Last week on a local call-in show on WOSU, Ohio, NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard virtually boasted about NPR’s giving into “pro-Israeli” pressure: “NPR is not as much criticized for its Middle East coverage as it was back in 2002, which it was attacked quite strongly by a pro-Israeli group. And that group was in many ways successful, and as a result NPR went back and re-evaluated the coverage and how things are handled and started doing things a little differently….”
One collapse leads to another. I called in and thanked Shepard for her previous stance of asking that reporters describe Israeli colonies–built on stolen land–as violations of International Law, rather than use the Israeli term “disputed.” I told her, though, that reporters continue to say “disputed.” In a flip-flop, Shepard said, “The reason that it would be ‘disputed’ is that Israelis may feel that this is their land, and they got it fair and square during the war, and then the Palestinians would say, No, this land was stolen from them, –so in that sense, it’s ‘disputed’” (10:26).
The arbiter of ethical reporting violated fairness in her about-face: Donating all of Palestine to Israel—Greater Israel accomplished… .No country can legally win land “fair and square [through] war” ….“Disputed” isn’t a disinterested label, but the Israeli government’s…. Israel’s violation of International Law is crucial context listeners deserve. And Shepard herself had bragged about that “rich” “context” is “NPR’s signature” of “good journalism.”
So Shepard reversed her answer to me from an April 1 call. At that time she said: “The story about Israel intending to build 1600 housing units in East Jerusalem is a big story. Susie, I’ve brought that up about: ‘Let’s not use the term ‘disputed.’”
I wanted to probe Shepard’s turnabout last week, but WOSU host Ann Fisher again shielded the ombud by putting me on hold, and Shepard shifted from defense to offense: NPR’s job “isn’t to advocate. Maybe you have more of a vested interest or a personal interest in the story,” she told me, “so you listen to it in a way where you’re picking up on a key word.” Exactly. NPR’s job isn’t to advocate Israel’s interest, which it does when it uses Israeli-government terms like “disputed.”
Shepard asserted that “An NPR story may be fair, but it is also in many ways neutral.” Would NPR give equal time to segregationists applauding Bull Connor’s hoses and dogs? Would NPR suppress news of Rev. Martin Luther King and the marches for Civil Rights? Why not? Because to do so would deceive a 1960s audience about liberation from injustice.
Both times I talked with Shepard, she referred to the evaluations made by hired assessor John Felton; but the problem with his reports is precisely that they merely count how many Israeli and Palestinian stories and spokespeople appear. http://www.npr.org/news/specials/mideast/statements/Mideast_Q2_2010.pdf, http://www.npr.org/news/specials/mideast/statements/Mideast_Q4_2009.pdf
Such tallies are easy, and not journalism. Felton neglects the hard work of comparing the assertions to reality: how much land Israelis steal, how many more people they kill and injure than casualties they suffer, how many children’s growth they stunt through malnourishment. The coverage is reduced to the dreadful idea of “competing narratives,” with no referee. Shepard can only proclaim, “bias is in the eye of the beholder,” when NPR discards facts like International Law.
George Orwell warned that “Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” http://orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit. Orwell’s “The Road to Wigan Pier,” say, doesn’t give equal time to the mine owners, but simply depicts miners’ terrible suffering.
NPR functionaries like Alicia Shepard and Ann Fisher are gatekeepers at the U.S. checkpoints: keeping Americans in ignorance.
Later Gabrielle, another caller to the Ann Fisher, showed how NPR responds to some progressive demands (26:10). First, a compliment about what an admirable job Shepard is doing. Then, the suggestion of a “tiny… constructive criticism” that Fisher supports: removing sexist terms like ombudsman from NPR. Hilariously, Shepard at first brushed off the request. The caller responded that language like “fireman” and “firefighter” limits children’s aspirations. Fisher chimed in. Gabrielle spoke of the subtlety of saying “one man’s x.” Shepard agreed it’s an important topic–”This is something that I do care very much about”–and the disparity of male and female voices is an issue she’s studied.
Then she summed up: “How will we ever move on, if we don’t address it?”