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More on Ethan Bronner's Conflict of Interest

It's not difficult to predict that the Times will refuse to acknowledge Bronner's conflict of interest, despite the paper's own ethics guidelines and journalism ethics in general, which state: "Even the appearance of obligation or conflict of interest should be avoided."

It is sad that places like the Times so often violate the noble sentiments proclaimed in a multitude of journalistic ethics statements, and that mainstream critics so rarely call them on it when the violations concern Israel-Palestine.

Several websites have posted valuable discussions of Bronner's conflict of interest and analyses of his work.

I. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) issued an alert about the Times refusal to confirm or deny the information about Bronner's son and describing previous problems with Bronner's reporting:

Does NYT's Top Israel Reporter Have a Son in the IDF? Foreign editor treats potential conflict as none of our business

The New York Times refuses to confirm or deny a report that its Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner, has a child who is an enlisted member of the Israeli Defense Force--even though such a relationship would pose a serious conflict of interest.

...The decisions of Bronner's son, however, are not the issue. What the Times needs to ask itself is whether it expects that its bureau chief has the normal human feelings about matters of life or death concerning one's child.

Might he feel hostility, for example, when interviewing members of organizations who were trying to kill his son? When the IDF goes into battle, might he be rooting for the side for which his son is risking his life? Certainly such issues would be taken very seriously if a Times reporter had a child who belonged to a military force that was engaged in hostilities with the IDF; indeed, there's little doubt that a reporter in that position would not be allowed to continue to cover the Mideast conflict.

Having a conflict of interest, it should be stressed, is not the same thing as producing slanted journalism; rather, it means that a journalist has outside motivations that are strongly at odds with his or her journalistic responsibilities. That a journalist has been "scrupulously fair" in the past does not excuse an ongoing conflict of interest; journalists should not be placed in a position where they have to ignore the well-being of their family in order to do their job, nor should readers be expected to trust that they can do so.

That said, Bronner's reporting has been repeatedly criticized by FAIR for what would appear to be a bias toward the Israeli government.

Previous FAIR commentaries on Bronner's Israel-centric reporting are:

Get Carter: NY Times punishes an ex-president for criticizing Israel

If you wonder why New York Times editors were allowing such unethical journalism and shoddy commentary, you might examine the work of Ethan Bronner, the Middle East editor at the Times, who personally contributed to the paper’s skewed coverage of Carter’s book.

Bronner began his book review of Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (Times, 1/7/07) by writing, “This is a strange little book about the Arab/Israeli conflict from a major public figure.” It was “largely unsympathetic to Israel” and a “distortion” of Israel’s policies, because “broader regional developments” that are presumably exculpatory of Israel’s conduct “go largely unexamined”--namely Al-Qaeda, “the nuclear ambitions of Iran” and “the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan.” The relevance of any of these phenomena to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, which is the focus of Carter’s book, was not explained by Bronner’s review.

Carter, according to Bronner, also is guilty of “distortion” because “hollow statements by Israel’s enemies are presented without comment.” Bronner was referring to Hafez al-Assad, the late president of Syria, who, according to Bronner, “is quoted for an entire section, offering harsh impressions of Israel.” Carter actually provided an extended summary of his conversations with Assad, including a few brief quotes; he put this material in context by saying he thought it would “be helpful to summarize the past involvement and assessments of the leaders of Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia concerning their potential involvement in possible solutions” to the Israel/Palestine conflict. Bronner apparently was offended that Carter would present such Arab views of the conflict.

Bronner also claimed that Carter, speaking of the separation wall between Israel and the Palestinian West Bank, wrote that its “driving purpose” is “the acquisition of land” and “not to stop suicide bombers and other violent attacks.” Bronner misrepresented Carter's views in this instance, since Carter was talking about Israel’s overall policy toward the Palestinians (which includes the wall), and not the wall by itself. Here is the relevant passage from Carter’s book:

Israeli leaders[']...presumption is that an encircling barrier will finally resolve the Palestinian problem. Utilizing their political and military dominance, they are imposing a system of partial withdrawal, encapsulation and apartheid on the Muslim and Christian citizens of the occupied territories. The driving purpose for the forced separation of the two peoples is unlike that in South Africa--not racism, but the acquisition of land.

