Monday, September 19, 2011

Ethan Bronner in “very dicey ethical territory”

It has been reported in the Columbia Journalism Review that Ethan Bronner, the chief of the New York Times’ Jerusalem bureau, is on the speaker’s bureau of Lone Star Communications, an Israeli public relations firm. Lone Star, which is accused of having a clear ideological bent, arranges speaking dates for Bronner and takes up to 15% of his fee, whilst also pitching him stories to publish in the New York Times. Charley Levine, the founder and CEO of Lone Star Communications, is well known for his work as a media advisor to several senior right-wing Israeli officials, including former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and three senior ministers in the Netanyahu administration. Levine, who lives in the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim in the West Bank, is also a reservist captain in the Israeli Defence Force’s Spokesperson Unit. A relationship with a Times reporter is a valuable connection for any PR firm, and since Bronner joined the speaker’s bureau he has written about Lone Star’s PR clients in at least five stories. The Times journalist covered a sensitive land issue involving the Simon Wiesenthal Foundation of Los Angeles, an organisation for which Levine himself served as a spokesman for in 2006. The American organisation sought to construct a “Museum of Tolerance” on the grounds of a historic Muslim graveyard in Jerusalem; its plans had attracted criticism from Muslim, Jewish and Christian religious groups. On August 13 2010, Bronner published an article on attempts by the Jerusalem Municipality to bulldoze gravesites to make way for the construction project. Other Lone Star clients which Bronner has covered include ‘The Israel Project’ in September 2009 and the conservative Knesset member Danny Danon in May 2011.
It is not difficult to see how Bronner’s connection to the PR company may prove problematic when assessed according to the New York Times’ ethical guidelines. The guidelines state that “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” [Section 36] and “Staff members and others on assignment for us may not collaborate in ventures with individuals or organizations that are likely to figure in their coverage” [Section 49]. The quality of Bronner’s news coverage is not being questioned, however criticism has been made about the fact that he takes paid speaking engagements from a company which also pitches him stories. Bronner’s suitable for his office was doubted in 2010 when his son decided to serve in the Israeli military, however the backing of the former Times Editor Bill Keller quieted the calls for Bronner’s resignation. Robert Steele, a leading expert on journalism ethics, has concluded that Bronner is now in “very dicey ethical territory” and so it may be questionable whether his superiors in the Times will lend him the same support which he received in the past.

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