What’s it Like to Run the NYT’s Most-Reviled Bureau? We Asked Ethan Bronner

By | Sep 05, 2014
Ethan Bronner

Ethan_BronnerThink 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 Bronnerwho ran the Jerusalem bureau from 2008 to 2012 and has covered Israel for more than 25 yearsrevisits 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.

20 thoughts on “What’s it Like to Run the NYT’s Most-Reviled Bureau? We Asked Ethan Bronner

  1. Saul Lieberman says:

    If the Times ever erred in its coverage, you won’t find a hint of it in this article.

  2. Wendy Orange says:

    Ethan, when you were in a less volatile position for the Boston Globe did you get less negative responses? Personally I think Jodi is doing a great job and she tells it like she sees it.

    I also loved your point of view way back then when compared to now the place was like a fairy tale. I just returned this very hour and o my god do I ever miss being in both Jerusalem’s.

    This last five weeks I did not go as a journalist but trying to make a tiny difference and I met with everyone and feel like no one here in USA really cares as we all did back then. I am talking Jewish Americans and Jewish Israelis. My position and yours and Jodi’s is so earned that I cannot understand why people think we are biased. We are witnesses, no? Yes?

    1. David says:

      Aren’t you embarrassed to write so childishly in a public forum how wonderful you are, how neutral an observer? You almost seem to view yourself as heroic. As a former Fleet Street journalist, I cringed to read your self-serving self-praise.

      Be aware that an esteemed Ph.D. has been written about how the NYT in particular never gave any balanced coverage to the Holocaust, and that much rigorous analysis is freely available showing that the reporting of Zionist issues in the NYT specifically — and in most major new outlets –has got steadily worse ever since, reaching a new nadir in the 2014 Gaza War.

      Your reporting of the issue is not just incompetent, it is cowardly in two distinct ways:

      1. in trying to ingratiate yourself almost exclusively with pseudo-intellectual armchair anti-Zionists who cannot tell black from white because by their ideological definition the entire world is grey (unless someone has spread a blood libel about the IDF, in which case there’s no grey); and

      2. in your complete lack of serious investigative reporting of your own (e.g. the obvious topic of casualties and the definition of civilians and your totally uncritical acceptance of Hamas statistics — actually outright lies — even though in the past Hamas has openly admitted lying about civilian casualties), and your craven acceptance of Hamas’ determining your content.

      Far from being sceptical and neutral journalists, you have provided a totally distorted narrative. Your coverage has been nothing short of despicable. Live with it, and please don’t call yourself journalists.

    2. Sarah says:

      Yes, you are wonderfully “earnest” — earnestly clueless, peddling your myopic narrative and discarding uncomfortable facts, failing to ask the uncomfortable questions. And that’s the problem, isn’t it — it is no longer “journalism” where you report, or “investigative journalism” where you delve deep and ask the hard questions. Now it’s about being a crusader for “earnestness” and feel-good-reading that drives circulation figures. It’s not about the facts, it’s about the advertising revenue, so you pimp the stories your subscribers want to read rather than do real journalism.

    3. DennisCA says:

      I think the NY Times is right up there with the Guardian, and the major Iranian newspapers in terms of its fairness of coverage about Israel. Then again, how much worse would our unemployment problem be if all these left wing “journalists” had to find real jobs?

  3. gadi says:

    Ethan said: “The pro-Israel community(asked)…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.”
    Well, what believes Ethan?

  4. E benAbuya says:

    I think it splendid that he’s convinced of how good a job he did; and how Ms Rudoren continues in that noble tradition. Even if an empirical examination demonstrates otherwise.
    Since this study comes from CAMERA.org it will be discounted without being examined. Such being the nature of circular reasoning and confirmation bias.

  5. eve says:

    As an Israeli who has lived here for 22 years, I believe in” complex truth-telling” and am critical of the Netanyahu government. I speak and read Hebrew and follow the news closely. I read commentary from
    the Israeli and Palestinian sides and from the left and the right. I believe the Times coverage of the recent
    Gaza war was unbalanced and not an example of complex truth-telling. There was not enough context or coverage of Hamas’ use of civilian areas to shoot missiles at Israel. The lower number of Israeli casualties as compared to Palestinian was cited as though war is some kind of game that is unfair if one side has more casualties. Israel spent millions on the Iron Dome and most of us have safe rooms to home. Hamas used concrete and cement and iron to build tunnels to attack Israel and not to shelter its population. Hamas violated cease-fire after cease-fire. I could go on – but here is a link from an article by a prominent Rabbi
    who cancelled his Times sub


  6. brenda says:

    great interview, thanks. I read the Israeli press regularly, and it is excellent. Israeli journalists are everything one would want. This comes from one in — I guess the “pro-Palestinian” camp although I balk at that label. I like to think of myself as pro-American — resolution of the I-P conflict is a permanent foreign policy goal of every US Administration, both Democrat and Republican, and it would be terrific that it happen in my lifetime (I actually remember the 1967 war so that makes me pretty old) The Israeli journalists are like Ethan describes himself — they really take a lot of sh-t from the commentary for reporting “bad news”. I read the Israeli press because they cover the issue faithfully, professionally, minutely. “All the news that’s fit to print, and then some” has to be their motto.

