Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The ultimate Ethan Bronner - New York Times - IDF - Conflict of Interest post

A great deal of ink has been spilled over the revelation that New York Times Jerusalem correspondent Ethan Bronner's son has joined the Israel Defense Forces. Bronner's son will serve for approximately the next 18 months, spending roughly 12 of those in training. The issue was first reported by the website Electronic Intifada, who raised concerns that a correspondent covering a conflict who has a son serving in the military of one of the parties may find his partiality compromised due to the potential conflict of interest. I posted on this issue once before, but wanted to more thoroughly flesh out my opinion of the situation and point my readers in the direction of some other great commentary on journalistic integrity as it relates to the Ethan Bronner story. What first began as an issue revealed by Electronic Intifada made its way through the usual Israel-Palestine blogs where it apparently caused enough of a stir to force the New York Times, Haaretz, and even ABC News to cover the crisis - for journalists love when other journalists make news, especially if it is (potentially) scandalous. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) has described Bronner's situation as posing an unacceptable conflict of interest if he is continued to be allowed to report on the Israeli military.

The first official statement from the Times came in the form of an opinion piece by Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt, who filled in some of the blanks as far as what the paper new and when it new it. Ethan Bronner did inform his editors, including executive editor Bill Keller, that his son had joined the IDF, though the editors at the Times, what they themselves refer to as the "gold standard of journalism" saw no cause for concern that having a familial connection to the Israeli military might pose a conflict of interest. Keller went so far in his support of Bronner by pretty much announcing that he'd follow him to hell and back if need by by declaring that even if Israel launched a new war in Gaza and Bronner's son was on the front lines, he would still not reassign him. I find this sort of blanket denial that conflict of interests do occur during the course of a journalist's career incredulous, especially coming from an executive editor like Keller. If having a son fighting on the front lines of a war you are covering does not pose a serious conflict of interest, I am not sure I understand what does. The Times, who condemned Peter Galbraith so quickly for his undisclosed financial ties to Kurdish oil fields, seems to believe that as long as potential conflicts are all disclosed, no conflict of interest can ever occur.

Public Editor Clark Hoyt, who interviewed two academics in the field of journalism (one who thought Bronner should be reassigned and the other who thought the paper should simply disclose his son's service), disagreed with Keller. Hoyt ends his piece by airing his conclusion of what to do about the situation:

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.

I think Hoyt's analysis of the situation is solid and compelling. He was thorough, did his research, and rendered his verdict based on the hard facts of the situation. Executive Editor Bill Keller's response was just the opposite; it's dismissive, arrogant, stubborn, and trite. He stands by the Times decisions to not disclose (until it was disclosed for them) Bronner's potential conflict and to not reassign him. Keller explains several situations where a conflict of interest would be present: a business reporter owns stock in a company he covers, a reporter's wife serves on the defense team of a trial he's covering, or a political reporter's husband is running for office in a race she's reporting on. All of these are indeed conflicts of interest because they compromise the ability of a reporter to be truly fair and detached, but by Keller's logic how could Ethan Bronner's situation not pose a problem for a human reporter to forget that his son serves in the military whose actions he covers daily in the context of a conflict between two sides. Bronner is only human, and he would certainly experience the anxiety and fears any loving father would when his son takes up arms in a bloody conflict that could lead to him being in extremely dangerous situations. How could he be expected to be meticulously even-handed when interviewing Hamas affiliates who support the capture or killing of Israeli soldiers such as his son? When the military his son serves in is accused of wrongdoing, war crimes no less, how can he be expected to cast aside all emotion and expose the potentially criminal acts that his son may have been associated with? The short answer is he cannot.

Keller continues his dismissal, blaming partisan hacks for questioning the Times and asserting that if Bronner was anything other than an emotionless, thoroughly fair, and detached human-robot cyborg he would never have been hired by the Times. The most disgusting part of his piece is this:

My point is not that Ethan’s family connections to Israel are irrelevant. They are significant, and both he and his editors should be alert for the possibility that they would compromise his work. 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.

Reporters having connections and using those connections to get a better story is certainly not wrong, but it's almost as if this man, the executive editor of the New York Times, doesn't understand the point of a conflict of interest. In such situations, because a reporter is only human, he simply cannot be expected nor relied upon to provide detached, evenhanded coverage. In the same way a judge must excuse himself from presiding over a case of a loved one, a reporter must respect his readers enough to know that he is simply not the man for the job. Even if he stays determined to go the extra mile for fairness, he is still human and to ask a father to cast aside the emotions felt for a son in combat is unfair in itself. Pointing out that up to this point Bronner's reporting has been meticulously evenhanded (as Keller does) is completely irrelevant. His past work does not matter because his son was not in the military of one of the major actors.

Keller also burns the straw man when he points out that his paper receives angry letters all the time for sending Jewish reporters to report on Israel. I have no problem with that, as religion and nationality (Bronner is Jewish, his wife is Israeli, as is the Times other Jerusalem correspondent Isabel Kershner) do not pose the sort of conflict of interest that having a son serving in the military of one of the parties of the Israel-Palestine conflict does. Would the times allow a Palestinian reporter with a son in Hamas' military wing to report on Hamas militant activities? Of course not, because that's an obvious conflict. But why then, is the IDF different? I have no problem with Bronner reporting on Palestinian elections, reconciliation attempts, Israeli politics, or the peace process. However, he should excuse himself from reporting on any stories that involve, in any sense, the Israel Defense Forces. This would be the honorable thing to do, and the responsible thing for the New York Times to demand from him.

Once even a tiny amount of friction was found at the paper, both Haaretz and ABC News covered the situation, though neither added much to the fray. ABC News simply asserted that the Times had failed to disclose the potential conflict to their readers.

No comments:

Post a Comment