22 Feb

New York Times & Others -Media conflict of interest debate

Al Jazeera English – LISTENING POST – Media conflict of interest debate.

This week on the Listening PostAl Jazeera put the spotlight on a debate concerning the New York Times and its apparent conflict of interest in Israel. Also, we report on the tug of war for control of Kenya’s media.

The focus  is on one of the most respected newspapers in America and the world – the New York Times. Early this month, Electronic Intifada – a website devoted to Israel-Palestine news revealed a serious potential conflict of interest for the Time’s Ethan Bronner, Jerusalem Bureau Chief.

The website had received a tip that Bronner’s son had volunteered to join the Israeli Army. The online newsbreak forced the Time’s hand and Clark Hoyt, the paper’s public editor,  wrote a column in which he admitted his reservations about keeping Bronner in his position.

His article provoked a response from Bill Keller, the Time’s chief editor – his disagreement with couldn’t be clearer. Richard Gizbert analyses the complexities of a debate that is not just about a conflict of interest, but also about how one of the world’s most credible newspapers reports the Israel-Palestine conflict.


The Public Editor

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.


Bill Keller Takes Exception to “Too Close to Home”


Because today’s Public Editor column takes the unusual step of recommending that a respected Times journalist be reassigned, I thought it only fair to offer Bill Keller, the executive editor, an opportunity to respond in full. Here is what Keller had to say:

Much as I respect your concern for appearances, we will not be taking your advice to remove Ethan Bronner from the Jerusalem Bureau. I’m happy to explain my thinking. 

It’s not just that we value the expertise and integrity of a journalist who has covered this most difficult of stories extraordinarily well for more than a quarter century. It’s not just that we are reluctant to capitulate to the more savage partisans who make that assignment so difficult — and who make the fairmindedness of a correspondent like Ethan so precious and courageous. 

It is, in addition to those things, a sign of respect for readers who care about the region and who follow the news from there with minds at least partially open. You seem to think that you ( and Alex Jones) can tell the difference between reality and appearances, but our readers can’t. I disagree.

As you say in your column, our policies require us to pay attention to potential conflicts of interest, or appearances of such conflict, that could impair our credibility in the eyes of readers. Editors at The Times take those policies very seriously, because we love this paper and prize its reputation, and because we write regularly about conflicts of interest in other institutions. But our policies are designed to make us alert, not to preempt our professional judgment. 

In some cases the rules are clearcut. (A business reporter, even one of unquestioned integrity, cannot own stock in a company he or she covers. That’s the policy.) But more often the rulebook leaves us wide latitude to apply our own judgment of how to best serve our readers, taking several things into account: the nature and extent of a reporter’s personal or family involvement in a story, the real potential for undue influence, the reporter’s track record for fairmindedness, the risk to the paper’s reputation. Sometimes possible conflicts of interest can be resolved by disclosure. Often they can be resolved by carefully defining the boundaries of an assignment. (We have had reporters in Washington married to spouses who worked in Congress or the executive branch; we make sure to keep a distance between the reporter’s beat and the spouse’s work, but we do not put the entire federal government off limits.) 

Sometimes it’s a matter of avoiding certain stories. (A reporter married to a defense lawyer can cover the courthouse, but someone else will be sent to cover a trial when the spouse is part of the defense team.) You seem to see this as a binary choice: either we ignore the situation, because we trust the reporter, or we remove him from the assignment, because it might cast doubt on the paper’s credibility. But our rules — and real life — are more complicated. 

Every reporter brings to the story a life — a history, relationships, ideas, beliefs. And the first essential discipline of journalism is to set those aside, as a judge or a scientist or a teacher is expected to do, and to follow the facts. Of course, journalism is made by human beings, and our lives seep into our stories — sometimes in the form of bias, but often in valuable ways. C. J. Chivers, who is currently embedded with a military unit in Afghanistan, is an ex-marine. I don’t know whether that makes him more likely to agree with the American venture in Afghanistan or more likely to want to bring our troops home — and, to his credit as a professional, nothing in his coverage of that war tells me his politics. But I do know that when he walks patrols with soldiers or marines in Afghanistan, he knows what he is seeing, and he knows what it means, in a way I would not. 

Anthony Shadid, who currently covers Iraq for us, is an American of Lebanese descent. He covered the Israeli invasion of Lebanon for the Washington Post, and he wrote with distinction and fairmindedness. Again, I don’t know his politics and can’t discern them in his work, but I know that his background — what you and Alex Jones might call his appearance of a conflict of interest — enriches his work with a deep appreciation of the language, culture and history of the region. 

Nazila Fathi, our brave Tehran correspondent, was hounded out of her native country and into exile by the current regime. Does that “conflict of interest” disqualify her from writing about Iran? Or does that, on the contrary, make her more qualified, knowing as she does how that regime operates? Would you prefer to have a correspondent in Tehran who had NOT been persecuted by the Iranian government? 

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. 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. And I have no doubt that if a situation arose that presented a real conflict of interest, as opposed to an imaginary or hypothetical one, we would discuss it, and he would not hesitate to recuse himself. 

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