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Examining a Potential Conflict of Interest

by on October 27, 2016

I’ve been thinking about one of the conflict of interest cases posted as a recommended reading this week. In the article “Too Close to Home,” New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt details a potential conflict of interest case at the Times involving its Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner. After Bronner’s 20-year-old son enlisted in the Israeli military, readers and watchdog groups protested that Bronner now had a conflict of interest that would interfere with his reporting.

I think there are a lot of factors here that make this particular case so controversial. First, as written in the article, Bronner covers an area of the world that’s long been in conflict. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also a highly polarizing issue. According to Hoyt, both pro-Palestine and pro-Israel readers have taken issue with his reporting before this potential conflict of interest ever arose. He has been accused of being both pro- and anti-Israel in the past.

So my first question is: If Bronner were bureau chief in another area of the world, would this issue be taken as seriously?

Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times,  defended Bronner’s bureau position ,arguing that Bronner’s reporting was of a high enough quality that he was not concerned about conflict of interest. “Ethan has proved himself to be the most scrupulous of reporters,” Keller said. “We have the utmost confidence that his work will continue to meet the highest standards.” This raises another question: if the reporter were newer or less established, would editors have reacted differently?

The article also touched on the issue of perceived conflict of interest. Even though staff were confident that Bronner had no conflict of interest, the readers’ perceptions about the issue held serious weight. This quote from Alex Jones, who is a journalist and the director of Harvard’s Center on Press, Politics, and Public Policy, really stood out to me:

“‘The appearance of a conflict of interest is often as important or more important than a real conflict of interest,’ he said. ‘I would reassign him.’ Jones said such a step would be an injustice to Bronner, ‘but the newspaper has to come first.’”

Is a perceived conflict of interest as important as a real one? In this case, I’m leaning toward ‘yes.’ I think the Times is too highly regarded and the Israel-Palestine conflict  is too important (not to mention inflammatory) to take any chances. It wouldn’t have been fair to Bronner at all, but it would have ensured that this perceived conflict of interest went away.

After reading this article, I believe that many of the decisions we make about conflicts of interest and our perception of them depend upon the particulars of the case. I think if some of these factors were different–if this were not in Jerusalem, or if Bronner were not such a highly regarded reporter, for example–than both readers and editors may have reacted differently. I think those factors are important and I think conflict of interest cases rightly vary case-by-case. Like we’ve discussed before in class, these kinds of ethical decisions often leave you feeling conflicted no matter the outcome. In the end, Bronner stayed on as Jerusalem bureau chief for another two years, when he left willingly for another assignment,according to Politico.

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