NPR can’t stop talking about Jews

Israel/Palestine
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Last Sunday, March 17, was St. Patrick’s Day, and I turned on my local public-radio outlet just in time to hear how National Public Radio news was celebrating the occasion: with a 4-minute, 28-second segment on something called the Loyal League of Yiddish Sons of Erin, a now-defunct New York organization of Jews born in Ireland.

Immediately after that came an even longer segment – six minutes, six seconds – entitled “How Does A Jewish Artist Tell The Ultimate Christian Story?” about an Argentine Jewish composer, Osvaldo Golijov, whose choral work “The Passion According to St. Mark” was recently performed at Carnegie Hall.

That day’s show was an extreme case, but the pattern is familiar to anyone who listens to NPR regularly: they can’t stop talking about the Jews. Even though those of us who are Jewish amount to less than 2 percent of the U.S. population[1], NPR devotes a level of loving attention to Jewish traditions, culture, and history that it displays toward no other religious or ethnic group. In addition to those St. Patrick’s Day pieces, consider these other stories the network has aired just in the first three weeks of this month: an interview with a woman who runs a website dedicated to collecting customized Passover haggadot (the Hebrew plural, I learned from the story, of haggada, the Passover prayerbook); not one but two celebrations (here and here) of Philip Roth’s 80th birthday; an interview with the two authors (both Jewish) of a book entitled “FDR and the Jews;” a profile of a century-old store on New York’s Lower East Side that sells herring and other “Jewish soulfood;” and an interview with the director of a new documentary about “Hava Nagila.”

Then there’s the coverage from Israel. In addition to numerous reports on Netanyahu’s coalition and Obama’s visit, NPR has found time in the last month to do a piece about swarms of locusts invading southern Israel and another about the restoration of some wetlands in northern Israel. Aside from the lack of any reference to the Palestinians who previously inhabited these lands, the stories weren’t particularly objectionable, but what other small (or even large) foreign country gets that kind of attention? Reporter Larry Abramson himself noted that the locusts came from Africa and had passed through Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula; he didn’t bother to explain why NPR considered them newsworthy only when they reached the Jewish State.

The other side of the coin in all this is that other religions, even those that have many more adherents in the U.S., get far less attention from NPR than their numbers might suggest. To confirm this, I dug up the data on the religious affiliations of the U.S. population. Then I headed over to NPR.org and did some simple searches to find out how often the names of major American religions were mentioned on the air on all NPR programs over the last year. This a pretty crude indicator, and I’ll mention some important caveats below, but the results are nevertheless quite striking:

Group                                       No. of adults         % of all adults            NPR mentions
                                                   (thousands)                                              (all programs)

Adult population, total              228,182

Christian, total                          173,402                     75.99                              581
   Catholic                                     57,199                      25.07                             460
   Baptist                                       36,148                     15.84                                92
   Christian-no denomination supplied
                                                       16,834                       7.38                              581
   Methodist/Wesleyan               11,366                       4.98                                52
   Lutheran                                      8,674                       3.80                                12
   Pentecostal/Charismatic          5,416                        2.37                                 15
   Protestant-no denomination supplied
                                                          5,187                       2.27                                48
   Presbyterian                                4,723                       2.07                                23
   Mormon/Latter-Day Saints      3,158                       1.38                              106
   Episcopalian/Anglican               2,405                       1.05                                  7
   Evangelical/Born Again             2,154                       0.94                                99
   Churches of Christ                       1,921                       0.84                                 6
   Jehovah’s Witness                       1,914                       0.84                                 3   

Other religions, total                     8,796                      3.85
   Jewish[2]                                  2,680                      1.17                            423
   Muslim                                          1,349                       0.59                            608
   Buddhist                                        1,189                       0.52                               47

No religion specified, total         34,169                     14.97
   Atheist                                             1,621                      0.71                                 54
   Agnostic                                           1,985                     0.87                                26 [3]
   No religion                                  30,427                     13.33

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Granted, NPR mentions the terms Christian, Catholic, and even Muslim more often than Jew. But when you factor in the proportion of the population that identifies as Christian or Catholic, the frequency of references to Jews is indeed astonishing.

At first glance, the large number of uses of the word Muslim may be the biggest surprise in these data. When you think about it, though – or when you look at the stories where the word is used – the explanation quickly becomes apparent: most of the references are in stories about international politics, particularly past, present, and likely future U.S. wars against Muslims in various parts of the world. There are hardly any stories about American Muslims – except a few about suspected terrorists.

I did the same searches separately for five specific programs – Morning Edition, All Things Considered, the two Weekend Edition shows, and Fresh Air – and the pattern was broadly similar in all of them.

Interestingly, it’s the Protestants – still about half the U.S. population – who really get short shrift on NPR.

Now to the caveats I mentioned above:

a) Some of the references in question are pretty innocuous. One of the stories that mentions Jews, for example, is a Fresh Air interview with Stephen Colbert, in which he sings some lines from “Jesus Christ Superstar” where Herod taunts Christ by saying “Come on, King of the Jews.” Another instance is Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream speech,” in which he longs for the day “when all of God’s children – black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics – will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.”

b) One reason NPR mentions Jews frequently is that it covers Israel fairly regularly, and on the whole that’s probably a good thing, despite the shortcomings of most of the coverage. If there were, for example, a “Methodist state” locked in conflict with its indigenous population, that denomination would probably garner more attention on the air.

c) In addition to the references to Jews in stories about Israel and to Muslims in coverage of what used to be known as the “global war on terror,” the results are also influenced in other ways by the vagaries of current events. The relatively large number of references to Mormons, for instance, is no doubt a function of the fact that one of the candidates in last year’s presidential election was a member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints; you can bet there won’t be nearly as many mentions of Mormons in the coming year. Likewise, the number of references to Catholics was obviously inflated by the recent transition in the Vatican. If it weren’t for that, and priestly pedophilia, I suspect references to Catholics would be about as scarce as mentions of Protestants or specific Protestant denominations on NPR’s airwaves.

