A quarterly review over the past 11 years of NPR's coverage of Israel and the Palestinians—a self-assessment that may be unique in the annals of American journalism—comes to an end with the attached last report that finds lack of completeness but strong factual accuracy and no systematic bias.
The reviews by John Felton, a former foreign editor working independently under the ombudsman's office, have dissected more than 4,000 stories related to just a single issue, but one that is a hot button among listeners, funders, political leaders and impassioned advocates.
The decision by NPR's management to end the studies is partly a cost-saving measure but even more a recognition that once-heated complaints about the coverage have subsided in recent years—a measure, I think, partly of Felton's success. I reluctantly agree with management's decision, though the hot button will surely be pushed again, given the unpredictability of Mideast events, the sensitivity of Israel to Americans, and the human fallibility of even the best journalism.
I strongly encourage you to read Felton's concluding study, which includes charts and insights pulling together the whole 11 years. In a separate email to me, he summarized how he saw the evolution of NPR's Mideast reporting:
In general, the quality of NPR's news and feature stories has been, and continues to be, very high. In particular, the stories have been extremely accurate. At times I might wish for more facts or more substance, but when I comb through them looking for factual errors I rarely find any of substance.
At times, individual stories left something to be desired, but most often the problem was what I would call sloppiness rather than bias. By this I mean stories that didn't present a complete enough picture, didn't quote a broad enough range of views, or otherwise failed to help the listener really understand the particular situation being reported. The number of stories falling into that category seems to have declined over the years — but so has the overall number of stories about this topic.
One thing that Felton did which many in the newsroom opposed was to listen to the advocates. I side with him. Because many advocates tend to exaggerate and be shrill, reporters and editors often ignore them. But as Felton writes in his farewell:
In the face of criticism, journalists tend to argue that they must be doing something right if both (or all) sides are unhappy with their coverage. I've heard this justification at NPR, as well as every other news organization with which I am familiar. It is natural to retreat to this position when the criticism is intense and personal — as it usually is when the subject is the Middle East. But the argument ignores the possibility that both sides might have a point: that the coverage could, in fact, miss important facts or viewpoints or could reflect hidden or unintentional biases. The painful lesson for journalists is that it's necessary to listen to the critics, even when they are spewing venom. On some level, on some details, they might have a valid point.
I also agree with Felton when he concludes that much of the criticism of NPR from advocates—and here the Palestinian side is taking on more force, even though it remains far less vocal and potent than the pro-Israeli one—overstate their case. As Felton writes:
U.S.-based pressure groups and other critics frequently allege that NPR is 'anti' or 'pro' Israel or 'anti' or 'pro' the Palestinians. A careful analysis of such claims reveals that what the advocates really are complaining about is that NPR is not biased in their favor. Reporting the news from the Middle East, by NPR or by any news organization that attempts to take its journalistic responsibilities seriously, is bound to make advocates on all sides uncomfortable because the news itself often is discomforting.
Margaret Low Smith, senior vice president for news, credited Felton with having done a "superb job," explaining in an email: "He is a first class editor and his reports were always thorough, thoughtful and clear-eyed." As for what they accomplished, she said:
We have always been open to criticism and self-evaluation. And for many years the quarterly reports were the best vehicle for evaluating our coverage of the Middle East. But we are a vastly different news organization than we were when we launched this report more than a decade ago. Our coverage of the Middle East is broader and deeper than ever before. And our newsroom is now built to objectively evaluate our coverage both before and after it airs in a quick and nimble way.
When the Mideast reports were launched in 2003, the United States had just invaded Iraq, and both pro-Israeli activists and loud, even bullying, partisans of muscular American military involvement in the Middle East were accusing the broadcaster of being pro-Palestinian. The slur was that NPR stands for "National Palestinian Radio."
Bruce Drake, then the vice president for news, made the bold move of appointing an independent outside critic to judge if the complaints were valid. He appointed Felton, who came with many advantages. He was informed on the Mideast, having written about the topic since the late 1970s; his book, The Contemporary Middle East: A Documentary History, was published in 2007. He was an accomplished reporter and editor known for being a stickler on fairness, context and detail. He was far from the Washington hothouse, having moved with his wife to rural New England. He knew NPR, but was no longer beholden to it.
Felton's initial quarterly reviews, nonetheless, were still edited and released by senior editors under the institution's name. Sometimes his reports were toned down slightly, according to Felton. Then in 2008, one of Drake's successors, Ellen Weiss, cut the reports free. She moved them to the ombudsman's office, which has published them under Felton's byline. I and my predecessors have edited his reports for small things like grammar and to make (rare) suggestions. Senior editors were given a chance to dispute his conclusions or suggest factual corrections, which they also rarely did. Felton has been totally independent to publish what he finds.
"I must say that the newsroom has been extraordinarily cooperative with me over the years, " Felton told me, "even when I had things to say in my reports that must have caused some distress. Since these reports started going out under my name in 2008, no one in the news department has ever asked me to change any of my assessments or to 'go soft' on NPR."
While such transparency should be expected of a public medium—and, I think, private news media, too—it still is to the credit of NPR's management over the years that it has been willing to live up to its responsibility, take its public lumps in the spirit that they were intended and self-correct.
Felton's reviews cover 4,052 radio stories, plus many other Web-only ones. The radio stories come only from Morning Edition, Tell Me More, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, NPR's own magazine shows. Hourly newscast reports are not included.
