Want to create common ground between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups? Just hold a meeting to complain about the Middle East coverage in The New York Times.
I’m not breaking any news by suggesting many Jews have a problem with the Times. If, during a speech at a synagogue, I were to say shrimp is actually kosher, the audience would nod politely and invite me to stay for coffee. But if I were to say that The New York Times is fair to Israel, I’d probably be chased into the parking lot.
What might surprise a Zionist is the degree to which Israel’s critics also think the Times is biased — against their side. It was pro-Palestinian groups, it seems — groups like the Angry Arab News Service (no kidding) and Electronic Intifada — that began a drumbeat over the fact that the son of Ethan Bronner, the Times bureau chief in Israel, has joined the Israel Defense Forces. On Sunday, the Times’ ombudsmen, Clark Hoyt, weighed in on whether that fact creates an untenable conflict of interest for Bronner. His conclusion: It does.
Hoyt defends the integrity of Bronner’s reporting, and quotes people who vouch for his credentials, track record, and professionalism. But Hoyt concludes that the Times should reassign Bronner, on the grounds that no matter the quality of Bronner’s work, readers would rightly detect a conflict. “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,” wrote Hoyt. “Even the most sympathetic reader could reasonably wonder how that would affect the father, especially if shooting broke out.”
Times executive editor Bill Keller disagrees — strongly. He writes that the Times has other reporters whose biographies might appear to pose a conflict, but that the paper’s reporters and editors are able to discern when such ties compromise their work and when they actually enhance a reporter’s understanding of a beat.
Keller writes that Bronner’s family ties to Israel “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.”
Whatever your feelings about the Times, you might want to thank Keller for standing up to what he calls the “savage partisans” who think Bronner can’t report fairly on the Middle East. To “capitulate” to their demands, writes Keller, is a slippery slope. “So to prevent any appearance of bias, would you say we should not send Jewish reporters to Israel?” he asks. “If so, what about assigning Jewish reporters to countries hostile to Israel? What about reporters married to Jews? Married to Israelis? Married to Arabs?”
He concludes: “Ethical judgments that start from prejudice lead pretty quickly to absurdity, and pandering to zealots means cheating readers who genuinely seek to be informed.”
That’s a stirring rebuke to the Angry Arabs, but it is also a little unfair. Questioning the objectivity of a foreign correspondent with a son in the army of the nation he is covering is a little different from suggesting a Jew can’t cover the Middle East fairly. Keller, after all, notes that the Times has policies about “the nature and extent of a reporter’s personal or family involvement in a story.” Keller may conclude that Bronner is “fully capable of continuing to cover his beat fairly,” but he can’t blame a guy for asking.
And for about five minutes there I agreed with Hoyt that perhaps, given the passions of the Mideast, Bronner should be reassigned for the duration of his son’s IDF service. But two writers whom I respect, Ron Kampeas of the JTA and Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, turned me around.
Goldberg, a Jew who has covered Israel and is friendly with Arabs who have done the same, fiercely defends the idea that reporters can separate their personal attachments from their reporting. Kampeas, meanwhile, has defended Palestinian colleagues, knowing that attempts to discredit them on ethnic or religious grounds would backfire on Jewish reporters.
Hoyt raised a fair question. Keller provides a reasonable response: Note the biography, but judge the writer on his or her work. Insist on full disclosure, and insist that the writer do his or her job professionally.
The debate also holds up a helpful mirror to our own community. We’ve turned press criticism into a blood sport, scouring Israel coverage for signs of bias, as if peace would descend on the Middle East if only every article would tell the story as we want it to be told. Israel’s critics, I promise you, are doing the same thing. They accuse Bronner and other mainstream reporters of ignoring Palestinian grievances and humanizing Israelis.
But it isn’t a zero-sum game: The other side doesn’t have to be 100 percent wrong if your side is to be right. And day in and day out, the Times gets it mostly right.
I know, I know: My bias is showing. First one to the parking lot is a rotten egg.