Top media ethics expert: Times’ Ethan Bronner is in ‘very dicey ethical territory’

Israel/Palestine
on 36 Comments

Yesterday I reported for the Columbia Journalism Review that New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief Ethan Bronner is on the speaker’s bureau of Lone Star Communications, an Israeli public relations firm that pitches him stories. Bronner has provided extensive coverage to several of the firm’s clients, including those involved in major political controversies. What’s more, the firm’s CEO and founder, Charley Levine, is a settler, media advisor to several right-wing government ministers, and a Captain in the Israeli army Spokesman’s Unit. Today, Ali Abunimah reported on Levine’s casually racist attitude towards Arabs. So Levine and his firm — which yesterday removed all mentions of their connection to Bronner — have a clear ideological slant. I have trouble understanding how this relationship does not violate Times ethics guidelines.

The Times has been warned before about Bronner. When the Electronic Intifada reported that Bronner’s son had joined the Israeli army, then-Public Editor Clark Hoyt recommended that Bronner be reassigned. As with his son’s army service, Bronner did not appear to have disclosed to the Times his relationship with Lone Star Communications. When I asked the Times’ Standards Editor Phil Corbett if Bronner’s involvement with the PR firm violated Times ethics policy, he did not request further details or allow me to submit specific questions. Instead, I was informed through an intermediary, Times’ VP for Corporate Communications Eileen Murphy, that the Times viewed Bronner’s emailed response to me as sufficient, and had no doubts about his integrity. It seems fairly clear at this point, after two major conflicts of interest have been exposed, that the Times has afforded Bronner a level of impunity that no reporter should enjoy.

While reporting my story, I spoke to one of the country’s leading experts on journalism ethics, Robert Steele, who directs De Pauw University’s Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics. I described Bronner’s relationship with Lone Star in detail to Steele. His comments did not make into my report for CJR, so I have reproduced them below. In short, Steele concluded “with confidence” that Bronner has waded into “very dicey ethical territory.”

Here’s Steele:

“The fact that [Bronner] has this business relationship with a public relations firm that represents other clients whom he covers creates at the least a perception of competing loyalties — that his business relationship is one that could affect his own personal finances, how often they book him, where and how much — so he has a loyalty to that firm and the firm has a loyalty to him. And if that PR firm also has relationship with individuals or companies that he covers, one might reasonably ask whether there are competing loyalties that create a potential conflict of interest. At the very least, he and the NY Times would have to be fully transparent about these connections to reveal both his involvement with that PR agency and the related connections with the agency to newsmakers or other companies that the NY Times is covering. The transparency at least shines the light of scrutiny on these potential competing loyalties and potential conflicts of interests. It doesn’t make them go away however. The NY Times code of ethics seems to indicate that this is very dicey ethical territory.

I would certainly want to know what conversations took place between Times editors and Bronner and why the editors were satisfied that there is not an ethical problem. I have no reason to question his integrity but this business relationship could create at the least some ethical pitfalls. Any time journalists are using a speakers bureau to market themselves, you have some potential ethical issues to address in terms of the nature of groups a journalist is speaking to, the kind of service the firm is providing, the amounts of compensation. All of those could be problematic at a low level and if there is a pressure point from what the journalist covers as a reporter and the business connections of the speakers bureau or the PR agency then you have a potential problem.

I just don’t remember a case where the journalist is covering other individuals who are affiliated With the same speaker’s bureaus. But I think that intersection of covering companies and non-profits that have a business relationship with that same firm — it’s very dicey ethical territory. I can say with confidence that it’s dicey ethical territory.”

This post originally appeared on Al Akhbar English.

36 Responses

  1. annie
    September 15, 2011, 5:15 pm

    excellent reporting max

  2. Donald
    September 15, 2011, 5:26 pm

    My problem with the NYT is the content of the reporting and the editorials. Criticizing them on something like this is like getting Al Capone on tax evasion.

