N.Y. Times Public Editor: Reassign Bronner
I feel like I’ve just read a lightning bolt in the pages of the N.Y. Times. Clark Hoyt, the public editor, has just called for the reassignment of Ethan Bronner as Israel bureau chief because of what Hoyt terms the “appearance” of a conflict of interest that will impede the trust that readers should place in the objectivity of the newspaper’s reporting.
He quotes a journalist academic who characterizes the issue entirely correctly:
Alex Jones, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy and a former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Times, took a different view. “The appearance of a conflict of interest is often as important or more important than a real conflict of interest,” he said. “I would reassign him.” Jones said such a step would be an injustice to Bronner, “but the newspaper has to come first.”
I felt that Hoyt was largely dismissive of the genuine and justifiable substantive criticisms levelled by critics like myself against Bronner’s often shabby reporting. But I really don’t care that much because in the end Hoyt made the right judgment (but for different reasons than mine). To be clear, the public editor is not a decision-maker. He influences the tone and environment. But Bill Keller is the one calling the shots and Keller is 110% behind Bronner. Keller was likely the one who decided the Times could afford to stiff-arm the external critics like Ali Abunimah who asked whether Bronner’s son was serving. And it was Keller who made this absolutely lame defense of Bronner’s transparency and lack of conflict of interest:
Keller said that if Israel launched a new assault into Gaza and Bronner’s son were a foot soldier, “I don’t think I’d have any problem with Ethan covering the conflict.” It would be a tougher call if the son rose to a commanding role, he said, and if the son’s unit were accused of wrongdoing, Keller said he thought he would assign another reporter.
This is preposterous. Israel conducts yet another war on Gaza in which Bronner’s son serves & the former can still remain objective and unconflicted? The only eventuality that would cause Bronner to substitute another reporter (but not rotate Bronner out of Israel) would be an accusation of war crimes against the son’s unit and then only if the son were an officer? And I’ve got news for Keller: the last Gaza war involved virtually all Israeli units engaging in savage acts that Goldstone has characterized as possible war crimes. What the Times’ senior editor does not understand about Israel and its military strategy is that it has become all-out war against military and civilian targets. And this is a global doctrine for the entire army. It’s not a question of a rogue unit here or there. So with Bronner Jr. fighting in the IDF and killing Palestinians, there is simply no way that the Israeli army will escape general scrutiny for war crimes. That’s why Keller’s distinction is a false one.
In his own defense of Bronner, Keller once against shows how tone-deaf he is. In his view, reassigning Bronner would mean giving in to the so-called terrorism of Israel and Bronner’s critics:
…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.
That is so not the point I can’t begin to explain. While some critics of Bronner may be unreasonable and have it in for Israel and deliberately conflate the two, I am not one of those. The Times has had excellent reporters covering Israel in the past. It will no doubt have excellent ones in future. But Bronner is not one of these. His writing, as I’ve written here many times is hopelessly conflicted. He sees only one narrative much of the time. He goes through the motions in an attempt to be fair to the other side, but he has so little understanding and empathy for the Palestinians that he fails almost every time.
I am not arguing that Ethan Bronner is not a good reporter. I am arguing that he is not a good reporter when covering this issue. His ideological biases, as subtle as they might be (and I know many of my readers find this too sympathetic to Bronner), are readily evident and compromise his work. Keep in mind that not only is his son now in Tzahal, but his wife is Israeli as well.
Again, there is no reason why generally a reporter should not be able to overcome these two conflicts. Good Israeli reporters like Gideon Levy and Larry Derfner do it and succeed in maintaining the necessary distance required. But Bronner is American and not Israeli. And for some reason he fails to maintain that distance in his reporting.
Here’s another confused and convoluted argument from Keller in defense of non-capitulation to the ideological hordes:
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.
Beware of an editor who claims he won’t do something out of respect to the intelligence of his readers. That editor is a coward. My mind has been open to the NY Times coverage of Israel and other topics for decades. I value the newspaper heritage it represents. My mind is open. But not to Ethan Bronner. And I think Bill Keller insults the intelligence of the tens of thousands of Times readers who do not believe Ethan Bronner can fulfill his assignment satisfactorily.
Keller then lists a series of distinguished TImes reporters who have had putative conflicts of interest which, on closer examination, Keller doesn’t find to be so. Here is one in which Keller neglects to understand the difference between Bronner and the reporter under discussion:
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.
First, Shadid is not covering Lebanon for the Times. Second, he is not Lebanese but an American of Lebanese descent. Third, he does not have a son serving in the Lebanese or Iraqi army nor in any of the local militias. If he did and he was covering this story the Times would reassign him. Bronner is Jewish and clearly a Zionist supporter of Israel, married to an Israeli with a son in the IDF. Combining all these elements with the actual quality of his analysis gives you no choice but to see Bronner in a different category than Shahid.
