CPB Office of the Ombudsman

WBEZ Responds to the Listener

Joel Kaplan

March 19, 2014

Richie Jacobs of Evanston, Illinois is upset at Chicago public radio station WBEZ and its program, Worldview, for what she calls its pro-Palestinian viewpoint:

Although many years have passed since my courses in journalism and reporting, I do believe that the standard for reporting is still a “fair and balanced” presentation of any given issue. I believe that Jerome McDonnell's Worldview does not uphold this standard in connection with the very complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I do not believe that Israel is right all the time, and I know that there are surely abuses of power; but still, I do not believe that presenting only one point of view is fair. While I certainly understand that one cannot present evenly all the points of view in any particular program (both impossible and making for really dull programming), the pattern of presenting only a Palestinian point of view in nearly every program about this situation is not fair or balanced.

Ms. Jacobs presented a thorough synopsis of the Worldview programming, as well as the assertion that that speakers from the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) appear to dominate the roster of guests on the show.

Here is the gist of her complaint:

  • Most speakers appearing on Worldview are Palestinian or present a pro-Palestinian view;
  • When there are Israelis on the program, they are authors or speakers who condemn Israel;
  • Although Jerome McDonnell asks questions about a speaker's position, the questions are “straw men” which then allow the speaker to provide, sometimes at length, a continued condemnation of some aspect of the situation.
  • In a recent program about the death of Ariel Sharon, McDonnell did have Jewish speakers, but they were clearly students or inexperienced speakers, along with an eloquent speaker blasting Sharon. Sharon is a controversial figure, and is not blameless, but the emphasis here was clear.
  • The only time I have heard an aggressive interviewing style from Jerome McDonnell is when he questioned Chicago's Israeli consul, Roey Gilad, and both of them seemed to stress that Consul Gilad was on the show “by request,” as though defending WBEZ from an imposition.

I have attached a list of Worldview programs for about the past year and invite you to listen to them at http://www.wbez.org/programs/worldview. I would point out that especially upsetting are:

  • January 9, 2014, “Academic panel stirs controversy…” which features the leader of the panel at the MLA Convention in an effort to pass a resolution involving Israel;
  • November 26, 2013, Max Blumenthal on his new book and racism in Israel;
  • November 20, 2013, “Local Palestinian-American faces prison or deportation…” This is the program that caused the Israeli consul to appear on Worldview.

I am also attaching a list of speakers from CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations, in the past year or so from a search on WBEZ's website (http://www.wbez.org/results?s=CAIR). This organization seems to be a “go-to” organization for perspectives on news of the Middle East, and its speakers appear regularly on World View. While this in itself is not objectionable, Mr. McDonnell received the CAIR's 2011 Courage in Journalism Award for his “principled and fearless defense of human rights, his studied treatment of international events at a time when speculation and punditry dominate the news, and his sensitive understanding of issues that affect the rights of Muslim Americans and other marginalized groups.” While he is free to receive any award he likes, it seems odd at best to receive this award and then have speakers from the same organization repeatedly on his program.

I have emailed my concerns a few times to WBEZ and I have written to Steve W. Baird Chair of Chicago Public Media, Inc. and to Torey Malatia, its President and CEO as well. Because I am retired from a career in non-profit management, I know that every organization gets crank calls and letters; and while I understand not responding to cranks saves needless staff time and energy, I believe that I have a reasonable objection to WBEZ's programming bias.

I believe that programming with NPR is a public trust. I believe that funding WBEZ as an NPR station with a slanted “world view” is wrong when Mr. McDonnell does not present either fair or balanced reporting on his program. I believe that this person should be held to some level of accountability. I also believe that funding for his program and/or station should be curtailed pending some level of fair reporting.

I contacted Sally Eisele, the managing editor for WBEZ and provided her with a copy of Ms. Jacobs' complaint as well as her supporting documentation.