    • Chu
      September 15, 2011, 6:22 pm

      Still, it’s tearing one of the stitches away from the seam.
      Open up one hole and it all starts to pour out.

  3. eGuard
    September 15, 2011, 5:27 pm

    Why not ask Bronner himself? He can talk about “Separating truth from fiction: how we do it at the New Yorl Times”.

  4. justicewillprevail
    September 15, 2011, 5:32 pm

    I don’t see what is ‘dicey’ about this. It is just flat out wrong and corrupt. No reader could have confidence in any of the stories he files after reading of his connections to people whose job it is to place favourable stories about Israel in the press. Where is the declaration of interest, the full disclosure that should be attached to every story he writes. Clearly he should be taken off the job and deployed elsewhere. Another Judith Miller in the making. And how many more are there of them?

    • worker bee
      September 15, 2011, 8:10 pm

      I think you and Donald and Chu (above) are all correct. Yes, this certainly seems (at least to me) like a conflict of interests. The money involved seems to be small potatoes, but the real reason why probably no-one thought twice about it before is that the conflict of interests that this is supposed to expose is identical to Bronner’s already obvious ideological bias. I mean, does anybody seriously think that Bronner is only putting out a pro-Israel PoV because of his relationship with Lone Star Communications?

      What I think is the salient point is that the NYT doesn’t see any problem with the fact that their Jerusalem correspondent’s own point of view is so consonant with that of an organization that is essentially a propaganda outfit.

  5. Kathleen
    September 15, 2011, 6:46 pm

    “It seems fairly clear at this point, after two major conflicts of interest have been exposed, that the Times has afforded Bronner a level of impunity that no reporter should enjoy.”

    How long did it take for them to get rid of the psychopathic liar Judy “I was fucking right” Miller?

    What sort of consequences has Judy “I was fucking right” Miller really suffered for being part of the WMD team to lie this nation into invading Iraq?

    • seafoid
      September 16, 2011, 6:03 am

      Is this Judy IWFR ?

      link to herzliyaconference.org.pdf

      45-13:15 11:45-13:15
      From Da’wa to Jihad: The Nexus of Indoctrination and
      Violence
      Dr. Shmuel Bar, Director of Studies, Institute for Policy and
      Strategy, IDC Herzliya
      Ms. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Fellow Resident, American Enterprise
      Institute (AEI)
      Ms. Judith Miller, Contributing Editor, City Journal, US

      I am rereading Get your War on and it is so refreshing considering how everything the neocons built is now falling apart

  6. Kathleen
    September 15, 2011, 6:46 pm

    Great work Max

  7. Chu
    September 15, 2011, 6:56 pm

    Ironic they are labeled Lone Star Communications.
    Nice work, piecing together the puzzle. The CJR
    Article has a good amount of meat to further explore.
    The Times will fight for Bronner. He is part of the team,
    but his credibility should be in question. The idf son is
    problem número UNO for this reporter a few years ago,
    But now there’s more.

  8. edwin
    September 15, 2011, 7:01 pm

    OT: +972 magazine has been suspended

    • annie
      September 15, 2011, 8:10 pm

      omg…why?

      • NorthOfFortyNine
        September 15, 2011, 8:47 pm

        Re 972, via twitter: “Due to problems with our hosting, our site is temporarily down. Apologies for any inconvenience. We’ll update as soon as it’s back.”

      • annie
        September 16, 2011, 1:02 pm

        i’m not entirely believing that. right now it says “account suspended”

      • edwin
        September 15, 2011, 8:57 pm

        found this on twitter:

        72mag +972 magazine
        We’re still down due to issues with our hosting company. We really regret the inconvenience to our readers. We’re working hard to fix it.
        2 hours ago

      • Bumblebye
        September 15, 2011, 9:11 pm

        It was “off air” so to say when I went a few hours ago, “Account Suspended” whatever that means. I put a little OT squawk at top of one of the threads, but got no response from anyone who might know. Political interference?

