Monday, February 08, 2010

Ethan Bronner and the Public Editor of the New York Times

The Public Editor of the New York Times is calling for Ethan Bronner, the New York Times chief correspondent in Israel, to be reassigned for the period when his son is serving in the Israel Defense Forces. Fortunately, Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times, disagrees.

The concern of Hoyt (the Public Editor) seems to be not that Bronner would actually be biased in his research and writing, but that some readers would perceive him as being prejudiced. As Keller makes clear in his reply to Hoyt, the New York Times is endlessly scrutinized for its Israel/Palestine coverage, and people on both (or many) sides of the issue are quick to criticize them for it. I've had Jewish friends accuse the Times of being anti-Israel, and I've had other friends claim that the Times is reflexively pro-Israel (one such conversation included the awkward claim that the Times was pro-Israel because the owners of the newspaper are Jewish - my interlocutor, whom I had thought was a friend, was unaware of the newspaper's shameful role during WWII in downplaying the gravity of the Holocaust). For an example of the claim that the Times' reporting is reflexively pro-Israel, see the first comment to Keller's response, which comes from Alison Weir, who is convinced that Israel can never do anything right.

Keller asks very cogent questions about who it is that should be trusted to report the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
Readers, like reporters, bring their own lives to the newspaper. Sometimes, when these readers are unshakeably convinced of something, they bring blinding prejudice and a tendency to see what they want to see. As you well know, nowhere is that so true as in Israel and the neighboring Palestinian lands. 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.
He also gives examples of other Times reporters who have a personal involvement of some kind in the area they are reporting about - for example, he brings up the case of Nazila Fathi, the Times correspondent in Tehran. Should she not be permitted to report on Iran because the Iranian regime hounded her out of the country?
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? Or does that, on the contrary, make her more qualified, knowing as she does how that regime operates? Would you prefer to have a correspondent in Tehran who had NOT been persecuted by the Iranian government?
It seems to me that Hoyt is calling for an impossible standard which would lead to an absurdity - reporters who do not care at all about the place or topic they are reporting on. One of the things I had noticed over the years about the Times' reporting on Israel is that every few years they would send a new person to be the chief correspondent. They did not have as their chief correspondent someone who actually lived in the country for a long time - nor did it seem they even had Israeli or Palestinian correspondents (perhaps some stringers). I think it is a good thing that the Times is now employing reporters who know Israel thoroughly because they are Israelis or have lived in the country long term. (For example, Isabel Kershner, whom I first read in the Jerusalem Post probably about twenty years ago, is now reporting for the Times pretty regularly). Perhaps if they are worried about the appearance of bias, they should be careful to employ a Palestinian reporter to write regularly for the Times on an ongoing basis (the reporter they used in Gaza last year during the Gaza War seemed excellent to me).

Tablet Magazine has just weighed in on this issue, on the side of Hoyt - "Hoyt and I agree that Bronner has been fair-minded. But Hoyt and I also agree with Alex Jones, a Pulitzer-winning Harvard press expert. He told Hoyt: 'The appearance of a conflict of interest is often as important or more important than a real conflict of interest. I would reassign him.' Such a move, frankly, is unfair to Bronner, 'but the newspaper has to come first,' he added."

I repeat that this is an impossible standard for the newspaper. Does this mean now that the excellent Gaza reporter the Times had last year for the Gaza War shouldn't work for them because of her inevitable personal stake in the course of the war? In Iraq the Times also employs many Iraqi staffers, some of whose names actually even show up as bylines. Should they be fired because they also have a stake in the ongoing fighting there? I imagine that some are Shi'ites, some are Sunnis, some are Kurds, some are Christians - all groups that are struggling over what is going to happen in Iraq. I think it is actually a plus for the Times to have reporters who are from a particular place - as long as they can adhere to journalistic standards. I have not seen any reporting from the local reporters in Iraq or Gaza or Israel that has led me to believe that they are violating journalistic standards.

