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Background: Pressure Points

July 3, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TERENCE SMITH: CAMERA, an advocacy group which spotlights what it calls “anti-Israel bias” in the American media’s reporting about the Middle East, works out of these offices in Boston. The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America has been urging individual and corporate contributors to withhold funds from, and even boycott, certain news organizations.

One of the most notable targets of that effort has been here at WBUR, the National Public Radio station in Boston. The FM station has so far lost some $2 million, or 8 percent of its budget, in contributions. CAMERA has mobilized its supporters through the Web and ads, such as this one in The New York Times, with the headline: “NPR is lying about Israel again.” Businessman Robert Shillman, whose company had given the Boston NPR station $120,000, ended its underwriting.

ROBERT SHILLMAN, CEO, Cognex Corporation: NPR has consistently, consistently refused to make those kind of corrections on matters of fact. And that ultimately was what led to my decision to cease my funding.

TERENCE SMITH: Shillman has contacted other businesses to encourage them, in his words, to “put their money to better use.” WBUR General Manager Jane Christo released a statement saying: “I firmly believe that both NPR and WBUR have been fair and balanced in their reporting of Middle Eastern issues.”

NPR itself has heard from its listeners directly, including some 10,000 e-mails from both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian supporters in the last three months alone. CNN International, which airs in both Israel and Arab countries, has been sharply criticized in Israel for its coverage. One Israeli cable system publicly considered pulling the network off the air.

Ten days ago, CNN announced that it will no longer air interviews with the families of suicide bombers, except in rare circumstances.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN: Welcome to our special report: “Victims of Terror.”

TERENCE SMITH: The network has also broadcast a series entitled “Victims of Terror,” which focuses on Israelis killed in the conflict. Newspapers have also been affected. About a thousand subscribers to The Los Angeles Times suspended delivery a day, for example, and both The New York Times and Washington Post have had subscriptions cancelled in protest over their reporting on Israel.

Meanwhile, self-described watchdog groups such as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, or FAIR, take the opposite tack. They have charged that many American news organizations have been “too pro-Israel” in their coverage. And supporters of the Palestinian cause, such as the Council on American Islamic Relations, have been documenting what they say are inaccuracies and bias in reporting.

Another Web site, Intifada.com, highlights Israeli soldiers’ harsh treatment of Palestinians on the occupied West Bank. A new poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press says a sizable plurality, 47 percent, regards press coverage of the Middle East as unbiased. If anything, more Americans see the media tilting in favor of Israel– 27percent– than the 8 percent who believe coverage favors the Palestinian cause.