In July, I heard a rumor which claimed that Ethan Bronner’s son was serving in the IDF. I published the item and promptly forgot where I’d read it. Phil Weiss followed my lead, but Antony Loewenstein queried Bronner, who denied it. Since I couldn’t remember my source I apologized to Phil and we both retracted my report.
Now word comes from Electronic Intifada that the rumor may indeed be true (and this may be the first time I’ve sourced a story from EI):
Over the weekend, EI received a tip suggesting this had been the case and wrote to Bronner to ask him to confirm or deny the information and to seek his opinion on whether, if true, he thought it would be a conflict of interest.
Susan Chira, the foreign editor of The New York Times wrote in an email to The Electronic Intifada this morning:
“Ethan Bronner referred your query to me, the foreign editor. Here is my comment: Mr. Bronner’s son is a young adult who makes his own decisions. At The Times, we have found Mr. Bronner’s coverage to be scrupulously fair and we are confident that will continue to be the case.”
There are several astonishing things about this passage. First, when contacted Ethan Bronner refused to respond directly and passed the message to his boss, which has the effect of turning this into an adversarial bureacratic exchange. Second, Susan Chira, instead of answering directly as a professional editor should, chose the “refuse to confirm or deny” approach which her own reporters hate when government officials use it with them. Again, this is a “stick it in your eye” response which dares EI and other blogs to do the scut work to confirm the rumor. When we do confirm it this will make the Times look even lamer than it already does. Third, and most astonishing is that Chira is absolutely tone deaf to the apparent conflict of interest that such news would reveal.
There’s another reason I believe this story to be true. The first time Loewenstein asked Bronner about the rumor, the latter denied it because then it wasn’t true. The second time EI asked Bronner he didn’t deny it as he did the first time. Instead, he kicked it upstairs as if it was a hot potato (which it is for him). Ergo, I’m persuaded it’s true.
In a normal situation, whether or not a reporter’s child serves in a country’s armed forces would be irrelevant to the professional standing of the reporter. But this is not a normal situation. In his job as Israel correspondent virtually all of his work involves covering the IDF. I would say there is almost no story that he will file that will not involve the Israeli military in some fashion. Conceivably, there could come a time when Bronner covers an Israeli war in which his son is fighting or even a battle in which his son participates.
This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in a normal situation like Iraq or Afghanistan. But again, this isn’t that. Bronner has a duty to report about two nations at war with each other. Since the Times has no full correspondent in Gaza or the West Bank, Bronner is in effect the editor covering all those theaters. As such he MUST be able to report dispassionately from the Palestinian as well as Israeli perspective.
Many of my readers have followed my ongoing critique of Bronner’s reporting, which shows decided, though perhaps not fully conscious bias towards Israel’s narrative. Given this, the possibility that his son serves in the army that maintains the Occupation and is the locus of injustice raises glaring questions of conflict of interest.
Abunimah quotes this important section of the N.Y. Times rules on the subject:
The New York Times’ own “Company policy on Ethics in Journalism” acknowledges that the activities of a journalist’s family member may constitute a conflict of interest. It includes as an example, “A brother or a daughter in a high-profile job on Wall Street might produce the appearance of conflict for a business reporter or editor.” Such conflicts may on occasion require the staff member “to withdraw from certain coverage.”
The IDF is the premier national institution in Israel. There is no way you can escape its influence either as a reporter or an Israeli. It is the equivalent of the Wall Street firm and Bronner Jr. is an employee. His dad is the business reporter and he simply can’t escape the conflict. It is clear to any reasonable person aside from Bronner and Chira. He HAS a conflict if his son is serving. At the least, he should no longer be allowed to report on the IDF (which nullifies his usefulness as a reporter there).
The N.Y. Times owes it to its readers to get down from the high horse Chira exhibited in her reply and deal seriously with this issue. It isn’t likely to go away and it will further tarnish the newspaper’s claim to objectivity in reporting the conflict.
The Chicago Reader raises an interesting ethical hypothetical: could an Israeli reporter covering Beirut continue doing so if his son served in a militia, say Hezbollah? Think about it. It’s a problem. The Reader blogger aptly states:
I hope the Times doesn’t deny it has a situation on its hands, even if it’s confident that Ethan Bronner can successfully negotiate it.
If he’d read Chira’s reply, he’d have realized the Times is doing precisely what he hoped it wouldn’t.
I’ve circulated the rumor to some of my Israeli sources and am eager to hear from anyone who can confirm or deny the rumor.
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