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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Oedipus in the Newsroom

The New York Times' esteemed public editor, Clark Hoyt raised a new and complicated conundrum this week.

It concerns the Times' equally esteemed Middle East reporter, Ethan Bronner whose son has joined the Israeli army. Clark discussed in detail the dilemma this presents to Bronner and to the Times.

As Clark explained, the Times coverage of this story has been attacked on both sides for being overly invested in the Israelis and unjustly insensitive to the plight of the Palestinians. Others feel that the Times is expunging some sort of liberal guilt and spending far too much ink on the Palestinians. Ethan Bronner's son in the Israeli army has been seen by some as reinforcing the impression of an inherent conflict of interest.

As I know from personal experience, it is impossible to create a shared journalistic understanding of this issue that transcends the readers' own assumptions. Impressions are important and journalistic organizations ignore them at their peril.

Clark's Solomonic conclusion is that the reputation of the Times is more important than an individual reporter's career. So despite Bronner's terrific journalism, Clark reluctantly concludes that Bronner needs to be reassigned as long as his son is in the army.

Bill Keller, the Times' executive editor has responded by rejecting Clark's recommendation and says that Bronner will not be relieved of his assignment.

Some pro-Israeli readers will doubtless see this as a vindication of their position even if they have found fault with Bronner's reporting in the past.  To remove a reporter from a beat because of the action of the son would be tantamount to saying that all military service in the Israeli army is illegitimate. As with the story itself, there is no single outcome where partisans may find themselves in agreement.

In journalism, this overlap between the personal, the familial and the professional, happens constantly. Washington, DC is a small, one-industry town and journalists often end up married to people in one administration or another. My own take has been to judge journalists (as much as possible) by their work alone, not by who they sleep with, who they socialize with or what parties their relatives support. In that town, to do less would disenfranchise a lot of well known journalists.

In the Bronner case, there is another factor which a psychotherapist of my acquaintance pointed out to me: does Bronner's son have any responsibility in this matter?

So, some questions for the young man:

  1. Did he realize that by joining the Israeli army that there could be perceived consequences for his father's career?
  2. Did he have to join the army now or could it have been deferred?
  3. Were there alternatives to active service and were they considered?
  4. Was he aware that he might sabotage his father's career?
  5. Is this an instance of unresolved oedipal issues?                                                                         

1 comment:

  1. Doesn't the New York Times kind of shoot itself in the foot by first raising the issue of reporting from Israel thus causing even closer scrutiny of the reportage from the area?
    I agree, despite any "connections" the reporter should be judged on his reporting, but now this has become public does it not affect the optics of the reporting?
    Does the son, now in the Israeli army, live at home? How close is the father to the son? What do journalists in Israel think about the situation? I suspect they will regard it as a mildly interesting distraction and then go about their business.