Ethan Bronner’s Conflict With Impartiality
Ethan Bronner is the New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief. As such, he is the editor responsible for all the news coming out of Israel-Palestine. It is his job to decide what gets reported and what doesn’t; what goes in a story and what gets cut.
To a considerable degree, he determines what readers of arguably the nation’s most influential newspaper learn about Israel and its adversaries, and, especially, what they don’t.
His son just joined the Israeli army.
According to New York Times ethics guidelines, such a situation would be expected to cause significant concern. In these guidelines the Times repeatedly emphasizes the importance of impartiality.
This is considered so critical that the Times devotes considerable attention to “conflict of interest” (also called “conflict with impartiality”) problems, situations in which personal interest might cause a journalist to intentionally or unconsciously slant a story.
The Times notes that family affiliations may cause such a conflict; as an example, it explains that a daughter’s high position on Wall Street could be problematic for a business reporter.
In situations where such a familial affiliation is considered significant, the journalist may be moved to a different area of reporting.
Ethan Bronner’s situation, therefore would appear to be sticky, at the very least. It is difficult to imagine that a son fighting for the foreign nation an editor is charged with covering does not constitute such a potential conflict with impartiality. Apart from Mr. Bronner signing up with the Israeli military himself, it is difficult to imagine a clearer example of familial partisanship.
Yet, to date, Bronner and the Times have refused to address his situation. Foreign Editor Susan Chira (who may also have family allegiances to Israel) has declined to comment, other than refer people to her curt response to Electronic Intifada, which had asked her whether it was true that Bronner’s son was in the Israeli military:
"Ethan Bronner referred your query to me, the foreign editor. Here is my comment: Mr. Bronner’s son is a young adult who makes his own decisions. At The Times, we have found Mr. Bronner’s coverage to be scrupulously fair and we are confident that will continue to be the case."
If that were, indeed, the case for Bronner’s reporting, there would undoubtedly be less concern from outside observers. There are numerous instances of accurate reporting by both Israeli and Palestinian journalists; familial and personal affiliation do not necessarily or always result in flawed journalism.
However, while both Chira and Bronner may believe he has been “scrupulously fair” in the years that he has been the paper’s top editor on Israel-Palestine (before assuming his current position as Jerusalem bureau chief in March 2008, he had been deputy foreign editor overseeing the region for four years), a number of studies and analyses contradict this contention.
In 2005 a study by If Americans Knew found that the Times had covered Israeli children’s deaths at a rate over seven times greater than it had reported on Palestinian children’s deaths – even though Palestinian children’s deaths had occurred first, in far greater numbers, and there was considerable evidence that Palestinian young people were being killed intentionally by official Israeli forces. Princeton Professor Emeritus Richard Falk and media critic Howard Friel undertook a meticulous analysis of the Times’ coverage of the issue; the title of their book indicates their findings: "Israel-Palestine on Record: How the New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East." Among others things, Falk and Friel discovered that the Times had failed to report the essential fact that all Israeli settlements are illegal under international law. A 2006 study published in the Electronic Intifada revealed that during the previous six years there had been 80 reports by respected international organizations detailing human rights violations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of these, 76 had been primarily critical of Israel, and four had been primarily critical of Palestinians. The study found that the Times had reported on two of the reports for each, giving readers an exceedingly distorted view of the real situation. In a recent announcement expressing concern at Bronner’s apparent conflict of interest, media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) stated that "Bronner’s reporting has been repeatedly criticized by FAIR for what would appear to be a bias toward the Israeli government," detailing specific examples.
Shifting the Blame
Several years ago the San Francisco Jewish Bulletin published an article exploring Jewish student journalists’ views on how to report on Israel-Palestine. Several said that they would find it difficult to report negative aspects about Israel, one interviewee saying that he would try to avoid printing such news. If that proved impossible, he said, he would then try to find a way "to shift the blame."
New York Times’ news coverage often seems to follow this pattern. When the Gaza massacre of December-January is reported, Gazan rockets are inevitably mentioned. However, the fact that these largely home-made projectiles have killed far fewer Israelis in the eight years they have been used (under 20) than Israeli forces killed in a few minutes during the invasion is virtually always omitted. Likewise left out is the fact that their use began only after Israeli forces had invaded Gaza on a number of occasions, killing and injuring numerous civilians.
The Times consistently reports Israeli actions as retaliatory, despite the fact that, according to an MIT study, in at least 96 percent of ceasefires and periods of calm it was Israeli forces that had first resumed violence. In the conflict that began in fall of 2000, Israeli forces killed over 140 Palestinians before a single Israeli in Israel was killed, 91 Palestinian children (major cause of death, gunfire to the head) before a single Israeli child was killed.
An example of Bronner’s Israel-centric reporting is a November, 2009 report on prisoners. Bronner notes that the Israeli soldier captured by Palestinians (the only Israeli prisoner held by Palestinians) is "bespectacled and boyish-seeming," while failing to mention that many of the over 7,000 Palestinians prisoners held by Israel are equally bespectacled and boyish-seeming – in fact, 300+ are not just boyish, they are children.
