Apr 1 2010

Covering a Son’s War at the NYT

Editor rejects call for Jerusalem chief’s reassignment

Photo Credit: New York Times

Photo Credit: New York Times

Can a journalist neutrally cover a conflict that his child is fighting in? That’s the question posed by the news that the son of New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner joined the Israeli Defense Forces.

The Times’ policies acknowledge that family members’ activities might require a journalist to “to withdraw from certain coverage”; their example is a business reporter or editor with “a brother or a daughter in a high-profile job on Wall Street.” If a child’s livelihood might color one’s reporting, wouldn’t that child’s life itself do so even more?

When activists asked New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt about the issue (FAIR Action Alert, 1/27/10), he agreed (2/6/10) that Bronner’s situation was a serious concern:

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.

But Times executive editor Bill Keller (2/6/10) rejected Hoyt’s suggestion that Bronner be reassigned, going out of his way to insult readers who questioned the reporter’s ability to impartially report a story in which his child’s life is at stake. Giving Bronner another beat, Keller wrote, would be “pandering to zealots” and “capitulat[ing] to the more savage partisans who make that assignment so difficult—and who make the fair-mindedness of a correspondent like Ethan so precious and courageous.” Supporting Keller’s judgment, on the other hand, made you one of those “readers who care about the region and who follow the news from there with minds at least partially open…readers who genuinely seek to be informed.”

Keller was almost forced to impugn the motives of those who didn’t accept his judgment, because he advanced no principled argument for maintaining Bronner in his position other than his subjective impression that his reporter is doing an impeccable job. Since others come to a different conclusion (Extra!, 1-2/08; CounterPunch, 2/5/10), their judgment must be denigrated.

Keller mainly does this by equating concern over Bronner’s family ties to the conflict with subjecting journalists to an ethnic test: “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?”

This comparison is utterly specious: Taking people off a jury because of their race is bigotry; removing them because the defendant has threatened to kill their family members is common sense. But Keller seemed determined to suggest that enforcing his paper’s own conflict of interest policies would be like a return to the era of “gentlemen’s agreements” and Jim Crow. He brought up another journalist’s ethnicity as a rationale for ignoring Bronner’s family situation:

Anthony Shadid, who currently covers Iraq for us, is an American of Lebanese descent. He covered the Israeli invasion of Lebanon for the Washington Post, and he wrote with distinction and fair-mindedness…. I know that his background—what you and [Harvard media critic] Alex Jones might call his appearance of a conflict of interest—enriches his work with a deep appreciation of the language, culture and history of the region.

Though he insinuates that Hoyt and Jones (who also called for Bronner’s reassignment) judge reporters by their ancestry, it’s actually Keller who seems to view journalism through an ethnic lens. Does it surprise Keller that an Arab-American could report fairly from Arabic-speaking countries? If not, why bring it up in a discussion of whether a journalist can put aside a close personal connection in a way that many reporters would find genuinely challenging?

Toward the end of his response to Hoyt, Keller proposed that having a child in the IDF might actually make Bronner a better, more impartial reporter:

My point is not that Ethan’s family connections to Israel are irrelevant…. 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.

It’s very difficult to imagine Keller arguing that having a son fighting for Hamas, Fatah or Hezbollah would similarly enhance a reporter’s sensitivity and fairness.