New York Times fails to disclose Jerusalem bureau chief’s conflict of interest

25 January 2010

The New York Times has all but confirmed to The Electronic Intifada (EI) that the son of its Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner was recently inducted into the Israeli army.

Over the weekend, EI received a tip suggesting this had been the case and wrote to Bronner to ask him to confirm or deny the information and to seek his opinion on whether, if true, he thought it would be a conflict of interest.

Susan Chira, the foreign editor of The New York Times wrote in an email to The Electronic Intifada this morning:

“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.”

The Electronic Intifada also wrote to Clark Hoyt, the public editor of The New York Times, to confirm the information and ask for an opinion on whether this constituted a conflict of interest, but had yet to receive a response.

Bronner, as bureau chief, has primary responsibility for his paper’s reporting on all aspects of the Palestine/Israel conflict, and on the Israeli army, whose official name is the “Israel Defense Forces.”

On 23 January, Bronner published a lengthy article on Israel’s efforts to refute allegations contained in the UN-commissioned Goldstone report of war crimes and crimes against humanity during its attack on Gaza last winter (“Israel Poised to Challenge a UN Report on Gaza”).

As’ad AbuKhalil, a frequent critic of Bronner’s coverage, blogged in response that “The New York Times devoted more space to Israeli and Zionist criticisms of the Goldstone report than to the [content of the] report itself” (The Angry Arab News Service, “Ethan Bronner’s propaganda services, 25 January 2010)

Bronner’s pro-Israeli bias reporting on Israel’s attack on Gaza last year was also criticized by the media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) (See “NYT and the Perils of Mideast ‘Balance’,” 4 February 2009).

The New York Times’ own “Company policy on Ethics in Journalism” acknowledges that the activities of a journalist’s family member may constitute a conflict of interest. It includes as an example, “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.” Such conflicts may on occasion require the staff member “to withdraw from certain coverage.”

After Israel’s invasion of Gaza last winter, Israeli military censors banned local media from printing the names of individual officers who participated in the attack for fear that this could assist international efforts to bring war crimes suspects to justice. This followed the publication of a number of soldiers’ personal testimonies in the Israeli press describing atrocities they had seen committed by the Israeli army in Gaza.

The Times’ treatment of Bronner sets an interesting precedent. Would the newspaper’s policy be the same if a reporter in its Jerusalem bureau had an immediate family member who faced Bronner’s son across the battlefield, as a member of a Palestinian or Lebanese resistance organization?

It would appear that despite the highly sensitive nature of Palestine/Israel coverage, and the very high personal stakes for Bronner and his son that could result from full and open coverage of the Israeli army’s abuses of Palestinians, The New York Times does not consider this situation to be a problematic case. It had not even disclosed the situation to its readers — until now.

Editor’s Note: On 6 February 2010, The New York Times’ public editor Clark Hoyt issued a response to this article, concurring that Bronner’s position represented a conflict of interest and that he should be reassigned (“Too Close to Home,” The New York Times).