NPR Reaching Out to Jews, Arabs

National Public Radio (NPR) has mounted a public relations campaign among Jews and Arabs in an effort to avoid being known as National Protest Radio.

At the same moment that the president of NPR was addressing Jewish newspaper editors in Chicago about coverage of the Middle East, the ombudsman for NPR was talking about the very same thing to an Arab group in Washington.

The speeches on June 7 were part of an outreach effort by the nonprofit radio organization to convince its listeners that its reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is both fair and unbiased.

NPR, along with other major media outlets, has been accused by both Jewish and Arab audiences of unfair coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The outreach comes after Jews boycotted some major newspapers, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post because of a perceived anti-Israel bias. Arabs have complained bitterly as well, citing what they see as a pro-Israel slant to many stories in the Times and Post, among other media.

Kevin Klose, president and CEO of NPR, acknowledged the complaints against his organization.

“We’re not immune to that,” he said in a telephone interview. “We pay a great deal of attention to criticism.”

Klose, a former reporter and editor at The Washington Post, is looking for more dialogue with both communities, and he believes NPR is trying to be as careful as possible about its reportage.

“But we’re not indifferent to errors,” he said. “We change; we correct the record.”

NPR has hired a public relations firm, DCS Group, that does work for Arab and Jewish groups, including Birthright Israel, to help with its outreach to both communities.

NPR serves an audience of more than 19 million Americans each week via 680 public radio stations and the Internet and in Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa through NPR Worldwide.

Jeffrey Dvorkin, the NPR ombudsman, says the outreach effort is to help the organization understand the communities better and to encourage people to help NPR do its job better.

“If there’s a boycott, then it’s too late,” he said.

NPR’s outreach to the Jewish community includes visiting various communities around the country and speaking to the national convention of Hadassah this summer.

Last month, the NPR Web site started posting full transcripts of its reports from the Middle East so people could see the full text, officials said.

While most of the critics respond with letters, e-mail and voice mail complaints, there have been some financial repercussions as well.

Some major donors to a public radio station in the Boston area stopped their funding because of what they saw as an anti-Israel bias in NPR.

At least six underwriters have withdrawn their support to WBUR, according to Mary Stohn, spokeswoman for the local station, adding that other smaller donors had also not renewed their support and the station anticipated further action on the part of both smaller and larger donors.

She said WBUR has already lost at least $1 million in funding because of protests about NPR’s coverage of Israel.

NPR officials said they were not aware of any other stations that have lost funding as a result of their Middle East coverage. And Klose said that in general, financial support for public radio is up.

For their part, some Arab Americans also take issue with NPR’s coverage of the conflict.

Hussein Ibish, communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said NPR does not have an anti-Arab bias, but its reporting can be problematic and there is a “radical imbalance” in its commentary.

He said his group makes practical suggestions to NPR and encourages it to do better.

Michael Kotzin, the executive vice president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, called for a constructive dialogue between the Jewish community and the media.

Speaking alongside Klose at the American Jewish Press Association meeting last week, Kotzin said the media needed to take a serious look at how they are treating the Middle East conflict.

He also said he was concerned that the media are increasingly dismissive of their critics as “emotional advocates for one side.”

At the same time, he said he believes the Jewish community “needs to demonstrate the same kind of fairness and understanding about the media that we are demanding of them.”