FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The New York Times, Israel and Ethan Bronner

by ROBERT JENSEN

The New York Times’ public editor wrestled this week with conflict-of-interest charges sparked by the revelation that Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner’s son had joined the Israeli army. The executive editor of the paper responded with a defense of the paper’s decision to keep Bronner in that position.

Although it had the appearance of a spirited exchange, the “debate” was a tired old diversion that keeps us from facing more important questions, not just about the Israel/Palestine conflict but about U.S. journalists’ coverage of the world. As is typical in mainstream journalists’ discussions of journalistic neutrality and objectivity, the focus on an individual obscures more important questions about the institutions for which individuals work and the powerful forces that shape those institutions’ picture of the world.

The question posed by the Times officials is framed in the narrowest terms: Could Bronner maintain his neutrality and objectivity given those family circumstances, or was that indirect connection to one side of the war “still too close for comfort,” in public editor Clark Hoyt’s words. In his Sunday column, Hoyt described Bronner as a “superb reporter” but concluded that the paper should reassign him to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. Executive editor Bill Keller argued that such a policy would disqualify many reporters from assignments that draw on their specialized knowledge and diminish the quality of the reporting in the paper, and concluded there is no reason to reassign Bronner.

The problems with the coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict in the Times, and virtually every other corporate-commercial news outlet in the United States, are not the result of biases of specific reporters, though individual reporters may indeed have allegiances to one side of an issue. The mainstream media have a conflict of interest at a deeper level — they are unwilling to break with the conventional wisdom about the conflict that dominates in the United States, especially among U.S. policymakers. U.S. news coverage of the conflict relentlessly presents the news within this Israeli narrative, primarily because powerful forces in this country find that narrative useful for U.S. strategic interests in the region, and U.S. journalists tend to fall in line with that view.

As one well-known mainstream reporter once grudgingly admitted to students at my university, American journalism tends to “follow the flag.” In this case the U.S. flag is planted firmly on the Israeli side of the conflict.

If that strikes you as harsh, try a thought experiment. Imagine the controversy that might arise if a Muslim-American or Arab-American correspondent married to a Palestinian had a child who joined Hamas or some other Palestinian political/military organization. Does anyone think the executive editor of the paper would defend the reporter so vigorously?

At the very least, the reporter would be expected to disavow any sympathy for Hamas and denounce the group’s use of terrorism. Even if the correspondent offered such denunciations, a reassignment would be likely.

Is Bronner being asked to make such statements? Is he being asked to denounce Israeli terrorism?

No, because the Israeli narrative — the one that U.S. policymakers endorse — does not acknowledge that systematic violence against Palestinian civilians to advance Israeli political goals is, in fact, terrorism. Independent reports, of which the U.N.’s “Goldstone Report” is simply the latest, make it clear that such violence is a consistent feature of Israeli policy, but in this Israeli/U.S. narrative, such violence is presented as self-defense. So, Bronner can’t be asked to denounce a reality that the narrative does not recognize.

This is what is called neutrality and objectivity in mainstream journalism. Power establishes the framework, and reporting goes on within that framework. Some journalists find inventive ways to find the fissures in the system, allowing some coverage that offers an alternative view, but the pattern of coverage remains constrained by the dictates of the powerful.

So, in the Israel/Palestine conflict, U.S. reporters accept the dominant narrative of the legitimacy of Israeli violence to maintain control over the land and resources that Israel wants to retain. Palestinians argue that Israel is a colonial settler state that uses the predictably violent tactics of such states, ignoring international law and moral principles in large part because U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military support provides cover. Most of the world supports Palestinian resistance, while in the United States the public is mostly unaware of the basic facts of the conflict. (For an excellent analysis, see the film “Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land: Media and the Israel-Palestine Conflict.“)

When supporters of Palestinian rights in the United States complain about the incomplete or distorted nature of U.S. coverage, they usually are swept up in a he-said/she-said battle with the more reactionary faction of Israeli supporters. Mainstream journalists typically see themselves as embattled truth-tellers, fending off ideologues and absorbing invective from each side.

So, Keller lauds Bronner for reporting “scrupulously and insightfully on Israelis and Palestinians for many years,” which is an accurate assessment of Bronner’s work if one accepts the Israeli/U.S. narrative of self-defense as authoritative. Within that narrative, reporters such as Bronner can raise questions about the most troubling examples of Israeli violence, so long as the basic framework is accepted. This allows Keller to stand tall, declaring that “pandering to zealots means cheating readers who genuinely seek to be informed.”