Here’s another Times reporter who he exploits in a false manner:
Nazila Fathi, our brave Tehran correspondent, was hounded out of her native country and into exile by the current regime. Does that “conflict of interest” disqualify her from writing about Iran?
If Nazil Fathi were married to an Iranian hardliner who was a member of the government or if she was married to a leader of the Iranian opposition or if her son was in the Basij or Revolutionary Guards (in which many Iranian youth enlist) then the Times would reassign her because she clearly would have a conflict that, no matter how superb her reporting (which is superb by the way), would create an appearance of a conflict.
Here’s another bit of disingenuousness:
…To prevent any appearance of bias, would you say we should not send Jewish reporters to Israel?
This misses the point by a mile. The Times usually sends Jewish correspondents to cover Israel: David Shipler, Tom Friedman, Deborah Sontag, etc. The problem isn’t that they or Ethan Bronner is Jewish. The only question that matters is can they overcome whatever prejudices they may’ve built up in the course of a lifetime of being raised as a Jew and supporting Israel as this Zionist education is inculcated in American Jews. All of the Jewish reporters I mentioned (yes, even Friedman at the time), managed to do so–except Bronner. It is not a question of being Jewish, but rather what kind of Jew and reporter you are. Can you rise above your upbringing when that is required of you? Bronner tries but ultimately cannot. The others could.
Poor Bill Keller, he just doesn’t get it:
My point is not that Ethan’s family connections to Israel are irrelevant…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.
This guy is clueless. Why would the fact that Ethan Bronner is married to an Israeli and has a son serving in the IDF “supply a measure of sophistication about” the Palestinians, which I presume is also supposed to be his beat? Note, Keller himself can’t be bothered to call the Palestinians by their real name, but they become the generic “Israel’s adversaries.” Why would Bronner be “tuned in to the sensitivities” of readers critical of Israel, or Arab or Muslim readers? What would give Keller the right to make such a foolish, unfounded claim? The truth is Ethan Bronner is tuned in to Israel and Israelis. He represents their views and sentiments fairly well. But he fails miserably when it comes to understanding the other side. And this is simply unacceptable in the pages of a sophisticated newspaper of the world like the Times.
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Typo: Keller is Jewish and clearly a Zionist supporter of Israel, married to an Israeli with a son in the IDF.
Instead of Keller I am sure you meant Bronner.
That’s 2 bad typos for me in this post. I was so worked up in writing it that it resulted in a few typos. Thanks for the correction.
David Shipler is not Jewish.
I am aware that several media watchdog groups were involved in campaigns to pressure the NY Times into reassigning Bronner, and I’m glad to see they were successful. It does not surprise me that the NY Times refuses to admit that there was more than an “appearance” of a conflict of interest.
Perhaps the continued media bias in favor of Israel that is so prevalent in the western media may have something to do with the notion that Jewish or pro-Israel reporters are the best choice for such assignments. It is a factor worth considering. Sending a Jewish reporter to cover Israel is the same as sending only journalists who are registered Democrats to cover the White House.
They haven’t actually succeeded in getting Bronner reassigned. And if they do, there’s no evidence in Hoyt’s column that they see any problem in the substance of Bronner’s reporting, so there’s no reason to think the replacement will be any better.
One can always hope, of course.
It would be a complete waste of time to reassign Bronner only to put some other biased reporter in his place, don’t you think?
The NY Times is trying to be graceful under fire, without capitulating. It’s just too damned embarrassing for them to admit that they screwed up, and so they’re going to deny, deny, deny anything that makes them look deliberately biased (although they were being quite deliberately biased). It’s a way of saving face, and everyone is wise to it. If the paper wishes to continue its slanted coverage in favor of Israel, it’s going to have to find more subtle ways to do it. Bronner was just so in-your-face, and with sonny boy in the IDF, the issue of credibility could no longer be ignored, no matter how hard they tried. Many groups such as Media Matters and several Palestinian rights groups, and an assortment of bloggers and columnists all spoke against Bronner’s obvious conflict of interest, and I believe this is what woke the Times out of its arrogant stupor.
This conflates being Jewish with being a supporter of Israel and/or Zionism. It is extremely obvious that this is not necessarily the case.
That said, I do find it interesting if not surprising as to why so many of the Times reporters sent to Israel are Jewish. Perhaps they simply show the highest interest in the assignment, and in the case of Bronner and Isabel Kershner (both connected to Israel in more intimate ways), that would be doubly so.
