The New York Times refuses to confirm or deny a report that its Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner, has a child who is an enlisted member of the Israeli Defense Force--even though such a relationship would pose a serious conflict of interest.
The Electronic Intifada website (1/25/10), following a tip, asked Bronner whether it was true that he had a son in the IDF. EI got a reply from Times foreign editor Susan Chira:
The decisions of Bronner's son, however, are not the issue. What the Times needs to ask itself is whether it expects that its bureau chief has the normal human feelings about matters of life or death concerning one's child.
Might he feel hostility, for example, when interviewing members of organizations who were trying to kill his son? When the IDF goes into battle, might he be rooting for the side for which his son is risking his life? Certainly such issues would be taken very seriously if a Times reporter had a child who belonged to a military force that was engaged in hostilities with the IDF; indeed, there's little doubt that a reporter in that position would not be allowed to continue to cover the Mideast conflict.
Having a conflict of interest, it should be stressed, is not the same thing as producing slanted journalism; rather, it means that a journalist has outside motivations that are strongly at odds with his or her journalistic responsibilities. That a journalist has been "scrupulously fair" in the past does not excuse an ongoing conflict of interest; journalists should not be placed in a position where they have to ignore the well-being of their family in order to do their job, nor should readers be expected to trust that they can do so.
That said, Bronner's reporting has been repeatedly criticized by FAIR for what would appear to be a bias toward the Israeli government. For example, Extra! (3/09) questioned an article that Bronner (1/13/09) wrote on Israel's 2009 invasion of Gaza that claimed that unspecified "polls have shown nearly 90 percent support for the war thus far"; FAIR's magazine noted that this was "a statistical unlikelihood in a country that is 20 percent Palestinian." The same piece by Bronner claimed that "the largest demonstration against the war so far, with some 6,000 participants, was organized by an Arab political party"; an article by Agence France-Presse (1/3/09) had reported that "tens of thousands" of Israeli Arabs had protested against the war in the Israeli town of Sakhnin. (See also Extra!, 1-2/08, 7/09; FAIR Blog, 2/4/09).
As Electronic Intifada pointed out, the New York Times' own policies acknowledge that the activities of family members may pose a conflict of interest: "A brother or a daughter in a high-profile job on Wall Street might produce the appearance of conflict for a business reporter or editor," and such conflicts may require a journalist "to withdraw from certain coverage." Given this policy, it is unacceptable for the Times' foreign editor to take the position that the military status of Bronner's children is of no concern. The question posed by EI must be asked again: Does the New York Times' Jerusalem bureau chief have a son in the Israeli military, and if so, why doesn't this pose a conflict of interest?
ACTION: Please ask the New York Times public editor to investigate whether Times Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner has a child in the Israeli Defense Force, and, if so, why such a relationship is not seen as posing an unacceptable conflict of interest.
New York Times
Clark Hoyt, Public Editor
You can leave copies of your messages to the New York Times on the FAIR Blog here.