She originally replied that:

Our editorial guidelines stress the importance of accuracy, fairness and balance in our coverage across programs and platforms. Over the years, we have done many segments on the complex Israeli-Palestinian situation and we do not consider this document a complete representation of all of our coverage. Here are just a few examples of segments that were not included in the listener's analysis:

Journalist on Syria threat to Israel https://soundcloud.com/wbez-worldview/israelis-prepare-for-potential

Former head of Shin Bet https://soundcloud.com/wbez-worldview/former-head-of-israeli

New peace talks https://soundcloud.com/wbez-worldview/mideast-peace-talks-to-resume

Ultra-orthodox in the army https://soundcloud.com/wbez/worldview-israels-ultra

You can find many other examples at wbez.org. We do appreciate the feedback and will continue to monitor the work we do at WBEZ to ensure that it meets our high editorial standards.

Nevertheless, I told Ms. Eisele that I thought her response did not quite address the gist of Ms. Jacobs's complaint, specifically the role of Worldview and Mr. McDonnell. Ms. Jacobs herself reiterated that position when she provided this reaction:

In response to Sally Eisele, Managing Editor at WBEZ, I would say that the four examples given as evidence of a fair and balanced air time about the conflict between Israel and Palestinians prove my point.

Two of these broadcasts refer directly to the conflict, “Former Head of Israeli Security Pushes for Middle East Peace” and “Mideast peace talks to resume, but will they succeed?” The “Journalist on Syrian threat to Israel” segment addresses issues with Syria and the “Ultra-Orthodox in the Army” segment addresses how Israel conscription works with this part of the population.

My search for Worldview broadcasts about the conflict went about one year back, and is taken from the Worldview page listing its podcasts (http://www.wbez.org/programs/worldview). (The first broadcast does not include “Israel” as a tag and did not show up in my other search.) I do not claim that my search is totally complete, but I do believe that searching WBEZ's own Worldview page should be acceptable to WBEZ.

Considering that two of the four examples do not address the conflict and the “Ultra-Orthodox” broadcast is from 2012, I would say that WBEZ is hard pressed to find the “many other examples” to demonstrate that the considerable amount of time given to pro-Palestinian points of view is balanced by similar broadcasts with any other point of view. In fact, you could make a case that the film “The Gatekeepers,” (which I saw) featuring the head of the Israeli Security being interviewed on Worldview, focused on how Israeli security is unfair to Palestinians and that a two-state solution is needed. However, since I believe that any abuse anywhere should be a concern for news media, I can accept this as a fair choice in programming.

From the response from WBEZ, I take it that the programmers think that any program about Israel balances a specific pro-Palestinian agenda with regular coverage. What is missing is that there is no rebuttal of any fact stated repeatedly on the air, and the facts are from one point of view only. As we know from studies in both news reporting and propaganda, people tend to believe what is repeatedly stated.

In fairness to WBEZ, I would like to give an example of what I think is not being done and could be done, taking the issue of land acquisition as an example. Currently, Jerome McDonnell's point of view is clear from his repeated calling Israel “the Israeli Occupation.” I may have missed this, but I have not heard a discussion on WBEZ of how the land was acquired from a non-Palestinian point of view, that is:

  • Through the distribution of land by Britain and France (unfair to nearly everyone)
  • Through purchase (often at inflated prices; here the Palestinians were not well served by absentee landlords who sold land out from under them) or
  • Through war (what country gives back land in a defensive war when the other side attacked them first and then lost? If Israel gives back all the land, will subversive elements just start bombing even closer? If there is a two-state solution, how likely is that?).

While I am not an expert on the Middle East, these are examples of what I am not hearing on WBEZ, broadcasts with two sides to a story (admittedly not so current as I would like to be):

  • Why haven't Arab countries allowed Palestinians to leave refugee camps to be absorbed into their populations? Are they just using the refugees as pawns? What would they have to gain? Do the refugees think they are better off waiting on a right of return?
  • Archaeological sites are being destroyed by Palestinians as not pertinent to their people but the Israelis seem to be secretly digging against their own laws.
  • What kind of policy allows Israelis to destroy olive trees? Does a review of the facts reported (snipers in the olive grove) really stand up over time?
  • Jews were prevented access to the Wall from 1948-1967, but that the Israelis bulldozed the Moroccan quarter three days after the army regained access in the 1967 war. What would happen in a two-state solution? What would happen to the current property owners and businesses?

