The newspaper that wasn’t willing to fire Judith Miller — even though she played a key role in propagating bogus information that led to the war in Iraq — can hardly be expected to give harsh treatment to Ethan Bronner, its Jerusalem bureau chief, just because of a few pesky conflicts of interest.
But then again, I imagine Bronner got blindsided when he saw the letters about him that just appeared in the paper (reprinted below).
Direct communication is not the forte of the New York Times, so I guess it’s possible that both the paper and its much rebuked reporter could still attempt to weather this storm.
Keep in mind that in these readers’ comments, criticism is being leveled just as much at the public editor as it is at Bronner. As two experts on the subject point out, Arthur Brisbane needs a lesson on how to identify conflicts of interest.
The fact that the public editor engages in a mea culpe of kinds by allowing readers to educate him about how he needs to do his own job, suggests that in a circuitous way both Brisbane and Bronner may be attempting to perform a ritual of accountability in the form through which accountability has in recent years become stripped of meaning: the art of owning up without paying any price.
Conflicts and Appearances
By ARTHUR S. BRISBANE
Re “Tangled Relationships in Jerusalem” (Sept. 25):
“Conflict of interest” is not the issue at stake here. The basic question is: How can your readers take anything that Ethan Bronner writes on the Middle East seriously, given his associations with a right-wing Israeli public relations firm and his son’s service in the Israel Defense Forces?
I, for one, will automatically assume a bias, conscious or unconscious, in his articles, and discount them accordingly.
San Rafael, Calif.
Reporters should not have a business relationship with any third party that could figure, directly or indirectly, in their reporting. This is a simple, clear standard, and Mr. Bronner violated it. Every time such relationships are rationalized, the credibility of the reporter and the newspaper suffers.
It’s obviously past time for Mr. Bronner’s reassignment. The only thing keeping him there — I hope — is management’s stubborn disinclination to be seen to be reacting to public pressure.
Oversights, misreading of guidelines, appearances of conflicts of interest, etc. At this point, The Times itself, not just Mr. Bronner, has a credibility problem.
Wappingers Falls, N.Y.
When I consider the balanced and informative articles from Mr. Bronner and the rest of the Jerusalem bureau, I have to wonder at the constant targeting of them by the right, the left, the Jews, the Palestinians, and, it seems, everyone else. The reporting from that quarter is superb and more than the equal of the best that The New York Times has to offer. Let’s give this one a rest.
East Lansing, Mich.
Your distinction between an actual conflict of interest and the appearance of a conflict is wrong. The appearance is the actual conflict.
Compare judges. If a judge previously received a free vacation from a litigant, we say she has an actual conflict that undermines public trust in her ruling, not the appearance of one. If the trip does in fact influence the judge’s ruling, it’s no longer a conflict, but a crime.
So with journalists. If the public reasonably believes that a reporter’s independence is compromised by a personal interest, he has an actual conflict. If the reporter in fact changes a story because of his personal interest, it’s no longer a conflict, but a breach of trust.
The writer teaches legal ethics at New York University School of Law.
Your otherwise thoughtful column perpetuates the confused and mischievous distinction between the appearance of a conflict of interest and an actual conflict. You give aid and comfort to those like Mr. Bronner who try to defend themselves against the charge of a conflict of interest by claiming that they are not actually influenced by the financial gain. That is beside the point.
The purpose of conflict-of-interest rules is precisely to avoid an inquiry into the motives of individual reporters (and other professionals). The rules are meant to maintain the trust of readers, who are not in a position to investigate the motives of reporters.
The rules in effect tell reporters to avoid circumstances that we know from experience create a substantial risk that professional judgment may be unduly influenced by improper considerations like financial gain. It is about the circumstances, not about the individual. To say that a reporter has violated the rule is not to say anything about his actual motives. It is to say that he has failed to respect the reasonable expectations of his readers and the public. That is a serious offense, but it is not the same offense as biased reporting.
When a reporter’s judgment is actually distorted by gifts, payments, promise of speaking engagements and the like, the violation is no longer simply a conflict of interests but emphatically the victory of the wrong interest.
DENNIS F. THOMPSON
The writer teaches government at Harvard.
However ideologically biased he may be vis-à-vis Ethan Bronner, Max Blumenthal has performed a public service by exposing Mr. Bronner’s questionable business relationship with the pro-Zionist Lone Star Communications.
Having already ignited an ethical firestorm over his son’s enlistment in the Israel Defense Forces, Mr. Bronner behaved maladroitly in accepting paid speaking engagements with a public relations firm whose head agitates against the Palestinian cause.
The dispossession of the Palestinian people cannot be divorced from the security of the Jewish state. But neither issue will receive a fair hearing in the paper of record if an avoidable perception of impropriety hardens into a bedrock belief.
ROSARIO A. IACONIS