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Diane Rehm and Fawaz Gerges

Joel Kaplan

June 22, 2012

The May 21 Diane Rehm Show carried by numerous public radio stations had quite a few listeners fuming.

The show featured an interview with Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and the author of a new book, "Obama and The Middle East: The End of America's Moment."

The transcript for that interview can be found here:

http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2012-05-21/fawaz-gerges-obama-and-middle-east-end-americas-moment/transcript

The first listener to weigh in was Murray Baruch from Michigan:

"I heard Diane Rehm interview Fawaz Gerges on May 21, 2012 and I was appalled by the attacks on Israel by the guest and the host. It was a shame that Ms. Rehm chose not to provide a balanced discussion by providing a guest who had the knowledge to refute the false claims that were made on the show.

"Ms. Rehm and her guest stated that 'Israeli policy is at the center of everything that happens in the Middle East.' She should take a look at the Arab spring uprisings in the Arab world, which have nothing to do with Israel and also look at other disagreements between Arab countries.

"Ms. Rehm gives the impression that Prime Minister Netanyahu is the barrier to peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. The Israeli government position has continually stated that both sides should resume negotiations without any preconditions. The truth is that the Palestinian Authority refuses to have discussions about peace.

"Diane Rehm is a respected host on NPR. I urge her to have a more balanced attitude on her show related to Israel. NPR has the responsibility to have fair reporting and not promote any political agenda. I hope that Ms. Rehm will consider that in the future."

Marina Salganik of Massachusetts then offered her thoughts:

"I was very upset to listen to Rehm's May 21 program, 'Obama and The Middle East: The End of America's Moment.'

"It was essentially a polemic completely lacking in balance and a balanced group of participants. It included only one participant, Gerges, whose many assumptions were left unchallenged. He is not an unbiased researcher. NPR own news programming prove that by including Gerges outrageous commentary describing Yasser Arafat as having only 'flirted with limited violence' when in fact, Arafat was a godfather of modern-day Middle Eastern terrorism and himself a killer (NPR, Sept. 29, 2003).

"A reasonably balanced discussion of controversial topics is what is demanded by journalistic standards, and required of Public Broadcasting by law. But on the Rehm show, balance is nowhere in evidence when the Arab-Israel conflict is discussed.

"Israeli policy is not 'at the center of everything that happens in the Middle East.' The uprisings in the Arab world clearly prove that, as did the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran war, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Also, current events in Syria prove that.

"I hope that in the future Diane Rehm will pick a better discussion group and will present more unbiased and intellectual views."

Asked to respond to this and other criticisms, Ms. Rehm said she was surprised by the comments because the show was not meant to be an overview of what was happening in the Middle East but simply an interview with a respected professor who has just authored a book.

"The interview was a one-on-one interview," she said. "It wasn't meant to be an entire perspective on the Middle East and what's happening. But rather because Fawaz Gerges is a respected professor and noted commentator on the Middle East we wanted to hear his views on what's happening there. This was not meant to be a broad discussion but rather a one-on-one interview allowing Mr. Gerges to state his views. And then you have listeners respond. And that's what these one-on-one interviews are meant to be.

"I don't really understand the criticisms as they're put forward because on that program I did what I do every single day when I have a single guest on the program. I elicit that guest's point of view and create a forum for listeners to ask questions and to present their point of view. And that's exactly what I did that day."

Listeners, however, thought that Ms. Rehm, as the host of the show, had an obligation to point out other perspectives:

"Journalistic balanced standards are required by law for Public Broadcasting," says Francine Lashinsky of New York. "However, the Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio is completely one sided when the Israel-Arab conflict is discussed. Facts are misstated and only pro-Arab individuals give their opinions, which are untrue and unbalanced. The Nazis said that if you repeat a lie often enough, people will begin to believe it. This is what Diane Rehm is presenting to her listeners. Please see what you can do about this."

AJ Melnick of Santa Fe, New Mexico writes:

"I, as a former journalist myself, appreciate the fact that in most shows, you strive to show both sides of an issue. However, on the May 21 airing, you showcased Fawaz Gerges, a man who has been apologist for Hamas, for Yasser Arafat, for Islamists, and for Iran without someone knowledgeable who could speak up for Israel. Disappointing, to say the least! Where is the balance that you as an award-winning working journalist strive for? Please bring onto your show someone who can speak for Israel too."

Sandra Pinkard, managing producer of The Diane Rehm Show, said it is typical for the host to include one-on-one interviews with a guest that has one point of view. She said that this interview structure has existed for the 32 years of the show.

"The Diane Rehm Show is a daily two-hour talk show," Ms. Pinkard said. "The program provides a forum for listeners to hear a wide variety of perspectives and take part in the conversation. Listeners who disagree with ideas presented are almost always part of the conversation, as they were in this particular segment."

For some listeners, it was Ms. Rehm's failure to challenge some of Mr. Gerges' remarks, which was the most upsetting.