And ideas for positive news:

  • What is Neve Shalom/Wahat ha-Salaam up to these days? Is the experiment in Israelis and Palestinians living together still working? Did it ever?
  • The Israelis are sending ambulances to the border with Syria to help those trying to escape and help get them back safely across the border.
  • Reform Judaism is gaining a foothold in Israel—why?

In summary, while I can appreciate that WBEZ has programs related to Israel, I believe that their own examples demonstrate a lack of real attention to content.

In reaction to Ms. Jacobs' subsequent comments, Ms. Eisele decided to reach out to her for a discussion. Ms. Eisele also solicited a lengthy response from Mr. McDonnell.

Here is Mr. McDonnell's response directly to Ms. Jacobs:

I'm sorry you never got any response from WBEZ. I cannot remember ever getting an e-mail from you or a phone call. We're not perfect at getting back to people on Worldview, but we do our best, and I actually enjoy talking to listeners.

That said, I'm not sure what I have to say will entirely satisfy you. I think we probably disagree about what's considered pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian. This will become clear as I address some of the points in your first letter. But hopefully you'll get some understanding of why I am proud of our coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

Let's start where you did, with the Ariel Sharon obit. We began with a BBC clip from the funeral, including Joe Biden and others speaking highly of Sharon. The first of our three speakers in studio is Assaf Grumberg, the central region campus coordinator for Stand With Us, an organization designed to support Israel on college campus. He calls Sharon brave and very strong. He thinks of him as a “security” figure. Assaf served in the Gaza withdrawal and has complicated feelings about it, as many people to the right of Sharon on this issue did.

The next guest is Assaf Evron an Israeli sculptor and photographer based in Chicago. He brings up Sharon's economic policy. I thought that was an important contribution that was little remarked upon. He doesn't like it. Then he expressed some discomfort talking about military issues and some real frustration that after 40 years of both sides “feeding hatred” that any kind of “simple binary solution” will solve the problem. He was nervous, but put some complicated ideas out there.

The next guest is Orit Bashkin, a professor of modern Middle Eastern history at the University of Chicago. She is older, remembers Lebanon, and finds the early Sharon dangerous. She is the first speaker to mention he was responsible for the death of many civilians. She admired his decision to withdraw in Gaza. She remembers the huge protests in Israel against the war in Lebanon. She is the first speaker to sink her teeth into my question about Sharon's two state solution. She thinks the current government doesn't want to go where Sharon was headed at the time of his stroke.

Your letter claims the segment was about “blasting Sharon” and the “emphasis here was clear”.

I disagree. I think this was an ambitious and successful attempt to get a glimpse at how Israelis look at this historical figure on a personal level. It allowed guests to reflect on recent history and the future. Producer Alexandra Solomon worked hard to get guests representing a variety of genders, ages, vocations, and from across the political spectrum. It's so much more than a dry obit recounting Sharon's career.

What was the coverage like elsewhere? On Mike Shuster's NPR obit he used a quote from UC Berkley's Mark LeVine, a serious critic of Israeli policy: "His career was defined by doing the dirty work that was necessary for the state of Israel both to be born and to survive”. Then they quoted Amiram Goldberg, peace activist: "He built a whole career out of the politics and the culture of hatred” I think our listeners got a much broader, more nuanced experience. That's what I believe sets Worldview apart as a program and makes us valuable to our station and to public broadcasting.

This was the first example you used in your letter suggesting bias. Let me go though some of your other points.

You say I questioned the Israeli Consul General harder than other people. I always try to question government officials hard. They are accountable. You make no mention of how I question their logical counterparts in this situation, the Palestinian Authority. That's because we don't have them on the show. It's probably been 6 or 7 years since we called Washington to get someone. That's probably unfair.

