Ethan Bronner, deputy national editor of The New York Times, sought mightily to explain to a group of Jewish high school students this week the challenges, responsibilities and frustrations of covering the Mideast conflict.
He has served three tours as a correspondent in Israel since the 1980s, most recently as Jerusalem bureau chief from 2008 to 2012.
In an hour of frank discussion on Sunday afternoon at Park Avenue Synagogue, Bronner, clearly frustrated at times, appeared to have limited success in convincing about 100 high school juniors and seniors that the Times’ goal was to cover the conflict fairly rather than to “besmirch Israel.”
The teens were participants in Write On For Israel, the two-year Jewish Week-sponsored Israel education program with an emphasis on journalism.
“If The New York Times was trying so hard to show that Israel is a terrible place, we’d be a terrible failure,” he said, noting that Americans are consistently pro-Israel by a wide margin.
“I believe my goal is to seek the truth and tell it in the most sophisticated way I can,” he said to the teens, who were joined for the day by 31 students from the Reali high school in Haifa, Israel. He noted that in responding to a woman who had questioned how he, as a Jew, could criticize Israel, he said that conveying the truth best serves the Jewish state.
(No doubt part of Bronner’s exasperation at being accused of having an anti-Israel bias is that he has an Israeli wife and a son who served in the Israeli army — prompting critics from the left to cite this as proof of the bureau chief’s pro-Israel stance.)
In his opening remarks to the students, Bronner described how polarized Israeli Jews and Palestinians have become over the last 30 years. “It’s extremely tragic,” he said, careful not to lay blame on either side. “Any chance for broader co-existence is fading,” he noted, “with each side turning away from the other. They see each other less and less in human terms.”
He recounted how when he first reported from Israel in 1983, Gazans could come and go, there were no checkpoints, he could easily cross into Lebanon, and tens of thousands of Arab workers would come into Israel every day. Those associations between the workers and their Jewish employers, he noted, often led to human interaction that carried over into their personal lives, like celebrating each other’s family weddings.
In addition, in that time before cable and satellite television, Israelis and Palestinians watched Israeli TV, and there was great admiration in the Arab world for Israeli democracy.
Today, while acknowledging that there is justification for the current situation, “the only Israelis that Palestinians see are soldiers,” and Israelis are cut off from seeing what life is like in Gaza.
Bronner emphasized that “everyone believes that their side” gets negative coverage, and that “people want their own narrative reinforced, not described in neutral terms.”
He cited the difficulty in choosing when to use terms like “terrorist” or to refer to the separation between Israel and the Palestinians as a “wall,” as the Palestinians prefer, or “fence,” favored by the Israelis. He noted that the Times tends to use “barrier” as a more dispassionate word.
Summing up, Bronner drove home his takeaway message to the students: that journalism is primarily about covering conflict; that “we [journalists] reflect it, we don’t invent it”; that The Times and other media should be judged over a period of time for their coverage, not by any one story; and that readers should be open to understanding the full story.
“Don’t rely on your gut” in reading a story, he cautioned. “That’s a mistake.”
Bronner asserted that “there are many ways to tell a story,” and too often they are told in black or white terms. “I try to traffic in gray,” he said, adding with self-deprecating irony, “and there I have had a measure of success,” proven by the fact that he often is criticized by both sides.
Linda Scherzer, program director of Write On (and a former CNN correspondent in Israel), said that one goal of bringing journalists to talk to the students was to engage members of the media and understand their outlook.
“The more we understand how journalists operate, the better we can make our case,” she said.
“That’s what we want our students to understand.”
Editor Gary Rosenblatt is founding chair of Write On For Israel.