The son of New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner has enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces. The Times’ ombudsman, Clark Hoyt, takes up a debate that I discussed earlier here. Critics of Israel, as opposed to pro-Israel activists, seemed to have raised the issue of Bronner’s son’s service first.
Before rendering judgment about whether the boy’s service represents an untenable conflict of interest for Bronner and the Times, Hoyt acknowledges, and quotes others who say, that the Times‘ Israel coverage is often considered biased by activists on both sides. He also notes that, for people who presumably aren’t predisposed to judge Times coverage for ideological correctness, Bronner’s credentials, track record, and professionalism are impeccable.
That being said, Hoyt concludes that the Times should reassign Bronner, on the grounds that no matter the quality of Bronner’s work, readers would rightly detect a conflict:
But, stepping back, this is what I see: The Times sent a reporter overseas to provide disinterested coverage of one of the world’s most intense and potentially explosive conflicts, and now his son has taken up arms for one side. Even the most sympathetic reader could reasonably wonder how that would affect the father, especially if shooting broke out.
I have enormous respect for Bronner and his work, and he has done nothing wrong. But this is not about punishment; it is simply a difficult reality. I would find a plum assignment for him somewhere else, at least for the duration of his son’s service in the I.D.F.
Times executive editor Bill Keller disagrees. He writes that the Times’ has other reporters whose biographies might appear to pose a conflict with their assignments, but that the paper’s editors are able to discern when such ties are untenable and when such ties actually enhance the reporter’s understanding of a beat:
My point is not that Ethan’s family connections to Israel are irrelevant. They are significant, and both he and his editors should be alert for the possibility that they would compromise his work. How those connections affect his innermost feelings about the country and its conflicts, I don’t know. I suspect they supply a measure of sophistication about Israel and its adversaries that someone with no connections would lack. I suspect they make him even more tuned-in to the sensitivities of readers on both sides, and more careful to go the extra mile in the interest of fairness. I do know he has reported scrupulously and insightfully on Israelis and Palestinians for many years. And I have no doubt that if a situation arose that presented a real conflict of interest, as opposed to an imaginary or hypothetical one, we would discuss it, and he would not hesitate to recuse himself.
Keller’s piece is also notable in the anger he directs at the “savage partisans” among the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian crowd, each of whom is convinced that the Times is biased against their side. He writes:
It’s not just that we value the expertise and integrity of a journalist who has covered this most difficult of stories extraordinarily well for more than a quarter century. It’s not just that we are reluctant to capitulate to the more savage partisans who make that assignment so difficult — and who make the fairmindedness of a correspondent like Ethan so precious and courageous.
Phew. There’s more. And in this describes the logical consequences were the Times to begin to apply identity litmus tests to its reporting staff:
Readers, like reporters, bring their own lives to the newspaper. Sometimes, when these readers are unshakeably convinced of something, they bring blinding prejudice and a tendency to see what they want to see. As you well know, nowhere is that so true as in Israel and the neighboring Palestinian lands. If we send a Jewish correspondent to Jerusalem, the zealots on one side will accuse him of being a Zionist and on the other side of being a self-loathing Jew, and then they will parse every word he writes to find the phrase that confirms what they already believe while overlooking all evidence to the contrary. So to prevent any appearance of bias, would you say we should not send Jewish reporters to Israel? If so, what about assigning Jewish reporters to countries hostile to Israel? What about reporters married to Jews? Married to Israelis? Married to Arabs? Married to evangelical Christians? (They also have some strong views on the Holy Land.) What about reporters who have close friends in Israel? Ethical judgments that start from prejudice lead pretty quickly to absurdity, and pandering to zealots means cheating readers who genuinely seek to be informed.
That’s a little unfair. I think the question about a foreign correspondent with a soldier-son in the army of the nation he is covering is a little different than the objections of partisans, like Philip Weiss, who have baldly suggested that Jewish reporters can’t cover the Mideast with professional detachment. I think the question about Bronner’s soldier-son, even if asked by someone who is convinced Bronner is too pro-Israel (like Stephen Walt), is fair. We ask such questions about former soldiers covering the military, or Congressional correspondents with spouses who serve in government. The attacks on the Times for Bronner’s coverage have been vicious, but this doesn’t seem to be the discussion in which Keller should be settling those scores.
I think Keller provides a reasonable response to the Bronner question: Judge the writer on his or her work, and not on the biography. Insist on full disclosure, but also insist that the writer does his or her job professionally.
And yet, if I were a paper as important at the Times, covering a hotbed of controversy like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I would worry about the constant distraction that will arise when a reporter’s son is serving on one side of a conflict he is meant to cover objectively. Bronner may be a good man and a superb reporter, and no Times reporter will ever escape the ideological judgment of the critics, but I’d be wary of any reporter whose family is so invested in the narrative he is covering. Aren’t foreign correspondnets regularly rotated so they aren’t tempted to “go native,” or is that an obsolete practice?
I’m with Hoyt in reassigning Bronner – not because it will appease the “savage partisans” but because it will represent what seems like a good journalistic practice.