Too close to home

Late last month, a Web site called the Electronic Intifada reported that Ethan Bronner, the Jerusalem bureau chief of The Times, has a son in the Israeli military. Others, including Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a liberal media watchdog group, demanded to know if it was true and, if so, why it did not create an unacceptable conflict of interest for Bronner and The Times.

Bill Keller, the executive editor, confirmed that Bronner’s son enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces and said, “He’s a 20-year-old who makes his own decisions.” Bronner told me his son joined in late December for roughly a year of training and six months of active duty before he returns to the United States for college. Bronner said he had alerted his editors, as the paper’s ethics guidelines require. Keller said the editors discussed the situation “and see no reason to change his status as bureau chief.”

Bronner occupies one of journalism’s hottest seats, covering the intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. As the top correspondent for America’s most influential newspaper, everything he writes is examined microscopically for signs of bias. Web sites like the Angry Arab News Service have called him a propagandist for Israel. I have received hundreds of messages heatedly contending the opposite: that his coverage is slanted against Israel. Sometimes the “evidence” is a single word in one news article. Sometimes it is his “failure” to show how one side or the other is solely to blame for what is happening.

“No place, date or event in this conflicted land is spoken of in a common language,” Bronner wrote in The Times last year after the three-week Israeli assault on Gaza, intended to stop rocket fire into southern Israel. “Trying to tell the story so that both sides can hear it in the same way feels more and more to me like a Greek tragedy in which I play the despised chorus.”

Since the initial report of his son’s enlistment, I have heard from roughly 400 readers, many of them convinced that Bronner could not continue in his current assignment. Linda Mamoun of Boulder, Colo., wrote that although she found Bronner’s coverage “impressively well-written and relatively even-handed,” his position “should not be held by anyone with military ties to the state of Israel.” His son has the direct ties, not Bronner. But is that still too close for comfort?

The situation raises tough questions about how the paper best serves its readers, protects its credibility and deals fairly with a correspondent who has what I believe is an excellent track record.

Keller told me, “Ethan has proved himself to be the most scrupulous of reporters,” despite intense scrutiny, “some of it honest and reasonable, some of it savagely partisan and distorted.” He added, “We have the utmost confidence that his work will continue to meet the highest standards.”

When Bronner wrote last year about the suffering of people in Gaza, I heard from readers angry because he did not say it was the Palestinians’ own fault. When he reported on complaints by some Israeli soldiers about a permissive attitude toward the killing of civilians, I heard more criticism. When he wrote that Israel was preparing to rebut the Goldstone Report alleging war crimes by both sides in the Gaza fighting, he was accused of parroting the government’s case. In these and many other instances, I found his reporting solid and fair.

Bronner said, “I wish to be judged by my work, not by my biography.” He said he has been writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for 27 years, and, “Either you are the kind of person whose intellectual independence and journalistic integrity can be trusted to do the work we do at The Times, or you are not.”

If only it were that simple. The Times has extensive written ethics guidelines because even the best and most honorable journalists can find themselves in awkward circumstances that can affect their credibility — and the newspaper’s — with a public that has little trust in journalists. In this case, the guidelines stop far short of dictating what should be done. They say that if a family member’s activities create even the appearance of a conflict of interest, it should be disclosed to editors, who must then decide whether the staffer should avoid certain stories or even be reassigned to a different beat.

Keller said that if Israel launched a new assault into Gaza and Bronner’s son were a foot soldier, “I don’t think I’d have any problem with Ethan covering the conflict.” It would be a tougher call if the son rose to a commanding role, he said, and if the son’s unit were accused of wrongdoing, Keller said he thought he would assign another reporter.

I asked David K. Shipler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, what he would do. Shipler was The Times’s Jerusalem bureau chief a generation ago and its chief diplomatic correspondent until he left the paper in 1988. He said foreign correspondents operate in far more nuanced circumstances than readers may realize. They may rely on translators and stringers with political ties or biases that have to be accounted for. They develop their own relationships that enrich their reporting, just as Bronner’s son’s military service could open a conduit for information that other reporters might not have.

“There are always two questions,” Shipler said. “One is whether there is an actual conflict; the other is whether there is the appearance of a conflict. Given the high quality of Bronner’s reporting, I don’t see an actual conflict.” He said he thought Bronner should remain in his post and The Times should disclose the situation. Keller and Bronner responded freely to my questions, but the paper has otherwise been tight-lipped so far.

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.

This column was originally published in The New York Times on February 7, 2010.

A response from New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller can be found at The Public Editor’s Journal.

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