NPR’s psychological warfare technique

By Vic Rosenthal

National Public Radio (NPR) is a personal bête noir. I used to be a regular supporter of my local Public Radio station, but stopped because of what I felt was biased coverage of Israel and related issues from NPR. Organizations such as CAMERA and Honest Reporting have documented this bias for some time.

NPR was generally criticized on the basis of which events they chose to cover (they somehow ignored the 2002 Passover Seder Massacre in which Hamas murdered 30 people), and the relative amount of time they gave to pro- and anti-Israel voices. In response, NPR started providing free transcripts of their Mideast coverage from major news programs in 2002. They also appointed an ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, to deal with complaints about biased reporting.

So when I woke on February 27 to another anti-Israel segment from NPR’s Linda Gradstein, describing an Israeli incursion into Nablus [Shechem] on the West Bank, I planned to obtain the transcript and complain about it to the ombudsman. Unfortunately, as of today the transcript has not appeared (they usually are provided within a couple of days at most). And Dvorkin, the ombudsman, apparently doesn’t work there anymore. An automatic reply to my email of March 2 said that his assistant would read all mail until a new one was hired, but as of today I have received no response. I’ve transcribed it myself, and it appears below.

What exactly do I mean by “psychological warfare”? It’s this: psychologists have demonstrated that experiences with emotional content are much more likely to be remembered and more capable of affecting belief than simple recitations of fact without such content. And what NPR does — expertly, and so often that it must be deliberate — is to present the Israeli side as a recitation of facts, this many killed, that many injured. Then they present the Arab or Palestinian side in an interview with crying children, grieving relatives, and angry young men. The Palestinian story is always told in an emotional first-person voice, thus making it much more powerful than the dry, factual Israeli story.

Gradstein’s report of February 27 is a perfect example of this technique:

Announcer: Today the Israeli army pulled most of its troops and armored vehicles out of the West Bank city of Nablus. They had been there for three days, targeting Palestinian militants. The mayor of Nablus called on residents to resume normal lives, as municapal workers began clearing the streets of broken glass and debris. From Nablus, NPR’s Linda Gradstein reports:

Linda Gradstein: The children’s bedroom in Hanan Hofesh’s house in the old city of Nablus looks like a kid’s room anywhere. The closets are covered with posters and stickers and a ratty blue stuffed dog lies on one of the beds. But the windows of this bedroom were shattered on Sunday when Israeli soldiers who surrounded the old city began shooting at Palestinian stone-throwers. A bullet pierced the light fixture above the bed. Hanan says she rushed into the street:

Hanan Hofesh [Arabic in background with translation]: I didn’t care about the house. I only cared about my children. I became emotional. I wanted to go and get them from the school. But it was very difficult, because the soldiers were standing in the way.

Gradstein: For two days, 30,000 Palestinians in the old city were under curfew. Yesterday more than a dozen soldiers burst into Hanan’s house and ordered the family into one small room. Hanan says they took everyone’s identity card and then turned the house upside down. The Israeli army briefly took over local radio and television stations and broadcast names and pictures of men Israel says were involved in attacks against Israelis. Hanan says even if she knew any of these men, she wouldn’t turn them in.

Hofesh: These are our brothers. They are the children of our neighborhood. We have to protect them. We can not tell the soldiers about them.

Gradstein: Down the Street, Zahra Toufaha says she felt helpless when more than a dozen soldiers with a sniffer dog entered her house. They detained two of her sons and took them out of the city. Both ere held overnight for questioning and then released.

Zahra Toufaha: I can only report my grief to God. I can do nothing. None of us can do anything.

Gradstein: Brigadier General Yair Golan, the Israeli army commander in the West Bank said Israel thwarted 190 would-be suicide bombers last year and two thirds of them came fom Nablus. He said Palestinian weapons factories here supplied most of the explosives used in attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians. During the operation in Nablus troops arrested five wanted men and uncovered three bomb-making workshops. One Palestinian man was killed during the operation. The army said he died when troops fired at figures moving on the roof of a building where they had seen gunmen. Palestinians said the victim was unarmed and was shot from a passing jeep. Both Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups charged that Israel obstructed Palestinians’ access to medical care during the operation. Dr. Mazhar Darwizha, the director of Rafidiyah Hospital, says soldiers surrounded the hospital and checked every ambulance coming into the facility looking for wanted men.

Dr. Mazhar Darwizha: It is very bad, it is very bad, and it is difficult for us because we know that we have some victims, some injured patients in the old city, and they cannot come to us. It is too hard to see that.

Gradstein: General Golan said that in the past ambulances have been used to smuggle weapons and wanted men. He said soldiers stationed outside hospitals conducted brief identity checks but that Israel tried to ensure medical access for everyone. He also said the security operation will continue and troops could return to Nablus at any time. Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Nablus.

This is such a perfect specimen of their craft that it’s no wonder they didn’t want to provide a transcript!

Note first of all that the Palestinians get to tell the story in their own voices, from a personal point of view. The danger to children is presented, the humiliation, the difficulty faced by the humanitarian doctor who only wants to help people. The emotions felt by the Palestinians are emphasized (the translator is quite good at expressing it and is probably a moonlighting actress). Empathy is developed: they and their children are just like us, so we can identify with them.

The Israeli motive for the operation is described in three sentences, narrated dryly by Gradstein. Israeli casualties of terrorist attacks (some of them children) are not mentioned. The army’s description of the one Palestinian casualty as most likely a combatant is juxtaposed with the Palestinian account that implies deliberate murder of an unarmed civilian, as if both of these stories have equal credibility. At no time do we even hear an Israeli voice — Israelis are described (by Palestinians) as brutal and arbitrary in their actions, like military machines, not like people with whom we could identify.

Some days later, what do listeners remember? Murderous Israelis, frightened Palestinian mothers, endangered children, Palestinian solidarity in the face of humiliation, and helpless doctors who can’t help their patients.

But from a factual point of view, it appears that the operation was highly successful, yielding five arrests of wanted men (and they are not wanted merely for bad attitudes) with few casualties on either side. It’s obvious that the army was doing everything possible to avoid hurting innocent people, far more than other armies have done during what is, in effect, wartime. Nevertheless, Gradstein and NPR make it sound like a pogrom or Gestapo operation.

Update [7 Mar 2007 2210 PST] Minor edits.

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