The son of NYT Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner -- long a lightning rod for criticism of the NYT's supposed biased reporting in the ongoing Mideast conflict -- has just joined the Israeli Army.
Does the move represent a violation of the NYT's conflict of interest policy?
As the news of Bronner's son trickled out of the Mideast in recent days, pro-Palestinian watchdog blogs have argued that the move does break the rules -- and that the NYT needs to shift Bronner off the Mideast beat in the wake of his son's military service.
The NYT disagrees. In a statement to "The Electronic Intifada," a pro-Palestinian website that monitors media coverage of the conflict, NYT's foreign editor Susan Chira defended Bronner against the suggestion of a conflict.
"Mr. Bronner's son is a young adult who makes his own decisions," Chira told the website, responding on Bronner's behalf. "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."
But Electronic Intifada and others have suggested that the NYT's rules clearly define the situation as a conflict of interest.
Here's how the NYT ethics policy addresses the issue, with the relevant parts highlighted. It doesn't strike us a clear-cut at all:
In a day when most families balance two careers, the legitimate activities of household members and other relatives can sometimes create journalistic conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts. These can arise in civic or political life, professional work and financial activity. A spouse's or companion's campaign for public office would obviously create the appearance of conflict for a political reporter or television producer involved in election coverage. A brother or a daughter in a high-profile job on Wall Street might produce the appearance of conflict for a business reporter or editor.
Our company has no wish to intrude upon family members who are not its employees. Nothing in this document prohibits a spouse, companion or other relative of a staff member from taking part in any political, financial, commercial, religious or civic activity....
Staff members must be sensitive that direct political activity by their spouses, family or household members, such as running for office or managing a campaign – even while proper – may well create conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts. Even limited participation, like giving money or ringing doorbells, may stir suspicions of political bias if it becomes conspicuous. Staff members and their families should be wary of ambiguity. A bumper sticker on the family car or a campaign sign on the lawn may be misread as the journalist's, no manner who in the household actually placed it. When a spouse or companion makes a campaign contribution, it is wise to avoid writing the check on a joint account.
What prompts the outrage by Mideast partisans isn't so much the decision of Bronner's son, but rather the ongoing coverage by Bronner of the conflict -- seen by pro-Palestinian media watchers as pro-Israel.
Ironically, though, Bronner has been upbraided frequently by Mideast observers for being pro-Hamas -- including a memorable, year-old Daily Beast essay, "Why Does The New York Times Love Hamas?" that suggested the NYT wasn't willing to label Israel attacks on Palestinians as terrorist acts.
The Electronic Intifada story notes, instead, a February 2009 piece on the Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting website by Peter Hart. Hart's piece attacked the NYT's "all-too-familiar tendency to 'balance'" stories of Israel's aggressive military tactics "with criticisms of Palestinians."
For what it's worth, The NYTPicker noted last January that Bronner had published a scathing attack on the Israeli government in the Jerusalem Post, charging the military with blocking media access to its movements.
Electronic Intifada says it has raised the issue with NYT Public Editor Clark Hoyt.
We're inclined to agree with Chira's assessment of Bronner's reporting, and think he should be allowed to keep covering the Mideast conflict. He's a distinguished reporter with years of foreign experience for the Boston Globe and the NYT, and unlikely to allow his son's allegiance to Israel to color his views.
UPDATE: In Sunday's NYT, Hoyt recommends "a plum assignment for [Bronner] someplace else for the duration of his son's service in the I.D.F."
In the on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand voice that has come to typify the Hoyt tenure as Public Editor, he declares that it "doesn’t seem fair to hold a father accountable for the decision of an adult son."
Then Hoyt offers this contradictory view:
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.
As usual, Hoyt has shown himself to be overly obsessed with appearances, worried more about the NYT's reputation than its coverage. He's wrong about Bronner.
In his reasoned response on Hoyt's blog, executive editor Bill Keller rightly declines to accept Hoyt's absurd advice, representing his decision as "a sign of respect for readers" who can tell the difference between reality and appearances.
Keller goes on:
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.
We can't put it any better than that.