Contrary to Bronner’s rendition, Carter in fact acknowledged the security aspects of the wall in his book, but also accurately noted that much of it is built on Palestinian land, and thus illegally situates large areas of Palestinian land on the Israeli side of the wall.

While arguing that “settling the Israel question” for “radical leaders of the Muslim world” means “eliminating Israel,” Bronner ignored the radical and even mainstream elements in Israel who hold similar views toward Palestinians (Jerusalem Post, 9/11/06; TheNation.com, 12/14/06).

Though one would never know this by reading the New York Times’ coverage of Jimmy Carter’s book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid was in essence an appeal to Israel, the Palestinians, the Arab world and the United States to resolve the conflict peacefully by recognizing the legitimate rights of both Israel and the Palestinians. Perhaps it was for those reasons that the New York Times, given its overall coverage of the conflict--which favors Israel’s rights over Palestinian rights--would attack the former president with unsubstantiated and utterly implausible charges of plagiarism.

The ‘Right to Exist’ as an Arab IsraeliU.S. papers of record regularly erase Israel’s Palestinian citizens

New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner, in the largest and most extensive story purporting to catch the Israeli mood ... claimed ...that “voices of dissent in this country have been rare....Israel, which is sometimes a fractured, bickering society, has turned in the past couple of weeks into a paradigm of unity and mutual support.”

Bronner referred to “polls [that] have shown nearly 90 percent support for the war thus far,” though he did not cite any poll in particular. That unsourced figure—a statistical unlikelihood in a country that is 20 percent Palestinian—was repeated by anti-Islam propagandist Daniel Pipes (FAIR Report: Meet the Smearcasters, 10/08), who specifically mentioned the Times when he cited the figure on Al Jazeera English’s Riz Khan (January 13, 2009).

In a more realistic—and verifiable—reading of Israel’s ethnic diversity, a Tel Aviv University poll (1/4–6/09) found that although 94 percent of Jewish Israelis favored the operation, only 81 percent of the overall population did—meaning a majority of Palestinian and other non-Jewish Israelis were opposed.

Bonner’s confused interpretation of Israeli opinion continued even when he mentioned Arab Israelis. He claimed that “antiwar rallies here have struggled to draw 1,000 participants,” yet some 10 paragraphs later wrote that “the largest demonstration against the war so far, with some 6,000 participants, was organized by an Arab political party”...

The “6,000” figure itself is a vast undercount of any of a series of demonstrations that had been held in predominantly Palestinian towns in Israel.... An Agence France-Presse article (1/17/09) claimed the protests drew 100,000 people, while Al Jazeera English (1/3/09) placed the number at 150,000. Sakhnin’s mayor called the demonstrations “the biggest procession in the history of the Palestinian people in Israel”... To Bronner, mysteriously, these much larger Arab demonstrations don’t seem to count as antiwar rallies.

Remarkably, the paper did not mention the Israeli Knesset’s vote to ban Arab parties from the upcoming national elections...until after Israel declared a unilateral cease-fire.

‘Tensions’ and ‘History’in Jerusalem

The New York Times’ Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner (5/10/09) wrote about the Israeli government’s $100 million development plan in Jerusalem: [Bronner and Kershner state:] "In other words, while the Israeli narrative that guides the government plan focuses largely—although not exclusively—on Jewish history and links to the land, the Palestinian narrative heightens tensions, pushing the Israelis into a greater confrontational stance.”

Apparently in that battle for legitimacy, tearing down your opponents’ homes is focusing on “history,” while downplaying archeology is “heightening tensions.”

II.  Richard Silverstein at Tikkun Olam has written a number of excellent analyses on Bronner's flawed reports; these are useful to read.

In "Bronner Fetes Tel Aviv's 100th Anniversary" he concludes:

I don’t think Bronner is aware of any of this.  Or if he is he dismisses it with a sharp wave of the hand as ideological histrionics.  What he does not understand is that until he can absorb Ash’s and Rotbard’s point of view into his narrative, he cannot properly apprehend the subject before him.  It remains a light and airy thing lacking in historical knowledge and social nuance.

