The New York Times' Jerusalem bureau was embroiled in controversy two years ago when news broke that bureau chief Ethan Bronner had a son who enlisted in the Israeli army (Extra!, 4/10). As Bronner wraps up his tenure, a new conflict of interest has arisen: Bureau reporter Isabel Kershner's spouse works to promote favorable coverage of Israel at an Israeli government-linked think tank that Kershner frequently quotes.
As an article by Alex Kane in the May 2012 issue of Extra! reports, Kershner's husband, Hirsh Goodman, is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), an institution well-connected to the Israeli government and 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.
Goodman serves as director of the INSS's Charles and Andrea Bronfman Program on Information Strategy, whose purpose is to shape a positive image of Israel in the media. "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."
Kane's examination of articles written or co-written by Kershner found that she overwhelmingly relies on the INSS for think tank analysis about events in the region. From 2009 into 2012, 17 Times articles Kershner wrote or contributed to quoted officials from the INSS, far more than other comparable think tanks Kershner cited.
None of these articles disclosed that the reporter had a close family tie to one of the leading officials at the think tank being cited. Indeed, the New York Times has never disclosed this link to its readers. Kershner has been frequently criticized by FAIR (Extra!, 7/10, 4/11, 1/12) for misleading reporting that reflects the New York Times’ bias toward the Israeli government perspective.
The New York Times’ own ethics code recognizes that family ties may pose a conflict for journalists. "Staff members must be sensitive that direct political activity by their spouses...may well create conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts," the policy 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."
When the Bronner conflict was pointed out, then-New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt (2/6/10) noted it was problematic for Bronner to be reporting on "one of the world's most intense" conflicts while his son was a combatant on one side. Hoyt spoke to a former Times Jerusalem bureau chief, David Shipler, who stressed the importance of disclosing this relationship to readers.
Kevin Smith, the chair of the Society of Professional Journalists' Ethics Committee and an instructor in media ethics at James Madison University, says that Kershner's case is a "basic ethics 101 lesson." Smith told Extra!, "At the very least, disclosure is demanded."
The Times did not respond to Extra!'s request for comment, but Goodman, Kershner's husband, replied in an email after the magazine went to press. "If anything, that Isabel is married to me has prevented me from being quoted by the Times, or writing for the Times, though I am a senior member of the staff here, have written extensively on strategic and political affairs, am a columnist and author of four books and eminently quotable on a wide range of issues," he wrote. "Now is that fair?"
Please ask New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane to look into the conflict of interest posed by a correspondent's marriage to someone whose job it is to influence coverage on the issue she covers, working at an organization that she frequently quotes.
New York Times
Public Editor Arthur Brisbane