      • Richard Witty
        September 15, 2011, 9:27 pm

        On their facebook page they write:

        “Due to a problem with our hosting company, our site is temporarily down. We’ll update here as soon as it’s restored. Apologies for the interruption.”

  9. Simone Daud
    September 15, 2011, 7:15 pm

    Off topic. al-akhbar English is amazing so far and so is MW.

    I don’t generally read the New York Times on Palestinian issues. But I appreciate how important it is on the topic.

  10. MRW
    September 15, 2011, 7:47 pm

    Max, tweet the hell out of this.

  11. Kathleen
    September 15, 2011, 8:37 pm

    Can Fair or other media watch groups be of help in analyzing this situation
    link to fair.org

  12. thetumta
    September 15, 2011, 8:41 pm

    Oops, just saw the headline, “‘very dicey ethical territory’”? Your kidding, right? Does anyone here buy that? Wholesale systematic ethnic Gangsterism presents a moral dilemma? Not to this Atheist, go figure. Been down that road many times, but this time is different? I guess age is catching up with me. Perhaps I should keep my thoughts to myself and move on?
    Hej!

  13. Kathleen
    September 15, 2011, 8:41 pm

    From Max’s link

    “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.”

  14. Kathleen
    September 15, 2011, 8:58 pm

    Bronners articles at the New York Times
    link to topics.nytimes.com

    One of those articles
    “http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/23/world/middleeast/23mideast.html?_r=1
    JERUSALEM — With Israel’s construction freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank scheduled to end this weekend, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were seeking an elusive formula on Wednesday to keep their peace talks going while both sides warned that if the talks ended, violence could erupt.

    “PARTIAL MORATORIUM” There was no freeze on Jewish settlements

  15. Kathleen
    September 15, 2011, 9:08 pm

    “Find of Ancient City Could Alter Notions of Biblical David ”
    By ETHAN BRONNER
    Published: October 29, 2008
    link to nytimes.com

    “The Philistines had a huge city, Gath, some seven miles away, but pottery found there looks distinct from what Mr. Garfinkel has found here. He says the David and Goliath story could be an allegory about a battle between the two. Seymour Gitin, an archaeologist and a director of the Albright Institute in Jerusalem, a private American institution, who has seen the finds, said: “The real value is that there was an urban center in the 10th century. You can extrapolate and say this helps support a kingdom, a united monarchy under David and Solomon. People will rightly use this material to support tha

    That is happening. Financing for the dig is now being raised by an organization called Foundation Stone, run by a Los Angeles-born Israeli named David Willner, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Efrat and said the point of his group was “to strengthen the tie of the Jewish people to the land.” The group’s Web site says that it is “redrawing the map in Jewish education,” and that its activities are “anchoring traditional texts to the artifacts, maps and locations that form the context for Jewish identity.”

    One has to wonder how much money “Foundation Stone” had tossed their way after this Bronner article.

    Wonder who does their public relations work?

    • Kathleen
      September 15, 2011, 9:27 pm

      Lonestar does PR work for Bronner and Foundation Stone . How can this possibly not be a conflict of interest issue

      • Philip Munger
        September 16, 2011, 2:32 am

        This gets more disgusting, the deeper people dig, eh?

        Max may not be an archeologist, but his excavations find a lot of golden artifacts mixed in with the dirt. Good to see he has so many helpers here @ MW.

        Is there a way to calculate how much $$$ got directed to this scam by Ethan’s article(s)?

  16. Kathleen
    September 15, 2011, 9:15 pm

    Ok so at the Lonestar Communications site they list “Foundation Stone” as a client. And Ethan Bronner basically advertises for Foundation Stone in the above linked article
    link to lonestar.co.il

  17. Kathleen
    September 15, 2011, 9:18 pm

    So the same Public relations company Lone Star who represents Bronner. Bronner then gives “Foundation Stone” a big plug in this article link to nytimes.com
    “That is happening. Financing for the dig is now being raised by an organization called Foundation Stone, run by a Los Angeles-born Israeli named David Willner, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Efrat and said the point of his group was “to strengthen the tie of the Jewish people to the land.” The group’s Web site says that it is “redrawing the map in Jewish education,” and that its activities are “anchoring traditional texts to the artifacts, maps and locations that form the context for Jewish identity.”

