Culture feature extra Under pressure 

NPR under scrutiny for alleged bias

While National Public Radio undergoes scrutiny over alleged anti-Israeli bias in its reporting, San Antonio's NPR affliate, KSTX, has been largely untouched by the recent controversy.

Joe Gwathmey, CEO of Texas Public Radio, says the station has felt "no pressure whatsoever" from NPR or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which controls a portion of NPR's funding, over KSTX's programming. "Public broadcasting is a decentralized system. It can trickle down, but I've never seen or felt it."

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The Corporation for Public Broadcasting's investigation into NPR's alleged bias comes on the heels of a similar analysis of PBS' Now With Bill Moyers over what CPB Chairman Ken Tomlinson, a Republican appointee, characterized as the program's "anti-business, anti-Bush, anti-DeLay" stance. The manner in which that probe was conducted - using an outside consultant and unbeknownst to the CPB board or Moyers - is now being investigated by CPB Inspector General Kenneth Konz at the request of two Democratic Congressmen. Moreover, Tomlinson hired White House Director of Global Communications Mary Catherine Andrews to draft guidelines for CPB ombudsmen while she was still on the White House payroll. She was subsequently hired by the CPB.

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According to The New York Times, Tomlinson also contacted research group the Center for Media and Public Affairs to conduct an NPR study, although that analysis hasn't yet been done.

CPB's own audit suggests that the public doesn't perceive NPR to be biased. According to a study by the Pew Center for People and the Press, NPR listeners are evenly distributed along ideological lines: 33 percent of those surveyed describe themselves as moderate, 31 percent conservative, and 30 percent liberal. Six percent didn't know.

Gwathmey, who co-founded NPR and worked for the network in Washington, D.C. for 16 years `see "A private look at public radio," September 23-29, 2004`, described Tomlinson's hiring of Andrews as "stupid, but not sinister," adding it is the result of internal politics and "game-playing."

Interference in public broadcasting occurred during the Carter and Nixon administrations, Gwathmey recalls. "I doubt `the Bush Administration` had a meeting at the White House and said, Let's load CPB `with Republicans` and hire ombudsmen to put pressure on public broadcasting. It doesn't matter which administration is in power, they don't like to be criticized."

Camera, short for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, has led the recent charge against NPR. Its website (camera.org) lists numerous incidents in which it asserts that NPR showed bias. Likewise, there are anti-Camera websites, some by Arab-Americans, refuting Camera's claims.

Nonetheless, KSTX has heard from listeners regarding NPR's handling of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East. Gwathmey says that during the spring membership drive, about 15-20 listeners declined to renew their membership, citing the alleged bias over Middle East reporting. Opthalmologist Dr. Terry Braverman didn't renew his underwriting agreement for that reason.

Citing Camera statistics and examples in a prepared statement, Braverman told the Current that NPR reporters demonstrate their bias by selecting certain words, some of them inflammatory to Israelis, others diminishing Palestinian violence. "The word militant is substituted for terrorist when describing suicide bombers," he said, adding, "In many segments no advocate for Israel is present to refute the allegations."

Braverman said he supports an evaluation of NPR's Middle East reporting. "Until this is done, NPR will continue to function under a justified cloud of suspicion regarding its coverage of the Middle East."

Several years ago, NPR Ombudsman Jeff Dvorkin spoke at a meeting of about 150 people at the Jewish Community Center to address concerns about bias. Gwathmey also attended the meeting. "Some, but not all, were persuaded that NPR coverage doesn't unfairly favor the Middle Eastern cause," he recalls.

In a January 2005 column posted on npr.org, Dvorkin acknowledges several on-air mistakes, usually concerning word choice. He goes on to write that "most ombudsmen can attest that coverage of this subject draws constant allegations of bias. Anecdotally, I am told that some news organizations are now so battered that they tend to avoid the story as much as possible."

According to the Times, NPR executives are worried about the lack of information they receive from the CPB about investigations into bias and other programming decisions.

Despite Gwathmey's assertion that KSTX is insulated from federal meddling, he is uneasy about the larger implications for public broadcasting. "I think vigil on the part of public broadcasting is called for."

By Lisa Sorg


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