure that public broadcasting adheres to its requirements of objectivity and balance.
That report can be found at http://www.cpb.org/ombudsman/display.php?id=64.
Since then, Eric Rozenman, the Washington Director for CAMERA has written a response to that report. I am happy to post that response below:
CAMERA's Response to Ombudsman's "Candid CAMERA" Report
By Eric Rozenman
Washington Director, Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America
For Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Ombudsman's Web site
Jan. 10, 2012
CAMERA thanks Corporation for Public Broadcasting Ombudsman Joel Kaplan for requesting examples of what we believe is chronic anti-Israel bias in National Public Radio's Arab-Israeli coverage. We also are grateful that he quoted CAMERA's views regarding CPB's obligation under federal law to ensure "strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature." And we appreciate his inclusion of our opinion that the ombudsman's office is structurally unable to fulfill that obligation.
However, the ombudsman's Nov. 9, 2011 posting, "Candid CAMERA," misrepresents the nature of CAMERA's work and our criticism - going back more than 20 years and extensively itemized on our Web site, www.camera.org and in hardcopy publications - of NPR's Israel-related reporting. Among other things:
- The ombudsman writes that "while sometimes the complaints [of media monitors like CAMERA] are legitimate, more often than not these groups are not being genuine critics interested in a dialogue but instead, act like pressure groups trying to get NPR to adopt their specific language to describe the struggles in the Middle East." He also concurs with NPR's own monitor of its Israeli-Palestinian coverage - a former NPR foreign editor paid by the network to conduct quarterly reviews - who asserts that "CAMERA is an aggressive pressure group with a very specific agenda and definitely is not a genuinely disinterested center for media analysis."
CAMERA, the 65,000-member Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, does not pressure NPR or any other media to adopt our "specific language to describe the struggles in the Middle East." CAMERA was founded in 1982 by, and has grown through the support of, individuals who believe news media too often reflect anti-Israel biases. However, we do not lobby for pro-Israel or anti-Arab coverage. Our "very specific agenda," which we do pursue vigorously but not by ad hominem attacks, is to hold communications media to their own self-professed standards of accuracy, objectivity, comprehensiveness, balance, context, absence of conflicts of interest and willingness promptly to correct errors.
Regarding NPR, we do not attempt to shoot the messenger but rather, through fact-based criticism, to help make the message conveyed more credible. Criticizing NPR for chronic avoidance of the accurate term "terrorism" in connection with attacks against Israeli non-combatants, for example, while using it in the context of attacks against non-Israeli civilians is matter of precision and avoidance of a double standard.
- As for "not being interested in dialogue," CAMERA turned to CPB in the last decade only after NPR senior executives repeatedly denied examples of anti-Israel bias in coverage of the second Palestinian intifada, 2000 - 2005.
The problem was obvious not only to CAMERA. Thirteen Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote in 2003 to NPR's then-president, Kevin Klose, agreeing with constituents who heard, in NPR's reporting, chronic anti-Israel bias. The network insisted no problem existed and conducted an in-house review that ostensibly supported its claim. NPR representatives refused to appear with CAMERA staff at panel discussions on the issue, choosing instead to hire public relations firms to conduct damage control.
- "Candid CAMERA" says former NPR and CPB ombudsmen and current Public Broadcasting Service Ombudsman Michael Getler have expressed "unanimous exasperation with groups like CAMERA … for what they see as constant criticisms of lack of balance."
If so, it must be added that CAMERA staff and members have been exasperated at two tendencies displayed by public broadcasting ombudsmen. The first is to act as shock-absorbers for the organizations that hired them rather than as "a neutral representative of the viewer and listener" that Mr. Kaplan describes. The second is to issue equivocal reviews acknowledging that yes, this or that broadcast contained noteworthy flaws but nevertheless somehow was balanced overall. Note that NPR's own reviewer of its Israeli-Palestinian news coverage, cited by the CPB ombudsman, acknowledges that "over the years, however, I have faulted NPR for many specific failings, most of them involving individual stories or interviews that failed the fairness [objectivity]-balance test or that failed to give the audience enough information to understand the issue at hand. Also, I have routinely criticized NPR for failing to tell listeners enough about the people quoted on air and for not presenting a diverse range of viewpoints from both sides."
Exactly. These "many specific failings" by NPR's Arab-Israeli reporting to meet the statutory objectivity-and-balance standard, virtually all tilting one way - toward the "Palestinian narrative" - are precisely what CAMERA has pointed out.
- CPB's ombudsman says CAMERA believes "that every single story that involves the Middle East should be objective and balanced. So if an NPR correspondent in Gaza is reporting a story about a family that was killed because of a bombing of their house, CAMERA would expect that same story to discuss an atrocity in Israel. Not only is that not possible, it is not good journalism. What is possible is that an NPR correspondent in Tel Aviv could report on what happened there. That report might come a day later or a week later, but over time, the coverage would be balanced."
It is not merely CAMERA's belief that every NPR news report of a controversial nature, from the Middle East or elsewhere, should be objective and balanced. It is federal law, part of the Telecommunications Acts under which public broadcasting was created and continues to be funded. Again, the law requires "strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature." Ironically, what causes many NPR Arab-Israeli segments to acquire a controversial nature is their lack of objectivity and balance, their skewed sourcing, omissions of context and inaccuracies.
The claim CAMERA expects unjournalistic "balancing" of atrocity stories is not substantive. CAMERA believes individual segments as well as series must uphold journalism's traditional "man-from-Mars" standard: If a given report is the listener's only source of information on that particular story, will he or she be able to understand the news, be able to know what happened, in context? This means including who, what, when, where, why and how. If NPR reports civilian casualties caused by an Israeli bombing in Gaza, it is incumbent on it - both journalistically and legally - to report in that same segment not about an unrelated bombing in Tel Aviv but why the Israeli assault in the Strip took place. Was it unprovoked, or in response to a Palestinian terrorist attack? Were terrorists operating in a civilian neighborhood or did the Israeli bomb miss its target? Who were the attackers? Were they from Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the United States, or affiliated with the "moderate" Fatah movement? Did Israel act on the basis of erroneous intelligence? News stories need to report the relevant facts.
Most listeners do not hear NPR coverage of a particular subject "over time." They hear some news shows, some segments, not complete bodies of reporting. In any case, a series of unbalanced individual reports, especially skewed in one particular direction, does not acquire balance when heard in toto.
"Candid CAMERA" does not mention that CPB's Inspector-General recommended, in his Nov. 15, 2005 report, that the corporation "establish formal policies and procedures for conducting regular reviews of national programming for objectivity and balance." Consolidation of the ombudsman's office has streamlined CPB's initial address for complaints. But it has not fulfilled the I-G's recommendation to conduct regular reviews necessary to uphold the objectivity and balance statute.
If war is too important to be left to the generals, then likewise journalism and journalists. CAMERA will continue to monitor public broadcasting's coverage of Arab-Israeli news and will do so vigorously, according to traditional journalism standards. And it will stress, so long as it remains the case, that the I-G's recommendation regarding proper objectivity and balance oversight goes unfulfilled.