    Is that ethical? Conflict of interest?

  18. Kathleen
    September 15, 2011, 9:40 pm

    New York Times ethics in Journalism Page

    link to nytco.com page

    “A3. Protecting Our Neutrality

    35. Staff members and those on assignment for us may not accept anything that could be construed as a payment for favorable coverage or for avoiding unfavorable coverage. They may not accept gifts, tickets, discounts, reimbursements or other benefits from individuals or organizations covered (or likely to be covered) by their newsroom. Gifts should be returned with a polite explanation; perishable gifts may instead be given to charity, also with a note to the donor. In either case the objective of the note is, in all politeness, to discourage future gifts.

    36. 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. The senior executive of each newsroom may authorize reasonable exceptions (for example, to let a teacher work part time as a copy editor).

    37. If local policies permit journalists to share in fees for re-use of certain content, a cap must be set on any payment for advertising or promotional re-use, to avoid the appearance of an incentive for favorable coverage. The journalist’s share of such fees may not exceed $200 an article.

    38. Staff members may normally accept those gifts or discounts available to the general public. Normally they are also free to take advantage of conventional corporate discounts that our company shares with all employees (for example, corporate car rental rates). Journalists may accept free museum admissions or other benefits that are offered to all employees as a result of the company’s charitable activities. Overseas, our staff may accept museum admissions and similar modest benefits customarily extended to journalists nationally or regionally as an occupational class rather than as individuals.

    39. Unless the special terms are offered by The New York Times Company or its subsidiaries or affiliates, staff members may not buy stock in initial public offerings through “friends and family” plans where any plausible appearance of conflict of interest exists. Staff members may not accept allocations from brokerage firms.”
    —————————————————————-
    A4. Cautions on Public Speaking

    51. Speaking before community audiences or educational groups can benefit our company by helping the public understand what we do. But before appearing before an outside group, we must be sure we are not likely to create an actual or apparent conflict of interest or undermine public trust in the impartiality of our journalism.

    52. Staff members should be sensitive to the appearance of partiality when they address groups that might figure in their coverage, especially if the setting might suggest a close relationship to the sponsoring group. Before accepting such an invitation, a staff member must consult with newsroom management. Generally, for example, an editor who deals with political campaigns might comfortably address a library gathering but not appear before a civic group that endorses issues or candidates. An environmental reporter can appropriately speak to a horticultural society but not to conservation groups known for their efforts to influence public policy.

    53. To avoid an appearance of undue closeness, staff members may not accept invitations to speak before a single company (for example, at a corporate executive retreat) or an industry assembly (such as organized baseball’s winter meeting) unless newsroom management agrees that the appearance is useful and does not undermine our reputation for impartiality. In such a case, our company should pay any expenses; no speaker’s fee should be accepted.

    54. Staff members should not accept invitations from outside our company to speak where their function is to attract customers to an event primarily intended as profit-making.
    Restricting Speaker’s Fees

    55. Where permitted by local policy, staff members who deliver speeches may accept fees, honorariums, expense reimbursement and free transportation, but only from educational or other nonprofit groups for which lobbying and political activity are not a major focus. A staff member must consult with newsroom management before accepting a substantial speaking fee. Threshold amounts will be determined by local management.

    56. Any staff member who accepts fees, honorariums or expenses for speaking engagements must file an annual accounting with newsroom management. (In the case of the top newsroom executive, the accounting is filed with the chief executive of the business unit.) Each unit may set a threshold below which annual accounting is not required. Fees earned under our company’s auspices need not be included.

