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Ethan Bronner and the controversy that shouldn't be

I was surprised on Sunday to read about the controversy surrounding Ethan Bronner, the Jerusalem bureau chief for the New York Times and a gifted, fair-minded and extremely creative journalist.

The controversy involves absolutely nothing that Bronner did or a scandal of any sort. Bronner’s “problem” is that his 20-year-old son decided to join the Israeli Defense Forces. And Times’ public editor Clark Hoyt thinks that, for that reason, the Times should take Bronner out of Jerusalem and give him a different job.

I passionately disagree.

I use the word “passionately” because, like all parents, I have thought a lot about what it means for your child to become autonomous and to make the choices he or she thinks are right. Of course, parents sometimes try to influence those choices – I suspect I’ll keep doing that with my kids long after they’ve left home. But a child should be free to make a defensible moral or professional decision without having to worry about its impact on the professional life of his or her parents. (Since someone may ask, my kids aren’t old enough yet to make any of these choices, so I guess I count myself lucky.)

I was surprised at the conclusion reached by Hoyt, whose judgments I have come to admire. In his column, Hoyt carefully analyzes Bronner’s work and concludes that he is a “superb reporter” and that it “doesn’t seem fair to hold a father accountable for the decision of an adult son.” I don’t understand why Hoyt didn’t stop there.

Instead, he went on:

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.

He suggests that Bronner be found a “plum assignment… at least for the duration of his son’s service in the I.D.F.”

But if Bronner could be trusted before and after his son’s service, why can’t he be trusted now? I can imagine situations involving genuine conflicts. It would be hard for a sports reporter to cover his or her child’s team. A business reporter might have trouble covering a company in which his or her child held a high position -- though it might not be a problem if the child held a middle- or low-level job. Any situation in which what a reporter writes translates directly into economic benefit for his or her kid raises a legitimate concern. But if a war or defense reporter had a son or daughter in the U.S. military, would we demand that this reporter be reassigned? I truly don’t think Bronner will change his approach to covering the Middle East because his son has joined the IDF. I’d feel the same if his son were instead devoting a year to human rights or refugee work with Palestinians.

Of course, I know that Middle East coverage is an extremely sensitive topic, and Hoyt describes the constant criticism from both sides that the Times runs into. But that is no excuse to pull Bronner from an assignment he has carried out very well.

In the end, the only fair way to judge a journalist is by his or her work. If fair-minded critics notice a change in Bronner’s tone or in the subjects he chooses to cover, the Times can revisit the issue. It is good that the enlistment of Bronner’s son is public – and it’s worth noting that Bronner alerted his editors about this fact, as the Times’ ethics guidelines require.

I hope Times executive editor Bill Keller sticks to his guns and lets Bronner complete what is one of the toughest assignments in journalism.

By E.J. Dionne  | February 8, 2010; 4:08 PM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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I wholeheartedly disagree.

Reporters are in a position of responsibility, and part of that responsibility is to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

It's very difficult to imagine how one's son serving in the Israeli military wouldn't meet that standard.

Posted by: postfan1 | February 8, 2010 5:14 PM | Report abuse

With all due respect to Mr. Dionne, and his ideal of not letting the son's actions dictate the father's consequences, this is a very unique case, and I can't disagree with him more. Despite Mr. Dionne's example, this is NOT a case of a US-based defense reporter whose son has joined the US military - but in which a US based reporter's son joined a foreign military and one that is very much on one side of a very volatile and sensitive political equation. US citizens and Israelis might be able to continue to see a father in this situation as "unbiased," But Palestinians would definitely see it differently. Therefore the perception would undermine his ability to do his job.

As it is, many Palestinians, their supporters, and others in the region see the appointment of a Jew (or someone perceived to be Jewish) to the Jerusalem beat as a decision to favor the Israeli position. Many excellent reporters struggle to overcome that perception and establish a true balance. Mr. Bonner has done that, I believe. If a member of his family, however, then decides to take sides, it would destroy that sense of balance in an instant. I think anyone who thinks otherwise is naive or misguided.

