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Monday, February 08, 2010

Ethan Bronner becomes the story

Over the weekend, a controversy that has been simmering for a few weeks boiled over into the public arena. In January, Ali Abunimah's Electronic Intifada reported that New York Times' Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner's son serves in the IDF. Over the weekend, after confirming the report, Times public editor Clark Hoyt urged that Bronner (pictured) be reassigned.
Bronner occupies one of journalism’s hottest seats, covering the intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. As the top correspondent for America’s most influential newspaper, everything he writes is examined microscopically for signs of bias. Web sites like the Angry Arab News Service have called him a propagandist for Israel. I have received hundreds of messages heatedly contending the opposite: that his coverage is slanted against Israel. Sometimes the “evidence” is a single word in one news article. Sometimes it is his “failure” to show how one side or the other is solely to blame for what is happening.

“No place, date or event in this conflicted land is spoken of in a common language,” Bronner wrote in The Times last year after the three-week Israeli assault on Gaza, intended to stop rocket fire into southern Israel. “Trying to tell the story so that both sides can hear it in the same way feels more and more to me like a Greek tragedy in which I play the despised chorus.”

Since the initial report of his son’s enlistment, I have heard from roughly 400 readers, many of them convinced that Bronner could not continue in his current assignment. Linda Mamoun of Boulder, Colo., wrote that although she found Bronner’s coverage “impressively well-written and relatively even-handed,” his position “should not be held by anyone with military ties to the state of Israel.” His son has the direct ties, not Bronner. But is that still too close for comfort?

The situation raises tough questions about how the paper best serves its readers, protects its credibility and deals fairly with a correspondent who has what I believe is an excellent track record.
Hoyt goes on to catalog various columns written by Bronner that drew complaints from one side or the other. He describes some of the reactions from people with whom he consulted (I'll come back to that below). And then he reaches this conclusion:
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.
Hoyt may be the public editor, but he doesn't make the assignment decisions. Executive editor Bill Keller disagrees with Hoyt and so Bronner will be staying right here in Jerusalem.
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.

It is, in addition to those things, a sign of respect for readers who care about the region and who follow the news from there with minds at least partially open. You seem to think that you (and Alex Jones) can tell the difference between reality and appearances, but our readers can’t. I disagree.

As you say in your column, our policies require us to pay attention to potential conflicts of interest, or appearances of such conflict, that could impair our credibility in the eyes of readers. Editors at The Times take those policies very seriously, because we love this paper and prize its reputation, and because we write regularly about conflicts of interest in other institutions. But our policies are designed to make us alert, not to preempt our professional judgment.

In some cases the rules are clearcut. (A business reporter, even one of unquestioned integrity, cannot own stock in a company he or she covers. That’s the policy.) But more often the rulebook leaves us wide latitude to apply our own judgment of how to best serve our readers, taking several things into account: the nature and extent of a reporter’s personal or family involvement in a story, the real potential for undue influence, the reporter’s track record for fairmindedness, the risk to the paper’s reputation. Sometimes possible conflicts of interest can be resolved by disclosure. Often they can be resolved by carefully defining the boundaries of an assignment. (We have had reporters in Washington married to spouses who worked in Congress or the executive branch; we make sure to keep a distance between the reporter’s beat and the spouse’s work, but we do not put the entire federal government off limits.)

Sometimes it’s a matter of avoiding certain stories. (A reporter married to a defense lawyer can cover the courthouse, but someone else will be sent to cover a trial when the spouse is part of the defense team.) You seem to see this as a binary choice: either we ignore the situation, because we trust the reporter, or we remove him from the assignment, because it might cast doubt on the paper’s credibility. But our rules — and real life — are more complicated.

Every reporter brings to the story a life — a history, relationships, ideas, beliefs. And the first essential discipline of journalism is to set those aside, as a judge or a scientist or a teacher is expected to do, and to follow the facts. Of course, journalism is made by human beings, and our lives seep into our stories — sometimes in the form of bias, but often in valuable ways.
Keller goes on to give a number of examples. I'm only putting in one of them - partly so that you will have an incentive to read the whole thing, and partly because the one example I am putting in is one I will come back to below.
Anthony Shadid, who currently covers Iraq for us, is an American of Lebanese descent. He covered the Israeli invasion of Lebanon for the Washington Post, and he wrote with distinction and fairmindedness. Again, I don’t know his politics and can’t discern them in his work, but I know that his background — what you and Alex Jones might call his appearance of a conflict of interest — enriches his work with a deep appreciation of the language, culture and history of the region.


