National Public Radio’s uncritical depiction of the Israeli Jewish mobs harassing Jewish women who date Palestinian men provoked debate here, and at NPR’s website.
Ombudsman Alicia Shepard has now found some fault with Sheera Frenkel’s tale of the vigilantes. Actually, though, Frenkel’s report just follows NPR’s pattern. In our times, U.S. “news” outlets have warped public policy in the name of “objectivity,” distorting a 95-5 percent consensus among, say, climatologists about global warming, into a false balance of 50-50.
And with Palestine, “journalists” have made a doubly misleading exception. Rather than adhering to the rule of “’He said,’ – ‘He said,’” journalists mouth what “Israel said” 100 percent of the time. Taking dictation from a foreign country, the “U.S.” typists with microphones holler warnings of Islamic extremism, never whispering about the radical expansionism of Netanyahu’s far-rightist coalition, the illegality of both Israel’s decades-old Occupation and new Apartheid Wall, or that fact that its siege of Gaza violated any decent standard at all. Nor do they mumble that Israel launched the 1967 war in response to the blockade of only one port in the Straits of Tiran.
Not content with stenography, “our” press “corps” salutes like recruits to orders, chanting about an illusory Iranian threat. When will the formation break ranks by comparing Iran’s record of not attacking others with Israel’s frequent assaults on its neighbors, or Iran’s lack of nuclear weapons with Israel’s “undisclosed” 200? When will the squad mutiny against its generals by investigating Israel’s bombardment of the USS Liberty, or espionage into U.S. secrets? When will the buglers sound a “Reveille” awakening us to the revelation that the U.S. pays $3 billion a year, plus $10 billion over ten years, plus millions in loan guarantees and tax-deductible contributions for the illegal Occupation of Palestine?
A press that confines facts to Israeli propaganda imprisons most Americans in ignorance as to how our money buys cages for the Palestinian people. NPR has trained most listeners to accept the drill, so arousing audience outrage required Frenkel to shrink her dispatch to the most narrow—yet explosive–xenophobia.
Frenkel defends her exclusions to Shepherd: “I think the listeners were best served by being shown a night on one of the patrols….And I was careful not to cast judgment on this practice so that the listener could reach their own conclusions.”
But Frenkel is actually “careful not to cast” Israeli government actions in a clear light. Frenkel purges all facts about the Israeli Occupation–as ruthlessly as the Israeli government evicts the rightful Palestinian “owners” from their homes. Frenkel adopts the language of the Occupiers: she demeans the Palestinian and Jewish pairs as “couplings”; she feigns surprise over their eruption as “an unforeseen bi-product” of the Israeli occupation—an onslaught she whitewashes as “the growing number of Jewish settlements that have been built across largely Arab East Jerusalem.”
Alicia Shepard tells us that NPR foreign editor Loren Jenkins regrets Frenkel’s lopsided presentation: “In retrospect,” said Jenkins, “we probably should have insisted Sheera talk to an Arab boy.” But Jenkins immediately recants, disparaging the probable result: “the response would have been a predictable condemnation as both Arabs and Israelis view such vigilante actions by a few as reprehensible.”
Why bother letting Palestinians speak for themselves, when NPR can “predict” their opinions? Frenkel and Jenkins expose the formula that substitutes for research at NPR: One night, One group, plus One opposing “spokes-mouth,” for balance.
Shepard herself actually compounds the inaccuracies of the original. Shepard laments of Frenkel’s story, “It didn’t succeed on several levels…. The story needed that kind of context.” But for Shepard, what is the anchoring reality the report lacks? Not the ordeal suffered by Palestinians under the Israeli Occupation. Otherwise, after consulting “over two dozen people,” Shepard would have quoted at least one thinker from Palestine; both Omar and Dr. Mustafa Barghouti have been in town and would have been ideal. Instead, Shepard digs up those who praise with faint damns.
Rather than provide context, Shepard climaxes her post with a milque-toast line about the need for context, quoting “Kristin Szremski, of the group American Muslims for Palestine” who “best summed it up”: “I think Sheera Frankel did a good job in bringing this topic to the public but there are ways in which the piece could have been put into context and given deeper meaning.” Shepard herself complains of the “failure to examine how widespread the vigilante movement is in Israel…. In researching this topic, I found a few examples but not enough to demonstrate that this is happening ‘across Israel.’” As if “context” is purely the “Israeli” side.
Far from answering listeners’ objections, Shepard fortifies her own with those of “Edward Wasserman, a journalism ethics professor at Washington and Lee University,” who concludes, “Overall, it’s as if somebody cruised small-town Virginia with a small group of half-wits with rebel flag tattoos and a pick-up truck who heckle biracial couples, and made no effort to determine whether the group is a solitary bunch of losers.” “Heckling?” “Losers?” Wasserman’s terms strangely minimize the bedevilment Frenkel describes, as well as sidestep the question of whether the tormented have recourse to the law and police to restrain their tormenters. Shepard, though, bests Wasserman in perverse choice of word. The misnomers Shepard peddles about the report range from the tragic to the absurd.
Alicia Shepard compounds the errors of omission by Jenkins and Frenkel with her own of commission, botching definitions and thus essential facts. Shepard includes all the Occupied Territories as “Israel”—a fraud that would gratify even the nightmare fantasy of the most fanatic colonist. Whereas Frenkel had revealed her bias through her acceptance of the Israeli perspective, Shepard simply makes up new definitions and therefore reality. Shephard gives Israel what only the most virulently racist colonists claim: she puts “the settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev” in “Israel.” Shepard’s is a more damaging collapse of reportorial integrity than even Frenkel’s rank bias, for Shepard unilaterally annexes the illegally Occupied Territories of the planned Palestinian state into “Israel,” regardless of International Law or history.
But “Israel” is far from the only name Shepard gets wrong. She echoes rather than corrects Frenkel’s condescending ethnic term, “Arab,” for the people of Palestine, when she should honor them with the dignity she accords others of their accurate, “geographical” title. “Palestinian” connotes the historic allegiance the indigenous “inheritors” feel toward the land of their ancestors, whereas “Arab” lumps the Palestinians with all others in the Middle East—transforming them into aliens in their own home.
Shepard distorts the violent, ever-expanding Occupation into a “conflict” among equals. Shepard diminishes Israeli military oppression into mere differences of “perception.” Twisting an attack of the powerful on the weak into post-structuralist debate about competing notions of reality is inexcusable. Shepard altogether omits the monstrous theft, bulldozing, assaults, and murder that the Israeli military-colonial complex inflicts on peaceful Palestinian farmers, as well as dwellers in refugee camps. Shepard overlooks the perpetual war of the nuclear-armed behemoth Israel on dispossessed Palestinians.
Shepard implicitly blames Palestinian victims for Jews’ assaults: “Missing from the story, however, was an explanation of the kind of societal racism — on the part of both Jews and Arabs — that might have helped listeners better understand what’s behind the vigilantism.” As if the problem is not that Israeli Jews torment Palestinians, but that the latter’s own “racism” might actually provoke the persecution. Shepard substitutes preconceptions for research: “Racism is a daily fact of life in Israel, as it is in any multi-ethnic society.” Shepard is wrong on all counts. She assumes that sectarian strife afflicts all diverse cultures. She donates Palestinian East Jerusalem, the planned capital of a Palestinian state, to Israel. Shepard claims that, “The story told a tale of one small aspect of the seemingly eternal conflict between Jews and Arabs.” Nonsense: the lie that warfare has cursed intercourse between Jews and Palestinians from time immemorial has long been debunked. Shepard’s prejudice that Jewish and Palestinian people are doomed to infinite animosity would be funny if it weren’t so sickening, for it blinds her to the obvious.
Ludicrously, Shepard disregards what should have been the whole point of Frenkel’s narrative. Palestinian and Israeli Jewish people–far from feeling inevitably alienated—learn to love each other every day. Oblivious not only to the transcendent hope embodied by the young people’s affection, Shepard commits other oversights. Shepard’s misnomers sully her conclusions about both Frenkel and the vigilantes. Shepard declaims that Frenkel’s story “failed to put that tale [of the mobs’ obsessive chasing of “mixed” couples] into the broader context of how Jews and Arabs perceive each other.” Actually, Frenkel does describe, without demur, how the chasers see the chased: on a level both down and behind. The vigilantes vent their horror that any Jew could love a Palestinian: “How did we descend to this level? It is a serious step backwards.”
What kind of fanatic doesn’t see the conflict between exalting their clan and degrading those members who connect with others? They must be same sort of extremists as those who destroy a land–bulldozing its trees, poisoning its soil, water, sea, and air–in order to steal it. Shepard blames crossed perceptions, mutual misunderstanding—never the ferocity of the Israeli state or some of its Jewish citizens—for the persecution endured by Palestinians, as well as by the Jewish people who care for them. We can ask Shepard the same question. What sort of Ombud puts the onus on the targets to prove they don’t deserve their fate as prey? Perhaps only one who mislabels “torture” as “enhanced interrogation” (except when committed by “enemies” of the U.S.) could do it. Shepard’s misdesignations,even as she tries to distance NPR from Frenkel’s limits, disclose NPR’s larger lack of journalistic principle. But minor lapses tell almost as much.
When Shepard claims that Frenkel left out larger research on how Israeli aggression and Palestinian resistance balance each other out, she remarks: “But [Frenkel’s story] failed to put that tale into the broader context of how Jews and Arabs perceive each other, which is a major factor in why the conflict perpetuates.” Shepard ends her sentence with what English teachers call a “wrong word.” Shepard means “persists,” not perpetuates. Most of us don’t have a clue about the difference between so-called “transitive” and “intransitive” verbs, but anyone who reads develops an ear for how phrases work. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but the fate of Palestinian children, or at least the American public’s awareness of their life or death, rests partly in Shepard’s power to choose fair words and to uphold just standards for influential reporters. Shepard’s blunder may not be as silly as Representative Joe Wilson admission that he looked up “dithering” in the dictionary, or former President George W. Bush mangling the pronunciation of “dissemble” as he pedantically tried to define it. But that’s not all. Shepard’s sloppy syntax clouds even her thesis: “I agree with NPR’s news judgment that this was a story about an important topic. But it wasn’t well-done and, as a result, invited criticism that makes it hard to defend.” Shepard seems to be trying to say that Sheera Frenkel discovered grave events, but her report was flawed, in ways that opened it to criticism. Does Shepard mean that the flaws or the criticism make the story hard to defend?
Sloth mars more than Shepard’s phrasing; it extends to NPR’s choice of information. Alicia Shepard divulges that the feature NPR broadcast October 12, 2009 was a “re-tread” of a Frenkel story published two weeks earlier, September 28, 2009, in the UK Times Online. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article6851624.ece#
Recycling news is laudable if, say, the investigators add information, explore consequences, or deepen an on-going debate. But Frenkel improved nothing, though she and NPR editor Jenkins had weeks to correct the report’s many imperfections. Most troubling, however, is the possibility that this “hand-me-down” “material” had “spots” purposely cut out of it, “before NPR allowed U.S listeners to hear it. The original story answered many questions writers posed at this site and on the NPR website, facts that were deleted in the NPR edition.
1. In the Times Online story, Frenkel announces that, “For more than a decade, David [one of the anonymous vigilantes] has considered it his unofficial job to patrol the streets looking for mixed Arab-Jewish couples.” David’s gang has hounded Palestinian-Jewish couples for far longer than NPR’s description suggested.