Are there zealots on both sides, ideologues who don’t care about facts and want the news to reflect their vision of the world? Of course — the world is full of such people on many issues. But that says nothing about whether the Times’ de facto adoption of the Israeli/U.S. narrative in its reporting is defensible.

If U.S. journalists reduced their reliance on official sources and considered challenges to the way U.S. policymakers define the conflicts of the world, they might be able to resist the tendency to follow the flag (the phrase, by the way, was used by former CBS News anchor Dan Rather during a speech in which he acknowledged that U.S. reporting, including his own, about the 1991 Gulf War often was flawed).

If U.S. journalists could break out of the frameworks of the powerful, they would have to take up the more difficult work of coming to a truly independent assessment of such conflicts. That kind of journalism is crucial not only to hopes for real justice and peace in the Middle East, but also to the hopes for deeper democracy in the United States.

ROBERT JENSEN is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center http://thirdcoastactivist.org. His latest book is Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007). Jensen is also the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (both from City Lights Books); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang). He can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/index.html.

More articles by:

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully (Counterpoint/Soft Skull, fall 2015). http://www.amazon.com/Plain-Radical-Living-Learning-Gracefully/dp/1593766181 Robert Jensen can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online at http://robertwjensen.org/. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html. Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Notes. [1] Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996), p. 106. [2] Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). [3] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, edited and with a revised translation by Susan McReynolds Oddo (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2011), p. 55.

Weekend Edition
November 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Thank an Anti-War Veteran
Andrew Levine
What’s Wrong With Bible Thumpers Nowadays?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The CIA’s House of Horrors: the Abominable Dr. Gottlieb
Wendy Wolfson – Ken Levy
Why We Need to Take Animal Cruelty Much More Seriously
Mike Whitney
Brennan and Clapper: Elder Statesmen or Serial Fabricators?
David Rosen
Of Sex Abusers and Sex Offenders
Ryan LaMothe
A Christian Nation?
Dave Lindorff
Trump’s Finger on the Button: Why No President Should Have the Authority to Launch Nuclear Weapons
W. T. Whitney
A Bizarre US Pretext for Military Intrusion in South America
Deepak Tripathi
Sex, Lies and Incompetence: Britain’s Ruling Establishment in Crisis 
Howard Lisnoff
Who You’re Likely to Meet (and Not Meet) on a College Campus Today
Roy Morrison
Trump’s Excellent Asian Adventure
John W. Whitehead
Financial Tyranny
Ted Rall
How Society Makes Victimhood a No-Win Proposition
Jim Goodman
Stop Pretending the Estate Tax has Anything to do With Family Farmers
Thomas Klikauer
The Populism of Germany’s New Nazis
Murray Dobbin
Is Trudeau Ready for a Middle East war?
Jeiddy Martínez Armas
Firearm Democracy
Jill Richardson
Washington’s War on Poor Grad Students
Ralph Nader
The Rule of Power Over the Rule of Law
Justin O'Hagan
Capitalism Equals Peace?
Matthew Stevenson
Into Africa: From the Red Sea to Nairobi
Geoff Dutton
The Company We Sadly Keep
Evan Jones
The Censorship of Jacques Sapir, French Dissident
Linn Washington Jr.
Meek Moment Triggers Demands for Justice Reform
Gerry Brown
TPP, Indo Pacific, QUAD: What’s Next to Contain China’s Rise?
Robert Fisk
The Exile of Saad Hariri
Romana Rubeo - Ramzy Baroud
Anti-BDS Laws and Pro-Israeli Parliament: Zionist Hasbara is Winning in Italy
Robert J. Burrowes
Why are Police in the USA so Terrified?
Chuck Collins
Stop Talking About ‘Winners and Losers’ From Corporate Tax Cuts
Ron Jacobs
Private Property Does Not Equal Freedom
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Mass Shootings, Male Toxicity and their Roots in Agriculture
Binoy Kampmark
The Fordist Academic
Frank Scott
Weapons of Mass Distraction Get More Destructive
Missy Comley Beattie
Big Dick Diplomacy
Michael Doliner
Democracy, Real Life Acting and the Movies
Dan Bacher
Jerry Brown tells indigenous protesters in Bonn, ‘Let’s put you in the ground’
Winslow Myers
The Madness of Deterrence
Cesar Chelala
A Kiss is Not a Kiss: Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Children
Jimmy Centeno
Garcia Meets Guayasamin: A De-Colonial Experience
Stephen Martin
When Boot Becomes Bot: Surplus Population and The Human Face.
Martin Billheimer
Homer’s Iliad, la primera nota roja
Louis Proyect
Once There Were Strong Men
Charles R. Larson
Review: Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones
David Yearsley
Academics Take Flight
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail