campaign desk

Conflict in Israel?

A problematic speaking deal at The New York Times
September 14, 2011

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.

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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.”

In early 2009, Levine supplemented Lone Star’s operation by establishing a speakers bureau designed to arrange paid lectures for major media figures in Israel. His first speaker was Bronner, who he described in an e-mail to CJR as “a nominal friend and a terrific journalist.” Levine rounded out his roster of speakers with eight well-known Israeli media figures, including Haim Yavin, “founding father of Israel television news”; David Baker, “senior foreign press coordinator of the Israeli prime minister’s office—under four prime ministers”; and Amiel Ungar, “well-known spokesman of the settler movement in Judea and Samaria.” The speakers bureau section of the Lone Star site is illustrated with a photo of Levine and Bronner arm-in-arm.

Bronner says he gets several dozen story pitches a week, and only a few come through Lone Star. “Hearing from Lone Star impresses me no more than hearing from any other pitch source,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I look at the journalistic potential in the context of what else I am working on and try to act accordingly.” Since Bronner joined Lone Star’s speakers bureau, he has mentioned or written about Lone Star PR clients in at least five stories.

On the one hand, it might be hard to cover Israel without stumbling across Lone Star many clients. On the other, however, that might be a good reason not to have a business relationship with the firm.
The Times’s ethics guidelines guidelines say:

“Staff members and those on assignment for us may not accept employment or compensation of any sort from individuals or organizations who figure in coverage they are likely to provide, prepare or supervise.” [Section 36]

Also: “Staff members and others on assignment for us may not collaborate in ventures with individuals or organizations that are likely to figure in their coverage.” [Section 49]

Lone Star, meanwhile, is not a PR firm that seems to choose its clients based solely on their potential financial value. While a number of their listed clients—such as Harley Davidson Israel, the Ohio Trade Commission, and the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange—seem to be ideologically neutral, Levine has injected the firm with a distinctive political flavor.

A third-generation Texan who moved to Israel in 1978, Levine has run three high-profile PR firms since arriving in the country, starting up Lone Star in June 2006. He has often moved between PR and journalism, publishing op-eds and interviews with influential figures in an array of Israeli newspapers and magazines. Besides his reputation as a first-rate PR man, Levine is also known for his work as a media adviser to top Israeli government officials, mostly on the right (his working relationship with Shimon Peres, a Labor Party stalwart, is a notable exception). He says he has served as a media adviser—sometimes informally, sometimes as a paid gig—to former prime minister Ehud Olmert, current minister of education Gideon Sa’ar, Minister of Public Diplomacy and Diasapora Affairs Yuli Edelstein, Minister of National Infrastructure Uzi Landau, and other government officials. In addition, Levine serves as a reservist captain in the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Unit, a division of the Israeli Army responsible for disseminating the military’s point of view to the national press corps—and to international reporters like Bronner.

Bronner says he does not share what he described as “Charley Levine’s rightist politics.” According to Levine’s bio on Lone Star’s website, he lives in a “suburb of Jerusalem.” That “suburb” is, in fact, the Jewish mega-settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, which cuts deep into the West Bank. “I see myself as a mainstream Israeli who believes first and foremost in the Zionist mission of the state of Israel, in free enterprise, in the rule of law, and in the twin democratic and Jewish pillars of this nation,” Levine wrote in an e-mail.

Levine’s client roster includes people and organizations identified with the Israeli political center, like Kadima USA. But Levine has not shied away from promoting people like Dov Hikind, a New York State Assemblyman and acolyte of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose terrorism-linked Kach Party is banned inside Israel. Another Lone Star client, Danny Danon, a member of the Knesset, argued this May in The New York Times’s op-ed section that Israel should annex large sections of the West Bank in response to the Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations. Lone Star handled publicity during a visit to Israel for longshot Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, who said at one point during his campaign that he supported loyalty oaths for Muslims seeking to serve in his administration. Lone Star coordinated the media for Glenn Beck’s recent “Restoring Courage” rally in Jerusalem. Beck is listed as a client.

The singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen hired Lone Star to handle media operations during a 2009 concert in Israel. Cohen performed after rejecting demands by Israeli and Palestinian activists that he refuse to play in Israel to protest the country’s occupation of Palestinian territory (as some other musicians had done). Bronner reported on the singer’s Israel concert in an article on September 24, 2009. In the report Bronner characterized the goals of boycott advocates as “seeking to ostracize Israel” and highlighted Cohen’s expected donation of up to $2 million to groups like the Parents Circle, a nonprofit that promotes dialogue between bereaved Israeli and Palestinian family members.

Levine had been deeply involved in the preparations for Cohen’s tour. Afterward, in a June 16, 2010 op-ed for The Jerusalem Post, Levine wrote that he had prepared a document designed to persuade Cohen and his management team not to give in to “pro-terrorist coercion.” “I understand that Leonard Cohen reviewed my analysis and drew his own conclusions,” Levine wrote. “Later, we advised on the theme of this special appearance which took on a charitable character in support of Israel-Arab reconciliation, elevating it to still a higher plane.”

Bronner covered a contentious land issue involving the Simon Wiesenthal Foundation of Los Angeles, which sought to construct a new “Museum of Tolerance” on the grounds of Mamila Cemetery, a historic Muslim graveyard in Jerusalem. The attempt brought criticism from Muslim, Jewish, and Christian religious groups. Levine served as the Wiesenthal Foundation’s spokesman in 2006, and the organization is listed under “current and recent clients” on the Lone Star site, though Levine says the foundation was his own client and not a Lone Star client. On August 13, 2010, Bronner published an article on attempts by the Jerusalem Municipality to bulldoze gravesites to make way for the Museum of Tolerance’s construction. He described the dispute as two equally vociferous sides “accusing the other of shamelessness and indecency.”

Among other Lone Star Communications clients that Bronner has covered or mentioned in the period since he joined Lone Star’s speaker’s bureau are The Israel Project, on September 4, 2009; NGO Monitor, on April 4, 2011; and Danny Danon, a conservative member of the Knesset, on May 20, 2011. He also did a piece on The Jewish National Fund—which Levine says is not on retainer, but which Lone Star has done occasional projects for—on March 12, 2009.

Bronner faced an earlier controversy when his young son decided to serve in the Israeli military. The Times’s former public editor, Clark Hoyt, argued for a transfer, but former Times editor Bill Keller strongly backed Bronner and he weathered it. Bronner’s son has since finished his army stint and moved to the US.

Shortly after this story was published, Ethan Bronner cut his ties with Lone Star Communications, as reported in a September 24 column about the matter by Arthur S. Brisbane, the Times‘s public editor.

Max Blumenthal is a Puffin Foundation writing fellow at The Nation Institute.