And why is Tablet Magazine piling on in this argument? It's a Jewish publication - do they believe that an Israeli Jewish reporter would be incapable of reporting on Israel/Palestine fairly? What about Isabel Kershner, who is an Israeli and who writes for the Times? She immigrated to Israel from Britain and is an Israeli citizen. She used to report for the Jerusalem Report (and I think also for the Jerusalem Post). NPR employee Linda Gradstein, who is an American Jewish immigrant to Israel, has reported for them for at least 15 years. I don't think she's served in the IDF, but her husband may have. Does that mean she's incapable of reporting fairly on Israel/Palestine?\

Jeffrey Goldberg has written two good posts on this issue - Pandering to Zealots, in which he says:
.....reporters are capable of actually separating out their personal interests from their coverage. I've worked with Palestinian reporters in Gaza and the West Bank, many of whom have had family ties to Fatah and, in one case, even to Hamas, but without fail they've functioned as professional news-gatherers interested only in getting the story before the competition. I don't think the Times should stop using Palestinian reporters in the West Bank and Gaza, because if it did so, its coverage would suffer. And its coverage of Israel would suffer immeasurably if the Times bent to the pressure of anti-Israel propagandists and removed Ethan Bronner from his post. I'm just glad Bill Keller is the editor of the Times, and not Clark Hoyt. 
Amen to that point. His second posting is in response to a reader's inquiry about "Why not have Jewish reporters cover Gaza? Why not have Palestinians cover Israel?" He answers:
A good question. Two answers: First, Jewish reporters do cover Gaza. And Palestinians do, in fact, cover Israel. Anyone who has been in the Knesset press room knows that Palestinians, working for Arab outlets, as well as European and American publications, are busy covering the main issues of the day. Answer number two: There could always be more of this cross-cultural coverage. I, for one, would love to read a Taghreed al-Khodary [who has reported for the New York Times] profile of Bibi, or Gabi Ashkenazi, or whomever, not only because she's a great reporter, but because she would draw out different responses from these men, based on her background and knowledge, than I could. I trust her to be fair and accurate, so why not?


  1. Rebecca,

    I agree with Mr. Keller (and you) in this. And, on top of that, Ethan Bronner is actually a good reporter.

    And, while I would not call the NY Times instinctively pro-Israel, it certainly is not hostile to Israel. And, the reporting does make the effort to show what all involved think, something lacking almost entirely from, say, the coverage in British newspapers, where the coverage is voluminous but openly partial.

    By the way, I do not think that the current Mr. Sulzberger is Jewish. Perhaps many other in his family and in the Ochs family are Jewish but, as I understand it, he is not.

  2. Thank you for your comments. I actually don't know if the current Sulzberger is Jewish, and I suspect that to people like my ex-friend, it didn't matter - the newspaper just had the reputation of being owned by a Jewish family.

  3. Rebecca,

    You have intrigued me to look a bit into Sulzberger's background. If this is accurate, he is Episcopalian. On the other hand, this Wikipedia-like source indicates, based on the interesting book, The Trust, as follows:

    Arthur Jr. and his sister Karen were confirmed at Manhattan’s St. James Episcopal Church, and although Arthur (“Pinch”) read books about Judaism and erratically attended Jewish services he told Tifft and Jones that in London as an Associated Press reporter during the 1970s he held a Passover seder in his flat. His grandmother Iphigene, who happened to be in Britain, came as an honored - and somewhat nonplussed - guest. "I consider myself Jewish. No one else would, but I do," Arthur Jr. told an oral historian for the American Jewish Committee several years later.

    My Dad called the NY Times owners non-Jewish Jews. That seems to be just about right. Samuel Friedman - no relative, so far as I know - indicates:

    Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the publisher in the mid-20th century, "probably would just as soon not have been Jewish," his daughter Judith told Tifft and Jones. The next publisher, Arthur Ochs ("Punch") Sulzberger, married an Episcopalian and had their children baptized and confirmed. One of them is the current publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., nicknamed "Pinch."

    As for your friend, he would no doubt be from the Anti-conversos party.

  4. Oops. The Wikipedia-type source can be found here.

  5. I think it's Freedman (not Friedman), for this particular writer.

    My ex-friend was unaware that the owners (or some of them) of the Times had become Episcopalian, although I do wonder if she would have believed that the conversion really made a difference.

    We didn't actually have a discussion on this issue - we were having a conversation about the New York Times and coverage of Israel and she said something about the Times being pro-Israel because its owners were Jewish. I was so astonished by this claim that I replied with the statement about the Times downplaying the gravity of the Holocaust while it was happening. I should have directly challenged her on her anti-semitic statement, but I was so astonished I didn't know what else to say.

  6. Rebecca,

    It is hard to imagine that, other than someone who goes by the sound of the name of its owners, that anyone would call The New York Times reflexively pro-Israel.