By Eric Rozenman
If a scandal festers in Washington but no one reports it, is it still scandalous?
Forget, for a moment, headlines about the National Security Agency, Internal Revenue Service and Justice Department reportedly snooping on or obstructing ordinary citizens, political opponents or journalists. Consider instead the less dramatic but longer-running example of an under-the-radar scofflaw federal agency.
The agency is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). One result of its virtual impunity continues to be National Public Radio (NPR) coverage biased against Israel.
The federal Telecommunications Act of 1967, as amended in 1991, requires, among other things, “strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature.”
The act established CPB, now tax supported at approximately $450 million annually. Most of that money is passed through to stations, outside producers, and, directly or indirectly, to NPR and television’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).
In November, 2005 CPB’s presidentially-appointed, Senate-approved board members were discomfited by a report from the corporation’s inspector-general. He found CPB operations deficient in eight areas. One of those was objectivity and balance oversight.
This was not news to CAMERA-the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. Our research, available at www.camera.org, details hundreds of NPR’s Arab-Israeli reports that violate the objectivity and balance standard.
According to I-G Kenneth Konz, CPB had failed to fulfill its legal obligation to “review, on a regular basis, national public broadcasting programming… for objectivity and balance….” In fact, he determined that it had never established a mechanism-set standards and assigned staff-to do so.
Today, eight additional years later, it still hasn’t.
Responding to their inspector-general, CPB board members upgraded corporation practice in the other seven areas relatively quickly. But when it came to instituting regular reviews for objectivity and balance in national programming, progress slowed.
Board members and CPB senior officials talked. They hired a consultant. They requested objectivity and balance “white papers” at $15,000 apiece from journalism professors. Call it death-by-process.
Congress possesses oversight authority regarding CPB, but many members don’t want to exercise it. Why risk charges of “trying to kill Big Bird” or “censoring freedom of the press”? This even though public broadcasting, unlike private news media, takes the King’s shilling. House and Senate oversight committees satisfy themselves annually with receipt of a CPB report that says, in essence, “we’ve checked and we’re doing a great job.”
Nevertheless, a few members of Congress, including Democratic Representatives Brad Sherman (Calif.), Steve Israel (N.Y.), and Steve Rothman (N.J.), Republican Eric Cantor (Va.) and Republican Senator Sam Brownback (Kan.) urged CPB to meet its statutory requirement for regular review of national programming to ensure objectivity and balance compliance.
CAMERA did so in testimony during CPB’s annual “Open to the Public” hearings, letters to board members, meetings with CPB senior staff and written statements.
All to no avail.
Instead, the CPB board eventually revised its existing ombudsman’s office, which the I-G had found irrelevant to the required objectivity and balance reviews. The corporation hired a journalism professor who’d submitted one of the “best practice” white papers as new ombudsman, and congratulated itself.
What CPB had not done, however, was institute regular reviews of national programming for objectivity and balance. It had not tasked any employees with responsibility to make such reviews or set guidelines, such as traditional journalism standards of accuracy, context, comprehensiveness, fairness (to the subject matter covered, not necessarily the sensitivities of those involved) and prompt correction of errors.
The ombudsman, an outside contractor acting on his own initiative and without CPB guidelines for “regular reviews,” did not have the means to supervise objectivity and balance compliance. Nor was he or she expected to recommend withholding corporation funds for repeat violators.
Before CPB established the office of ombudsman, both NPR and PBS had created their own. NPR in particular did so in response to repeated charges of anti-Israel bias. These included a 32-page CAMERA monograph in 2000, “A Record of Bias: National Public Radio’s Coverage of the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” and a letter in 2003 from 11 Democratic members of the House, led by Sherman and Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.). But the ombudsmen too often functioned as shock absorbers or apologists for the networks rather than empowered examiners of journalistic performance.
This returns us to Congress’s failure to notice the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s failure to uphold the law when it comes to reviews of objectivity and balance in programming by recipients. One of those recipients, NPR, still violates the objectivity and balance standard with some regularity.
It’s a scandal.
The writer is Washington director of CAMERA.