1909 is a convenient fiction adopted by Tel Aviv’s white Israelis and now embraced by the country’s foreign ministry in its campaign to prettify Israel’s image via homages like the one at the Toronto Film Festival.  And just as the Tel Aviv celebration at TIFF masks Israel’s crimes in Gaza, it also masks the city’s real, complex and troubled history.

In his posting "Bronner's Mischaracterization of Hamas Continues," Silverstein notes:

Not an article Ethan Bronner writes goes by without the obligatory claim that Hamas is dedicated to Israel’s destruction...

...In fact, many Israeli political, military and intelligence analysts concede that Hamas’ acceptance of a hudna is a tacit acceptance of Israel’s existence.

In fact, no senior leader of Hamas for several years has put forward the incrementalist notion that it may accept a hudna as a creeping process leading to Israel’s destruction and absorption into Palestine...

It’s long past time for Bronner to get with the program and acknowledge the myriad interviews of senior Hamas officials like Khaled Meshaal and others who have documented the moderating of the movement’s positions on these matters.  Let’s put it plain and simple for him: Hamas currently does not reject Israel’s right to exist nor is it committed to its destruction... The fact that Bronner stays stuck in the past is yet another proof that his reporting is neither careful nor balanced.

Yet another proof of this is a recent profile he wrote about the weekly Bilin demonstrations at the Separation Wall.  He interviewed IDF officers and peace activists about their respective views of both the Wall and the demonstrations.  But curiously, he noted the IDF claim that 170 soldiers had been wounded over time there (part of the claim that the demonstrators are not non-violent peace activists, but violent hoodlums).  But Bronner somehow forgot to mention the Palestinian casualties at the Wall, which include one murdered Palestinian and one American left in a vegetative state by IDF fire in the past four months alone.  Altogether, 19 Palestinians have been killed during demonstrations against the Wall.  Why wasn’t this fact even whispered in Bronner’s article?  Because he wanted his readers to focus on the flesh wounds suffered by Israeli soldiers when a few odd rocks are thrown their way by young Palestinians who violate the discipline invoked during these protests?  Why did Ethan Bronner forget Palestinian suffering?

III. Two graduates from Northwestern's school of journalism discussed the kind of potential problems a journalist in Bronner's situation would have. They also noted previous flaws in Bronner's reports:

Gregg and I have previously critiqued some of Bronner's writing in casual, off-site conversations, though for reasons that had nothing to do with his son.

We were concerned in early June, just before President Obama's Cairo speech to the Muslim world, when the Times ran an extremely thinly sourced story by Bronner that quoted an undefined number of anonymous "senior Israeli officials" who complained that Obama's call for a settlement freeze violated pacts that Israel had made with the Bush administration.

To rebut the anonymous Israelis' complaint, Bronner used two Bush administration officials -- they were anonymous as well. Bronner's two on-the-record sources were Dov Weissglas, a former aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and Elliot Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser for President George W. Bush. Both Abrams and Weissglass had published op-eds that Bronner relied on for his story; he appeared to have actually interviewed only Weissglas.

At the end of June, Bronner's anonymous Israeli sources struck again in a piece that appeared to be aimed at spinning the settlement freeze debate ahead of an Israeli-American meeting on the issue. This was Bronner's lede: "Israel would be open to a complete freeze of settlement building in the West Bank for three to six months as part of a broad Middle East peace endeavor that included a Palestinian agreement to negotiate an end to the conflict and confidence-building steps by major Arab nations, senior Israeli officials said Sunday."

Three grafs later, Bronner wrote: "While such an offer falls short of President Obama's demand that Israel halt all settlement building now, it is the most forthcoming response that senior Israeli officials have given to date and suggests that American pressure is having some effect."

Obama wound up winning a slightly longer, though still extremely qualified settlement freeze. But the Israeli offer described in the June 29 article, which Bronner presented in a positive light, still looks like a pittance in retrospect.

Posted on Wednesday, February 3, 2010 at 08:08AM by Registered Commenter[Alison Weir | Comments Off

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