"Suggesting that American foreign policy is driven by the Israel lobby would be funny, if it weren't so patently untrue, egregiously unfair, and potentially dangerous to Jews here and abroad," wrote Jeannette Goldsmith of Brooklyn. "If it were true, Israel would have annexed the areas captured in 1967 decades ago and been on a track to be a world power today.

"Instead it has toed the line drawn by the U.S. and the international community and tried to be conciliatory to its enemies in the face of constant threats and attacks. Secondly, there is a powerful Arab lobby too, possibly far more influential than the Jewish one, yet no one talks about American policy being driven by Arab pressure, nor ascribes sinister motives or outcomes to its influence. Finally, talk of a powerful Jewish lobby is dangerously reminiscent of past Jewish scapegoating, which has led to tragic consequences with which we're all too familiar.

"Notwithstanding her not undeserved reputation as a highly respected journalist, Rehm's silence in the face of Fawaz Gerges' unchallenged allegations could be attributed to a mental lapse--if not for the fact that I have already experienced an unfortunate pattern of free passes for Israel bashers on her show, no matter how erroneous, inflammatory or potentially harmful their statements were."

Frances Schwartzwald of Grand Prairie, Texas reiterated these criticisms:

"The recent (May 21) Diane Rehm show, 'Obama and the Middle East: The End of America's Moment,' was a woefully unbalanced program in which Rehm hosted Fawaz Gerges. Aside from the fact that Gerges was permitted to pontificate for an hour, with only Rehm to answer him (and she did so only to reinforce his viewpoint), there was no one on the program to challenge his inaccuracies and fabrications. A very few of the many areas in which Gerges and Rehm depart from reality:

"Contrary to Gerges' assertion that the foreign policy of the United States is dominated by the alleged 'Israel lobby' the American people support the State of Israel wholeheartedly because they realize that Israel and the United States share values such as the love of freedom, equality for all, and democracy.

"As for what Israel does being 'at the center of everything that happens in the Middle East' I fail to see how Gerges can twist the 'Arab Spring' (to say nothing of the Iranian overthrow of its government in 1979, the war between Iran and Iraq during the 1980s, and so much else that has occurred in the world) into being Israel's culpability.

'The 'settlements' that Gerges deplores do not, apparently, include those created by the 'Palestinians' at a much faster rate. 'Settlements' by Jews in the land of Israel are perfectly legal, mandated by the creation of a national Jewish home more than ninety years ago. 'Palestinian' lands? Please.

"Aside from the evident lack of journalistic integrity by Rehm, where is the balance and objectivity required of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in order for National Public Radio to receive funding from our tax dollars?"

In her own defense, Ms. Rehm says that the aggrieved listeners are expecting her to behave in a manner contrary to her personal style:

"I'm not a combative talk show person," she said. "I have various guests on the program with a huge range of perspectives. I listen respectfully. I ask questions respectfully. I did the same thing with Colin Powell when he was on the program recently. And the listeners respond with their own questions.

"I think we've heard from so many different people about what's happening in the Middle East and many times people agree or disagree and they state their own views. I don't know what else to say."

She also disputes the notion that she interjected her own views into the interview:

"We were talking about Fawas Gerges' book and his whole approach to the American administration's attitudes toward the Middle East. What he was primarily doing was talking about President Obama and what he had and had not done. So that if I presented questions it was meant to put his views in context not in any way to state my own views because I didn't do that but to elicit from him his views. When we do a panel discussion then you get a broad view. When we do a one-on-one we get that person's view. And that's what that show was meant to do."

Having read the transcript of the show, I believe the listeners who complained are being a bit too tough on Ms. Rehm.

She is an interviewer. She had on her show a controversial figure who has just written a book. I thought Ms. Rehm's interview of Mr. Gerges, given the time constraint, was interesting and relevant.

This type of show is not, as she points out, a roundtable discussion with varying perspectives. Nor is it necessary for her to challenge all of the statements made by Mr. Gerges.

Ms. Rehm and her show do have an obligation—both journalistically and statutorily—to present all sides of an issue including opposing viewpoints. But that obligation does not extend to every specific show.

Rather, Ms. Rehm is obligated to interview at some point soon an authority on the Middle East who has a different perspective than Mr. Gerges.

That said, I would not give Ms. Rehm a complete pass here. She has been a journalist and an interviewer long enough to know that discussions about the Middle East almost always spark controversy and dissension. It is not disrespectful to challenge an interview subject with a contrary point of view and have him or her respond. This is something that Ms. Rehm could have done easily and would have actually made the interview that much more interesting.

I would give the same advice to Ms. Rehm at the future date when she has on her show someone who is opposed to what Mr. Gerges said. It would then behoove her to point out some position from Mr. Gerges' book or the comments he made on that show to whomever her guest is.

I'll look forward to listening to that interview.

(Sherri Williams, a graduate assistant at the Newhouse School, did some of the research for this report, including the interview with Ms. Rehm).

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