I agree with you, and that is why I made the analogy. It seems nonsensical that a news agency would assume it would get the best coverage from a Jewish reporter. I would think that in terms of objectivity (if objectivity is desired), the issue of Jewishness or Zionist-ness would not matter. But it does, even if it only “appears” to make a difference. Interestingly, it seems that news agencies seldom engage in this kind of thinking except when it concerns Israel. They may send an Arab possibly to overcome a language or cultural barrier, but sending a Jew to Israel isn’t the same thing.
I doubt Jewish journalists show any more interest in covering Israel than anyone else, and I do not think they should be given preferential treatment even if they do. It’s a form of discrimination, actually.
Great post Richard, thanks.
Good work on this one, Richard! And this time it even paid off 😉
Henry beat me to it–Shipler isn’t Jewish. I think I read somewhere that Abe Rosenthal thought he was.
Anyway, I think you’re giving Hoyt way too much credit and even if the NYT gives in on Bronner, the basic problem of bias will probably remain. Hoyt explicitly says Bronner’s coverage is fair and he dismisses all substantive criticism of him. Hoyt just thinks that purely for appearance’s sake, Bronner should step down, but not because of any flaw in Bronner’s reporting–quite the contrary, in Hoyt’s clearly expressed opinion, it’s Bronner’s critics who are irrational, Bronner gets it from both sides, this means he’s really doing a great job, blah, blah, blah.
This is standard establishment waffling–we haven’t done anything wrong, but to keep our crazed critics from imagining wrongdoing where none exists, we must avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Oh how noble we are, how dedicated we are to our craft of informing the public. It’s how you hear politicians talk when some scandal comes up—for as long as possible, they try and claim that there’s nothing bad going on, it’s just the appearance of wrongdoing that’s the problem.
So if Hoyt gets his way, the NYT would just stick in someone else with Bronner’s biases, but with no personal connection to the IDF and everything is fine.
I thought I might be wrong about Shipler but was writing too quickly & furiously to stop & research it. But as another commenter pts out Isabel Kershner too is Jewish & married to an Israeli. For some reason, I find her work to be less tendentious. But she does get the more prosaic assignments while Bronner gets to opine of the deeper subjects, which is where he gets into trouble.
In a sense, many of us of liberal bent and moderate conservatism (does such still exist?) remain at least partially conned by our deified “newspaper of record, The New York Times”. It generally remains a do-without publication for us progressive news addicts, but we might do better to heed a precautionary mantra when we succumb to our addiction: “Read anything of great domestic and international significance with several grains of salt.” Really! Think, and think long and deep, about that special Little Drummer Girl of our sine qua non daily, a certain Judith Miller, front-page embedded journalist-propagandist seriously helping move us to our criminal war on Iraq. Eventually after she was well smoked out, even the Times gently booted her, and where did she go? Why naturally, to The Manhattan Institute, a right-wing think tank. There was the dangerously deficient Times of the Bay of Pigs invasion and its appalling coverage of the fascist colonel’s coup against the Greek democracy, colored by C.L. Sulzberger’s love of the anti-democratic monarchy that had also collapsed from the activities of the largely American-trained putschists. Perhaps the greatest star of the Times is none other than that self-inflated pomposity, Thomas Friedman, remarkably wrong about so many things international, but just as remarkably free of self-checking. Then for a while it treated us to the neocon with the catatonic smile, that malevolent fool Bill Kristol, embarrassing even his employer, and it still blesses us with its more subtle neocon, David Brooks, another clean-cut purveyor who plays cute in his pretense at balancing his momentous but still rightist dicta – look closely at his take on the recent Haitian tragedy unless its stench overwhelms you. There are some honesty worthies working for the rag, who range from liberal to conservative (in the correct sense of the term) and who handily outdistance the creeps I’ve referenced. But if those protective grains of salt aforementioned might impact too much upon your blood pressure, I suggest you use the New York Times principally for book and theater reviews, its sometimes splendid gardening and local features, and various such pleasantries. There are otherwise serious alternatives to this iconic con.
“I suspect they make him even more tuned-in to the sensitivities of readers on both sides”. It would be nice if his suspicion were right, but as you have demonstrated again and again this is not the case, quite the opposite. You wrote a great piece.
“It is not a question of being Jewish, but rather what kind of Jew and reporter you are.”
Well Said! Bronner’s prior reporting has had a Zionist tilt to it. This will only distort it further.
NYTimes is a Jewish dominated paper, with a higher likelihood of an Israeli-centric views than say, an Arab-American dominated paper.
A couple of questions. Is Keller Jewish and/or a Zionist himself?
Does Bronner’s son, who is signed up for the Israeli army, have American citizenship as well? Why is that allowed, if it is so?
It is owned by a Jewish family, but to say it is Jewish dominated is borderline anti Semitic.
Keller is not Jewish as far as I know. I believe Bronner’s son has dual citizenship.