Bronner, Keller, Hoyt

Sitting in a hotel room in Bangalore, I did a BBC World Service interview on the ruckus over Ethan Bronner, the Jerusalem bureau chief of the New York Times, whose 20-year-old son is entering the Israeli army for compulsory military service. Bronner had declared this fact to the NYT, which had apparently decided that this did not compromise his independence. The facts were dug out by a blog called the Electronic Intifada and Clark Hoyt, the NYT’s Public Editor, took soundings. Hoyt concluded that the NYT’s editor Bill Keller should reassign Bronner, at least for the 18 months of Bronner Junior’s military service. In a lengthy reply, Keller rejected the advice.

In the BBC interview today, I inclined to Keller’s view. Richard Beeston, ex-Jerusalem correspondent and Foreign Editor of The Times, said that Bronner would be unable to be seen as unbiased in any military crisis involving the Israeli armed forces. And those crises seem frequent.

I have to admit I made heavy weather of a difficult case. If you read the blogs, it is quite plain that most writers who gleefully urge the NYT to move Bronner are simply seizing on an excuse to clobber a correspondent whose reporting they already disliked. But this is everyday media life in the Middle East. Nothing, not one word, written or spoken by any correspondent is free of accusation of bias.

I have no view about Bronner’s record as a reporter. But I do have sympathy for the core of Keller’s case that all reporters come to a story with some baggage; connections are part of life and some of them may even enrich a reporter’s understanding. Bronner’s wife is Israeli: does that invalidate what he does? At what point does a family connection invalidate a reporter’s efforts to stay careful and fair? If a reporter has shown to his editors that he can navigate the traps and endless tempations to spin the story, why should a 20-year-old’s military service automatically change the equation?

One of the answers to this of course is the “perception” of a conflict of interest. But for a news organisation, concession of that case should surely be a last resort. Otherwise, in highly charged and polarised places like the Middle East, every sign, every hint, every connection will be used to create the “impression” of a conflict which the journalist can’t handle. That could involve editors moving a lot of pieces on the board – and more importantly a lot of expertise lost and unfairness into the bargain.


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