Politics & Policy

Npr’s Terror Problem

When is a terrorist a terrorist?

Suicide bombers strike civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, and National Public Radio quite reasonably labels the attacks “terror” and the attackers “terrorists,” but when — at almost the same time — Palestinian suicide bombers launch five attacks against Israelis, NPR reporters, and hosts, as they have in the past, virtually banish the word “terror” from their vocabulary.

Is this because NPR believes that Israelis, even women and children on a Tel Aviv bus, are not “innocents,” or perhaps that, by definition, those who attack Israelis cannot be terrorists? While some might consider these possibilities farfetched, NPR’s online style guide for reporters suggests otherwise. In the guide, available here, NPR instructs that the word terrorism “connotes” that the victims are “innocents,” clearly indicating that if the victims of an attack are not innocent, then the attack is not terror. To drive the point home, NPR’s definition then explicitly questions whether Palestinian attacks against Israelis should be termed terrorism:

terrorism, terrorist — Terrorism is the act of causing terror, usually for political purposes, and it connotes that the terror is perpetrated on innocents. Thus, the bombing of a civilian airliner clearly is a terrorist act, but an attack on an army convoy, even if away from the battlefield, is not. Do not ape government usage. The Israeli government, for instance, routinely refers to PLO actions as terrorist. A journalist should use independent criteria to judge whether the term is accurate. [Emphasis added.]

If this is what NPR reporters and hosts are taught and are expected to follow, then it is little surprise that the attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, which clearly targeted innocent civilians, were routinely described by NPR employees as terror perpetrated by terrorists. Here are some examples (we do not count instances in which NPR guests used the word terror — the issue is how NPR uses the word):

Morning Edition, May 13, 2003 — reporting on the attack in Saudi Arabia, NPR host Lynn Neary asked a Saudi guest about his government’s “unsuccessful raids against terrorist cells.”

In a different segment on the same program, Neary referred to a rising “death toll in a series of overnight terrorist attacks …,” and ended the segment by telling listeners the person she had just interviewed lived “in one of the compounds which was hit in the terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia.”

All Things Considered, May 13 — Host Melissa Block introduced a segment on the attack by terming it “Last night’s terrorist bombings in Riyadh…,” and ended by telling listeners that the person she had just interviewed lived “in the al-Hamra compound, which was attacked by terrorists last night.”

Morning Edition, May 14 — Bob Edwards introduced a segment on the attacks by referring to them as “Monday’s terrorist bombings.” Reporter Michelle Kelemen in Riyadh then informed listeners that Saudi police had earlier raided a warehouse but “did not catch any suspected terrorists….”

All Things Considered, May 15 — Host Melissa Block told of U.S. investigators arriving in Saudi Arabia to “look into Monday’s terrorist attacks,” and reminded listeners of the difficulty in “getting cooperation from the kingdom for such terror investigations….” Reporter Larry Abramson then underscored this point, stating “In the past the Saudi government has been very reluctant to let Americans get deeply involved in terror investigations,” citing the attack in 1996 in which “terrorists used a truck bomb” to kill 19 Americans. Later in the segment Abramson described the Saudis as reluctant to cooperate with American investigators since “they are, after all, being attacked by terrorists who object to a US presence in Saudi Arabia….”

All Things Considered, May 16 — Host Melissa Block introduced a segment about the Saudi bombings by referring to “other terrorist attacks in the kingdom.” Reporter Kate Seelye then introduced a Saudi guest whose foreign colleagues lived in “one of the three housing complexes targeted by terrorists.” The NPR reporter then told listeners that “to many Saudis, terrorism seemed remote,” and that some Saudi leaders believe the kingdom had not “been vigilant enough in its fight against terrorism.” (Seelye is the daughter of former State Department Arabist Talcott Seelye, whose last post was ambassador to Syria. After working as manager of media relations for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Seelye worked for Queen Noor of Jordan, and eventually was hired by NPR. Among the countries she has covered are Syria and Jordan.)

