Imagine the ruckus that would erupt if editors told a journalist covering the U.S. military he had to be reassigned to another beat because his son had enlisted in the Army.
The reporter's bosses might defend the change, saying they were avoiding the appearance of a conflict of interest. But wouldn't that expose another bias, against anyone with a link to the military?
Something like that dilemma has editors at the New York Times waging a public debate over whether the paper's Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner, should keep his assignment now that his son has become a member of the Israeli Defense Forces.
The paper's public editor, Clark Hoyt, wrote in his column that Bronner should be reassigned. Hoyt argued that readers might wonder whether the younger Bronner's enlistment would prevent his father from keeping the most complex conflict on Earth in perspective.
But Bronner won't be moving any time soon, as Times Executive Editor Bill Keller thinks he "has covered this most difficult of stories extraordinarily well." Bronner, like all journalists, wants his stories to speak for themselves. "I wish to be judged by my work," Bronner told the public editor, "not by my biography."
The controversy has taken on a prolonged life since Hoyt's initial Feb. 7 column on the issue. Many of the broadsides aimed at the veteran correspondent rely on at least two misguided notions: that bright-line ethics rules can clarify stubbornly fuzzy real-world complexities and that a new kind of "transparency" will make everything clearer.
Bronner previously covered the Mideast for the Boston Globe and has been writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for almost three decades. Though his 20-year-old son was raised largely in the U.S., most of his peers in Israel faced the country's compulsory service requirement. So the younger Bronner signed on to do the same -- beginning a year of training in December, to be followed by six months of active duty.
The correspondent reported this to the Times' foreign editor, but the news only became public when it was reported on the Electronic Intifada website.
Many readers responded with fury. "Would the NYT allow a reporter to cover a labor dispute if his son were on one side or the other?" one e-mailed the paper. "Israel is a country engaged in a military struggle with its neighbor; every aspect relates to the military. . . . Shame on you, New York Times."
But others jumped to the correspondent's defense. "Ethan should only be judged upon what actually appears in print and nothing else," wrote one. "He is a superb reporter."
I went through his coverage, particularly during Israel's war last year in Gaza, and found that Bronner treated both sides without apparent favor.
His stories reflected the fear and anger felt in Israel after an incessant string of rocket attacks. But it also captured accounts of an Israeli counterattack that sometimes went too far, killing innocents and destroying homes.
Another typical Bronner piece, about the shadow existence of many Israeli Arabs, also brimmed with nuance. It concluded that "Israel's 1.3 million Arab citizens are still far less well off than Israeli Jews and feel increasingly unwanted."
Reaction to Bronner's studiously balanced coverage tends to reveal more about the audience than it does about the author. Many Palestinians and Arabs rejected any narrative that didn't have them as Davids struggling against a mighty oppressor. Many Jews and Israelis dismiss any story that doesn't acknowledge their struggle to survive opponents who would wipe them off the face of the Earth.
wrote in his column"Trying to tell the story so that both sides can hear it in the same way feels more and more to me like a Greek tragedy in which I play the despised chorus," Bronner said in a January 2009 essay, "The Bullets in My In-Box." He added: "Every time I fail to tell the story each side tells itself, I have failed in its eyes to do my job."
In a follow-up report in last Sunday's Week in Review section, Hoyt acknowledged that good reporters constantly must be vigilant to correct for their own biases. "But having a son take up arms in a foreign fight you are covering -- any fight -- creates intolerable pressures and appearances," Hoyt concluded.
But Bronner has already proved over many years that he can tolerate the extreme stress of Mideast coverage and produce stories that don't betray his personal feelings. It seems unfair and simplistic to suggest that a career of objectivity will be vaporized by his adult son's independent choice to join the Israeli military.
Isn't it possible his son's experience leaves him at least as skeptical as he already has been about how the Israeli forces go about their business? Some of the most damning reports from Gaza last year came, after all, from Israeli soldiers who acknowledged their units used too much force.