Jonathan Cook on the Bronner Affair

Jonathan Cook writes about the NYT's Ethan Bronner and other bureau chiefs for Western papers covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

Consider this: The NYT has a regular response when it comes to turning a blind eye to reporters with conflicts of interest in Israel - aside, I mean, from the issue of the reporters' ethnic identification or nationality. For example, I am reminded of a recent predecessor of Bronner's at the Jerusalem bureau - an Israeli Jew - who managed to do regular service in the Israeli army reserves even while he was covering the Second Intifada. I am pretty sure his bosses knew of this, but, as with Bronner, did not think there were grounds for taking action.

Shortly after I wrote my first article on the Bronner issue, pointing out that most Western coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict is shaped by Jewish and Israeli journalists and that Palestinian voices are almost entirely excluded, a Jerusalem-based bureau chief asked to meet. Over a coffee he congratulated me, adding: "I'd be fired if I wrote something like that."

This reporter, who, unlike me, spends lots of time with the main press corps in Jerusalem, then made some interesting points. He wishes to remain anonymous but agreed to my passing on his observations. He calls Bronner's situation "the rule, not the exception," adding: "I can think of a dozen foreign bureau chiefs, responsible for covering both Israel and the Palestinians, who have served in the Israeli army, and another dozen who like Bronner have kids in the Israeli army."

He added that it is very common to hear Western reporters boasting to one another about their "Zionist" credentials, their service in the Israeli army or the loyal service of their children. "Comments like that are very common at Foreign Press Association gatherings [in Israel] among the senior, agenda-setting, elite journalists."

My informant is highly critical of what is going on among the Jerusalem press corps, even though he admits the same charges could be levelled against him. "I'm Jewish, married to an Israeli and like almost all Western journalists live in Jewish West Jerusalem. In my free time I hang out in cafes and bars with Jewish Israelis chatting in Hebrew. For the Jewish sabbath and Jewish holidays I often get together with a bunch of Western journalists. While it would be convenient to think otherwise, there is no question that this deep personal integration into Israeli society informs our overall understanding and coverage of the place in a way quite different from a journalist who lived in Ramallah or Gaza and whose personal life was more embedded in Palestinian society."

Do read the rest of Cook's article, his conclusion is that newspapers tend to send Jewish and/or Israeli journalist to cover the conflict because they place value in the access these people can get in the Israel establishment. If they sent someone more willing to be critical, they might not get that access, which is judged more important than impartial reporting. (Update: To be clear, I think that both Jewish foreigners and Israelis can and have often been perfectly credible and balanced reporters — indeed some of the best journalism about the conflict has been written by Israelis such as Amira Hass. I think Cook would agree with that, and his analysis of why Western editors might choose to send journalists with ability to develop good contacts with the Israeli establishment stands.)

To give credit where credit is due, I think Ali Abunimah and the Electronic Intifada should be lauded for bringing Ethan Bronner's conflict of interest over his son's service in the IDF into the open, as well as the more recent controversy over Martin Kramer's campaign against high Palestinian growth rates.