What’s it Like to Run the NYT’s Most-Reviled Bureau? We Asked Ethan Bronner
Think your job is tough? Try running the Jerusalem bureau of The New York Times, a position known as “one of the hottest seats in journalism.” Today, current bureau chief Jodi Rudoren fends off accusations of “shoddy, biased journalism” from naysayers on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But this is nothing new: The post, which has been held by the likes of Tom Friedman and David Shipler, has always been a lightning rod for controversy, placing a journalist under the harshest of spotlights. Here, the Times’ current deputy national editor Ethan Bronner—who ran the Jerusalem bureau from 2008 to 2012 and has covered Israel for more than 25 years—revisits the challenge and futility of trying to please both sides.—Rachel E. Gross
In your time as Jerusalem bureau chief, you were the recipient of a slew of not-exactly-fan mail. Where did most of the criticism come from, and what did it say?
There were two kinds of attacks: one was from the anti-Palestinian, pro-Israel side, and the other was from the anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian side. On each side the view was that the larger truth was its own. For the Palestinian, anti-Israel side, the larger truth was that there had been a kind of pillaging of the land and the people by this invading force of Zionists, and the suffering of those people was the core story I was there for. And when I didn’t tell that story I was not doing my job. On the other side, the core story was that the Jews had come home and were trying to build peace and were being consistently rejected. Every time I didn’t tell that story, I wasn’t doing my job.I wrote a piece about this in the Times in 2009, called “The Bullets in My In-Box,” and what I said there remained true throughout my time.
How was this different from the past?
Up until about 2007, almost all the vocal criticism of the New York Times coverage came from pro-Israel forces. Beginning around then, and especially during my time as bureau chief, there developed a very strong lobby on the other side. This had to do with the development of the Internet and the growing sophistication of pro-Palestinian organizations. So the attacks came from both sides in a way that would not have been the case in the 1980s, when Tom Friedman was the correspondent. He mostly heard from the Jews. That wasn’t the case for me; I got equally smacked on both sides.
How has the position changed since then?
It may be even worse than ever. The pro-Israel community is quite incensed with our coverage, perhaps because they see their control of the narrative starting to slip. Even in places like Haaretz, it is now seen as a respectable position to assert that coverage of this war in Gaza was bad and biased against Israel. There’s this incredible frustration, promoted by the Israeli government and military, about the fact that there was not much documentation of Hamas fighters and such during the war. That’s been a big source of anger: where are the photographs and videos and descriptions of rocket launchers, guys carrying weapons hiding from Israeli attack among the population? Why wasn’t that chronicled the way it should be? They believe the answer is fear and prejudice.
How does the public’s frustration with the conflict itself become conflated with reporting on the conflict?
With the conflict being stuck for so long, and people being so invested in it for religious and cultural and political reasons, there has become an inappropriate and unhealthy belief that the problem is the storyteller. There’s all this attention on how the story is told, and the belief is that if only that story were told correctly, American policy would shift and things would be made right. That the problem was that those of us in key reporting jobs were failing to tell the truth, and that was hiding reality from our policy-makers and our voters. And if only that were fixed, everything would be okay.
In “The Bullets in My In-box,” you wrote that sometimes you felt as if you were “only fanning the flames, adding to the misunderstandings and mutual antagonism with every word I write.” After having a few years to reflect, do you still have that concern?
I don’t think I added to the misunderstandings. The one depressing conclusion that I did draw was that people were not actually looking for information: They were looking for a reaffirmation of their own beliefs. So that the path that we set out for ourselves as journalists—to lay out complex, shaded gray truths so that people can understand that life is complicated—many people were not interested in that. Instead, what they were looking for was to hear their own story repeated, and to be validated.
That came to the fore in 2010, when The Electronic Intifada reported the fact that your son had joined the IDF, sparking a storm of controversy over your ability to remain objective in your reporting. How did that play out?
When my son told me he was going to join the army, I knew it wasn’t a good thing for me. But he was 20, and I felt I should allow him to live the life he wanted to lead. I figured it might get out eventually, but he was only there a year and four months, and I was crossing my fingers it wouldn’t get out too quickly. Amazingly, within five weeks of his joining, it got out. And I got emails from the Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss. And it fed into this anger and this belief that the Palestinian point of view had been underrepresented in American media. And this was the perfect example to smack us over the head with.
Did the criticism you received cause you to do anything differently?
No. I did not enjoy being attacked; It wasn’t pleasant for me. But I did feel that the only answer was to do my job the best that I could. I had always been alive to the sensitivity of language and fairness and balance, and remained so when I was under attack. Also, remember that I was being attacked from both sides, so it wasn’t like if I leaned one way, it would go away. It was all about finding neutral language, but also not being afraid to tell stories that were going to upset one side or the other.
Did anything positive come out of being watched so closely?
I didn’t like it, but I can’t deny there is a certain rush. There is something slightly thrilling about everybody yelling at you; suddenly every word you write is being pored over and looked at it. As writers, we write to be read.
If you could give one piece of advice to Jodi Rudoren, what could it be?
That the big screamers on both sides are never going to be happy, so it’s a mistake to try to please them. The key is to believe in what we do—which is to seek complex truth-telling—and to acknowledge that truth-telling is an ideal not easily attained. But it’s still the goal you set for yourself. You’ll know when it’s going well: not from the screamers, but from the people who are not screamers. It is true I got yelled at a lot. But I also got an enormous amount of reinforcement for my work from people who I take seriously.