Ethan Bronner should no longer be The New York Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief now that his 20-year-old son has joined the Israeli Army, the newspaper’s public editor says.
Wading into a controversy that pro-Palestinian activists have been trying to fan for the past few weeks, Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt said in his column Sunday that the perception of a conflict of interest should be enough to transfer Bronner to “a plum assignment” elsewhere as long as his son is in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
Times Editor Bill Keller said Bronner had alerted the paper to his son’s involvement in the military, as required by the newspaper’s ethics guidelines. Those guidelines “say that if a family member’s activities create even the appearance of a conflict of interest, it should be disclosed to editors, who must then decide whether the staffer should avoid certain stories or even be reassigned to a different beat.”
For his part, Keller said in a long response to Hoyt’s column that Bronner was doing an excellent job in a particularly sensitive beat where, as Hoyt wrote, every word is “parsed microscopically.”
“You and everyone you interviewed for your column concurs that Ethan Bronner is fully capable of continuing to cover his beat fairly,” Keller wrote. “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 said the paper’s reporters are set upon by all sides in the Mideast conflict. “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.”
Hoyt said the issue had generated more than 400 messages to the public editor, and that while he saw no evidence of bias in Bronner’s reporting, the conflict was too apparent to be ignored:
“There are so many considerations swirling around this case: Bronner is a superb reporter. Nobody at The Times wants to give in to what they see as relentlessly unfair criticism of the paper’s Middle East coverage by people hostile to objective reporting. It doesn’t seem fair to hold a father accountable for the decision of an adult son.
“But, stepping back, this is what I see: 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.”
In comments to Hoyt, Bronner said, “I wish to be judged by my work, not by my biography. Either you are the kind of person whose intellectual independence and journalistic integrity can be trusted to do the work we do at The Times, or you are not.”