The New York Times’ correspondent in Jerusalem, Ethan Bronner, has a son who has enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces. Does that compromise Bronner’s ability to report for the Times from Jerusalem?
The Times’ public editor, Clark Hoyt, says yes, and calls for Bronner to be reassigned:
There are so many considerations swirling around this case: Bronner is a superb reporter. Nobody at The Times wants to give in to what they see as relentlessly unfair criticism of the paper’s Middle East coverage by people hostile to objective reporting. It doesn’t seem fair to hold a father accountable for the decision of an adult son.
But, stepping back, this is what I see: 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 have enormous respect for Bronner and his work, and he has done nothing wrong. But this is not about punishment; it is simply a difficult reality. I would find a plum assignment for him somewhere else, at least for the duration of his son’s service in the I.D.F.
Bill Keller, the Times’ executive editor (the boss), says no:
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.
Readers, like reporters, bring their own lives to the newspaper. Sometimes, when these readers are unshakeably convinced of something, they bring blinding prejudice and a tendency to see what they want to see. As you well know, nowhere is that so true as in Israel and the neighboring Palestinian lands. If we send a Jewish correspondent to Jerusalem, the zealots on one side will accuse him of being a Zionist and on the other side of being a self-loathing Jew, and then they will parse every word he writes to find the phrase that confirms what they already believe while overlooking all evidence to the contrary. 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? Married to Israelis? Married to Arabs? Married to evangelical Christians? (They also have some strong views on the Holy Land.) What about reporters who have close friends in Israel? Ethical judgments that start from prejudice lead pretty quickly to absurdity, and pandering to zealots means cheating readers who genuinely seek to be informed.
My point is not that Ethan’s family connections to Israel are irrelevant. They are significant, and both he and his editors should be alert for the possibility that they would compromise his work. How those connections affect his innermost feelings about the country and its conflicts, I don’t know. 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. I do know he has reported scrupulously and insightfully on Israelis and Palestinians for many years.