Weekend Edition Saturday, May 17 — Host Scott Simon told listeners that the FBI planned to add to its team investigating the “terrorists responsible for those car bombings in Riyadh this week.…”

On the same program Simon also discussed the attacks in Morocco, which had just occurred, referring to them as “terrorist attacks [that] came just four days after car bombers killed 34 people in Riyadh….” NPR reporter Eric Westervelt in Morocco then told listeners that one of the targets, the Belgian consulate, seemed to be “hardly on the top list of terrorist targets,” but “it appears the terrorists are more targeting Western business and political interests….” He also stated that “Morocco… has cooperated in the war on terrorism.” Simon then asked “do Moroccan authorities believe that Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network…” was involved, to which Westervelt eventually replied “this could have been homegrown terrorists with certainly ideological ties to al Qaeda…we can’t rule out the possibility of just homegrown terrorism.”

Weekend All Things Considered, May 17 — Host Steve Inskeep introduced a segment by stating that “Americans may question Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative society or its links to terrorists…” and later stated that “Americans suspect the Saudis of condoning terrorism.”

In another segment on the same program reporter Eric Westervelt again suggested the “possibility that the attacks in Morocco were from homegrown terrorists….”

Talk of the Nation, May 19 — Host Neil Conan referred to the Philippines as “another country involved in the war on terrorism,” and posed this question to his guest, NPR reporter Mike Shuster, “To those who follow terrorist activities, how surprising was the attack in Morocco?” In his reply Shuster mentioned an “awareness of possible al Qaeda cells or loosely affiliated terrorist groups to al Qaeda in Morocco, in Saudi Arabia.…”

Later in the show Conan remarked that “Morocco has been a longtime ally of the United States and has been very cooperative in the war on terrorism…,” and Shuster replied that “investigators have known about the possibility of these kind of terrorists in Morocco for some time.”

After a break, Conan reintroduced the topic, saying “we’re talking about the wave of terrorist attacks over the past week and what they may say about the strength of al Qaeda,” and a few moments later Shuster said “after September 11th, the United States Treasury got involved in organizing a worldwide effort to shut down terrorist funding .…”

A caller then brought up the Lebanese group Hezbollah, which has carried out numerous terror attacks against American targets (including the suicide bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, killing 241 Marines), and also against Jewish targets in Israel and in Argentina. As the guest expert, Brian Jenkins, put it, “Hezbollah has what many regard as a blood debt to this county, having been responsible for killing more Americans than any other terrorist organization, at least prior to September 11th.”

This is where NPR’s Shuster drew the line — perhaps because Hezbollah is involved in terror attacks against Israel, he was unwilling to term it a terror group; instead he called it a “very important political party”:

SHUSTER: Hezbollah has a very important political status in Lebanon. It may not seem right to Americans when they think about this, but it’s a very important political party in Lebanon, and it has to be taken into account.

Finally, with a few moments left in the hour, the program turned to the five suicide-bomb attacks that had just happened in Israel. Not once was the word terror used in any form. Instead Shuster told listeners that the bombings were “being seen by nearly everybody as an attempt to undermine the peace process.…” The exceptions presumably being those who were blown up or maimed, and their families and loved ones, who understood that the attacks were meant first and foremost, to kill Israelis — flesh and blood people — not some abstract “process.”

NPR host Neil Conan then asked Shuster, “Is it an attack also on the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas,” and Shuster immediately agreed, “Certainly, it can be seen as that.”

In contrast, for the Israeli leader Ariel Sharon, Conan saw only opportunity: the Palestinian bombing campaign “at least in some interpretations, lets Ariel Sharon off the hook.”

So through the NPR looking glass, five Palestinian suicide-bomb attacks against Israelis are really an attack against the Palestinian prime minister, but are an opportunity for the Israeli prime minister.

This inverted view of reality was also on display in the days prior, as NPR covered the five Palestinian suicide-bomb attacks. For example, on the day of the first attack, NPR referred to Hamas and Islamic Jihad not as terror groups, but as “armed factions”:

Weekend All Things Considered, May 17 — The Israelis, Peter Kenyon reported, “demand that Abbas and his security chief, Mohamed Dahlan, crack down on Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the other armed factions.”

Of course, the Israelis don’t demand a “crackdown” any more than we demand a crackdown on al Qaeda. They demand, as required in Oslo and the Roadmap, that the groups be disarmed and dismantled.

Later in the segment Kenyon again referred to the issue of “trying to crack down on these armed factions….” Again, nowhere in the segment was any form of the word terror used.

Weekend Edition Sunday, May 18 — Describing the two suicide attacks that had just occurred in Israel, nowhere did host Lianne Hansen or reporter Linda Gradstein describe the attackers as terrorists — instead they employed the relatively neutral term “bombers.”

Only at the end of the segment, when paraphrasing Israeli leader Ariel Sharon, did Gradstein finally use the term terror: “Sharon demanded a Palestinian crackdown on terrorism.…” This was an accurate paraphrase of the Israeli leader’s statement (a relatively rare event on NPR), but the words were arguably not Gradstein’s.

In the same program another segment on the bombings was reported by Michele Kelemen, NPR’s state department correspondent, who was traveling in the Middle East with Secretary of State Powell. Again the attackers were described as bombers and no form of the word terror was used.

Weekend All Things Considered, May 18 — When yet another suicide bomber struck in Jerusalem, NPR host Steve Inskeep and reporter Linda Gradstein again managed to never once use the word terror to describe the attacks or the attackers, or the organizations that sent them.

Morning Edition, May 19 — When there was yet another suicide bombing, this time at a shopping mall in Afula, NPR host Bob Edwards and reporter Peter Kenyon once again termed the bomber’s organization, Hamas, a “faction,” not a terrorist group. Later in the segment Kenyon informed listeners that since President Bush will soon be involved in a reelection campaign, there will be “little desire to try and squeeze concessions from Ariel Sharon.”

It is striking that when Israelis are blown apart by suicide bombers, NPR’s take is that it is the Israelis who should be squeezed for concessions, not those who shelter and support the terrorists.

All Things Considered, May 19 — Reporting on the bombings against Israelis, host Melissa Block and reporter Peter Kenyon once again refrained from any use of the word terror, instead repeatedly referring to the attackers as coming from “Palestinian factions,” or the “Islamic Jihad faction.” Nary a terrorist in sight, apparently.

Morning Edition, May 20 — From host Bob Edwards and reporter Peter Kenyon once again no mention of terrorists, just “Palestinian factions” killing unnamed Israelis. Plus the information that “Palestinian officials rushed to declare that there were no more wanted men left in Arafat’s Ramallah compound, hoping to remove one excuse for a military operation there.”

So a military operation against Arafat’s compound requires not reasons but “excuses,” NPR’s clear message being that any such action would be unjustified, despite the terrorists who are known to be sheltered there by Arafat.

Even in this age of journalistic dereliction, NPR’s coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict stands out as a parody of journalism. It can hardly be an accident that terrorism in the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Yemen, and New York, is labeled precisely that by NPR — terrorism, but when identical attacks are unleashed against Israelis, NPR reporters move heaven and earth to avoid any use of the word terror. Of course, NPR’s coverage of the Middle East also deserves criticism on many other grounds — for example, its numerous material errors and misstatements that seem always to tilt against Israel, and its refusal to forthrightly correct those material errors. Or its peculiar version of “balance” — balancing Israeli critics of Israel with Arab critics of Israel. Or its continual use of loaded words such as “hardline” and “rightwing” to characterize many Israeli politicians, while calling the head of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a “spiritual leader,” as if he were the Dalai Lama.

Would it be unfair to say that NPR is to honest journalism as Sheikh Yassin is to the Dalai Lama? Well, maybe a bit unfair — but only a bit.

— Alex Safian is associate director of Camera (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America).

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