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August 25, 2020 5:40 am

Don’t Confuse Selective Journalistic Accuracy for Ethics

avatar by Tamar Sternthal

Opinion

The northern Israeli town of Nazareth. Photo: public domain.

If you are a fictitious character, and National Public Radio (NPR) has mistakenly failed to use your preferred pronoun, rest assured that the publicly-funded network will set the record straight.

“Accuracy is at the core of what we do. We do our best to ensure that everything we report faithfully depicts reality — from the tiniest detail to the big-picture context,” states NPR’s Code of Ethics.

Last month, NPR extended its stated commitment to faithfully depict reality to encompass fiction. Uncle Clifford, owner of the fictional strip club featured in a new television drama called P-Valley, was the beneficiary of NPR’s aspiration to provide “the fullest version of the truth that we can deliver.”

On All Things Considered on July 20, NPR’s Eric Deggans erred, by saying:

And there’s club owner Uncle Clifford, played by Nicco Annan. He’s a Black gender-fluid hustler with an impeccable blonde wig and gleaming crystal nails who is both mentor and demanding taskmaster to the women who dance at The Pynk. His secret — lenders are close to foreclosing on his building, and the bank won’t take any more of his bad checks, even when he begs them to.

The next day, editors corrected the comment: “In this report, we incorrectly refer to Uncle Clifford with the pronoun ‘he.’ The character uses ‘she’ as a pronoun.”

Yet, strikingly, while NPR upheld its promise “to rigorously challenge both the claims we encounter and the assumptions we bring” when it came to the pronoun preference of a fictitious character, it did not extend the same courtesy to more than one million real live Israelis, of all genders and professions.

Weeks before the Uncle Clifford pronoun transgression, Palestinian chef Sami Tamimi misidentified three Israeli cities as part of “modern-time Palestine” during an All Things Considered interview.

About his new cookbook, Tamimi recounted:

We wanted to kind of show modern-time Palestine what’s happening with, you know, whether it’s an older guy that open a restaurant in Nazareth, quite kind of political about everything and anything, or a young guy that have tourist homes, one in Acre and one in Haifa…

NPR host Michel Martin did not dispute Tamimi’s identification of Nazareth, Acre, and Haifa as part of “modern-time Palestine.” All three are internationally recognized as Israeli cities. They are not in the West Bank where the Palestinian Authority partly rules, and are therefore not part of what Tamimi called “modern-time Palestine.”

Yet, despite the clear, indisputable geographic reality, NPR trampled on the truth, declining to correct the claims.

A representative from NPR‘s communications staff demurred that the segment “was a conversation with a chef about Palestinian food and culture and that was the context of the interviewee’s remarks. The conversation was not about territorial borders and the interviewee does not say these are Palestinian cities.”

What happened to the network’s laudable declared commitment “that everything we report faithfully depicts reality — from the tiniest detail”?

Moreover, surely the locations of Haifa, Nazareth, and Acre are at least as central to the broadcast about Tamimi’s cuisine as Uncle Clifford’s preferred pronoun is to a story about the fictional P-Valley.

Indeed, NPR’s Martin stressed that the political backdrop is part and parcel of Tamimi’s story. Her entire introduction addressed larger political issues beyond cuisine. She asserted, “It’s impossible to write about anything Palestinian and not get entangled in the complicated politics of the region.”

Furthermore, she said:

All the food and hospitality that a recipe book celebrates must be served in the case of Palestine against a very sobering backdrop. We want this backdrop to be properly painted.

How can that backdrop be “properly painted” if Israeli cities are misidentified as Palestinian?

Rigorous adherence to a code of ethics forms the backbone of professional, credible journalism — which has, in recent years, suffered from declining public trust.

But this shouldn’t be news to NPR public editor Kelly McBride — the senior vice president of the Poynter Institute, who also heads the institute’s Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership.

When she assumed her new NPR post in April, McBride identified top priorities the network must adopt “to be consistently great.” First, she said, was connecting with the audience while “building awareness of what that audience needs.” “Embracing the highest standards of the craft” came second.

The inconsistent correction policy vis-à-vis the fictional Uncle Clifford’s pronoun preference versus the location of real Israeli cities is a worrisome indication that the network has embraced what it determined are the audience’s needs at the expense of ethics and factual accuracy.

Tamar Sternthal is director of the Israel office of CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.

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