    57. A staff member who writes a book and wishes to promote it on personal time must make every effort to ensure that public appearances conform to the spirit of these guidelines and do not interfere with normal job responsibilities. If the staff member has doubts about an appearance, he or she must consult with newsroom management. Routine expenses and fees may be accepted for such promotional appearances. Speeches and other outside activities by staff members, paid or unpaid, should not imply that they carry the endorsement of our company or any of its units (unless they do). On each such occasion, the staff member should gracefully remind the audience that the views expressed are his or her own. Outside commitments should not interfere with the speaker’s normal responsibilities. Thus no staff member should set an extensive speaking schedule without approval from newsroom management.

  19. Kathleen
    September 15, 2011, 9:41 pm

    So what does Ethan Bronner go around speaking about?

  20. Kathleen
    September 15, 2011, 10:00 pm

    So If Americans knew Allison Weir has been writing about Ethan Bronners conflict of interest issues too. And about where and what Bronner goes around and speaks about

    link to alisonweir.org
    link to alisonweir.org

    Weekend Edition, February 6-7, 2010
    0
    NYT’s Israel Editor’s Sticky Situation
    Ethan Bronner’s Conflict With Impartiality

    February 25, 2010
    link to counterpunch.org
    Do You Have to be Jewish to Report on Israel for the New York Times?
    Ethan Bronner and Conflicts of Interest
    by JONATHAN COOK

    A recent assignment of mine covering Israel’s presumed links to the assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh provoked some more thoughts about the New York Times reporter Ethan Bronner. He is the Jerusalem bureau chief who has been at the centre of a controversy since it was revealed last month that his son is serving in the Israeli army. Despite mounting pressure to replace Bronner, the NYT’s editors have so far refused to consider that he might be facing a conflict of interest or that it would be wiser to post him elsewhere.
    link to counterpunch.org

  21. Kathleen
    September 15, 2011, 10:10 pm

    Over at Foundation Stone the archeology site that Ethan Bronner spent a paragraph on and a client of Lonestar gives a big shout out to Former President Lyndon Johnson. Very wonderful if the story is true
    link to foundationstone.org
    “A few months ago, the Associated Press reported that newly released tapes from US president Lyndon Johnson’s White House office showed LBJ’s “personal and often emotional connection to Israel.” The news agency pointed out that during the Johnson presidency (1963-1969), “the United States became Israel’s chief diplomatic ally and primary arms supplier.”

    But the news report does little to reveal the full historical extent of Johnson’s actions on behalf of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Most students of the Arab-Israeli conflict can identify Johnson as the president during the 1967 war. But few know about LBJ’s actions to rescue hundreds of endangered Jews during the Holocaust – actions that could have thrown him out of Congress and into jail. Indeed, the title of “Righteous Gentile” is certainly appropriate in the case of the Texan, whose centennial year is being commemorated this year.

    Appropriately enough, the annual Jerusalem Conference announced this week that it will honor Johnson.

    Historians have revealed that Johnson, while serving as a young congressman in 1938 and 1939, arranged for visas to be supplied to Jews in Warsaw, and oversaw the apparently illegal immigration of hundreds of Jews through the port of Galveston, Texas….”

    Go Johnson.

  22. Avi
    September 16, 2011, 1:08 am

    Could someone pass on a message to Thomas Friedman and Ethan Bronner?

    Tell them I said, “Suck on this!”

    Friedman knows.

    • Cliff
      September 16, 2011, 5:04 am

      Haha.

      Yea, Friedman is a real creep for saying that vis a vis Iraq.

  23. pabelmont
    September 16, 2011, 7:09 am

    A very enjoyable novel — a musical detective story — deals with a similar conflict of interest, musical promoters advancing their own interests by manipulating a musical competition for violinists younger than 13 (much against the interests of these young violinists).

    It’s a very good read: “The Devil’s Trill” by Gerald Elias.

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