The CNN-NPR-NY Times Middle East Conspiracy

Have you noticed that when people complain about bias in the media, it’s always bias against their own point of view and never bias in favor of their side?

When press accounts confirm your interpretation of events, they’re fair, accurate and objective. When the upshot of a news story is that your team is the bad guys and the other team is the good guys, it’s obvious that the reporter or paper or network or corporation is in the tank for the other side. And when articles and broadcasts balance ammo for your side with ammo for the other side, they’re guilty of the fallacy of false equivalence, which turns righteous battles between right and wrong into vapid he-said/she-said standoffs.

Nowhere is this more true than in coverage of the Middle East.

Supporters of Israel are furious that when pictures of Palestinian casualties are shown, the causes and context of the war are left out—Hamas’ rocket attacks on southern Israel, which precipitated the attack on Gaza; its cynical use of civilians as human shields, which is a war crime; its intention to destroy Israel and Jewry, which amounts to genocide—all get scandalously short shrift from the press.

Supporters of Hamas are just as enraged about the inhumane living conditions in Gaza, which Israel has blockaded; the Israeli refusal to allow the international press into the battle zone; what they believe is the original sin of Zionism, the displacement of Arabs, and that when Israel is portrayed as a victim, the suffering of the Palestinian people is conveniently omitted.

And what if you’re not a partisan of either side, but think of yourself instead as an independent advocate for human rights and peace? Then not only will you bring down on yourself the opprobrium of both sides for failing to take a stand at a moment that demands a choice, you will also find in the prevailing media narrative no hook to hang your conciliatory analysis on, no peg for your empyrean perspective, no patience for your it’s-all-so-complicated heartsickness.

Any news story can be successfully picked apart from any vantage point. Why does the Los Angeles Times disparage the Israeli point of view as ““>anonymous mitigating hearsay about a Hamas sniper? Why aren’t the networks airing the “>Israeli scholar’s assertion that Palestinian casualties aren’t excessive because “so far well over three-quarters have been armed gunmen, and that is a percentage which is very rarely attained in urban warfare”?

In fact, two reasons make it really hard to conclude (but not to claim) that a mainstream media outlet is biased—on the Middle East or on anything else. And a third reason makes the whole enterprise of watchdogging the press somewhat quixotic.

One is the sheer quantity of content. The stories and pictures you saw may be plenty to convince you, say, that the Associated Press is unfair to Israel, but the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.” The only way to determine anything defensible about bias in reporting is to analyze a scientific sample—to examine a slice of stories that’s large enough to be representative of all stories and to choose that slice randomly, without knowing what’s going to be in it.

Some people may feel that they watch CNN so much or read The New York Times so regularly that they have plenty of data to base conclusions on. Not so. That’s why pollsters are paid big bucks: The methods they use to construct the universe of people they survey are even more important than the questions they ask them.

Second is the difficulty of coming up with an objective measure of bias. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. If you can show me a journalistic scoring system that Alan Dershowitz and Noam Chomsky can agree on, then I’d like to show you how to earn 12 percent a year in a very special investment fund.

But even if you had a scientific sample; even if you devised a neutral litmus test for bias, the strange truth is that media spin probably matters a lot less than we assume.

Yes, public opinion is an important element of public policy. Nations care what people think about them. But the audience for cable news is astonishingly small, maybe 2 million people on a good day; the daily readership of a prestige newspaper is hardly more than that, and the only way that public radio can claim north of 20 million listeners is to count all the people who listened to any of its programs during a week.

Sure, the Internet has surged as a source of news, but its audience is fragmented into niches. If you want to get really depressed, chew on this: For decades, Americans have said that their number one source for news is local television news. Not only is that audience scattered among a thousand stations in a couple of hundred media markets, the amount of attention those stations give to international news is a tiny fraction of the airtime they give to celebrities, freak accidents and crime.

There’s no question that some elite media set the agenda for much of the rest of the press. And some nonnews programming, like talk radio hotheads, get demonstrably big listenerships. But it’s next to impossible to prove a cause-and-effect relation between these bloviators and public opinion, and the same is true of the impact of the mainstream press on public attitudes and beliefs. In the end, why Americans think what they do about Israel and Hamas is as much a mystery as how they decide who to vote for or what toothpaste to buy.

I get just as steamed as anyone else when I see a Middle East news story that I think is wildly unfair. I’m just unwilling to ascribe it to a conspiracy or to think it matters as much as the frustration and fury I feel.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School. His column appears here weekly. He can be reached at

Paris and Rosie

On Sunday, I was at the Islamic Center of Southern California on Vermont Avenue, participating in a panel discussion on the “The Image of Muslims in the Media.”