I'd like to take a moment to reflect on the very real advantage the Israeli Consulate gives Israel in coverage. It may be hard for you to believe, and we know the consulate people are there to be nice to us, but we LIKE them. Producer Steve Bynum gets on great with Renie Schreiber. Before her there was Bob Schwartz, a great ol' curmudgeon of guy who used to complain about how the job was killing him. There was a young press guy from Israel a few years ago who stopped by with his kids to say goodbye before he went back to Israel. We have more contact with them than any other government, including our own. Think about that. We take plenty of their suggestions for guests.

Now in this instance, the consulate called us in response to an interview we did with the attorney of Rasmea Yousef Odeh, a woman who's being prosecuted for providing false information on her immigration form 20 years ago. This Palestinian woman served 10 years in Israeli prisons for killing 2 people in a terror incident 40 years ago. She denies the charge. There are concerns that this falls into a pattern of political prosecutions by US authorities.

No US authorities would comment or appear on the program, but since this woman was known to us as an award winning community activist, we thought it was worthwhile to explore the charge. On the show her attorney did launch into a vivid description of her alleged torture and rape in Israeli prisons. As the interview with this woman's attorney was happening (live of course) I thought this was a “he said/she said” kind of accusation. As I remember it, he was trying to make the case that the Israeli military justice system was flawed and that it was logical for her not to see this as a legitimate process on her immigration form.

The Israeli Consul General wanted to react to this torture/rape charge. We decided to have him on, get his ideas on the hot topic of Iran Sanctions talks, and then hear him out. When we were on the air he claimed that I was negligent for not asking for proof of this alleged prison rape. I pointed out that people have been mistreated in Israeli prisons. He thought the woman's story was outrageous. There is convincing evidence that Israel has used torture, which I reminded the Israeli consul general of. The Israeli consul general told me I should have questioned the charge. I didn't think it would have been productive and still don't. I ended the interview by saying we'll have to see how they sort it out in court.

I thought we were generous to have the Consul General on, since the core issue is between the US government and Rasmea Yousef Odeh. In contrast, we did not hear from Palestinian officials demanding a more thorough look at Israeli detention polices after the interview with the former head of the Shin Bet, in which he justified Israel's “very limited” use of torture, and claimed they got good intelligence from it. Your letter contends that I only questioned the Israel Consul General hard. I have regrets about not pushing back harder when he thought I should stick up for Israeli dentation policies.

Second thoughts are probably true of any live interview. I can always think of a different tact or a topic I could have brought up. It's an infinite, subjective game. That said, I thought I did a good job at bringing up the main arguments against the BDS movement in my interview with Omar Barghouti.

Some of the points I brought up are as follows: the Palestinian Authority doesn't like the BDS; the BDS is accused of being for a one-state solution; the MLA panel was one sided; 80 university presidents have signed a letter against the academic boycotts; Israel is a good democracy and shouldn't be boycotted; and Peter Beinhardt's argument that there should only be a boycott of the occupied territories.

Are these straw man questions? I think they are a good representation of what's out there against the BDS movement. Could I have been harder? Sure, if I had it back I'd press him more on the right of return demand that makes everyone think the BDS movement is for a one-state solution. I look forward to having some of the anti-BDS people who spoke up after the Scarlett Johansen flap on the air, and we will.

Let's move on to the Max Blumenthal book on racism in Israel. It's hard hitting and hard edged. I haven't seen anyone seriously dispute its facts. I think racism anywhere is worth talking about. We let people call in who wanted to challenge Max. Not many did. He was rather rude to the most critical caller. I don't think he did himself any favors there. Clearly Max has come to the conclusion that Israel's gone too far with racism and that Jewish people would be better off without a Jewish state.

