By the time Kevin Klose arrived yesterday at a Baltimore Inner Harbor hotel to participate in a discussion titled "Israel and the Media: Balance or Bias?" the question had already been settled in the minds of many of those present.
Klose, CEO and president of National Public Radio, had come to the annual national meeting of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs to defend his network's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict against charges of bias against Israel. The organization is a coalition of advocacy groups committed to promoting Israel and issues important to American Jews.
U.S. and Israeli flags stood behind Klose as he sat on a raised platform. Copies of a sharply worded single-spaced, 22-page critique of an NPR series about the history of the conflict had been neatly stacked within easy reach of participants. And waves of skepticism toward the media in general, and especially NPR, buffeted Klose during the 90-minute session.
Through the words they choose and the people they interview, reporters routinely show unfairness - even bias - against Israel, many audience members declared.
"There is a great lack of trust and confidence, I think, of many people in this room toward NPR," said Robert Cohen of Tulsa, Okla. "A beginning journalism student would get an 'F' for balance," Cohen added, if NPR's work were submitted to a professor's review.
One audience member who said he lived in San Francisco called for NPR to submit its coverage to a review by an outside panel. A second audience member from Portland, Ore., pointedly asked about giving credence to Palestinian accusations of atrocities by Israeli forces. A third discussion participant who had come to Baltimore from New Jersey, claimed NPR reporters failed to reflect the anti-Semitic tones of a U.N. conference in South Africa last year.
Klose attempted to engage his questioners, acknowledging occasional lapses and promising to consider critiques. But he strongly praised the work of NPR's staff, saying any failings were those of human frailty, not intentional bias. No one story, he said, can tell the complete truth: NPR's coverage must be assessed over time.
"I've encountered few stories as difficult to tell," Klose told the audience. "This story is not just about land and boundaries. It is also about a conflict between two peoples." Palestinians and Palestinian Americans, Klose pointed out, have their own set of concerns about coverage by the U.S. media, including NPR.
Many of the criticisms raised by the audience members may seem arcane to those not steeped in the topic: Shouldn't Arab nations also bear responsibility for the poverty of Palestinians? Shouldn't reporters distinguish between innocent civilians being killed by bombers and Palestinian plotters of violence being killed by Israeli soldiers? Other criticisms focused on word choice: Terrorist or militant? Occupied territory or West Bank? Suicide bomber or murderer?
NPR's ability to provide context to a story is typically one of its strengths. Its stories are often much longer than those found on network television newscasts, and its reporters like to include historic sweep. But should context in this case refer to the Camp David negotiations of 2000 or the Oslo accords in 1993? Or to the Wars of 1967 and 1973 or to the Balfour Mandate from the British government in 1917 decreeing the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East or indeed to the pages of the Bible itself? Grievances on all sides are many, and deeply felt.
Context, in this case, gets very, very tricky.
The debate is far from academic for Klose, a highly respected former foreign correspondent and author. For more than a year, Jewish activists have pressured American media outlets for what they see as unfair or unbalanced reporting on Israel. In Boston, WBUR-FM, a major NPR station, lost more than $1 million from Jewish sponsors last year. Opposition there was driven at least partly by Boston-based CAMERA, a small but influential pro-Israel watchdog group. Such support is vital to the funding of public radio.
Over the past six months, leaders of regional Jewish groups, such as the Baltimore Jewish Council and the Baltimore Zionist District, have also met with top officials at Baltimore NPR station WYPR-FM here to express their reservations about NPR's coverage.
"NPR leads the pack on sloppy journalism," says Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of Baltimore Jewish Council.
Klose has sought to address these questions by meeting with many of his critics. Along with senior news executives from NPR, he traveled to Israel last summer to learn more about the backdrop for reports filed by his correspondents.
There is no ironclad unanimity among Jews on the issue. Former Baltimore Jewish Times editor Gary Rosenblatt, now with the Jewish Week, credited NPR for some of its reporting and said he did not believe the mainstream media to be biased.
The discomfort felt by some radio listeners may be unavoidable - given the violence and tragedy of the conflict, says Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the national Jewish Council. "What is going on in the Middle East is a very horrific thing," she says. "We just want to make sure that the hurt we feel isn't because of bias."
But both of them say they see carelessness lead to unfair characterizations on the air at NPR.
Other news organizations have also come under fire from Jewish groups. The Chicago Tribune (a sister paper of The Sun), The New York Times and CNN have all received strong criticism. An editorial cartoon in The Sun last fall that depicted Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a tyrant drew the ire of many Jewish readers. Often there is an implied threat of sponsors canceling ads. Sometimes the threat is explicit, although the Jewish Council adopted a resolution this week discouraging such boycotts. Fox News Channel has won favor among many U.S. Jews by using the term "homicide bombers" to describe those who set off explosives against civilians - focusing on the deaths of innocents rather than the killing of the assailant.
"There are people on all sides of this issue who want us to tell only their story using their names and their nomenclature - and we're not going to do it," Klose says. "It's a very complicated story and a dangerous story. We are there on public radio salaries because we believe in serving the great need and demand in this country for foreign news."
David Folkenflik can be reached at david.folken email@example.com or 410-332-6923.