I didn’t have to do much preparation – I just had to take the notes I use when I speak to Jewish audiences on the “The Image of Israel in the Media” and do a search-and-replace, Israel for Muslim.

Each side’s complaints are mirror images of the other. Jews bemoan the lack of context, the one-sidedness, the over-simplification and the focus on blood and gore that marks quite a bit of the media coverage of Israel. And the Muslims? To them, the media paints all Muslims as terrorists, offers superficial understanding of Islam and focuses on violence over culture and accomplishment.

“To try to get better stories told on a daily basis,” Edina Lekovic said, “is … frustrating.” Lekovic, media relations director of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, or MPAC, struck the same note I hear from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

As an example, a video produced by her organization cites Steven Spielberg’s film “Munich” as a media product that negatively portrays Muslims. How many Jewish panels have I sat on that have picked apart the same movie for its “bias” against Israelis?

Los Angeles Times Opinion and Sunday Currents page editor Nick Goldberg, also a panelist on Sunday, made clear he hears from disgruntled Muslims and Jews whenever he runs an op-ed perceived to be harmful to either side.

I’m sure “the media” – whatever that is – would be proud to know that it has managed to get Jews and Muslims to agree on something. That something being, of course, the incompetence and unfairness of the media.

On a week when the evening news has told us more about who visited Paris Hilton in jail than which Americans died in Iraq, it is hard not to join the chorus.

Phil Shuman, the conscientious Fox 11 News reporter, told the audience that his station preempted an hour of news last week to broadcast live a police car chase.

But I don’t place all the blame on the media. I blame Jews and Muslims, too.
We expect the media to be balanced, judicious and open-minded though we feel perfectly justified exhibiting none of those qualities.

Case in point: The Muslims I spoke with were especially upset about the media’s handling of the recent Pew Research Center poll of Muslim Americans. The poll found that the majority of American Muslims see themselves as American first and that two-thirds are strong believers in the American way of life. “When we looked at the Pew poll we thought ‘finally they’ll see what we see,'” Lekovic said.

Instead, the media focused on a finding that 26 percent of American Muslims aged 18 to 29 believe that suicide bombing against civilian targets is justified “in order to defend Islam from its enemies.”

Once again, the Muslims felt that instead of showing off their achievements and pride as Americans, they had to defend themselves against the idea that all Muslims are terrorists.

“Why is the image of Islam so negative today?” asked Salam al-Marayati, executive director of MPAC.

Well, I said to this audience of some 100 Muslims, as a Jew, I could ask the same question.

I said why, despite all evidence to the contrary, the same poll found that 40 percent of Muslim Americans don’t believe that Arabs were behind the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

I said why, despite all evidence to the contrary, a majority of Europeans believe that Israel is the root of all the evil in the world.

In other words, I said, you can present people with all the information they need, in context, with background, and they’ll still choose to live in cloud or cuckoo land. Perhaps the deeper problem is why people cling to ignorance in the face of knowledge, fantasy in the face of facts.

Believe it or not, that was not an applause line.

After the discussion, a Muslim man approached me and argued that talk show host Rosie O’Donnell also questioned who was behind Sept. 11. “Is Rosie O’Donnell crazy?” he asked.

“Probably not,” I said, “but she’s not my No. 1 news source.”

But I don’t mean to let Jews off the hook here, either.

We also tend to cling to our orthodoxies without challenging them. And one of those orthodoxies is that the West is facing imminent destruction at the hands of extremist Islam. Too easily this idea, which is in itself arguable, poisons our understanding of all Islam and our relations to all Muslims.

“We are very nervous about being taken for a ride,” Rabbi David Rosen said. “But we have an existential interest in speaking out to the Muslim world.”

Rosen is international director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee. He is an Orthodox rabbi, based in Jerusalem, who was ordained at the charedi Mir yeshiva and also graduated from Oxford. I spoke with him Monday in my office.

Out of their justifiable concern over Muslim extremism, Jews have closed themselves off from Muslims and rejected overtures and cooperation from even moderate Muslims, like W.D. Muhammed, who heads the largest black Muslim organization in the United States.

Jews, Rosen said, are missing an opportunity to engage Muslims in America and even to help them establish the kind of American religious institutions that have helped moderate and modernize Judaism itself.

Yes, extremist Islam is a threat. But it has also presented us with an opportunity to reach out to our Muslim neighbors, even the ones who believe Rosie O’Donnell over their own good sense.

