Culture, Israel

Ethan Bronner's Son: a Liability For His Objectivity?

I rarely, if ever, post about Israel. And in this case, I’m more interested in this story because it’s about journalism than because it’s about Israel. (I’m the editor in chief of my university’s student-run newspaper, hence my interest.)

If you haven’t been following this story, the gist is that The New York Times‘ man in Israel, Ethan Bronner, now has a son in the Israeli Army. Questions are now flying every-which-way about whether Bronner’s coverage of Israel can remain objective.
Here are the details at Tablet, and a couple of posts at Tikkun Olam. And, perhaps most significantly, a piece by the NYT Public Editor calling for Bronner’s resignation.
Regardless of what you think of Bronner’s reporting (and everyone seems to have an opinion about it!), I’m more interested in the theory here. Would an American journalist in the midst of a conflict in which most young Americans were drafted be asked to take a break for the duration of the conflict? Do Israeli journalists take a breather while their son/daughter completes his/her military service?
None of these questions are meant rhetorically. I’m interested in exploring them.

27 thoughts on “Ethan Bronner's Son: a Liability For His Objectivity?

  1. From an e-mail I got from my newspaper’s faculty advisor this morning: “I thought of you when I read this this morning. I agree with Hoyt, that Bronner should be reassigned, just to avoid the appearance of conflict. The press has to be more pure than Caesar’s wife in all ways, and this is one of them, no matter that it takes Bronner away from the beat he’s worked hard to develop.”

  2. I think it’s a really interesting question.
    What are the limits though in the other direction? Can a political correspondent (either in the US, Israel or anywhere else) be registered with any political party? This is not even Bronner himself, but his grown son. I’m surprised some wouldn’t question his ability to be objective knowing that his wife is Israeli? Or what about the question of can a Jew in general be a foreign correspondent in Jerusalem – would that create an inevitable bias? I think you can make arguments for both sides, and I think Bronner himself can still be very much objective, but if the appearance of conflict is something you want to avoid, than you have to reassign him.

  3. I’m surprised some wouldn’t question his ability to be objective knowing that his wife is Israeli? Or what about the question of can a Jew in general be a foreign correspondent in Jerusalem – would that create an inevitable bias?
    People do. People have. More for the Israeli wife than for being Jewish, but still.
    (My understanding is that almost all the foreign/English-language press corps in Israel is Jewish. I have a good friend from college who works for the AP out of Ramallah. I think he’s both the only non-Arab Arabic speaker working for AP in Israel/Palestine and the only non-Jewish American.)

  4. Just wanted to add that I think this is more of an issue for Bronner than it would be for some other reporters because his objectivity has been questioned a lot over the years. You end up with a “last straw” quality here that another reporter might not have to deal with.
    On the one hand, presumably all the Israeli reporters who served themselves and who have grown children who are serving still manage to do their jobs – or not. It comes down to the ethics of the reporters and their publications.
    On the other hand, it’s feasible for a publication to have higher standards when they’re assigning foreign correspondents than a way that it’s simply not in domestic coverage where EVERYONE obviously has a stake in the issues, just by virtue of being citizens and residents of the country and community they’re covering.

  5. The Times would be a lot better paper if it spent less time worrying about the appearance of objectivity, and more about getting at the truth. It appeared to be objective when is served as a government propaganda channel in the run-up to the Iraq war…. but it didn’t get the truth, did it?

  6. I’m with em. A local paper obviously has an interest in the locality. But the Times is not a local paper, and so has the luxury of having foreign correspondents who are “disinterested”. It’s an important luxury to keep.

  7. Good points, em.
    Reb Yudel, that’s a good point too. And I might’ve been exactly with you a year ago, but this whole editor in chief thing has changed how important I think the appearances of objectivity a paper maintains are.

  8. Like Ethan Bronner, I had a son serving in the Israeli army during years I covered the Middle East (both Arab & Israeli) for US News & World Report. I don’t believe my concern for my son’s safety influenced my reporting, my integrity or that of my magazine. Facts are facts, news is news. Indeed, I recall times when my Mideast coverage provoked almost as equal a number of angry notes from piqued Jewish readers as it did from unhappy Arab ones. (Fortunately, there were also a lot of kudos).
    I have known and worked witrh Ethan Bronner during more than 15 years. I don’t always agree with his assessments of the Arab-Israeli conflict (I would hardly portray him as being overly pro-Israel). But he is a competent and dedicated journalist. Would we disenfranchise an American war correspondent who had a son or daughter who volunteered to serve a year in Afghanistan or Iraq? Part of the problem is The New York Times’ ongoing hyper-sensitivity about the Jewish roots of its founding and still controlling family. That bending over backwards is what lead The NY Times to fail so miserably to properly report the Holocaust during World War II. It is also why the Times refused to base any American Jewish correspondent in Israel for the first 25 years of the Jewish state’s existance.

  9. every publication has its own weltenschaaung and method of framing that is regulated by its editors. as long as bronner sticks to the New York Times viewpoint and reports accordingly, whats the problem? either way, the editors are giving the public the same news from the same basic viewpoint. also, the guy is a reporter, not a corrupt politician. give him some credit.

