Back in the 20th century, complaining — well, fist shaking and foot stomping — about The New York Times’ coverage of Israel and Palestinians was almost entirely a Jewish phenomenon. Clyde Haberman, the Times columnist who was the Jerusalem bureau chief from 1991-95, went back to his desk in that city for several months in 2001 and “I was suddenly an equal opportunity offender. I don’t think there was a change in my reporting,” but there was a distinct change in how “Palestinian, Arab and Muslim groups were adopting the Jewish tactics” of scrutiny and advocacy. The confluence of that with the arrival of the Internet, with its viral e-mails and blogs, put the new wave of media watchers on cyber-steroids.
The demand by pro-Palestinian bloggers and e-mailers that current Times Israeli correspondent Ethan Bronner be removed from his post because his son enlisted in the Israeli army is the latest evidence that this so-called electronic intifada is drawing blood.
On Sunday, the Time’s ombudsman, public editor Clark Hoyt, noted in his column (Feb. 7) that a Web site called Electronic Intifada broke the story about Bronner’s son, and the EI’s demand for Bronner’s removal was seconded by the Angry Arab News Service, which called Bronner a “propagandist for Israel,” and complaints from the liberal watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, along with “roughly 400 readers,” said Hoyt, “many of them convinced that Bronner could not continue in his current assignment.”
After a carefully considered argument, Hoyt agreed.
According to Hoyt, Bronner, a “superb” reporter who has been writing about Israel and Palestinians for 27 years, properly informed Bill Keller, the Times executive editor, of his 20-year-old son’s recent enlistment, the editors discussed the situation, and Bronner remains on the job.
Hoyt says that Bronner has to go, “find a plum assignment for him somewhere else,” at least while his son is in uniform.
Keller, in an online response, told Hoyt, “we will not be taking your advice. … 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. [To] prevent any appearance of bias, would you say we should not send Jewish reporters to Israel? If so, what about assigning Jewish reporters to countries hostile to Israel? What about reporters married to Jews? Married to Israelis? Married to Arabs?” Bronner is married to an Israeli. “Ethical judgments that start from prejudice lead pretty quickly to absurdity, and pandering to zealots means cheating readers who genuinely seek to be informed.”
Attacks have been edging beyond the Palestinian blogosphere, with the more mainstream, if left-leaning, Huffington Post, running a piece by Lysandra Ohrstrom (Feb. 8): “Let’s get something straight. Ethan Bronner is not and never has been a ‘superb reporter’ and there are plenty of reasons why he should not be allowed to run the Times’ largest Middle Eastern bureau let alone commit blatant anti-journalistic acts on behalf of the ‘paper of record,’ the last of which is his son’s military service. No other reporter has turned the paper of record into a mouthpiece for the Israeli occupation more than Ethan Bronner, and that is quite an accomplishment for a publication that so consistently represents one party’s agenda.”
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, on the opposite end of the political spectrum, says Bronner’s articles “have consistently been biased toward the Palestinian side. When it comes to Bronner and the Times, believe me, all the pro-Palestinians have nothing to worry about.”
Klein refused to accept Electronic Intifada’s equation between people who accept Bronner’s son in the IDF but who likely wouldn’t accept it if his son joined a Palestinian militia. “If someone’s son joined an illegal terrorist group,” said Klein, “that would be of great concern. The Israel army is the opposite; it is the legal, legitimate defense force of a human rights-loving democracy. There’s no comparison.”
Most were assuming that Bronner’s son service indicates Bronner tilt’s right. However, Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the leftist Tikkun, a journal that describes itself as not only pro-Israel but pro-Palestinian, had a son join the IDF, without any discernible change in Tikkun’s editorial content.
Rabbi Lerner, speaking to The Jewish Week from Berkeley, Calif., says, “Having a son in the Israeli army was a manifestation of my love for Israel, and I assume that having a son in the Israeli army is a manifestation of Bronner’s love of Israel. But, one can love Israel and be critical. Anyway, anyone who has had a teenager knows that your child doesn’t necessarily reflect your beliefs about anything.”
Rabbi Lerner said critics on the left told him “all the time” that having a son in the IDF impinged on his ability to edit Tikkun, “that I could no longer claim that I was still both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. The fact is, there is a difference in my emotional and spiritual connection to these two sides. On the one side is my family; on the other side are decent human beings. I want to support human beings all over the planet but I have a special connection to my family. I don’t deny it.”
Other Times correspondents in Israel faced greater involvement with the IDF than Bronner. Joel Greenberg, before he was Jerusalem bureau chief but after he was already having bylines in the Times from Israel, actually served in the IDF.
Did that make him more sympathetic to Israel?
In fact, the American-born Greenberg served an Israeli jail term in 1983, when he was 28, for refusing to serve in Lebanon, and then covered, a few years later, military reservists who also refused to serve. And yet, after writing about Greenberg’s conflicts, journalist Tom Gross said he received a note from a “respected senior journalist” who said Greenberg “has been careful to not allow his personal political philosophy [to interfere] with his reportage … Joel’s articles should therefore be critiqued on their merit, without regard to his politics.”
The Times’ Haberman says, “Many critics of the press, not only on Israel but especially on Israel, refuse to accept the possibility that a good journalist can set aside his personal situation and do an honest job. We’ve had openly gay reporters write about the same-sex marriage issue; women writing about abortion; people of Irish background covering Ireland, with their awful conflict; a woman of Indian origin, based in Delhi, writing about Pakistan; I don’t understand what [principle] has changed because Ethan’s son has gone into the army. Appearances can count for something, but if you want to go down that slippery slope there are all sorts of disqualifiers.
“You want to talk about appearances? asked Haberman. “The worst appearance I can see is the appearance of caving in to partisan screaming.” n
For more on Bronner, and links to columns and critics, go to Jonathan Mark’s blog, Route 17, on The Jewish Week’s Web site.