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.

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.
I agree with Keller that there is no reason to disqualify Bronner from remaining in Jerusalem. I want to raise two other issues regarding possible sources of bias in reporting from here. If someone at the Times sees this post (I've been quoted in their Opinionator section a couple of times), then all the better.

First, one of the people to whom Hoyt spoke was David Shipler, who was the Times' bureau chief here in Jerusalem a generation ago. Shipler raised an issue that is not treated elsewhere in Hoyt's or Keller's article, but it's an important issue that needs to be addressed, and it has become much more of an issue since the 'Palestinian Authority' was established in 1994.
I asked David K. Shipler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, what he would do. Shipler was The Times’s Jerusalem bureau chief a generation ago and its chief diplomatic correspondent until he left the paper in 1988. He said foreign correspondents operate in far more nuanced circumstances than readers may realize. They may rely on translators and stringers with political ties or biases that have to be accounted for. They develop their own relationships that enrich their reporting, just as Bronner’s son’s military service could open a conduit for information that other reporters might not have.

“There are always two questions,” Shipler said. “One is whether there is an actual conflict; the other is whether there is the appearance of a conflict. Given the high quality of Bronner’s reporting, I don’t see an actual conflict.” He said he thought Bronner should remain in his post and The Times should disclose the situation. Keller and Bronner responded freely to my questions, but the paper has otherwise been tight-lipped so far.
The idea of using stringers is a big problem that can tilt the coverage against Israel. Especially in wartime, most of the on-the-ground reporting and photography from the 'Palestinian' territories (and from Lebanon in 2006) is done by stringers - locals who act on behalf of the large newspapers and wire services. Guess whose side they're on. In fact, they are on the 'Palestinian' side or Hezbullah's side much more than any Israeli would necessarily be on the Israeli side, if for no other reason than fear for their lives. That's why you saw things like photoshopped pictures during the Second Lebanon War. It's not that the foreign reporters are necessarily biased; it's that they don't always get to see both sides of the story because the stringer controls what they see and what they don't see. Moreover, the stringer often acts as the correspondent's interpreter (with an obvious potential for abuse) and the stringer may also report back to the authoritarian rulers in whose territory the stringer lives what might have been said by anyone the foreign correspondent interviews through the stringer.

I don't have Bronner's resume handy, but my guess is that his Hebrew is far better than his Arabic, and I am positive that he has much more freedom of movement in Israel than he does in the 'Palestinian territories.' As much as Bronner may try to be objective, the need to use stringers may affect how things in the 'Palestinian territories' get reported by him.

Second, this comment was in an email (posted to a discussion group) whose writer has asked that I not use his name. It is why I left Keller's comment about Anthony Shadid in this post.
Both Hoyt's initial report and Keller's response are off. Anyone who cites the Angry Arab News Service, as Hoyt does, the silly, vicious site of an Arabist professor, is not seeking "balance" but is tipping his hand. Even as Keller defends Bronner, in comparing him to Anthony Shadid he also shows that this "balance" idea is way off-base. Shadid, who is due to become the NYT's Beirut bureau chief, has rebuilt his family home in south Lebanon, i.e. Hezbollah territory. In other words, a man whose personal security and that of his family as well as his property is in the hands of Hezbollah is going to be covering Hezbollah. That the editors of the NYT are incapable of understanding the not so subtle issues of reporting from within the hive of an authoritarian culture and comparing that to an open society like Israel's is hardly an excuse. Are they not capable of imagining what if any of their staff had family who served in Iraq or Afghanistan over the last 5 years. Would that disqualify them from covering the wars, or Washington, or the media?
Good questions.

Another email that I received asked whether the fact that the Times has apparently never had a correspondent with a first-degree relative in the military exposed a cultural bias. Hmmm.

I'm going to stop here. This post is far too long already, and I have work to be done.


Shmuel Rosner has some interesting comments here.


At 3:36 PM, Blogger Chrysler 300M said...

replace this leftist Bronner with someone writing worthy journalism


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