You Can’t Be a Neutral Observer of Your Child’s War

New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt (2/21/10) returns to the issue of Times Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner having a child fighting on one side of the conflict he’s covering (FAIR Activism Update, 2/12/10):

Some Times journalists have taken issue with my position in this case, believing it suggests that no Jewish reporter could fairly cover the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (or, for that matter, a corollary: that a Muslim of Arab descent could not cover Iraq). Until Thomas L. Friedman was sent to Jerusalem in 1984, the Times would not assign a Jew to that post, a sorry history that nobody should want to repeat.

But there is a huge difference between being a Jewish reporter covering the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and being a reporter whose son has enlisted in the Israeli military. For one thing, as the letter from Ira Glunts illustrates, there is no unanimity among Jews about Israel. To suggest otherwise is to buy into stereotypes. Good reporters bring their life stories to their work and learn both to mine them for material and to correct for bias. But having a son take up arms in a foreign fight you are covering–any fight–creates intolerable pressures and appearances, in my view. I would have said the same thing if the Times had had a reporter in Northern Ireland with a son in the British military there–or fighting with the Provisional Irish Republican Army….

If it isn’t acceptable for a Jerusalem correspondent’s son to volunteer in the Israeli Defense Forces, would it be OK for him to be in the United States Army? My answer is yes, though the reporter’s assignment might be affected by what his son was assigned to do–and where. Though some journalists concerned with objectivity may not always be comfortable with it, readers expect American reporters and their family to be part of this society and to exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. But they don’t expect a correspondent sent to cover an intense overseas conflict to wind up heavily invested in one side–or to be perceived as such–even if it is through the action of a close family member over whom the reporter has no control.

Hoyt is right to reject the odious equation of concern over Bronner’s situation with the idea that Jews (or Muslims) should be barred from reporting on the Middle East. The assumption that reporters will naturally side with their own ethnic group is bigotry, and the Times shouldn’t try to appease any readers who make that leap. If there is any personal tie to a story that a journalist should not be expected to be able to set aside, however, surely it’s having a child whose life or death is at stake.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.