Even when the New York Times gets it right, they get it wrong.
On February 3, the Times printed an article about Jewish Voice for Peace, and high time it was. Some will think my past association with JVP is coloring my view here, but I do not say it was high time because of my admitted affection for the group, but rather because the simple fact is that they are a national, impactful and important organization. Other such groups are reported on, and JVP’s remarkable growth has earned it this moment in the spotlight, that’s all. But the Times seems to have had second thoughts.
The article was not an endorsement nor did it wave a banner for the group. It gave plenty of space to JVP’s detractors. It is impossible to see where the article fails to meet the highest standard of journalism. Yet on February 11, a full eight days after the piece appeared, the Times felt compelled to add the following editorial note:
An article last Friday described the group Jewish Voice for Peace, whose support for antigovernment protests in Egypt has led to tensions among some Jews in the Bay Area. After the article was published, editors learned that one of the two writers, Daniel Ming, had been active in pro-Palestinian rallies. Such involvement in a public cause related to The Times’s news coverage is at odds with the paper’s journalistic standards; if editors had known of Mr. Ming’s activities, he would not have been allowed to write the article.
I’d be curious to find out if the Times also so vets anyone who writes about abortion, or same-gender marriage, or guns, or, for that matter, the “free market.” Now a journalist’s political views, rather than the content or the quality of his work are the issue?
Well, you might say, but at least they’re fair, right? The Times, you say, would not let someone we have reason to think might be biased in favor of Israel write these things either.
Let’s just look at one, rather prominent, example. Much of the Times’ Israel content comes from its Jerusalem bureau; some of it is written by the bureau chief, Ethan Bronner.
Bronner has a son in the Israel Defense Forces and is married to an Israeli woman. He is not merely a journalist stationed in Israel; his family is there and is part of that society, having moved from New York.
Now, this is a debate I have engaged in for years, about Bronner (who has written many article about Israel even before being made Jerusalem bureau chief) and other Jewish journalists who cover Israel. I am not interested in their religion or ethnic identification. Nor do I care about their political inclinations, though I should like to know them if the piece is analytical rather than straight reporting.
Now, in my opinion, Bronner’s reporting on Israel leaves a lot to be desired. But no more than most American reporters who enjoy access to high-ranking Israeli officials and tend to do most of their reporting from Israel proper and away from the real action of the occupation.
The point is, Bronner’s Jewish identity does not make him unqualified to write about Israel. Nor does his son’s being in the IDF. Nor, indeed, do his political views. All I want to know is whether he is a good journalist and whether he does his homework on his stories. I don’t think so, the Times seems to disagree and I’m ok with that, as a matter of principle.
Bronner himself agrees on the standard. Here’s what he said when controversy broke around this very question last year: ““I wish to be judged by my work, not by my biography…Either you are the kind of person whose intellectual independence and journalistic integrity can be trusted to do the work we do at The Times, or you are not.”
Daniel Ming deserves to be judged by the same standard. Every reporter has biases. If she or he does not, the only possible reason is that they are so ignorant of the subject they are writing about, they have no basis to form a view on it. Is that who we want reporting our news (a reasonable question since, watching and reading most American news media, this is indeed the case, and America’s IQ suffers greatly for it)?
Granted, one would not want Abe Foxman writing an article about the Anti-Defamation League. Nor would it be appropriate for a news piece on JVP to be written by Cecilie Surasky (or myself, for that matter). Nor would we want someone who has a specific axe to grind with a group to write such a piece.
But Daniel Ming, like Ethan Bronner, is both a journalist and a human being. A journalist also pursues her or his own life and lives her or his own values. If Ming had been a key organizer, for instance, of a pro-Palestinian rally, I could understand. But he merely attended them. This does not disqualify him from writing a news article. Nor do Bronner’s beliefs and his family’s positions disqualify him. Good journalism means trying to do your best to keep your opinion out of the piece, not to be so removed from it that you have no opinion.
Both Ming and Bronner should be judged on the merits of their work. And, for certain, if Ming’s piece needs a disclaimer or, indeed, if he should never have been allowed to write it in the first place, then what of Bronner’s obviously deep and personal stake in Israel?
Double standards are really ugly things, and all the more so when they, by definition, expose only one side of the coin to criticism and don’t even let people know there is another side.
The fact that the Times took eight days to publish this disclaimer suggests there was some kind of internal fight over this. If so, honest and professional journalism lost. Just another day in the USA.