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.