Friday, February 19, 2010

Laid Back Hacks in ME

'Straight journalism'
Passionate Detachment, Middle East International, February 18 2010

From Ian Williams in New York

Following a back injury, I write this from a horizontal position. There is only one other group of professionals that can earn a living lying flat on its back, and, frankly, I often suspect the other has more honesty and integrity. Which leads in naturally to the debate about whether the supposed objectivity of Ethan Bronner, The New York Times’ (NYT) Jerusalem bureau chief, is compromised because his son has enlisted in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).

Clark Hoyt, the public editor of the paper, praised Bronner’s work and claimed that it was, indeed, balanced – but that like Caesar’s wife, NYT staff should be above suspicion and Bronner should be reassigned. Executive Editor Bill Keller disagreed. Neither mentioned that Bronner was also married to an Israeli.

The American media are often over-punctilious about the minutiae of conflicts of interest. They will insist on paying full fares and accommodation for a junket arranged by a foreign government or a company, and then write grovelling and obsequious copy about it. A British journalist riding with them on a totally paid-for gravy train might well reward his benefactors by being rude about them. Some American journalists even refuse to join political parties or vote because they imagine it would compromise their position.

In reality, of course, the real issue is not whether Bronner is Jewish, has an Israeli wife or a son serving in the forces occupying the other side’s territory. Indeed The New York Times would be well served to have Jewish and Israeli journalists covering the issue for them if they had the integrity of the likes of Amira Hass, Akiva Eldar or Gideon Levy from Haaretz.

The real test here is to reverse the terms in the equation. Would the NYT appoint a Muslim to the position, and even if they did, would they keep him in it if his son went native and joined the forces of the Palestinian Authority, let alone Hamas? The answer is clear.

It could be argued that Bronner’s son had no option because of Israeli conscription – but his son is also an American citizen with an easy exit, so there is more than an element of voluntarism about this. Indeed, that compounds it: he has either volunteered for a short term under the programme for foreigners, or he has been conscripted as an Israeli – and faces a lifetime of reserve duty.

However, is also true that both Bronner and the NYT have been evasive about his son’s action, with the bureau chief initially denying it then referring questions on the issue to his superiors back in Manhattan – who compounded suspicions with a wriggly response that could have been crafted by a scriptwriter for Yes Minister. They clearly think that this is, indeed, an issue.

The Times, even more than most American media, takes itself far more seriously than its actual performance merits. The box-ticking approach to ‘objectivity’ tends to obscure the question posed by a previous visitor to Jerusalem –‘what is truth’? The newspaper’s connivance in the drumbeat of frenzy leading up to the Iraq War and its tolerance for Judith Miller’s attempts to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with her WMD reporting demonstrate that.

In a recent talk, Bronner claimed to work in shades of grey as opposed to the black and white he characterised in others. In fact, if you look at his work, it tends to be in shades of blue. His bedrock assumptions identify with Israel as a polity, and even when he is critical of policies, he is less so than many Israeli colleagues, although, to be fair, more so than many of the less sophisticated ‘Israel-firsters’ in the American press.

Reporters have to work in a context of editors and proprietors and meet their requirements for source cultivation. In the hierarchy of sources, an undisclosed White House or State Department source normally trumps a named foreign envoy or politician. But Israeli leaders are accorded honorary Washington insider status. Ariel Sharon could come with his hands dripping with blood, Binyamin Netanyahu can promise a settlement freeze and then plant trees in Ariel, and they will still be treated with the deference due to a senior senator in Washington.

Bonner, like the NYT, brings with him the deference to authority that is characteristic of the American media. Einstein’s second theory of relativity applies: “Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.” The American social environment, especially in the media, is overwhelmingly pro-Israeli and, with a few exceptions, contrarian journalists do not have successful career paths if they differ.

Jeremy Paxman, a pugnacious TV journalist and presenter in Britain, succinctly expressed a proper journalistic attitude when talking to those in authority: “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” His career prospects in American media characterised by deference to authority would be as dim as Robert Fisk’s.

In which context, it is worth quoting Bronner’s 2006 review of Fisk’s book, in which he charged that The Independent’s Middle East correspondent “has become something of a caricature of himself, railing against Israel and the United States, dismissing the work of most of his colleagues as cowering and dishonest, and seeking to expose the West’s self-satisfied hypocrisy nearly to the exclusion of the pursuit of straight journalism… Mr Fisk is most passionate and least informed about Israel.” In this context, we can assume that “straight” journalism means: don’t ask, and don’t mention inconvenient facts that stray too far from Israel’s self-image.

Mark Twain, H L Mencken, I L Stone and other greats of American journalism were not afraid to take sides against the forces of darkness – as they saw them. We remember them because, even if occasionally they got the facts wrong, they pointed to the truth on the great issues of the day, without deference to authority. They would not be a Times bureau chief anywhere.

1 comment:

Rupa Shah said...

One of the best columns a la affair 'Bronner'.