Controversy over New York Times’ reporter’s son in IDF
By Ira Sharkansky
JERUSALEM–Not exactly a tempest in a tea pot, more accurately in the blogosphere and other media. The son of the New York Times bureau chief in Jerusalem, Ethan Bronner, has begun basic training as a soldier in the IDF. Can Dad continue to write for the Times in Israel while his son is a participant in the most sensitive of the issues he will be called upon for description and commentary. Googling the story produces more than 28,000 hits.
I admitted to being ignorant about the fuss when a nice sounding lady from the BBC phoned at four o’clock in the afternoon to ask if I would participate in a call-in broadcast at 8 PM. I got my three minutes at the end of an hour program.
The organization of the program was more impressive than the content. Participants came from across the globe, and included the son of Julius Nyerere talking about the constraints associated with being in the shadow of Tanzania’s national founder and first president.
Heading the discussion, and featured in at least some of the 28,000 items on Google was a senior editor of the New York Times who thinks the paper should assign Bronner elsewhere. He lost the debate, and the Times decided that, at least for the time being, Bronner will remain as its correspondent in Israel.
As far as we can tell from the fuzzy literature on biblical authorship, it was somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 years ago, most likely in this city where Bronner is working, that what we know as Deuteronomy came to include
“Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin.” (24:16)
By about 2,200 years ago, the rabbis who were turning God’s words into the laws administered by judges had interpreted away death penalties. What they did not transduce into monetary fines were interpreted as punishments to be meted out by the Almighty in Heaven, rather than by humans on earth. The principle remained that individuals would be held responsible for their own acts, and not those of others.
No matter what the New York Times does about Bronner, there will remain supporters of Israel and supporters of Arabs who are certain that the paper is biased against them. These are traits the Times shares with the BBC, CNN, Reuters, and other media. Readers and listeners see and hear what they expect, whether or not journalists and their editors put it there.
Bronner the elder may learn more about the IDF and its tasks from Bronner the younger, but most likely he is a good enough journalist to have found most of that on his own. If Bronner the younger talks more Zionist at home now that he is an Israeli soldier, he will not be the first Zionist to get his father’s attention. And if he comes home to criticize the army and its activities in the harshest of terms his comments will not be the first of their kind that Dad has encountered.
The BBC got to me via a note that included a few lines about Sara Netanyahu, which entered the category concerned with family members of the prominent. Sara’s contretemps have not been prominent in this week’s media, and a poll published in Ha’aretz indicates that 59 percent of the public feel that stories about her will not influence the standing of the prime minister.
The brothers of Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter got attention for bad checks, failed businesses, alcohol, and embarrassing comments, but had no impact on their siblings’ careers.
While politicians depend directly on the perceptions of a fickle public, journalists have editorial filters between them and whatever the public thinks about a family member.
The reputations of the New York Times and other international media depend on correspondents throughout the world, some sent from headquarters and many recruited from locals. They bring or attach themselves to families, friends, lovers, and acquaintances who supply them with information and may influence their attitudes. It remains the task of editors to worry about the tilts or balance decided by committees of senior staff and representatives of ownership, and to monitor what gets into print or on the air. Senior staff also have the responsibilities to shift assignments or terminate the employment of correspondents when appropriate.
The ultimate check on a journalist of Bronner’s caliber is himself. It is his reputation on every line that he writes, as well as all the bits that he puts aside.
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University.