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

The New York Times has now confirmed recent internet rumors that the son of Ethan Bronner, for the past two years its chief correspondent in Israel, has enlisted in the Israeli army. As the website Electronic Intifada pointed out, the internal policies of the Times state that journalists might have to be reassigned if the activities of family members created real or even "apparent" conflicts of interest.

Rather surprisingly, last Sunday the Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt decided to address the issue in his Week in Review
column concluding that while Bronner's reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was "superb," his family ties (Bronner is also married to an Israeli woman) created enough of an apparent conflict of interest to warrant his reassignment. In support, Hoyt quoted Alex Jones, the director of a Harvard center that studies the press and a former Pulitzer Prize-winning report 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."

Hoyt invited Bill Keller, the Times executive editor, to respond in the same column. In his typical fashion, Keller came out swinging, dismissively rejecting Hoyt's and Jones' reasoning -- not to mention, of course, all the non-New York Times insiders whose views on the substance of Bronner's reporting were far more critical than Hoyt's. 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" -- informed, accurate and unbiased -- almost surely his family ties with Israel would have never 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, Keller gave the back of his hand to criticisms of him. And also, why it would hardly matter if the Times, for cosmetic or public relations reasons, chose to reassign Bronner -- his replacement probably would 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 Times' news coverage and commentary about Israel have long known that it is typically slanted in a "pro-Israeli" direction; 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 that mythology has been decisively discredited by serious Israeli, U.S. and European historians, academicians, and journalists. Indeed, much of it has been publicly challenged by a number of former Israeli political and government leaders, as well as retired generals and intelligence officials.

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 has not been 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, 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: in its editorials, on its op-ed pages, and in its news coverage. I shall discuss only the latter, in part because of space constraints but also because the bias and inaccuracies that are common in the newspaper's editorials and opinion pieces can be regarded as both more obvious and less serious than those in its news coverage.

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 matters: it can simply report the statements, or it can alert its readers to obvious contradictions between what officials or generals say and observable realities. On controversial issues, even in its straight news stories, the Times normally doesn't just blandly print statements by public officials, without some kind of subtle or not-so-subtle warnings to its readers that skepticism may be warranted. For example, the Times is skeptical about the Iraq war; consequently, its reports on the latest optimistic statements by U.S. or Iraqi officials are often accompanied by signals from the reporter 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 simply adopt the Israeli point of view, or at best contain an underlying premise that the full truth about the conflict, sometimes 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." (For examples, see my own blog, cited above)

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. 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 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 reports during last year's Israeli attack on Gaza provided considerable evidence 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 his 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, he has sometimes even ignored or obscured observable facts. Here I will discuss three particularly troubling Bronner stories.

First, in a June 29, 2009 news account Bronner employed the Times' characteristic "he said/she said" method: After reporting that the Palestinians "accuse" Israel of making a peace settlement impossible by its continued expansion of the 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.

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. Even Iran has said that it will go along with the Saudi plan if the Palestinians agreed to a settlement based on it.

That pretty much leaves Hamas -- but even that organization has been gradually moving towards a reluctant de facto (though not formal) acceptance of Israel if it withdraws from all the occupied territories. In short, the overwhelming evidence -- none of it noted by Bronner -- demonstrates the absurdity of the standard and oft-reiterated Israeli claim.

Second, on November 26, 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 New York 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 the accusations of the other."

Third, consider Bronner's 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 [Israeli] plan to terrorize the Palestinian population," Bronner devotes most of the article to statements from Israeli military leaders who deny the charges.

For example, Bronner quotes 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 these 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."

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." 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 Gazan civilians, 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.

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 stories 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 the 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?

This is a condensed version of a longer piece that I have just published on my own blog. Those seeking a fuller discussion can find it there.