The high point in numbers came in 2006, when Israel invaded Lebanon, and NPR aired more than 800 stories on its four main shows. The 234 last year was the smallest number, though this hardly reflects inattention. This tiny area on the world map last year still generated more than four stories a week.
Felton found that accuracy has never been a problem, despite reporters having often to contend with dangers on the ground and the pressures of a 24-hour news cycle. While stories by many reporters in Washington and abroad fell under his watchful eye, the central figure in his studies was usually the Jerusalem correspondent. These have included some of NPR's best reporters, including Peter Kenyon, Julie McCarthy, Eric Westervelt, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, and the current bureau chief, Emily Harris.
"Listeners may not like the news or agree with the views they hear," he wrote of their stories, "but they can rely on the basic facts presented in NPR's reporting."
Using his own subjective measure, he found that the "dominant focus" of the stories ran slightly in favor of Israel, 742 to 673, with another 621 having a joint focus. But what dwarfs both in recent years are stories with a focus on events in Iran, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere that are connected to Israel or the Palestinians. By the last quarter, these had grown to 165 compared to 69 that dealt more immediately with the two antagonists.
Felton further found that on air there were slightly more Arab than Israeli voices heard in the stories reviewed by him. The margin over the 11 years was 2,751 to 2,407. This makes sense, given that there are more Arab countries and more than Israel involved in many of the related stories he counted. There were, of course, additional Arab voices in stories from the region that had nothing to do with Israel or the Palestinians, and so were not counted by Felton.
But what was missing, Felton concluded, was more Palestinian voices. He did not break out the Arab-Palestinian distinction until four years ago. His comparison since then was 664 Israelis to 448 Palestinians. A comparison of official voices seems even more skewed. The Israeli prime minister was heard on tape or quoted 772 times, more than double the 323 for the Palestinian Authority president. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh was not quoted a single time during 2013. He was quoted just twice during 2012 and once in 2011, and other Hamas leaders were equally absent from NPR's air, Felton found.
What should we make of this imbalance?
"On radio, voices convey authority and emotion as well as information," Felton wrote. "It thus is reasonable to assume that, over time, NPR listeners tend to receive more information, both positive and negative, from Israel than from the Palestinian territories. However, I do not believe it is justified to conclude from these numbers that NPR is biased in favor of Israel, or even against it, simply because listeners hear more often from Israelis as opposed to Palestinians. "
As he explains, some of the imbalance is to be expected. Israel generates more news in part because its officials are more open and the country is more democratic than in the Palestinian territories. Israel stages more newsworthy "official" events, such as elections, and its economy is far more dynamic. Israel also is an ally of the U.S., and its officials frequently visit. The Gaza Strip in particular is miniscule. NPR's sole correspondent is based in Jerusalem.
The criticism that Felton draws from the numbers is not bias but something else: that the coverage could be more complete. He calls for more stories that give an understanding of the Palestinian territories and of their leaders, including the radical Hamas ones. He similarly says that the frequent recourse to quoting Israeli officials comes at the expense of interviewing everyday Israelis, especially those from the radical settler fringe on the West Bank who largely hold Israeli policy hostage.
"Americans cannot be expected to understand why the conflicts in the Middle East seem so intractable and so violent if they do not hear the full range of voices from the region, including the extremists who drive so much of the conflict," Felton correctly writes. "Listeners need to hear what these people have to say, not to glorify the extremists but as part of a full picture of the region's complexity."
But Felton is a veteran journalist and understands the limits of covering any conflict. More or longer Palestinian and Israeli stories, for example, may mean fewer other stories on air. Each person's definition of perfection, moreover, is different. And as Felton acknowledges:
Listeners need to understand that NPR's overseas correspondents often work under extremely difficult and even dangerous conditions. This is especially true in the Middle East, where violence or the threat of violence is never far away and where Americans, including reporters, may be greeted with grave suspicion if not outright hostility. NPR has developed a cadre of some of the best reporters in the business. They work diligently to bring us stories that help us understand the world. This is not to excuse the mistakes or misjudgments that, after all, should have been caught by editors and producers back in the home office. But it is a tribute to NPR's journalists that I found a very small number of serious problems among the more than 4,000 stories I reviewed during these past 11 years. Even NPR's harshest critics, while charging systemic bias, have singled out only a few stories for their complaints.
As it is, Felton found much to like in the reporting by Harris this last quarter. Felton summarized dozens of stories in each of his quarterly reports. In this last one, he cited several by Harris about daily life in the territories. They dealt with things such as the personal impact of being cut off by Israeli security barriers, the difficulty a student faced in even physically getting to the visa office to study in the U.S., and the surprising availability of funding for an Internet business. There were a larger number of Israeli stories, such as one he noted about an attempt by five women to win election to the local council of a largely ultra-Orthodox town; they lost. Another story that might resonate with parents everywhere was about an Internet social network for pre-teens started by an Israeli mother.
Felton's reviews will be missed by many of those of us who follow the Mideast and the role of the American news media there. Each quarter, he set the bar of excellence on what remains a crucial subject matter. I will still continue to deal with specific complaints that arise. My own experience with International Editor Edith Chapin, herself a demanding and experienced editor, tells me that she, too, will surely strive to maintain standards, adjust as needed and always improve.
But with the passing of Felton's reports, we the audience will be losing a valuable service, and an extraordinary study on American journalism.