NYT editor defends reporter's Israel posting

Questions raised following report Ethan Bronner’s son is in the IDF.

February 8, 2010 03:20
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Can a foreign correspondent cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if his son is an IDF soldier?

The New York Times, in an opinion column on Saturday, answered “Yes” to that question when its executive editor Bill Keller defended the paper’s Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner, whose son is in the Israeli army.

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Bronner, an American Jew, has been posted here for the Times since March 2008, after serving as the paper’s deputy foreign editor for four years.

The possibility of a conflict of interest regarding his reporting was first raised a few weeks ago by a pro-Palestinian Web site, The Electronic Intifadah.

But many reporters and media critics were unaware of the controversy when contacted by The Jerusalem Post, although some did know that Bronner had a son in the IDF.

The issue is a sensitive one for English-language reporters in Israel, many of whom have ties to the country that they fear to highlight, lest they find their objectivity questioned, as Bronner’s has been.

“It is a very difficult subject,” Foreign Press Association president Conny Mus said. “It is fully in the hands of his newspaper to judge his ability.”

Government Press Office director Danny Seaman said this issue of bias comes up only regarding Jewish reporters.

For Seaman, the entire matter is not an ethical debate about bias and objectivity, but rather a smear campaign against Bronner.

“Why is he suddenly under attack when all the major media outlets such as AP, Reuters, the BBC and even The New York Times employ Palestinian reporters?” he asked.

Foreign media outlets employ 25 percent more Palestinians than Israelis when they hire local stringers, Seaman said.

The number of Israelis employed by these outlets has dropped, while the number of Palestinians has remained constant, he said.

There is a credibility issue that no one addresses, given that Palestinian reporters are subject to threats and coercion when they work, he added.

“What is happening with Ethan is a disturbing trend of raising questions and doubts for Jews employed by the foreign media. They always have to prove themselves as legitimate and credible. They are always guilty until proven innocent.”

But George Hale, the acting editor of The Maan News Agency, a Palestinian wire service, said standards regarding bias were much stricter when it came to Palestinian journalists.

“We would not even be having this debate if it were the other way around,” Hale said.

The Times would likely find it unacceptable if their Gaza correspondent had a son in Hamas’s military wing, he said. Still, he did not think that a reporter should be excluded from covering the conflict because he had a son in the IDF.

Alastair Macdonald, the Reuters bureau chief in Jerusalem, did not want to comment on the specific issue, but said instead that local reporters played an important role in covering the story.

“We have 70 reporters working for us in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and less than 10% of them are foreigners,” said Macdonald.

That’s a statistic that held pretty true in every part of the world, he said.

“If we did not use local reporters for the international media, there would be a lot less news available,” he said.

“Good international news is produced by a synthesis of local and international reporters working together to explain what is going on,” said Macdonald.

Former Time magazine bureau chief Matt Rees said the issue here was the appearance of bias, and not the actual nature of the reporting.

“It is something that looks better or worse depending on our own personal take on the conflict,” said Rees, who has gone to become a successful mystery novelist.

“If you are covering a conflict where public opinion is not so polarized, than having a direct link to a place gives you more credibility,” he said.

When it is a conflict that is as polarized as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that it is a big risk, said Rees.

“There are plenty of people [reporters] who come to Israel, stick around for a long time and marry an Israeli or become Israeli. They develop a connection to the country in that sense. It is usually clear that they are outside the core of foreign correspondents,” he said.

It’s rare, he added, for someone like Bronner, who has been shipped in for four or five years, to have this kind of direct connection to the country he works in.

In this case, the link is deeper, because Bronner is now the father of a boy who is potentially in danger.

On Saturday, the Times public editor, Clark Hoyt, wrote in an opinion column that despite his respect for Bronner’s work, he should be reassigned.

“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,” Hoyt wrote.

But Keller, the paper’s executive editor, said that they had a number of reporters with personal connections to the stories they covered or had covered in the past.

C.J. Chivers, an ex-US Marine, is embedded in a military unit in Afghanistan. Anthony Shadid, an American of Lebanese descent who is currently a correspondent for the Times based in Baghdad, covered the Second Lebanon War for The Washington Post.

“You and everyone you interviewed for your column concurs that Ethan Bronner is fully capable of continuing to cover his beat fairly. Your concern is that readers will not be capable of seeing it that way. That is probably true for some readers. The question is whether those readers should be allowed to deny the rest of our audience the highest quality of reporting,” Keller wrote.

“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,” Keller wrote.

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