New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief Ethan Bronner took some friendly fire from the paper’s Public Editor Arthur Brisbane in his Sunday column, “Tangled Relationships in Jerusalem.” Brisbane forwarded complaints from a left-wing anti-Israeli blogger about Bronner's business relationship with a conservative Israeli, Charley Levine. But Bronner's history of slanted reporting, especially his hostile coverage of "angry rampag[ing]" Jewish settlers in the West Bank, proves he can hardly be credibly accused of sympathizing with Israeli conservatives.
Conflict of interest, or the appearance of it, is poisonous in journalism. This is particularly so when it relates to reporting on Israel and the Palestinians, a subject that draws a steady stream of skepticism about New York Times coverage from readers and partisans on all sides.
So it is troubling that, just before the Palestinians brought their case for statehood to the United Nations last week, an American writing for The Columbia Journalism Review accused The Times’s Jerusalem bureau chief of appearing to give favorable treatment to his speaking agent’s other clients.
The article by Max Blumenthal on Sept. 14 set off a chain of follow-up pieces by others and by Mr. Blumenthal himself, hammering away at the allegation that Ethan Bronner, the Times bureau chief, was compromised by his relationship with a public relations firm that arranged paid speaking engagements for him.
A close examination of the facts leads me to conclude that the case for an actual conflict of interest is slender. But the appearance of a conflict clearly exists, and that is a problem in and of itself. The Times’s “Ethical Journalism” guidelines state that staff members “may not accept anything that could be construed as a payment for favorable coverage or as an inducement to alter or forgo unfavorable coverage.”
Bronner was formerly affiliated with Lone Star, a speakers bureau in Israel run by Charley Levine, characterized by Blumenthal as a right-wing Israeli.
Brisbane downplayed Blumenthal’s well-documented hostility toward Israel throughout the piece, concluding:
Mr. Blumenthal’s piece may well have been influenced by an animus toward Mr. Bronner’s reportage for The Times. But the fact remains that the Lone Star engagement created a problem and stands as a reminder that The Times must be fastidiously independent, in reality and in appearance, or face attacks like this one.
If Bronner truly harbors Zionist sympathies, he keeps it out of his reporting quite effectively. This May, he ludicrously declared Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to the U.S. as a “failure” in the eyes of Israelis because Netanyahu failed to offer territory concessions to the Palestinians in the name of “peace.”
In a December 2008 story Bronner described Jewish settlers offensively: “...some settlers then went on an angry rampage, and Israel declared the southern West Bank off limits to nonresidents.” There’s more background here on the Times and other newspapers finding Jews on a rampage in this story by Tamar Sternthal, “Jews Rampage, Arabs Demonstrate.”
This Saturday Bronner again filed a hostile report on Jewish settlers, from the West Bank town of Qusra, “Amid Statehood Bid, Tensions Simmer in West Bank.”
For much of the world, the very presence of more than 300,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank amounts to a kind of violent crime. They are holding land widely considered Palestinian by right, obstructing a two-state solution. And they are armed and protected by one of the world’s most powerful militaries.
Jonathan Tobin at Commentary has more on what Bronner left out:
Settler violence is wrong, but the notion it is unprovoked or Jews are more likely to attack Arabs in the territory is an absurd distortion of the truth. Yet that is exactly the impression Bronner’s story left about the situation in the West Bank. In this telling, the Jews living in settlements are giving the Israeli government nightmares because they are liable to attack peaceful Arab protesters with lethal force in the coming weeks. Even more worrisome is their propensity to launch “price tag” assaults on Arab persons or property, including mosques. Such attacks are routinely portrayed as a radical Jewish tactic designed to intimidate their neighbors as part of a plot, as the Palestinians allege, to “steal” their land.