Sunday, February 07, 2010

Controversy erupts over NY Times reporter's IDF soldier son

The Grey Lady holds the line. New York's premier newspaper is resisting pressure to reassign Ethan Bronner, the Jerusalem correspondent who is in his third posting to the Holy Land, after his son, 20, volunteered to serve in the Israeli army. More than 400 complaints about a possible conflict of interest ensued. (Hat tip to Editor & Publisher in exile's blog for this post.

Clark Hoyt, the New York Times' public editor, in his Sunday column calls on the paper to re-assign its Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner, after word emerged that his son is serving in the Israeli military.

NYT executive editor has already responded, uh, no. His statement here, with link to Hoyt.


Alex Jones, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy and a former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Times, took a different view. “The appearance of a conflict of interest is often as important or more important than a real conflict of interest,” he said. “I would reassign him.” Jones said such a step would be an injustice to Bronner, “but the newspaper has to come first.”

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.


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.
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....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.