Last weekend, New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner revealed that his son had joined the Israel Defense Forces. Amid cries over a conflict of interest – including from the paper’s own ombudsman – Times executive editor Bill Keller insisted that, as far as he was concerned, Bronner would remain on the beat. Keller talks about the controversy.
Artist: by The Q4
[MUSIC/MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: For journalists covering the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, charges of bias are an inevitable occupational hazard. New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief Ethan Bronner has reported with scrupulous fairness from the region on and off for a quarter century. But recently his 20-year-old son decided to join the Israel Defense Forces. New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt was among several media watchers who said Bronner should be reassigned. Times executive editor Bill Keller disagrees.
BILL KELLER: Can a gay reporter write about the issue of same-sex marriage? Can you assign a reporter of African descent to cover Africa or of Indian descent to cover India? All of those things we've done. In the end, it has to come down to a complicated judgment, and the judgment is really is this reporter capable of laying this baggage aside and writing fairly on the subject?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You said in your response to Hoyt that, obviously, when there is a financial conflict of interest, if you own stock in a company you shouldn't cover that company. But how is a financial stake an instant disqualifier but having your child at risk in an armed conflict isn't?
BILL KELLER: It’s one of the paradoxes of trying to apply ethics to journalism. Financial interests are easy to measure, but when you get into the realm of personal attachments, it becomes much more complicated. And that’s why our ethics policy doesn't try to prescribe an outcome. It tries to alert us to be sensitive to the potential for a conflict of interest, discuss it with the reporter and make a judgment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there something about this particular story, you know, one that is so fraught, that would perhaps demand an even more excruciatingly close examination of potential conflicts?
BILL KELLER: The fact is that this particular situation has had an excruciating level of attention [LAUGHS] and examination, both on our parts and outside of the paper. The flip side of that though is that this story is so fraught that you want to be maybe extra careful not to be panicked into saying, oh no, this reporter can't cover that story, even though he’s, by consensus, one of the best reporters on this story. You know, where I disagree with Clark is the notion that you take an excellent, scrupulous reporter off his assignment entirely because of the potential that somebody will think it looks bad.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, a lot of people in new media say that this whole argument over appearances is old and stupid, that the best vaccination is simply to disclose, disclose, disclose. Do you think that The Times is moving slowly towards the idea that disclosure is better than simply shearing people of any possible appearance of conflict of interest?
BILL KELLER: Well, I think disclosure works in some cases. You know, if you have a book reviewer writing about a book and the reviewer has written something that people could perceive as a competing book, you know, we disclose that in the book review, for example. But, you know, in an institution this size, the idea that you’re going to manage to disclose every potentially relevant piece of information about every journalist on a staff of, you know, 1150 people is kind of absurd.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s actually not. It’s quite easy for a reporter to write an intellectual and experiential bio, stick it up there one time, maybe update it occasionally and have it there for all to see.
BILL KELLER: Maybe, but what is a reader entitled to know about a reporter?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s the question. If they knew everything, then they would have to just decide on the basis of the work.
BILL KELLER: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the guessing games and the “gotchas” would go away.
BILL KELLER: I'm not sure that readers want that, and I'm, I’m not sure that it would be worth the effort to do it. But, you know, maybe that’s the direction we're moving in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was there a period at The Times when Ethan Bronner would have been automatically reassigned?
BILL KELLER: There was a period of time when Ethan wouldn't have been assigned to the Jerusalem Bureau in the first place because he’s a Jew. The first Jewish correspondent who covered Israel for The New York Times was Tom Friedman, and at the time that was regarded as something of a breakthrough.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill, thank you very much.
BILL KELLER: You’re welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill Keller is the executive editor of The New York Times.