There is evidence that many diaspora Jews feel more distance from Israel, especially younger generations. Israel's governments get more conservative and the diaspora gets more liberal. It's a legitimate topic. But our coverage doesn't just include the “it's hopeless” set like Max, it includes diaspora Jews who are working diligently to make Israel better, like Doni Remba. He's the executive director of the Jewish Alliance for Change and director of the Campaign for Bedouin-Jewish Justice. https://soundcloud.com/wbez-worldview/eviction-plan-in-israel.

Like the former head of the Shin Bet, his segment evaded your search. While this interview is critical of an Israeli government policy, I consider it a sincerely pro-Israel gesture. I'm glad that Jewish Americans like him made a difference on this issue. http://forward.com/articles/180281/bedouins-fight-israels-resettlement-plan-and-bid/?p=all.

Let's move on to your supporting list. From my count there are 19 programs listed. These 4 are not Worldview programs, which means about 20% of the list is inaccurate. Here are the links to the non-Worldview material. http://www.wbez.org/news/palestinians-and-jews-both-lay-claim-mandela%E2%80%99s-legacy-109375

Moving on with the rest of the material, two of the programs are with people associated with the Brookings Saban Center. It's considered Pro-Israel. Two of the programs have both Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestinian representatives.

There was a program on the detention of children in Chicago and Palestine. I think this is a legitimate human rights issue in both places. We opened up the phones so listeners who objected could chime in. A listener got to ask the Palestinian woman from the prisoner support organization Adameer about hatred in Palestinian text books.

Even your list includes the kind of historical and good news stories you think we should feature. The show from Nov. 3, 2011 featured a Jewish Muslim Christian comedy tour. We also talked with Jewish Israeli Robi Damelin and Palestinian Seham Abu-Awwad, who both lost close family members to the conflict. They are both part of the Israeli-Palestinian group The Parents Circle.

On May 9, 2012 we played an hour long conversation with Wendy Pearlman from Northwestern University. She explored the one hundred years of the Palestinian National Movement in the hopes of answering why some liberation movements turn to violence and others don't. Lester Crown endowed her chair at Northwestern because, “It is very important that University students learn the factual history and reasons for the complex relationships in the region. Too often, opinions and assessments are based on misinformation or lack of accurate information." That's why we had her on.

You claim that Worldview only presents “a Palestinian point of view in nearly every program about this situation,” but your own list contains evidence that this is untrue. We provide a varied and deep exploration of Israeli-Palestinian issues with a wide variety guests. In looking back, I'm quite proud of our coverage. Your charge that, “When there are Israelis on the program, they are authors or speakers who condemn Israel.” I've given evidence to the contrary.

Let's move on to your second letter. You say the four examples in our response prove your point, but then concede that the head of Shin Bet constitutes “a fair choice in programing.” You say that our search goes back to 2012 and this means we are “hard pressed” to find examples that support our coverage, yet your own list goes back to 2010, and nearly 20% of your search was inaccurate.

It is true that I received the “courage in journalism award” from CAIR. It was for “principled and fearless defense of human rights, his studied treatment of international events at a time when speculation and punditry dominate the news, and his sensitive understanding of issues that affect the rights of Muslim Americans and other marginalized groups.” I have also received human rights awards from the Kovler Center for the Survivors of Torture and the Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America. I am proud of these awards. I'm delighted that the Illinois Holocaust Museum asked me moderate their panel on the Rwandan Genocide.

I think Worldview is a credit to our station. It's an asset in our community and deserving of the funding it receives.

Ms. Jacobs was very appreciative of the outreach by both Ms. Eisele and Mr. McDonnell:

I spoke with Sally Eisele, who called me last week. She expressed concern that WBEZ broadcasts are fair, and said that she had asked Jerome McDonnell for a report on programming on Worldview and that WBEZ would review its terminology. Indeed, Jerome McDonnell sent a response to my complaints. I may not agree with all of his points, but feel reassured that attention has been paid to this issue.

I said to Ms. Eisele that my concern is one of fairness and that since she is aware of my concerns, I would not press my complaint further. She said that I may call her or email her with any future issues. I said that my need to be heard has been satisfied.

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