Posted on: February 15, 2011 Posted by: Mitchell Plitnick Comments: 11

Even when the New York Times gets it right, they get it wrong.

Democracy in the bed under the about-to-be-extinguished light of journalism

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.


11 People reacted on this

  1. I recall that Ethan Bronner’s family connections came up as an issue discussed intensely by the NY Times public editor (ombudsman) a year or two ago. If I remember correctly, the public editor thought that he should be reassigned when his son was inducted into the IDF. I agreed, basically because of the need to maintain the appearance of impartiality.

    But the Israeli peace activist whom I know best and is utterly committed to peace and coexistence, Hillel Schenker, the co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, is very pleased with Ethan Bronner’s performance as Jerusalem bureau chief (as compared with his predecessor). So I guess that Bronner’s a very decent journalist.

    The big difference in the situation with Daniel Ming and that of Ethan Bronner is that The Times knows Bronner as one of their reporters and editors for many years; they evidently don’t really know Ming. So Bronner has been fully vetted and the decision was made to keep him at his post despite his family’s Israeli connections.

  2. Great piece, Mitchell. Does anyone know what this alleged “pro-Palestinian” rally was to justify a lifetime on reporting on the entire conflict?

  3. Treyfe: Not as far as I know, and the Times only accuses him of being there.

    Ralph: The above response to treyfe is the point here. Whatever Bronner’s strengths as a journalist, there is either a standard or there is not. All journalists have views and opinions. There was, however, no substance in the Times statement to indicate that there was a reason, beyond Ming’s personal beliefs and opinions, for their rather stern disclaimer. Either the piece is biased or it is not, and the Times did not indicate that they believed it was.

    Let me give another example, of a journalist I know personally, and whose work I hold in some regard, the JTA’s Ron Kampeas. Ron also blogs for JTA and he has very strong opinions, which he expresses therein. But that doesn’t affect his reporting. Ming or any other journalist should be judged on that basis. Or do we really believe that every reporter who ever attended a political rally cannot report on political issues? Obviously not.

    I used Bronner as an example because there is more reason to believe he is biased than there is for Ming. I hasten to add that while I don’t think Bronner’s reporting is very good (and I’ve followed his work for many years and have also been involved in media analysis since the mid-90s) I don’t think it’s because of his family or his identity as a Jew.

    There should be one standard, and this incident smacks very loudly of external pressure having been exerted on the Times (something which I know from first-hand experience they get a lot of whenever they have an article sympathetic to certain groups). In any case, one either judges the substance or one does not. If not, Bronner’s experience matters not at all, as he would still fail to meet the standard, which was expressed by the Times’ own Public Editor. If we are judging the substance then where is the case against Ming? There is none.

  4. You’re definitely correct, Mitchell, that they are not providing a good or full explanation. But if the standard is that they know and trust their reporter, then evidently Bronner qualifies. If they believe that Ming is a pro-Palestinian activist or pro-JVP, then they should not have allowed him to write a news article on this subject; I suspect that this is what they found out after the fact.

  5. That’s very hard to believe, Ralph. The co-author, Aaron Glantz, is well known in the Bay Area as a left-wing reporter (he has worked for KPFA, the Pacifica station there, don’t know if he still does). They got the story from a Bay Area news consortium that caters to progressives. I mean, come on, if they weren’t going to look into something like that to begin with, the after the fact note is obviously disingenuous. As it is indeed, so. If they had a journalistic, substantive reason for this action, they surely would have said so.

  6. I wouldn’t simply assume bad faith on the part of The Times here, although it’s certainly possible. As for being disingenuous, I hope you don’t mean me? Whether I’m right or wrong on the facts, I’m calling this as I see it.

  7. I’m so sorry, Ralph, if I wasn’t clear, but I was referring to the Times being disingenuous, and I think they were. I would not say such a thing to you, certainly not in a public forum. Also, I’ll remind folks, there is a policy on this site about personal attacks of any sort. Lively debate and ideas are welcomed, even heated ones as long as any attacks are on ideas not people and general civility is maintained. I’m not about to violate my own policy in any case, but I was not remotely tempted to in this case. I know full well you are a straight shooter, as it were, Ralph. Sorry for the lack of clarity.

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