Tuesday, May 17, 2005

First PBS, Now NPR

First PBS, Now NPR
Ari Berman

The conservative coup underway at PBS is spilling over to NPR.

The changes sought by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's (CPB) conservative chairman, Ken Tomlinson, and his majority Republican board include redirecting money away from news and toward music programming, the appointment of two ombudsman with conservative ties and an examination of NPR's Middle East coverage for evidence of bias.

Why the need for such a shake-up? Maybe because CPB board member Cheryl Halpern is a former chairwoman of the Republican Jewish Coalition whose family has business interests in Israel. Another board member, Gay Hart Gaines--who once ran Newt Gingrich's political action committee and together with Halpern raised $800,000 for the Republican Party since 1995--"talked about the need to change programming in light of a conversation she had with a taxi driver about his listening habits," the New York Times reported yesterday.

Apparently, her driver wasn't aware of the CPB's own internal polling, which found an 80 percent favorability rating for PBS and public radio. A similar number dubbed NPR "fair and balanced," with listener demographics split equally between conservatives, liberals and moderates. (See Scott Sherman's "Good, Gray NPR" and Bill Moyers speech at the National Conference on Media Reform.)

Of all the charges leveled by the CPB, the accusation of bias in Middle East coverage is the most long-standing and disingenuous. Only ten percent of listeners find NPR's Israel-Palestine reporting to be either too pro-Israel or pro-Arab. "NPR goes to great lengths to make sure that its Mideast reports are accurate and balanced," the American Journalism Review wrote last year. NPR's own ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorskin writes frequently on the subject and every three months President and CEO Kevin Klose distributes an in-depth content assessment on NPR's Middle East reporting.

In 2002, NPR won an Overseas Press Award for its seven-part series, "The Mideast: A Century of Conflict," which, predictably, drew fierce criticism from the right-wing pro-Israel lobby. "It made me wonder what kind of world we want, what kind of media we want, if news organizations become afraid to do a series like this because the ground is so treacherous politically," Bruce Drake, NPR's vice president for news and information, told AJR.

If the CPB--which provides just 1 percent of funding to NPR but 12.7 percent to member stations--has its way, specials on politically-charged regions like the Mideast may get diluted or disappear at the very time they are most needed. The music of Creed will presumably take their place.