Too close to home. That was the reason given by the public editor of The New York Times for his assertion that the Times bureau chief in Jerusalem should be reassigned because his son decided to join the Israel Defense Forces.
This is close to home for us, too. After all, this dispute pokes at the heart of a central tenet of modern journalism, that as professionals we should strive to avoid not only conflicts of interest, but the appearance of such conflicts, to maintain credibility in the eyes of readers. Surely the public editor, Clark Hoyt, meant to uphold that standard when he recommended a transfer for Ethan Bronner. Bless The New York Times for its exacting rules, but claiming that Bronner cannot now do his job is going too far.
Reporting from the center of a passionately disputed story for the world’s most respected news organization is a job only for someone extremely talented and fiercely independent, and Bronner, by all accounts, is both. Even Hoyt praised his “excellent track record.”
And that is the measure to judge a journalist: his or her work. As Times editor Bill Keller said in his welcome defense of Bronner: “Every reporter brings to the story a life — a history, relationships, ideas, beliefs.” To imagine otherwise is to imagine journalism done by robots. Scrubbing journalism clean of all biases is impossible; judgments are made every step of the way that reflect beliefs in who and what is newsworthy, and why, and the best journalists allow their humanity to shape their work. They also are disciplined to recognize those biases and hold them in check.
That can be difficult to do on one’s own, and this is where the kind of journalism to which the Times aspires — the kind we aspire to practice at the Forward, as well — lifts itself up from ordinary writing and opinionating. There is the obligation to verify facts and statements, and seek different sides of a story. There are gatekeepers, questions from within, accepted norms to follow, and several steps between the time a writer hits the “send” button and the time a piece is published. And, once that piece is published in print or online, journalists can be held accountable. When we get it wrong, as will happen, you can tell us. You have our address.
To imagine that Bronner’s work would be fatally compromised by his son’s military service is also to misunderstand Israeli society. Unlike in this country, where we doubt that many members of the mainstream media have sons or daughters serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, the IDF is just about ubiquitous. If it’s not your child, it’s your neighbor’s. For better and for worse — and it’s both — connection to the military is not an abstract concept, it’s a routine part of life. After covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for 27 years, Bronner has been tested. If he had prejudices about the military and they were to infect his work, that would have happened long ago.
Some readers will never be convinced, and to them, the appearance of conflict is all. But as Keller rightly noted, those readers cannot be allowed to dictate what the rest of us need. And we need more honest, thorough reporting from the Mideast, not less. Let the work speak for itself.