After the news broke that New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner had a son who enlisted in the Israeli army (Extra!, 4/10), Times public editor Clark Hoyt noted (2/6/10) that it was problematic for Bronner to continue reporting on “one of the world’s most intense” conflicts while his son took up arms for one side. Hoyt spoke to a former Times Jerusalem bureau chief, David Shipler, who stressed the importance of disclosing this relationship to readers.
Bronner is now close to the end of his tenure in Jerusalem. But two years after that controversy, the New York Times has yet to learn the importance of disclosure. And the concealed relationship again concerns a Times reporter who writes from Jerusalem: This time, it’s correspondent Isabel Kershner.
But even more damning is this: Her husband, Hirsh Goodman, works for the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) as a senior research fellow and director of the Charles and Andrea Bronfman Program on Information Strategy, tasked with shaping a positive image of Israel in the media. An examination of articles that Kershner has written or contributed to since 2009 reveals that she overwhelmingly relies on the INSS for think tank analysis about events in the region.
The close family tie Kershner has to the leading Israeli think tank, a branch of Tel Aviv University, has never been disclosed to readers of the New York Times. The paper did not return requests for comment.
The INSS is well-connected to both the Israeli government and its military. Many of its associates come from government or military careers; its website boasts of the group’s “strong association with the political and military establishment.” In 2010, according to INSS financial documents, the Israeli government gave the institute about $72,000.
The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz (10/5/08) identified INSS-produced papers as backing the “Dahiyah doctrine,” an Israeli military doctrine that calls for disproportionate force to be used on civilian infrastructure in Gaza and Lebanon during operations against Hamas and Hezbollah. The doctrine was applied in 2008-09 during Israel’s invasion of Gaza, and was cited, along with the INSS papers, in the UN Goldstone report, which accused Israel of committing possible war crimes (9/25/09).
Goodman’s job within that context is spin. “The media is of strategic importance in a political and military conflict, since it has a formative influence on the degree of legitimacy that each side enjoys,” he writes in an explanation of the Bronfman Program on the INSS website. “Israel must devise a strategy to impact positively on international and Arab public opinion and overall disseminate its message more effectively.”
The INSS is certainly disseminating its message effectively in the Times. From 2009-12, there were 17 articles Kershner wrote or contributed to where officials from the INSS were quoted, far more than other comparable think tanks Kershner uses for analysis. Over the same time period, for example, the Shasha Center of Hebrew University was quoted two times and the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa was quoted once.
It’s normal, of course,for Kershner to have sources in a well-connected and respected institution like the INSS, and she has never used her husband as a source. But it’s extraordinary to report on Israel/Palestine without ever disclosing to readers the tie Kershner has to someone in the heart of Israel’s security establishment whose job is precisely to make sure that Israel receives favorable media coverage.
Media ethics expert Kevin Smith, the chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee and an instructor at James Madison University, says that Kershner’s case is a “basic ethics 101 lesson.” In an email, Smith explained: “Repeatedly going to that agency for information still raises serious questions…. The relationship that develops here is not healthy for unbiased news coverage. It’s too awash with personal connections.”
He added that, “at the very least, disclosure is demanded…. You cannot expect trust or to maintain credibility from the public when, before they read a word of your copy, you have engaged in an act of deception by not disclosing your potential conflicts.”
The New York Times’ own ethics code recognizes the problems such a situation raises. “Staff members must be sensitive that direct political activity by their spouses…may well create conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts,” one section states. “If newsroom management considers the problem serious, the staff member may have to withdraw from certain coverage. Sometimes an assignment may have to be modified or a beat changed.”
Kershner’s situation, like Bronner’s, also illustrates that many Western journalists covering Israel/Palestine are enmeshed within Israeli society, and Israeli society only—hardly a recipe for fair and inclusive coverage of the conflict.
“While it would be convenient to think otherwise, there is no question that this deep personal integration into Israeli society informs our overall understanding and coverage,” one unnamed Jerusalem bureau chief told Israeli-based British journalist and author Jonathan Cook, explaining Western media bias in Israel/Palestine (CounterPunch, 2/25/10).
Kershner’s case should be seen as the emblem of this “deep personal integration.” At the very least, there should be transparency about her family ties.
Alex Kane is a staff reporter for Mondoweiss and the World editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.