This so-called clash of civilizations will be a fast ride to hell if we close ourselves off, choosing fear over hope.

I’ll leave the last word to the rabbi: “What do you want to do?” Rosen said.

“Curse the darkness or light a candle?”

NPR Israel Coverage Sparks Protests

"The Palestinian uprising and subsequent Israeli offensive in the West Bank stirred enormous sympathy for the Palestinians throughout the Arab world…. Over the past year, scores of Egypt’s top singers have come out with songs about the Palestinian uprising. Most are accompanied by music videos featuring slain Palestinians, weeping families and homes destroyed by Israeli tanks…." — "Weekend All Things Considered," May 22, 2002

The above quote is from a National Public Radio (NPR) report "Egyptian Empathy for Palestinians Manifests in Art." But some Jewish groups think the quote says a lot more about politics at NPR — or what they call "National Palestinian Radio" — than it does about Egyptian art.

The Committee for Accurate Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) and the Los Angeles-based StandWithUs are among the Jewish groups that see examples of this bias in many of NPR’s reports about the Middle East conflict. They charge that the language NPR uses when reporting about Palestinians often sugarcoats the reality of the situation, for example, using the innocuous sounding word "uprising" instead of the more evil sounding "terrorism," and the evocative references to Palestinian suffering but no mention of Israeli suffering caused by Palestinian terrorism.

On Wednesday, May 14, they will join pro-Israel groups across the country in holding demonstrations outside NPR affiliate stations in 33 cities, including Los Angeles. In addition to the protest, called "NPR: Tell the Truth," the Boston-based organizers are asking participants and corporations to withhold financial support from NPR stations until the alleged bias is halted. In Boston, the tactic has been so successful that the NPR affiliate, station WBUR, reportedly lost more than $1 million in funding.

This is not the first time a media outlet has been accused of bias against Israel. In the last two years alone, Jewish groups have called for boycotts against media outlets ranging from the Los Angeles Times to The New York Times. As the conflict in the Middle East comes to the end of its second year with no clear solution in sight despite the "road map" (see story p. 18), advocacy groups — on both the Israeli and Palestinian side — in America increasingly go after the media for biased reporting.

NPR representatives said they are constantly reviewing their Middle East coverage, and denied it is biased. They pointed out that pro-Palestinian groups and media watchdogs, such as FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), charge NPR with being too pro-Israel.

NPR programs such as "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered" and "Talk of the Nation" are distributed to 700 affiliate stations and have an audience of more than 21 million, making it one of the most widespread news sources in the United States.

CAMERA, a pro-Israel media watchdog, has been monitoring NPR for 10 years and has issued numerous bulletins alerting listeners to alleged instances of bias and inaccuracy. The Massachusetts-based organization has lobbied to get NPR to issue corrections, which, according to CAMERA, it did in four instances.

NPR discounted many of CAMERA’s criticisms, saying they come from a group with an agenda.

"CAMERA is an organization that has an absolute commitment to making sure that the Israeli issue gets covered from a certain viewpoint, and they do a damn good job," said Ruth Seymour, general manager and program director at local NPR station KCRW. "NPR is a journalistic organization, and it has other obligations."

But NPR critics discount the denials, saying that NPR doesn’t want to be held accountable. On March, 11 congressman, including Reps. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) and Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) sent a letter to NPR President Kevin Klose, requesting an internal audit of coverage. Klose denied the request because, he said, it would "open a door to political interference."

"When NPR is funded at the expense of us all, then a statute [from the Public Telecommunications Act] applies that it has to be balanced," said Sherman, who is considering action on a bill that funds operations like NPR.

Most of NPR’s funding comes from membership dues, program fees and contributions from private individuals, foundations and corporations. Federal grants make up a small percentage of its financing. The amount of government funds, NPR says, is only 1 percent or 2 percent of its total budget. NPR critics say the percentage is much higher.

"It’s very dangerous to have an unbalanced government information service. The attitude I get from NPR is that they are above criticism, which is an amazing position to take," Sherman said.

The question of bias often enters into a circular "he said, she said" debate with either side unable to prove their cause. "Bias is in the eyes of the beholder," said Murray Fromson, a professor of Journalism at USC, who has worked as a journalist for more than 50 years. "I listen to NPR every day, and there are pieces that are favorable to the Palestinians, and pieces that are favorable to Israel. There are pieces [on NPR] that absolutely outrage me, but on the whole I think there is a balance," he said.

In Los Angeles, the protest against NPR is sponsored by StandWithUs and is scheduled on May 14 at 11 a.m.-1 p.m. outside of KCRW, 1900 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica.