A conflict-of-interest concern that’s been rumbling around The New York Times was dragged into the open over the weekend by the paper’s public editor, Clark Hoyt. In his Sunday column, Hoyt confirmed what the Web site Electronic Intifada reported a few weeks ago: the son of Ethan Bronner, the NYT’s bureau chief in Jerusalem, has enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces. And, after weighing the issue—he noted the complaints of bias that inevitably follow any reporting on the Middle East, his own belief in the quality and integrity of Bronner’s work, Bronner’s disclosure of the news to his editors, and the Times’s internal ethics guidelines—Hoyt also recommended that Bronner be reassigned. “The Times sent a reporter overseas to provide disinterested coverage of one of the world’s most intense and potentially explosive conflicts, and now his son has taken up arms for one side,” he wrote. “Even the most sympathetic reader could reasonably wonder how that would affect the father, especially if shooting broke out.”
In an unusual step, Times executive editor Bill Keller responded publicly to Hoyt, notifying him—and the paper’s readers—that his suggestion would not be followed. Keller wrote:
You and everyone you interviewed for your column concurs that Ethan Bronner is fully capable of continuing to cover his beat fairly. Your concern is that readers will not be capable of seeing it that way. That is probably true for some readers. The question is whether those readers should be allowed to deny the rest of our audience the highest quality of reporting.
We want to know: Who do you agree with? Would the Times be doing a disservice to readers by moving a veteran reporter off one of the world’s most important stories? Or is the appearance of conflict—or the risk of actual conflict—in this case so great that Bronner must be moved to another beat?The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.