The New York Times gets lost in a minefield

On Friday 14 May, The New York Times‘ Public Editor Clark Hoyt published a piece called ‘Semantic Minefields’. The focus of Hoyt’s article was, in his own words, the questions Times‘ journalists “juggle” on a daily basis, “as they try to present the news in clear and evenhanded language”.

The last example given by Hoyt related to “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”. Here’s the background:

When Cooper wrote this month about a lunch that Obama had with Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor, she said the president was trying to mend fences with American Jews upset at the administration’s stance against construction of “Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem.”

Nathan Dodell of Rockville, Md., said it was “tendentious and arrogant” to use the word “settlements” four times in the article when the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has explicitly rejected it in relation to East Jerusalem. Obama has used the term himself to refer to construction in East Jerusalem, and Cooper told me, “I called them settlements because that’s the heart of the dispute between the Israelis and the United States: settlement construction in Arab East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want for an eventual Palestinian state.”

But to Dodell, she was taking sides. He asked why she didn’t use a neutral term like “housing construction.”

Incredibly, there is not one mention of international law, where the illegitimacy of settlements in the Occupied West Bank – including East Jerusalem – has been repeatedly affirmed by the UN Security Council, the General Assembly, the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention, the European Union, and the International Court of Justice judges in their 2004 advisory opinion.

Perhaps Cooper cited international law to Hoyt – but he doesn’t say so. The closest the Public Editor gets himself is when he writes that Israel’s claim to a ‘united’ Jerusalem is “not recognized by the United States and most of the world”.

But apparently, settlement is “a charged word” and so “articles by Times reporters in Jerusalem do generally use words like ‘housing’ instead of ‘settlement’.”

We also learn about the Times’ Ethan Bronner’s opinion: basic principles of international law are discarded in favour of Bronner’s personal impressions of some of Occupied East Jerusalem having “the feeling” of settlements that other areas do not.

The Public Editor’s conclusion? The journalist in question “should have found a more neutral term”.

No wonder that Hoyt feels the need to finish with the reassurance that newspapers are about “nuance and real understanding”. Because one would be forgiven for thinking that the Times‘ approach to Palestine/Israel is about confusion and misinformation.

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

By Jerome Slater

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.

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New York Times: No conflict of interest — with the conventional wisdom

by Robert Jensen

The New York Times’ public editor wrestled this week with conflict-of-interest charges sparked by the revelation that Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner’s son had joined the Israeli army.

The executive editor of the paper responded with a sensible defense of the paper’s decision to keep Bronner in that position.

Although it had the appearance of a spirited exchange, the “debate” was a tired old diversion that keeps us from facing more important questions, not just about the Israel/Palestine conflict but about U.S. journalists’ coverage of the world. As is typical in mainstream journalists’ discussions of journalistic neutrality and objectivity, the focus on an individual obscures more important questions about the institutions for which individuals work and the powerful forces that shape those institutions’ picture of the world.

The question posed by the Times officials is framed in the narrowest terms: Could Bronner maintain his neutrality and objectivity given those family circumstances, or was that indirect connection to one side of the war “still too close for comfort,” in public editor Clark Hoyt’s words. In his Sunday column, Hoyt described Bronner as a “superb reporter” but concluded that the paper should reassign him to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. Executive editor Bill Keller argued that such a policy would disqualify many reporters from assignments that draw on their specialized knowledge and diminish the quality of the reporting in the paper, and concluded there is no reason to reassign Bronner.

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