Running the Jerusalem bureau for The New York Times is a tough job in a hypersensitive area, one that attracts more than its share of slings and arrows. So maybe it is best not to hand out extra arrows, as Ethan Bronner seems to have done.
In 2009, Bronner, who has run the bureau since March 2008, joined the speakers bureau of one of Israel’s top public relations firms, Lone Star Communications. Lone Star arranges speaking dates for Bronner and takes 10 to 15 percent of his fee. At the same time, Lone Star pitches Bronner stories.
Bronner says his speaking relationship with Lone Star is minimal, non-exclusive, and “not a very active one”—some half a dozen speeches out of seventy-five or so he’s given over the last three and a half years to nonprofit groups. His speaking fees, he says, are low, and “My public speaking reflects my newspaper writing—it is reportorial, analytical, and non-adversarial—and fully in keeping with New York Times ethical guidelines,” Bronner wrote in a response to interview questions. The Times backs him up. To Bronner’s responses,“We would add only that his speaking appearances for nonprofit groups all conform to Times ethics guidelines, and that we have complete confidence in his professionalism and impartiality,” Eileen Murphy, the Times’s vice president of corporate communications, wrote in an e-mail.
Still, the quantity of Bronner’s speeches and the quality of his news coverage are not at question, only that he takes paid speaking engagements from a firm that also pitches him stories. Complicating the arrangement is the fact that Lone Star has a fairly clear ideological bent, and that Bronner has reported on a handful of the firm’s PR clients—this in a bureau where every nuance is scrutinized. And a reader of the Times’s ethics guidelines might come to a different conclusion about what they say about such an arrangement.
A relationship with a Times reporter is a valuable thing to any PR organization, let alone in Israel, where everything seems amplified—even archeology. Ancient artifacts are used to bolster or refute modern political claims. In 2008, in an excavation in the Israeli town of Khirbet Qeiyafa, near what was said to be the valley where David battled Goliath, an archaeology professor from Hebrew University named Yosef Garfinkel found a shard of pottery that contained what appeared to have been the oldest Hebrew text ever discovered. Garfinkel believed the artifact offered evidence of a kingdom ruled by King David more than 3,000 years ago. Such a find could be used to boost claims that an ancient empire established the historical precedent for the present day Jewish state, though archeologists differ on their interpretations of what Garfinkel found.
Garfinkel asked two of Israel’s most avid archaeology enthusiasts, David Willner and Barnea Selavan, to start a fundraising operation that would allow the completion of the dig. Willner is a settler from the West Bank who hosts a popular archaeology radio show and Barnea Selavan had previously worked as a public relations hand for the Jerusalem Reclamation Project, an organization dedicated to settling religious nationalist Jews in Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Willner and Selavan turned to Lone Star, a Jerusalem-based Israeli public relations firm founded and directed by Charley Levine, a well-connected Israeli media adviser.
Lone Star in turn arranged an exclusive tour for Bronner. “The feeling was the Times was the most serious periodical who could run the story who could generate serious publicity and generate fundraising from the get-go,” Willner said. “And so the feeling was that if it was a New York Times story, it was worth its weight in gold.” Bronner published an October 30, 2008 feature in the Times that examined the historical and political controversies surrounding the dig. Dozens of media outlets also covered the excavation and, within days, the project at Khirbet Qeiyafa had gathered so much attention that the comedian Seth Meyers joked about the dig in a bit on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update.”