2. David’s “group . . . works with police.” Now we know what U.K. readers learned weeks earlier: David’s efforts to break up romance between Jews and Palestinians has police imprimatur. Alicia Shepard paraphrases Prof. Wasserman’s question about whether the “vigilantes are part of a bigger and more troubling cultural response to dating between Arabs and Jews,” then quotes his response: ‘But we don’t know, do we?’ said Wasserman.” Frenkel’s earlier tale solves the mystery of whether the vigilantes are just mindless hooligans or are part of a frightening trend. The answer is with a definitive “Yes,” to both. Yes, the vigilantes are maniacs; yes, they are supported by the mainstream of Israeli culture, even by the police and, presumably, the law. Why didn’t Shepard show the earlier edition of the story to Wasserman, so that he could do more than guess?
3. Frenkel’s first version of David’s expedition portrays it in a relatively sinister light, comparing how he “says that he. . . will not use force [to remove women from the company of their Palestinian friends] but on a recent night out, it became clear that he was prepared to do just about anything else.” The second rendition drops the latter line.
4. The two “stories” differ about why David files a police report. In the Times, “A car chase ensued through the windy mountain roads before the vehicle got away. David took down a license plate number and called in the incident to the police. ‘I am doing this for her own good. She doesn’t know what she is getting into. It’s not like these guys are offering her a future.’” David just notifies the police because he can–because, we assume, he has worked with the police for years. Frenkel says nothing of the car driven by a Palestinian man hitting David’s leg.
In Frenkel’s version for NPR, David “gives up his chase when Israeli police agree to let him file a complaint against the driver of the car that struck him.” This edition portrays the Palestinian man as more malevolent than David, speeding off after hitting David in the leg. Frenkel ends the NPR account on a seemingly uplifting note absent from the Times: David “hopes that drawing attention to the incident will embarrass the girl and force her to leave her boyfriend. He says it’s one more girl he might save.”
5. Frenkel’s initial report quoted one of the people pursued by the mob, a strong-minded Jewish woman who talks intelligently about her choice: “Sarah, who asked not to use her real name, said it is men like David who are the problem, not her Arab boyfriend, Zadar. ‘I’m not stupid, or gullible or looking for trouble. I’m a Jewish girl who happened to meet a guy I like, who happens to be Arab. It’s my business. We have to go other places to go on dates, places where these guys won’t find us,’ she said.”
NPR’s “re-hash” dropped these invaluable sentiments from an enlightened Israeli Jewish woman. Why weren’t we allowed to hear Sarah defend her partiality for her Palestinian beloved, or to listen to her argue that national or political identity is irrelevant in whomever she “happens” to “like.”
Did Frenkel or Jenkins rip these “holes” into the “cast-off” story? Did reporter and editor try to placate Zionist-sympathetic supervisors or listeners? We still need answers from NPR and Alicia Shepard about why “our” “public” radio imposed on its audience this deceptive fragment about one chronicle in the Israeli Occupation of Palestine, the most urgent injustice of our time.
P.S. I just learned that “Morning Edition” host Renee Montagne–who, in her introduction to Frenkel’s piece, obfuscated the tyranny of Occupation by averring that “Jewish settlements…have sprung up in and around traditionally Arab East Jerusalem [like flowers, innocently making the desert bloom]”—“earns” $360,826 plus $32,422 in retirement contributions. Steve Inskeep rakes in about as much. $800 K requires a lot of pledge breaks.
Will all that cash free “Morning Edition” to notice– or fetter it from revealing–that Binyamin Netanyahu even now now bulldozes Palestine into “Greater Israel”? How long before the “U.S.” journalists see the obvious mutually exclusive contradictions?: The Israeli government’s exclamations,”No!,” to the “Two-State Solution”; “Double No!,” to “One-State with equal rights for all”; “No, Damn No!,” to stopping theft of others’ property, add up to Apartheid Israel, now. Where are the truth-tellers who care about reporting, about the U.S., about peace, about human rights, and about children? If NPR “reporters” dare not risk their cushy jobs to recount mere facts, can we “afford” to call them “public”?