Bias Buzzing in the Background

It’s not every day that a respected news organization rolls over to show the world its ugly, mottled underbelly. But October 20 brought precisely such a disagreeable sight.

National Public Radio’s summary firing of news commentator Juan Williams after he admitted on a television program to feeling nervous when he sees people on a plane in “Muslim garb… identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims” revealed not only the network’s astounding intolerance for personal feelings but a disturbingly determined refusal to countenance reality.

It is true, of course, as Mr. Williams’ critics have duly and repeatedly noted, that most Muslim terrorists on murder missions are sufficiently sharp to dress in Western-style clothing. And it is also true that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists – a point Mr. Williams himself took pains to make during the very same program.

But it is no less true that the declared motivation of the vast majority of terrorists who have harmed Americans in recent years, and of those who seek to harm more of them, has been an understanding of Islam. One rightly feels sympathy for the many Muslims of good will who are viewed fearfully by others. But only someone drunk on a misguided notion of liberalism could fail to recognize that such nervousness is rooted, for better or worse, in unfortunate actuality.

The day after Mr. Williams’ canning, NPR’s CEO, Vivian Schiller, told an audience at the Atlanta Press Club that Williams’ feelings about Muslims should have remained between him and “his psychiatrist or his publicist.” Although she later apologized, her comment brightly reflected a mindset that many would argue is indigenous to NPR, one that, amid much else, considers relating acts of terror to their perpetrators’ beliefs to be evidence of a mental disorder.

And yet, the very day Mr. Williams was shown the NPR door, a Wall Street Journal web interview of Ms. Schiller was published in which she responded to the assertion that NPR has a reputation as being very liberal. “No,” she averred. “We don’t have a particular political persuasion.”

If more ludicrous words have been spoken of late, they don’t come easily to mind.

One can certainly choose to approve of NPR’s take on social, political and international issues. But not even the world’s best defense lawyer could make the case that the network doesn’t have a take, doesn’t see the world through a particular lens. Through that looking glass, people who kill unarmed innocents are not terrorists but “militants”; and their victims (like pregnant Tali Hatuel and her four young daughters, murdered in cold blood in 2004) “provok[ers of] bloodshed.” (The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America – CAMERA – has a thick dossier on NPR’s point of view regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict.) Politically and socially “progressive” positions are routinely glorified (and their opposites subtly disparaged) on NPR; and the network accords “multiculturalism” something akin to the reverence religious people reserve for the Creator. The Williams debacle was only a particularly clear manifestation of one of the biases that buzz incessantly in the air of NPR’s studios.

Part of that bias buzz is evident in the network’s treatment of classical Orthodox Judaism. On the religion program NPR distributes, mention of Jewish Orthodoxy is virtually absent. Overwhelmingly, what references to Orthodox Jews have been made on public radio have focused not on the Orthodox community’s vibrancy, growth, charity or study-ethic but rather on the fact that Israel’s chief rabbinate refuses to recognize heterodox movements, on obstinate Orthodox “settlers” in Israel-occupied territories or on Jewish religious law’s delineation of particular roles for women.

In that, as it happens, NPR has considerable company in the Jewish media world, where organs claiming to be comprehensive and objective largely ignore the haredi world or, when they don’t, present it in a harsh light or as represented by the misbehaviors of individual Orthodox Jews. “Progressive” societal or religious developments, by contrast, are routinely reported as causes for celebration.

There’s nothing inherently wrong, of course, with a medium being parochial or partisan.
The Orthodox periodicals that abound are precisely that. But those papers are entirely and responsibly up-front about their classical Judaism-informed perspectives.

What’s dangerous is the perception that a slanted medium is in fact bias-free. Short of witnessing a blatantly revealing misstep like NPR’s recent one, most consumers of news might not realize that the great bulk of what they consume is anything but objective.

There will be future unguarded media moments from time to time, when the prejudices of “information” purveyors are so flagrantly evident that they can’t be finessed. The trick, though – and it’s an important one for anyone concerned with truth – is remembering that even when the biases aren’t plainly in sight, they’re still very much there, busily buzzing away in the background.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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