WMNF Town Hall Meeting on Middle East Coverage by Mitch E. Perry11/14/06
Last night on the University of Tampa campus, a crowd estimated around 150 people participated in a 2 Â½ hour discussion regarding WMNFâ€™s recent coverage of events in the Middle East.
At issue have been complaints from members of the Tampa Bay Area Jewish community that the news and public affairs coverage has been slanted against Israel, and been too pro-Arab and Muslim.
Station officials say they first began receiving e-mails taking offense as the Israeli-Hezbollah war raged on this summer. After those complaints were registered, several members of Jewish community were invited to a WMNF board meeting in August, again to voice their concern and in some cases, anger.
To address those complaints, WMNFâ€™s News & Public Affairs Director, Rob Lorei decided to find a date to hold a public meeting to bring members from both the Muslim and Jewish community, and other interested listeners together for discussion. Lorei began the discussion last night by referring to what the Mission statement of the station is (roll tape#1 o.q.â€?sharing of these valuesâ€?)
OF the approximately 150 people gathered, the room literally appeared to be split between jews and their supporters, and Muslims and their supporters.
Stewart Berger from the Jewish Federation of Pinellas County said the cause of much of the consternation was due to a live talk show hosted by Rob Lorei back in July, that featured Ahmed Bedier from the Council on American Islamic Relations, and a local Tampa Muslim Woman, Pilar Saad, who was actually in Lebanon as the Hezbollah- Israel war was at its peak (roll tape#2 o.q.â€?unquoteâ€?)
Jonathan Ellis from the Jewish Community Relations Council later followed up on that e-mail exchange, calling it â€˜unacceptableâ€™ that a guest in either Northern Israel or from the local Jewish community was not on the same program (roll tape#3 o.qâ€? â€¦in a professional mannerâ€?)
In the past couple of years, the Council on American Islamic Relations Ahmed Bedier has become one of the most media friendly faces and voices in the Tampa Bay Area.
And for over a year now, he and journalist Summer Jarrar have hosted their own talk show on WMNF that concentrates on issues affecting the Muslim community called â€œTrue Talkâ€?.
Bedier responded angrily after Norman Gross , from the group PRIMER claimed he was slandered by Bedier on WMNF earlier this year. Gross said Bedier had called him a â€˜senile old man, and that said that he didnâ€™t have any educational credentials. Bedier said he had said those things, but only because Gross had called him â€˜ a terroristâ€™ (roll tape#4 o.q.â€?what sheâ€™s saying about Muslimsâ€?)
Another emotional response came from Nahla Al-Arian, the wife of former USF professor Sami Al-Arian. Al-Arian remains in jail after he pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to provide services to the Palastianian Islamic Jihad earlier this year. He was acquitted last December on 8 of the 17 charges against him in his federal terrorism case â€“ but he will be deported after he completes his sentence.
In defending WMNFâ€™s coverage on the Middle East, Nahla Al-Arian appeared to be casting blame on the local Jewish community for what happened to her husband (roll tape#5 o.q.â€?your point of view tooâ€?)
One critic said the shows that needed to be addressed in terms of bias against Israel were Democracy Now, Radioactivity, Sunday Forum, Mabili Adjaniâ€™s talk show, and the WMNF Evening News.
One of the first people to object to WMNF this year to its mid east coverage was Pinellas County resident Marty Altner. (roll tape#6 o.q.â€?thank youâ€?)
As the evening progressed, there were several calls by various audience members for a joint Jewish-Arab radio program, to foster dialogue. Rand Luttenberg is a programmer on WMNF, hosting the environmental program â€œGreenwavesâ€?.
He said as a Jewish-American member of the community, he wanted to make it clear that there was no single Jewish perspective on this, or any other issue (roll tape#7 o.q.â€?find objectionableâ€?)
The audience in the Grand Salon room on the University of Tampa campus seemed almost split â€“ literally between the Muslim and Jewish Community, although later speakers indicated they were not necessarily sitting in support of either side, but in fact for the radio station. One such view was expressed by Wendy Babcox, an Art Teacher at USF (roll tape#8 â€œ a wonderful jobâ€?)
As the meeting ended, Rob Lorei said he re-listen to a tape of the meeting and would try to come up with 4 or 5 areas of consensus, and report back to station manager Vicki Santa. He said he hoped those ideas would then be published on the stationâ€™s website.