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."
"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.