Feb 12 2010

NYT Responds on Family Tie to Israeli Military

Hoyt urges Bronner's reassignment; Keller denounces 'savage partisans'

New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt (2/6/10) responded to messages from FAIR activists (Action Alert, 1/27/10; FAIR Blog, 1/27/10) by affirming that a reporter covering a conflict in which his child is an armed participant ought to be reassigned. But Times executive editor Bill Keller (2/6/10) rejected Hoyt’s reasoning, saying that Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner would remain at his post despite revelations that his son had joined the Israeli Defense Forces.

Calling Bronner a “superb reporter” with “an excellent track record,” Hoyt said the news about his son’s enlistment (Electronic Intifada, 1/25/10) raised “tough questions”:

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…. I would find a plum assignment for him somewhere else, at least for the duration of his son’s service in the IDF.

Keller, the Times‘ top editor, rejected this advice, however, arguing that any fair-minded reader would accept that Bronner is an unbiased reporter whose journalism could not possibly be colored by the fact that his child’s life is at stake in the conflict he covers. (FAIR and other critics cited specific instances where Bronner’s reporting seemed to take the Israeli government’s side, none of which Keller addressed.) Wrote Keller, responding to Hoyt’s column:

You and everyone you interviewed for your column concurs that Ethan Bronner is fully capable of continuing to cover his beat fairly. Your concern is that readers will not be capable of seeing it that way. That is probably true for some readers. The question is whether those readers should be allowed to deny the rest of our audience the highest quality of reporting.

Keller went out of his way to insult readers who did question Bronner’s ability to report on the conflict impartially, saying that reassigning the reporter would be “pandering to zealots” and “to capitulate 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.” Those who would approve of Keller’s choice, on the other hand, were “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 is almost forced to impugn the motives of those who don’t accept his judgment, because he advances no argument for maintaining Bronner in his position other than his subjective impression–shared by those who agree with him–that his reporter is doing an impeccable job. Since others have a different impression, their judgment must be denigrated.

Keller hit on one method of discrediting his critics’ motives when he equated concern about a reporter’s familial involvement in an armed 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?”

It’s specious to equate the connection between Jews and Israel with that of a reporter with a close family member involved in an armed conflict, but it does serve to throw the distraction of anti-Semitism into the discussion.

Similarly, Keller put forth an example to try to demonstrate the problem with his critics’ thinking:

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 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.

Aside from the unfairness of attributing to Hoyt and Jones an argument grounded in bigotry, it’s a false analogy: Coming from a particular ancestry or ethnic background is in no way comparable to having an immediate family member with a life-or-death stake in the story a reporter is covering. But while it doesn’t work as an analogy, Keller’s argument does serve to imply that Bronner’s critics, who could surely have no problem with the Arab Shadid, must therefore simply be anti-Semitic–and to protect Keller himself from charges of racism.

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.

You can read Clark Hoyt’s full column here:


And Bill Keller’s response here:


You can send a message to Bill Keller via the link on his bio page: