National Public Radio floats in and out of my journalistic consciousness, but not as much as in the past. Since I (thankfully) no longer commute for work, I now spend little time in my car stuck in rush hour traffic, the only time I listened to NPR with any real consistency.
I appreciate NPR's attempts to deliver a quality product. And while it often succeeds, I do not think everything it does is top-notch. Like any news operation, at times it messes up. Then there's the brevity of the broadcast news format; outside of special features, it leaves little time for context and nuance.
Clearly, I'm a print guy. Though I did a short stint back in 1970 writing rip-and-read, top-of-the-hour, news roundups for United Press International radio clients when I worked in the agency's San Francisco bureau.
One subject about which I think NPR could do better is its coverage of Israel and Israeli Jewish society. I'm not alone on this. Right-of-center pro-Israel groups have long claimed that NPR is biased in favor of the Palestinian side, and goes out of its way to make Israel look bad.
My take is that the right-wing media watchdogs -- whose complaints help swell my email inbox -- too often find bias where I find only journalistic tripwires, such as quoting the same available officials over and over, or favoring English speakers over others simply because the NPR audience is English speaking.
However, two recent NPR stories I heard on separate days while in my car doing local errands did get under my skin more than usual.
The first story was about President-elect Donald Trump's promise to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem once he takes office. Here's an excerpt from the story as it was published on the NPR website.
Israel has declared Jerusalem as its "eternal" capital. But the Palestinians want the eastern part of Jerusalem, where many Arabs live, for their future capital, based on negotiations. Internationally, countries haven't wanted to take sides on the issue.
The western part of Jerusalem is almost entirely Jewish. The eastern part of the city was entirely Arab when Israel captured it in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Many Israeli Jews have moved into the eastern part of the city, and Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital, though no other country recognizes this.
According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, no country has an embassy in the city. In the 1990s, the U.S. Congress voted to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama all delayed the move by signing waivers to maintain the status quo.
In fact, some nations have taken sides on the issue of who should control eastern Jerusalem. This includes the many Arab and Muslim nations who, to no one's surprise, support the Palestinian position.
But my bigger beef is with this sentence: "The eastern part of the city was entirely Arab when Israel captured it in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war."
That's true. But the sentence fails to explain why.
Plus, it leaves the impression that any current Jewish presence in eastern Jerusalem is wholly a colonialist enterprise, which feeds into the Palestinian narrative while undercutting the Jewish one.
(The taking over of some existing eastern Jerusalem properties by non-government, right-wing Zionist groups is, in my opinion, colonialist in nature and unnecessarily provocative. But that can't be said about all Jewish housing east of what was once the armistice line separating Israel from the Jordanian-controlled West Bank. Take, for example, the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, all of which is east of the one-time border breached in 1967.)
Was the story intentionally biased? Or did it fall prey to the sort of contextual omission I've pointed to above? I can't really say.
For the record, here's some of the missing context I think is pertinent.
After Jordan captured the West Bank, including eastern Jerusalem, in what Israelis call their 1948 War of Independence, it expelled all Jews (about 10,000 people) from eastern Jerusalem's Old City. Jordan also destroyed some 34 synagogues and took gravestones from the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives just east of the Old City and used them as paving stones.
That's why there were no Jews in eastern Jerusalem until 1967, when the area fell under Israeli control in the Six-Day War. This is critical context, that NPR failed to allude to in any way.
The second NPR story that caught my attention was about a legal controversy over a religious Israeli Jewish radio station that refused to air women's voices. Some ultra-Orthodox Jews insist women's voices should not be heard in a very public way, such as on the radio, for reasons of sexual modesty.
My problem with this story is more about a possible lapse of journalistic ethics than any particular political bias. Here's what I mean. (Chana is the name of an ultra-Orthodox women interviewed by NPR correspondent Lauren Frayer.)
FRAYER: "No, the radio shouldn't ever air women's voices. That's forbidden," says Chana, who didn't want to give her last name because she thinks women, including even herself, should not be on the radio. A dozen women around her nod in agreement. Israeli courts have ruled that these women were discriminated against on the radio, even if they don't think so themselves. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Jerusalem.
Did you catch that? Chana doesn't want to be on the radio, but here she is on the radio. And yes, in the broadcast version of the story, Chana is heard speaking in Hebrew, saying the words attributed to her in English in the NPR web copy.
Did the NPR reporter get Chana's permission?
Doubtful, given Chana's quote. Did Chana not understand she was being recorded? That's possible, but we don't know.
Did the reporter tell Chana she wouldn't use any tape of her voice but was recording her only to be sure she was accurately quoting her when she transcribed the tape?
Did the reporter simply ignore Chana's request because it made for a better audio story, and because she thought Chana's religious belief about the immodesty of a women's voice in public was just, shall we, silly?
Again, we have no way of knowing since no explanation of any kind was provided.
As I said, I'm a print guy.
It's a dying medium, at least on dead-tree pulp, but it still provides more space for context. And it doesn't comprise Chana's religious beliefs.