Thursday, February 11, 2010

The New York Times and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Bronner Affair

To readers. As in earlier blogs, Google Blogger, maddingly, makes uncorrectable errors--even though in this case I typed directly into the blog rather than importing a Word file. The errors are relatively minor, mainly consisting of sudden shifts in fonts. In very short order I will be changing to a different blogging program.



The New York Times has now confirmed that the son of Ethan Bronner, for the past two years its chief correspondent in Israel, has enlisted in the Israeli army. On January 25, the website Electronic Intifada picked up on what was then still a rumor and pointed out that the internal policies of the Times state that journalists might have to be reassigned if the activities of family members create apparent conflicts of interest. The policy guidelines provide an example: "A brother or a daughter in a high-profile job on Wall Street might produce the appearance of conflict for a business reporter or editor...."


Electronic Intifada sent a message to Bronner asking if the rumor was true. Bronner did not respond but turned the message over to Susan Chira, the Times foreign editor, who did. With the usual brisk arrogance, evasiveness, or non-responsiveness of the Times whenever its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is criticized, Chira dismissed the question of whether Bronner's family ties (he is also married to an Israeli woman) constituted a conflict of interest: "Mr. Bronner's son is a young adult who makes his own decisions. At the Times we have found Mr. Bronner's coverage to be scrupulously fair and we are confident that will continue to be the case."

No doubt the Times hoped that would dispose of the issue, but thanks to the internet, it was not to be. On January 27 the internet website FAIR, the respected national media watch group that regularly comments on media biases and neglected news stories, picked up on the story. The FAIR story (subtitled "Foreign Editor Treats Potential Conflict As None of Our Business"), suggested that the issue was particularly significant because "Bronner's reporting has been repeatedly criticized by FAIR for what would appear to be a bias toward the Israeli government."

Other bloggers began discussing the issue, notably Phil Weiss and Richard Silverstein, and Silverstein urged his readers to write to Clark Hoyt, the Times’ Public Editor; meanwhile, in response to the persistent questioning, on February 4th Mondoweiss reported that Bronner confirmed the rumor : “My son entered the IDF five weeks ago.”


After hearing from some 400 readers, Hoyt decided to address the issue in his weekly Public Editor’s column in the Times Week in Review. Surprisingly--or even shockingly, in view of the characteristic Times dismissal of criticism, especially about Israeli issues—Hoyt recommended that Bronner be reassigned. To be sure, Hoyt wrote, he agreed with Chira that Bronner’s reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was “superb,” and that therefore that his family ties with Israel posed no real conflict of interest, the appearance of such a conflict was the decisive issue. In support of this conclusion, Hoyt quoted Alex Jones, director of Harvard’s Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy and a former Pulitizer Prize-winning reporter for the Times: “The appearance of a conflict of interest is often as important or more important than a real conflict of interest. I would reassign him.”


In the same Hoyt column, Bill Keller, the Times executive editor, responded to Hoyt’s recommendation. In his typical fashion, Keller came out swinging, dismissively rejecting both the reasoning and conclusion of both Hoyt and Jones—not to mention, of course, all the non-New York Times insiders whose views on Bronner’s reporting were far more critical. Bronner would not be reassigned, Keller wrote, because for many years “he has reported scrupulously and insightfully” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; “pandering to zealots,” Keller concluded, would mean “cheating readers who genuinely seek to be informed.”


The New York Times and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
If Bronner's reporting had been genuinely "scrupulous"--that is, informed, accurate, and unbiased--almost surely his family ties with Israel would never have become an issue, and it would not be necessary to distinguish between real and merely "imaginary or hypothetical" conflicts of interest (in Keller's words). Whether or not his son's enlistment in the IDF will affect Bronner's future reporting, the real issue is that his news reports and analyses--to be sure, with certain important exceptions, as I shall note below--have generally followed what I think can be called the overall policy of the New York Times on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Which is why, of course, Chira and Keller so angrily dismiss criticism of him. And also why it would hardly matter if the Times, for cosmetic or public relations reasons, chose to reassign Bronner--his replacement would probably be no better, and might well be worse.

In short, the central issue in this dispute is less that of Ethan Bronner than it is of the New York Times itself. Close observers of the Times news coverage and commentary about Israel have long known that it is typically slanted in a "pro-Israel" direction and therefore is quite unreliable as a guide to understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have written about this at some length in a professional journal; what follows is a brief summary of my argument.


The bias and downright disingenuousness--it can't be merely ignorance--of the Times has played a major role in perpetuating the mythology about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is still dominant in Israel and the United States--even though it has been decisively discredited by serious Israeli, U.S., and European historians, academicians and journalists. Indeed, much of it has been directly and openly challenged by a number of former Israeli political and government leaders as well as retired generals and intelligence specialists.

Consequently, most of the mythology--that the Arabs are the aggressors, Israel the victim; that the leading Arab states don't accept the existence of Israel; that the true goal of the Palestinian uprisings is not to gain a state of their own but to destroy Israel; that the Palestinians "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity" to settle the conflict, and much more--can no longer be regarded as either intellectually or morally respectable. More importantly, of course, the mythology continues to play a major role in preventing a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and thus is a disaster for the true interests of both Israel and the United States.

Nonetheless, the mythology still heavily influences the New York Times, which in a number of ways distorts the conflict and misinforms its readers, including or perhaps especially government officials and political elites. The bias of the Times is apparent in its editorials, on its oped page, and--most importantly--in its news coverage. I shall focus here on news coverage, partly for space considerations but also on the assumption that most readers of this blog are quite aware of the onesidedness, the analytically deficient, and the often even factually false statements about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that abound in Times editorials and oped commentaries, especially and notoriously those of Thomas Friedman (for details, see my International Security article, cited above).

The manner in which the
Times typically slants its news coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is perhaps less obvious. The Times does not merely report the news, it also makes it: that is, to a great extent it determines what its readers will consider to be major news and how they are likely to react to it.

It can do so in several ways. First, the paper can simply fail to cover events, or at least minimize their significance by the placement and depth of its news stories. For example, throughout the course of the Israeli occupation there have been numerous investigative reports by Israeli and international journalists and human rights organizations on the consequences of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian people; while usually prominently covered in
Haaretz--Israel's best and most influential serious newspaper, often described as Israel's New York Times--the Times typically either ignores these reports or, at best, buries them in one-paragraph stories in the middle of the news pages.

Secondly, the
Times can and does manage the news by its decision on how to cover government or military statements about important news events; that is, it can simply report the official statements, or it can alert its readers to obvious contradictions between what officials say and observable realities. On controversial issues, the Times normally doesn't just blandly print statements by public officials, even in straight news stories, without some kind of subtle or not-so-subtle signals to its readers that skepticism may be warranted. For example, the Times opposes or at least is skeptical about the Iraq war; consequently, its reports on the latest optimistic statements by U.S. or Iraqi officials are often accompanied by what amounts to warnings that the statements are self-interested, or even in conflict with certain known facts.

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, the
Times takes a different approach: its news stories often contain an underlying premise that the full truth about the conflict, often even about clearly observable facts, is unknowable. That being the case (the premise holds), all the Times can do is report conflicting Israeli and Palestinian statements or "perceptions," what Israelis "say" vs. what Palestinians "say."

Consider, for example, the newspaper's treatment of Israel's construction of a wall or "separation barriers" in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. A number of
Times news stories have simply reported, without comment, the differing statements of Israeli and Palestinian officials. For example:
"Israel says the barrier...is intended to make it harder for suicide bombers to enter Israel from the West Bank. Palestinians say it is an attempt to take over disputed land and divide Palestinian communities." Similarly: "Israel says it is a security measure...Palestinians call it a land grab that...will rob Palestinians of much of their historical land."

What Israelis "say" vs. what Palestinians "say?" "Conflicting perceptions?" It is demonstrable on its face, however, that the Israeli walls, fences, and barriers have effectively annexed large parts of the West Bank to Israel and separated hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their neighbors, their land, their orchards, and even from their schools and hospitals. As usual, the contrast between the Times and Haaretz on this issue is striking, for the Israeli newspaper has often pointed out that it was obvious that the barrier was not "simply" a security measure, for otherwise it would have been built on Israel's internationally recognized borders, not extended into Palestinian territory. In dozens of stories in the past seven years, Haaretz treats the other basic facts of the matter as entirely non-controversial: namely that the barriers will extend Israel's borders so as to incorporate into Israel "Greater Jerusalem" and the main settlement blocs in the West Bank, and that this will have major economic, political, and psychological consequences for the Palestinians and their hopes to gain a viable state of their own. Indeed, it is no longer uncommon for Israeli writers and journalists--and recently even public officials, like Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak--to employ the heretofore unthinkable word "apartheid" in warning where the barriers and the overall Israeli occupation policies they serve are heading.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Times manages the news by how it deals with crucial historical context. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the paper typically deemphasizes or even fails to note the obvious distinction between Palestinian and Israeli violence: namely that the Palestinians seek to end an increasingly repressive forty-three year occupation, whereas the Israelis seek to maintain most of it. For example, it is not uncommon for Times editorials and news stories to discuss Palestinian terrorism without placing it in the context of the far more destructive and indeed indiscriminate violence of the Israeli occupation. Without this context in the very forefront of the discussion, there can be no intellectually or morally serious analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ethan Bronner and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
As mentioned above, in some ways Ethan Bronner has been less one-sided than previous Times correspondents in Israel. On occasion, he has indicated skepticism about some Israeli claims, such as that the separation barriers are simply a legitimate security measure, or that Israel's growing isolation in the world is principally a matter of its unfair "image" rather than a consequence of its occupation and harsh treatment of the Palestinians.

Moreover, Bronner's reporting during last year's Israeli attack on Gaza was generally quite good. Among other things, he questioned the Israeli claim that it had patiently waiting a long time before responding to Hamas rocket attacks, pointing out that "after Israelis withdrew their settlers and soldiers from Gaza in late 2005, they killed, over the next three years in numerous military actions here, the same number of Gazans as those killed in this war--about 1,275;" noted that many human rights groups considered the Israeli economic blockade of Gaza "to be collective punishment of an area that Israel had occupied for four decades;" strongly objected to Israel's prevention of foreign correspondents from entering Gaza to see for themselves what was happening during the attack; reported that international aid groups and human rights organizations were severely criticizing Israel; and generally provided considerable evidence--especially in his joint news reports with Taghreed El-Khodary,
the excellent Times stringer in Gaza--of the devastating impact of the attack on the Gazan civilian population.

Consequently, the case against Bronner's fairness and credibility is not unmixed. Unfortunately, though, in the last year, many of Bronner's straight news reporting and occasional "news analyses" have contained false symmetries between the Israelis and the Palestinians or have been deficient in tone, emphasis, or context--indeed, sometimes Bronner has even ignored observable facts. Richard Silverstein, Phil Weiss, FAIR, and others have pointed to many examples. Here I will discuss three particularly troubling ones.


First, in a 29 June 2009 account, Bronner employed the Times characteristic he said/she said method of obscuring or simply ignoring crucial facts. After reporting that the Palestinians "accuse" Israel of making a peace settlement impossible by its continued expansion of Jewish settlements, the next sentence states that "Israel says the real problem is Arab rejection of its existence in any borders at all..."
Really? Which Arabs might those be? Egypt reached a peace agreement with Israel in the 1970s, and Jordan did so in the 1990s--both based on a formal acceptance of Israel within its pre-1967 war borders. In 1988 Yasir Arafat and his PLO organization officially accepted the existence of Israel as well as the pre-1967 borders, and his successors in the West Bank have consistently reiterated that policy since then.

Who is left, then? Perhaps Syria? Hardly: it is an established fact that since the 1990s Syria has repeatedly sought an agreement with Israel in which a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights--conquered by Israel during the 1967 war--would be accompanied by a peace settlement that included extensive security guarantees and full normalization of diplomatic and economic relations. (For details, see my 2002 International Security article, "Lost Opportunities for Peace in the Arab-Israeli Conflict: Israel and Syria, 1948-2001."

Saudi Arabia? Certainly not: since 1982 the Saudis have repeatedly and publicly offered Israel a genuine peace settlement and normalization of relations, conditioned on the withdrawal of Israel from all territories it conquered in 1967 and a negotiated settlement of the Palestinian refugee problem. Moreover, it has taken the lead in convincing the rest of the Arab world to endorse such an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict; in 2007 the twenty-two states of the Arab League unanimously endorsed what has come to be known as the Saudi peace plan.

That pretty much leaves Hamas--but even that organization has been gradually moving, however reluctantly, towards a de facto (though not formal) acceptance of Israel if it withdraws from all the occupied territories. What about Iran? Aside from the fact that it isn't Arab, even the present government has said it would go along with the Saudi plan if the Palestinians accept it. In short, the overwhelming evidence---none of it noted by Bronner--demonstrates the absurdity of the standard and oft-reiterated Israeli claim.

Second, on 26 November 2009 Bronner wrote a news analysis in which, as he has often done, he juxtaposed Palestinian charges about Israeli actions with denials by Israeli military spokesmen--as if there was not a wealth of evidence supporting the Palestinian charges, not to mention a long and readily demonstrable history of Israeli military lying. In a characteristic Times false symmetry about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bronner concluded that "each side in this dispute"---that is, the oppressors and their victims--"has stopped listening to the complaints and accusations of the other."

Third, Bronner's most distressingly non-"scrupulous" news story was his recent account of Israel's reaction to the Goldstone report. While noting the report's "harsh conclusion that the death of noncombatants and destruction of civilian infrastructure were part of an official plan to terrorize the Palestinian population," and even providing some detail on a few of the specific cases examined by the Goldstone Commission, Bronner gave equal space to Israeli military leaders who denied the charges. More importantly, Bronner failed to point to obvious problems with those denials.

For example, Bronner quoted from his interview with Gen. Avichai Mandelblit, the Israeli Military Advocate General, who claimed that the Goldstone report went beyond anything of which others had accused Israel: "I have read every report, from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Arab League....It is when you read those other reports and complaints that you realize how truly vicious the Goldstone report is. He made it look like we set out to go after the economic infrastructure and civilians, that it was intentional. It's a vicious lie."

As if to validate this statement, Bronner adds that "virtually no one in Israel, including the leaders of Breaking the Silence and the human rights group B'Tselem, thinks that the Goldstone accusation on civilians is correct," and quotes Yael Stein, the research director of B'Tselem, as saying that while an investigation of the charges was necessary, "I do not accept the Goldstone conclusions of a systematic attack on civilian infrastructure. It is not convincing."

There are several things wrong with this story. First, Bronner's summary of the Goldstone report understates the full scope of what it considered to be deliberate Israeli attacks on civilian infrastructure. Bronner's story focuses on the destruction of a sewage facility, a chicken farm, a cement plant, water wells, and 4000 private homes: bad as those would be, the report discussed a far wider range of Israeli attacks on the "foundations of civilian life in Gaza" (as it put it), including many other agricultural and food production systems (farms, orchards, greenhouses, fishing boats, food and drink factories) as well as the Gaza electric system, water works, construction industries, general industrial sites, and even hospitals and ambulances.