  7. macb says:

    I agree with most of the criticisms above. What strikes me, as a centrist (if I were in Israel now I would be aligned with the center-right of the Labour party or with Kadima) who still endorses the two-state solution and has been publicly critical of Netanyahu and his government but still sees himself as strongly pro-Israel, is Bronner’s division of the debate on this topic into “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestinian,” as if the debate is strictly two clearly-defined sides. This so-called journalist, this New York Times veteran, sees no shades of gray, as if condemning Hamas or feeling Israel had no choice about the latest war (even if I have some quibbles about how Israel conducted it), makes one a one-dimensional shill for AIPAC. Some journalist. Some New York Times. No wonder that the debate on the Israel-Palestine issue, and most others in the public sphere, is so degraded and ridiculous, when the so-called journalists of the so-called newspaper of record have such degraded and vulgar and simplistic thinking.

    1. brenda says:

      mac, I think we’re onto something. The accepted framing of the debate, either pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian, is causing a lot of passionate rancorous stuff on all sides. But it’s not just Ethan Bronner/NYT that is responsible for this labeling. This is how it is framed by every Western media outlet generally, and what you get is a cartoon-like rendition of ‘the debate’. Brickbats of ‘anti-semitic’ flung from the one side are met with ‘nazi’ from the other. Me for example, I want very much to see a viable independent Palestine state not because I’m passionate about Palestinians, more because I’m generally anti-war. I perceive America as subject to being drawn into a huge Middle East war (incl. Iran) if the I-P situation is not resolved sometime soon, and I also wish no harm to Israel. Where does someone like this fit into the framing?

  8. Wendy says:

    Ethan and Jodi, I just realized something obvious that your readers might miss. There are not two sides to this story but twenty sides on each side. That makes your job–teasing through all the subtexts on each general side–really really hard work.

    Ethan having interviewed you several times before you were the NYTimes correspondent but when yes you were the Boston Globe’s I think you had an energy and clarity in person whether that showed up on the page, it is too far away to say.

    There is a third general side that is both Israeli and Palestinian who join hands in quite a few organizations. This is the group I personally, no longer a journalist, find most interesting. People who’ve worked together over many decades and do actions together. There are indeed many such groups, each one a bit isolated from the next but sharing the same ideas and values.

    It is a shame that there as yet is no large umbrella organization to include “Rabbis for Human Rights”; Gush Shalom; Macshon watch; 972+; Palestine- Israeli journal; B’tselem; the Bereaved Parents from both side; IPCI, and so many more. It was my goal to interview each group and decide how to give money because I was there as a minor but serious philanthropist. I am Jewish but certainly no longer a Zionist and it was a thrill to help each organization we decided upon. I run a 501c3 not in my own name and have a Board and a great lawyer to make sure I am doing the best with whatever I have to give ( I ended up giving exactly twice what I originally had in mind.)

    I am not touting my own horn. Rather I am deeply perplexed that the Right has billionaires galore but on the left how many give as much as humanly possible. That might make a story but though I adore Judi and her work, she is not interested in this topic. What say you, Ethan?

  9. Mea says:

    The problem is the editorial position of the NYT which frames even the most fair stories inside titles and images that tell a biased story that is always against Israel. I spend time in Jerusalem as well and the culture around journalism is set up to not really allow for Israel’s defense. 99% of photographers are Palestinians. Look at NYT’s photos on these stories and discover they are carefully chosen to dissuade any content that supports the defense of Israel. The content is often posed as “talk to the hand, I don’t know why Israel is awful”. Suntly.

    I have had my feet on the ground around the seam line in Jerusalem for years now, and time after time the story doesn’t quite get told–especially if it calls Palestinians to task, sorry to say. For example, the coverage of the kidnapping and murder of the three teens which led to the assault on Hamas in Gaza. For days everybody knew that the assailants were from a family in Hebron (10,000 strong) who support Hamas. Everybody knew it was a makeshift denial set up to raise Hamas’ profile because they were going broke and Qatar demanded that they perform (just as Qatar is currently demanding that Abbas stir up the Temple Mount conflict which is being wholesaled as Israel’s instigation). Never reported.

    When journalists play along and allow factions to place criteria on how they will be portrayed, the story goes in the toilet; and yet this is the case over and over in Israel and the territories. When was the last time the NYT called out Abbas or Haniyeh or Mashaal as it regularly does to the Israelis? Never–and that’s the real story here. There is so much more going on that could blow the doors off irresponsibility on both sides. An example could be the destruction of olive trees–something regularly reported on and which inflames activists. It took me little time to discover that Israel has a law against cutting olive trees and in fact pays for their replacement to the tune of about $1000 a tree. I was shown film of Palestinians cutting their own trees and later blaming settlers (btw I do not give settlers a pass or a political blank check). To report this would be courageous–but readers would scream their heads off–and the NYT would be denied access to Ramallah and other places. So the interview here is right on in one way–the true stories do not necessarily get told.

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