  10. “Would an American journalist in the midst of a conflict in which most young Americans were drafted”
    I dont think Bronner’s son was drafted. He’s 20 years old, and is only serving for a year and a half. Sounds more like he volunteered.
    This Huffpo piece is pretty harsh on Bronner:
    “Let’s get somethings straight. Ethan Bronner is not and never has been a ‘superb reporter’ and there are plenty of reasons why he should not be allowed to run the Times’ biggest Middle Eastern bureau, let alone commit blatant anti-journalistic acts on behalf of the ‘paper of record’–the last of which is his son’s military service. No other reporter has turned the paper of record into a mouthpiece for the Israeli occupation more than Ethan Bronner and that is quite an accomplishment for a publication that so consistently represents one party’s agenda.”

  11. The attacks on Bronner are surprising. He’s not that bad compared to the comparison pool.
    I think the left wing attacks on him are more about finding some tasty looking meat to chew on. It’s a good chunk of meat. So what if the bias isn’t that bad?

  12. What none of these commenters have mentioned is this question: What would the New York Times do if one of its journalists had a son who joined Hamas or, for that matter, the Syrian or Lebanese military.
    Either parents should not be held responsible for their children’s choices, or they should be dealt with even-handedly. I believe that Ethan Bronner is being granted special treatment because it’s Israel we’re talking about.

  13. Jillian- why the comparison to Hamas? What about these scenarios:
    1) A sports writer whose daughter competes in the Olympics?
    2) A political correspondent whose brother runs for office?
    3) A tech correspondent who owns stock in Apple?
    I am not sure how the Times or any other paper would respond if the children of any of their other journalists served in the military where their parents were assigned. But Israel is a country with a draft, and so it’s incredibly common for even foreign correspondents’ children to be in the army (though em- i think your assessment of the foreign press corps in general as being mostly jews is off, though basically right regarding AP). Some of the journalists who ask the most critical questions are ones who have children serving or who served themselves; I hope this will allow Ethan to continue to ask insightful questions.

  14. Abunimah: Jews can report on Palestinians, but the other way ’round?
    Yes, recently they have had Taghreed El-Khodary in Gaza — who some like (Weiss for instance), but others (such as As’ad AbuKhalil) have strongly criticized. But here is a crucial point: El-Khodary is allowed to report only on Palestinians. Neither she nor any other Arab reporter is allowed to report on Israeli Jews. While Jews/Americans may report on Palestinians, the converse is not true. Why is this? It must be — I assume — because there is an inherent, perhaps unacknowledged assumption that an Arab/Palestinian is or will be automatically biased against Israelis/Jews. Whereas, we are supposed to accept that in no case is a Jewish reporter who identifies with Israel biased even when his son has joined an occupation army that is raiding Palestinian refugee camps and communities dozens of times per week. Seriously?
    To what can we attribute this double-standard? I am afraid it smacks of racism.

  15. “we are supposed to accept that in no case is a Jewish reporter who identifies with Israel biased even when his son has joined an occupation army ”
    It’s not a blanket rule – it’s based on what the Times thinks about the individual journalist’s credibility over years of journalism. Your point about no Arab or Palestinian covering Jewish affairs is valid, if we’re talking about racial discrimination, but it’s also possible that a journalist living in the West Bank or Gaza Strip would not have the freedom of movement – nor contacts within the Jewish Israeli world – to fulfill the role of foreign journalist to the highest potential – you could however I think a more valid point would be about an Israeli Arab covering Israel.
    That said, going back to Bronner, if he is covering the conflict itself, and he has a close relative with a role in the conflict (I guess you make the case that all Israelis/Palestinians have a role, but you know what I mean) – and that point is well known – then if the Times values preventing what Hoyt calls the possible “appearance of bias”, than Bronner should probably be reassigned.

  16. xisnotx- are you an expert on the subject? While there are fewer Arab foreign correspondents in Israel than Jews (quite possibly for all the reasons mentioned in the above posts)- there are nevertheless Arab foreign correspondents in Israel.

  17. Arie,
    I’ll happily stand corrected on the demographics of the foreign press corps. Since you seem to know a lot about it, do you know if any of the other publications or wire services have reassigned reporters because of their kids’ service or whether any of them even have policies about it?

  18. Em,
    I’m pretty sure they haven’t, but I don’t know for sure.
    A quick look says correspondents for BBC, CNN, Fox, NPR, most major British papers, and more are not Jewish (nor are any of them Arab).
    On the other hand, this is all likely to change, because many bureaus are closing in the region, leaving major papers to leave their work to stringers (locals who work from the field), who are more likely to be Jewish from within pre-67 Israel, and Palestinian stringers if covering the territories.

  19. just to be clear — what I posted were quotes from ali abunimah of the electronic intifada, who first brought the issue of bronner’s son to light. he’s the one who grouped jews & americans; i think what he means is the NYT will assign Jews, either Israeli — like Isabel Kershner, or american like bronner – & maybe he also meant americans in general? but never american reporters of Palestinian or Arab origin, or non-american Palestinians, to report on Israel.
    Arie – which news orgs do the Arab reporters you cite work for? do they predominently work for Arab news sources?

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