———————

Another whole dimension of this issue is the religious background of pundits and others interviewed on NPR. We all know that the network’s discussions of the Middle East are dominated by Jews who parlayed failure as peace-processors into careers in punditry at pro-Israel Beltway think tanks : in the last year NPR had Aaron David Miller (granted, a relative liberal as this bunch goes) on the air an astonishing 20 times (once as part of an almost-all-Jewish “National Conversation” about U.S.-Israel relations, which this site covered here), plus Martin Indyk seven times, Robert Malley (another liberal) five times, and Dennis Ross four times. By contrast, Diana Buttu, Rashid Khalidi, and Stephen Walt have been on the air only twice each in the last year, and Noura Erakat, Yousef Munayyer, and John Mearsheimer not even once. (Of course, it’s clear that being Jewish isn’t enough by itself to get you on the air on this topic: the network also excludes highly qualified Jewish experts who are critical of Israel. Among those not interviewed at all in the last year are Phyllis Bennis, Noam Chomsky, Richard Falk, and Sara Roy.)

But the disproportionate representation of Jews among NPR interviewees extends well beyond Middle East coverage, even to the shallow “human interest” stories the network seems to run ever more frequently (apparently part of its ongoing campaign to avoid the sin of sounding serious). Just this past Friday, Morning Edition aired a segment about two graduate students in physics, Matt Bierbaum and Jesse Silverberg, who recently presented a mathematical model of mosh-pit behavior at an academic conference. It was just a bit of levity – academic studies of popular culture are always good for a laugh – and I don’t for a minute think that someone at NPR consciously decided to air the piece because the protagonists had Jewish names. But there must be some kind of subconscious cultural affinity at work, because even the silly stories seem to revolve around Jewish characters far more often that the 1 or 2 percent of the time the population statistics would suggest.

The all-time classic in this genre was the Sept. 25, 2012, All Things Considered piece entitled “National Security Experts Go Rogue For ‘Drone Smackdown’,”  which followed two such eminences, Benjamin Wittes (husband of Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution) and “Homeland Security consultant” Paul Rosenzweig, as they brought their kids to a D.C. park and engaged in a contest to see which dad’s toy drone could knock the other’s down first. (This story would have merited a prize for inanity any day, but what made it especially exquisite was that it appeared the very day a team of investigators from Stanford and NYU published “Living Under Drones,” a major study of the effects of U.S. drone programs on civilians. The report garnered significant coverage around the world that day, even in some mainstream U.S.. media; the U.K. Independent wrote of it: “The product of nine months’ research and more than 130 interviews, it is one of the most exhaustive attempts by academics to understand – and evaluate – Washington’s drone wars. And their verdict is damning.” But NPR, having set aside four minutes, 21 seconds for the “smackdown” story, apparently couldn’t find the time for a single word about the study – and in fact has never mentioned it to this day.)

————

So why is it that NPR lavishes so much attention on Jews and their doings? Many possible explanations come to mind: NPR’s audience may well be more heavily Jewish than the population as a whole. Its main studio are in Washington, D.C., New York, and Los Angeles – all areas where Jews are particularly prominent (a relatively recent development in D.C.). Perhaps the network, like the pols, is trying to curry favor with Jewish donors.

I suspect, though, that the main factor is simply that that there are so many Jews on NPR’s programming staff – not just reporters and hosts, but also editors. (Interestingly, as far as one can judge by the names, the network’s “corporate team” and board of directors don’t appear to be overwhelmingly Jewish.)

Ever since the civil rights movement, the racial and ethnic make-up on the nation’s newsroom has been the object of extensive study and sometimes heated debate; nowadays, most Americans seem to accept the proposition that diversity in staffing tends to promote full and fair coverage of the concerns and interests of all elements of the community. Last spring, for example, NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos assembled an exhaustive array of charts and tables to demonstrate the diversity – in terms of race and ethnicity – of NPR’s programming staff. The question of diversity of religious background, however, remains taboo; just raising the issue is likely to get me charged with anti-semitism. But if it’s important to have racial and ethnic diversity in our newsrooms, why isn’t it also important to have diversity in religious background?

Notes:

[1] Data included in the 2012 edition of the Statistical Abstract of the United States , published by the U.S. Census Bureau, indicates that 1.17 percent of U.S. adults identified themselves as Jewish in 2008. That figure is based on data collected for the American Religious Identification Survey by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture, Trinity College, Hartford, CT. A similar survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 1.7 percent of U.S. adults were Jewish. It’s not clear what accounts for the large difference between the two figures.

[2] In these searches I used the word “Jew,” without an “s,” because that seemed to find all stories including “Jew,” “Jews,” and/or “Jewish.”

[3] In a majority of the programs that included the word “agnostic,” however, it was used in its generic sense, not in reference to religion.

  

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