Posted by: GoinPostal84 | February 8, 2010 5:35 PM | Report abuse

Dionne misses the whole point. If the reporter's son joined the US Army, that would be totally different. That is our country. Israel is a foreign country whose interests sometimes, but not always mesh with those of the US. Israel has sent spies such as Pollard into our military establishment. Arguably, most of the mideast problems of the US stem from our support of Israel. Netanyahu plays Obama like a drum, just as Sharon played Bush.One of the most important issues in the conflict now is the Goldstone report setting out the war crimes committed by Israeli politicians and officers, and soldiers of the IDF during the Gaza invasion. How could Bonner possibly cover that issue if his son was one of those accused? The NYT coverage of Israel is already suspect, and rightly so. Consider also the NYT participation in the runup to the Iraq war, publishing unadulterated falsehoods as facts. Journalistic integrity is a slippery concept, but here the answer is clear, Hoyt is right , Dionne and the NYT are wrong.

Posted by: jklfairwin | February 8, 2010 5:43 PM | Report abuse

Ha! What a joke!

Ethan Bronner is an Israel Lobby tool anyway. His reports are generally heavily biased in favor of the Israelis, to not say so just points to Dionne being biased too.

Most coverage of Israel is patently biased, the whole truth is never told in the big TV/newspaper media. Real reporting would basically ruin Israeli's reputation here, talk to me when that happens!

Posted by: AIPACiswar | February 8, 2010 5:47 PM | Report abuse

I'm surprised that the NY Times would act with that much even-handedness in their assignments. I doubt that the Post would do the same. Good for the NY Times. Of course the man would be unable to continue to be objective, if he ever was to begin with.

Posted by: stillaliberal | February 8, 2010 6:05 PM | Report abuse

Why is EJ posting this in WaPO? Did NY Times reject his criticism? He could have responded to Clark Hoyt's coulmn in the comments section in NY times? I read Hoyt's coulmn. Hoyt's points are correct. Regardless of the fair reporting from Israel, readers have to feel that the reported was impartial.

The larger issue with EJ's blog is the subjective nature of it. I am certain that EJ considers Chris Mathews, Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow to be fair reporters and columnists. As he wrote in his column a while ago abour senate filibuster, he was for it before he came out against it (reminds me of a person EJ admired, John Kerry).

Posted by: philly3 | February 8, 2010 6:18 PM | Report abuse

disappointed in the comments to date. obviously the choice to take a a top journalist out of his preferred/earned post because his kid decides to go to war is callous CYA. Let it play out, for israel's sake.

Let's be honest. we christians are not impartial in this conflict. yes, some of our pols (think Bush) have been compromised by the Israeli lobby. But to pretend that we are disassocited from Israelis is ludicrous.

Posted by: auntywbush | February 8, 2010 7:36 PM | Report abuse

"Several years ago the San Francisco Jewish Bulletin published an article exploring Jewish student journalists' views on how to report on Israel-Palestine. Several said that they would find it difficult to report negative aspects about Israel, one interviewee saying that he would try to avoid printing such news. If that proved impossible, he said, he would then try to find a way "to shift the blame."


The Times consistently reports Israeli actions as retaliatory, despite the fact that, according to an MIT study, in at least 96 percent of ceasefires and periods of calm it was Israeli forces that had first resumed violence."

Posted by: dogsbestfriend | February 8, 2010 8:30 PM | Report abuse

I so disagree with you. It is well known that the New York Times is strongly pro-Israel, but to have a correspondent with an Israeli wife and a son in the Israeli military automatically taints anything he writes, regardless of how impartial he may strive to be. This just reinforces the bias.

Posted by: bogemin | February 9, 2010 12:46 AM | Report abuse

As soon as Bronner's son enlisted, he put his father's job on the line. There are few parents who would even suggest they could remain completely detached in such a position.

Posted by: HFNY | February 9, 2010 4:42 AM | Report abuse

Come back to me when the NY Times hires an American Muslim married to a Palestinian with a son in Hamas.

Posted by: SureWhateverYouSay | February 9, 2010 7:16 AM | Report abuse

Hamas and the Israeli Army are not equivalent. The State Department says Hamas is a terrorist organization. The State Department does not say that about the Israeli army.

Posted by: usemark1 | February 9, 2010 5:52 PM | Report abuse

I wholeheartedly disagree! One of our problems is an absolute obedience to the Israeli point of view. There is simply no allowance that there is a valid other than the Israeli government's. Since the son of the bureau chief decided to join the IDF (not an option for Muslims say who were born and raised in Israel), reveals a great deal about the bureau chief's personal opinions. That makes anything that comes out of that bureau suspect.

Posted by: AMviennaVA | February 10, 2010 8:17 AM | Report abuse

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