While Bronner includes personal information about the Israeli prisoner, he includes very few facts about Palestinian prisoners; for example, that hundreds have never been charged with a crime and that those whom Israel has found "guilty" were tried in military courts under military law in a military occupation of Palestinian land that much of the world deems illegal. While Bronner’s story contains considerable mention of “terrorism,” it fails to report that Israeli forces killed over a thousand Gazan civilians; Palestinians killed one Israeli civilian.
Interestingly, connections to the Israeli military may not be rare for journalists covering the Middle East for US media.
The husband of NPR’s longtime correspondent for the region, Linda Gradstein, was a sniper in the Israeli army (and may still be a reserve officer). “Pundit” Jeffrey Goldberg, who appears throughout the media, immigrated to Israel, became an Israeli citizen, and served in the Israeli military. (It is unknown whether he is still in the Israeli reserves; it is possible he received a dispensation from this requirement.)
The New York Times’ other major correspondent from the region, Isabel Kershner, is an Israeli citizen. While there is universal compulsory military service in Israel, we have been unable to confirm that Kershner herself and/or her family members have been or are in the Israeli military.
Breaking the silence
Recently, the Israeli organization "Breaking the Silence" published 96 testimonies by female Israeli soldiers. They describe a pervasive pattern of violence, harassment, theft, and humiliation practiced by Israeli forces against Palestinian men, women, and children. Below are excerpts:
"We caught a five-year-old… the officers just picked him up, slapped him around and put him in the jeep. The kid was crying and the officer next to me said ‘don’t cry’ and started laughing at him. Finally the kid cracked a smile – and suddenly the officer gave him a punch in the stomach. Why? ‘Don’t laugh in my face’ he said."
“…it’s boring, so we’d create some action. We’d get on the radio, and say they threw stones at us, then someone would be arrested… There was a policewoman, she was bored, so okay, she said they threw stones at her. They asked her who threw them. ‘I don’t know, two in grey shirts, I didn’t manage to see them.’ They catch two guys with grey shirts… beat them. Is it them? ‘No, I don’t think so.’ Okay, a whole incident, people get beaten up. Nothing happened that day."
"…two of our soldiers put him [a Palestinian child] in a jeep, and two weeks later the kid was walking around with casts on both arms and legs…they talked about it in the unit quite a lot – about how they sat him down and put his hand on the chair and simply broke it right there on the chair."
An officer described soldiers shooting to death a nine-year-old as he was trying to run away: “They shot in the air, as they say – shot in the air in the lungs…”
In their testimonies, these soldiers emphasize that mistreatment of Palestinian civilians is widespread, routine, and known to everyone. Both the Israeli and the Palestinian press have published excerpts.
Yet, New York Times Bureau Chief Ethan Bronner has so far failed to report this information about Israeli forces.
And his son has just joined up.
ALISON WEIR is executive director of If Americans Knew and a board member of the Council for the National Interest (CNI). For more information on Ethan Bronner and his upcoming speaking tour on college campuses, join IAK’S email list. Alison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The New York Times Company Policy on Ethics in Journalism. This also states: “Companywide, our goal is to cover the news impartially… and to be seen as doing so. The reputation of our company rests upon that perception…”
“Susan Chira, New York Times Foreign Editor, confirms, excuses Bronner’s conflict of interest,” Israel-Palestine: The Missing Headlines,” Jan. 27, 2010
“New York Times fails to disclose Jerusalem bureau chief’s conflict of interest
Report,” The Electronic Intifada, January 25, 2010
“New York Times’ Ethan Bronner’s Conflict of Interest: Conversation with Bronner and Alternative News Sources” AlisonWeir.org, January 26, 2010
“Off the Charts: Accuracy in Reporting of Israel/Palestine – The New York Times,” If Americans Knew, 2005
“Israel-Palestine on Record: How the New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East,” Richard Falk, Howard Friel; ZNET Interview, May 31, 2007
“The New York Times Marginalizes Palestinian Women and Palestinian Rights,” Electronic Intifada, Nov. 17, 2006
“Does NYT’s Top Israel Reporter Have a Son in the IDF?” FAIR, January 27, 2010
“Killing Palestinians doesn’t count: Is a ceasefire breached only when an Israeli is killed?” CounterPunch, January 29, 2009
“Reigniting Violence: How Do Ceasefires End?” Huffington Post, January 6, 2009
“The Coverage–and Non-Coverage–of Israel-Palestine,” The Link, July-August 2005, Vol 38, Issue 3
“Jewish journalists grapple with ‘doing the write thing’” Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, Nov. 23, 2001
“Prisoner Swap Appears Near in the Mideast,” Ethan Bronner, New York times, Nov. 23, 2009
“Political prisoners in Israel-Palestine,” If Americans Knew
“Israel, Hamas in mutual gestures on prisoners,” Reuters, Sept. 30, 2009.
“Female soldiers break their silence,” YNET, Jan. 20, 2010 (According to its website, “Ynetnews is part of the prominent Yedioth Media Group, which publishes Yedioth Ahronoth – Israel’s most widely-read daily newspaper)
“Testimonies of Israeli Female Soldiers Regarding Violations Against Palestinian Civilians,” International Middle East Media Center, January 30, 2010
“BREAKING THE SILENCE: Women Soldiers’ Testimonies,” 136-page booklet by the Israeli Breaking the Silence organization