CPB controversy

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(HOST) Commentator Barrie Dunsmore is troubled by recent criticisms of National Public Radio’s Middle East news coverage by the head of the government agency which provides substantial NPR funding.

(DUNSMORE) Full disclosure: I am a commentator for Vermont Public Radio and so have ties to NPR. But I was a correspondent for some 30 years for ABC News, much of the time covering the Middle East. And that is the basis for this commentary.

Kenneth Tomlinson, the Bush appointee now Chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, evidently believes that NPR’s coverage of news from the Middle East has a pro-Palestinian, anti- Israeli bias. That is a view of some Jews and of many Evangelical Christians who represent a significant part of the Republican Party base.

So what we are seeing here is unprecedented political pressure on NPR by people with strong pro-Israeli views, who want a return to the good old days when most media coverage from the region was totally one-sided.

Such was the case when I made my first visit to the region in 1966. One clear recollection I have of that trip is of a Norwegian Army Colonel with the United Nations telling me that most reporters didn’t understand there were two sides to the Mid East problem. That one- sidedness reached its high point during the 1967 Mid East war, when virtually all Western reporters, including this one, told the story almost exclusively from the Israeli perspective.

But in the years after ’67, those of us who worked regularly in the region could readily see this conflict wasn’t all good guys and bad guys. It wasn’t a question of being pro-Arab; it was giving viewers and readers some of the Arab side of the story. At the time, even strongly pro-Zionist Americans such as Leonard Goldenson, Chairman of the Board of ABC – and my big boss – were open to this approach.

At an ABC dinner in 1969, I remember telling Goldenson and about 200 of his friends that Palestinians, in some respects, were mirror images of the Jewish Diaspora, and they were emerging as a potent political force in the region. Far from being silenced, Peter Jennings and I were assigned to do a documentary on the subject, which ran in the summer of 1970 under the title “Palestine – New State of Mind”.

Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was a watershed in Mid East news coverage because this was not a war for Israel’s survival. For the first time, mainstream commentators such as NBC’s John Chancellor were openly critical of Israeli policy – which came as a real shock to many of its supporters.

But since then, most Mid East news reporting has been generally evenhanded. That means there will be individual pieces critical of one side or the other because that’s the nature of news and analysis. But news organizations such as NPR are scrupulous in their efforts to be balanced – overall.

I believe NPR is balanced. And so, it would seem, do most people. In the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s own poll, taken in 2003, five percent of the people thought NPR had a pro-Palestinian bias; six percent thought it was pro-Israel.

This is Barrie Dunsmore.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.

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