Ethan Bronner, the departing New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief, engaged his critics yesterday in a panel discussion at the annual Jewish Funders Network conference at the Tel Aviv Hilton. Despite the presence of two other journalists, the spotlight was clearly on Bronner—and his employer. At the outset, Bronnner drew a distinction between journalism and advocacy, declaring that championing Israel is “not my job,” adding: “our correspondents in India, Brazil, and South Africa are considered enemies of the state; that’s journalism.” Anticipating, or perhaps attempting to head off, criticism of his reporting, he noted, “Headlines, photographs, and captions, over which I have no control, are my biggest problem.”
Following up, a questioner brought up Bronner’s March 7th front page story, “Mideast Din Drowns Out Palestinians,” which was accompanied by a photograph of two Israeli soldiers firing guns and captioned: “Israeli soldiers fired at Palestinian stone throwers in the West Bank town of al Ram, near East Jerusalem, last month.” The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) noticed a problem with the photo: the soldiers were firing non-lethal rubber bullets. After the Times‘ foreign editor was contacted about the misleading photograph, the paper published a correction which stated: “While the soldiers were indeed firing rifles at stone throwers in the West Bank town of Al Ram last month, the rifles contained rubber bullets.” Bronner threw his editors overboard and stated that the illustration was “definitely a bad choice,” explaining that an inexperienced photo editor had been assigned to the story. “90 percent of the problems I face are in competence, not conspiracy,” he added, before issuing a plea that the Times be judged on “what we do on a daily basis,” not isolated mistakes.
Not content to leave it at that, Bronner noted that a photograph rarely portrays a clear moral picture, and argued, “You don’t run two pictures, so you run the one of the more victimized. Photo editors look for the more exotic, and Israelis tend to be less exotic.”
During the Q & A, I asked Bronner to comment on Times columnist Tom Friedman’s recent claim that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s standing ovations during his address to Congress last year were “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby” as well as on Netanyahu’s subsequent rejection of an invitation to contribute to the Times‘ op-ed page. He hedged his answer by claiming that while Friedman’s phrase was “unfortunate,” he understood that the columnist’s words stemmed from the fact that the speech took place “while AIPAC was in session” and that a number of members of Congress had given their visitor’s gallery passes to AIPAC members who were “up in the balcony craning to see if their representatives were standing” during the applause lines. As to Netanyahu’s refusal to write an article, he said, “Bibi made a mistake.” The op-ed page exists, he said, to “stir the pot,” and with American opinion polls so overwhelmingly pro-Israel, it should not be surprising that it often runs pieces that go against “conventional wisdom.”
Bronner was calm, professional, and articulate in vigorously defending his tenure at the newspaper of record, in what The Scroll has called “journalism’s most controversial post.” “When something is surprising, it’s news,” he said. These days, news about Israel, he concluded, is “rarely surprising.”
Morton Landowne is executive director of Nextbook Inc.