Second, Bronner does not challenge Mandelblit's characterization of the reports of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, both of which--along with other human rights organizations--repeatedly issued public statements and investigative reports that (just like the Goldstone report) condemned Israel's actions as, in Amnesty's words, "disproportionate, indiscriminate or direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects," which constituted "war crimes." (emphasis added) Perhaps Bronner didn't read these reports for himself.

Third, even though it is clearly the case that an overwhelming majority of Israelis do not believe that Israel deliberately attacked Gaza, Bronner's assertion--in his own voice--that "virtually no one in Israel" so believes is a significant exaggeration that essentially dismisses a number of strong dissenting statements and reports by Israeli journalists and human rights organizations. Moreover--though this is undoubtedly asking too much--Bronner could have reflected on his own reports during the attack and at least suggested that what really matters is the accuracy of the Goldstone report rather than what Israelis, no matter how many of them, believe about it.

As for B'tselem's position, even before the 2008-9 attack its executive director and chief public spokesman Jessica Montell had written that "the suffering of the [Palestinian] population is not merely a byproduct of Israel's attacks on militants. It is an intentional part of Israeli policy...
.The clear intention…is to pressure the Palestinian Authority and the armed Palestinian organizations by harming the entire civilian population…[It is] a form of collective punishment." It is true that B'tselem has been more cautious--or perhaps evasive--in its public statements about the Goldstone report, perhaps because of increasing Israeli government pressures on human rights organizations and other strong critics of its policies. Even so, Bronner's quote from Yael Stein of B'tselem is particularly troubling. When asked about the Bronner story, Montell publicly stated that "The quote of Ms. Stein was the result of a two-hour conversation with the journalist, most of it focused on the inadequacy of Israel's investigations to date. While Ms. Stein was quoted accurately, this is a very small part of our views on the Goldstone report and Cast Lead, and not what we would choose to emphasize at this point."

Although cautiously worded, Montell's statement surely implies that Bronner distorted the overall position of B'tselem and used Stein's comment to serve his own apparent purpose--namely to support the Israeli attack on the Goldstone report's conclusion that Israel had deliberately struck the Gazan civilian infrastructure..

The Irresponsibility of the New York Times

The Bronner affair is but one example of the many ways in which in its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Times fails to meet its most basic responsibilities as the world's most influential newspaper: to fully and truthfully report on issues of the highest importance.

During World War II--as Times officials now apologetically acknowledge--the newspaper chose not to publish or downplayed a number of articles about the emerging Holocaust, presumably because it did not want to appear to be excessively concerned with Jewish issues. Today Israel and indeed the United States itself cannot afford continued inadequate coverage, inaccurate analysis, and biased commentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel is descending deeper and deeper into catastrophe, perhaps in the end an unimaginable one: if the conflict continues, it is hard to see how nuclear or biological terrorism can be indefinitely avoided. Moreover, it is not just Israeli survival that is at stake; although other issues play a role, there is not the slightest doubt that rage at U.S. policies towards Israel are a major factor, perhaps the major factor, in the rage of Muslim fanatics towards our country.

The collapse of the Obama administration's initial efforts to bring about a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict demonstrates--once again--that there is no chance for serious changes in the continuing U.S. policy of near-unconditional support of Israel without a reeducation of American officials, congressmen, and political elites. A crucial place to begin such a reeducation process would be in the pages of the New York Times.

Tragically, as the Bronner issue and the response of the Times both illustrate and symbolize, the prospects that this will occur are scant. Thirty or forty years from now, once again far too late, will the Times again apologize for its continued failures of truthful and responsible journalism?





1 comment:

Juan said...

This is a trenchant analysis of not only the NYT, but--by implication--the biased coverage of the I-P conflict by the U.S. mainstream media generally. Prof. Slater demonstrates here that it is absolutely possible to address the issue of media bias with carefully reasoned argument, and thus to break through the stalemate of "some people think the Times favors the Israelis, and others think it favors the Palestinians."