Time For A Journalism Ethics Panel?

TBE doesn’t usually engage in journalism, much less (open source) investigative journalism, but sometimes we decide not to simply pass a story on to someone else, as we usually would.

This tale begins with our catching up on some reading. We were looking at some neglected feeds on our RSS reader and came to Stephen Walt’s FP blog. Innocently scrolling down we came to a post about an Iran conference convened by the Israel Project, a US propaganda outfit that toes the “stopping settlements is “a kind of ethnic cleansing”” line, according to J Street. Not having attended the conference, we don’t know what was said. But if the materials on the group’s website are any indication, it was probably quite similar to a little ditty sung by former presidential candidate John McCain in one of his more unguarded moments. None of this is altogether shocking in a US context.

What did surprise us, however, was a panel, “How to Get Published and Write a Letter to the Editor with journalist and Reuters Editor Alan Elsner.” Why, we wondered, would an editor at Reuters, which, as far as we know, hews to US journalistic standards of objectivity, lead a panel at a conference run by a group that is almost certainly attempting to influence the coverage of the news organization for which he works? A quick google news search indicates that he is an editor at Reuters’ Washington, DC bureau. Past postings, according to his personal website, have included stints as Jerusalem correspondent (1980-85) and chief political correspondent (1994-2000).

With those facts in mind, and lacking any contact information for Mr. Elsner himself, we contacted Reuters’ public relations department. After a little back-and-forth, we received the following email:

“As stated in the Reuters Trust Principles, accuracy, impartiality and freedom from bias are at the heart of all Reuters reporting and the way its employees conduct business. Alan Elsner, a respected and long-serving Reuters journalist, has extensive experience teaching writing courses to journalists all over the world. Alan accepted an invitation from a longtime personal friend to teach a workshop on how to write op-eds. He focused specifically on the issue of corporate pay, and never once mentioned anything about Iran, Israelis or Palestinians.

“Alan accepted this invitation with the strict understanding that his Reuters affiliation would not be used in any way in event publicity. When it appeared on an initial publicity email, Alan asked that this be corrected immediately. Conference organizers complied, issuing a corrected version and ensuring that no further publicity mentioned Reuters.”

The explanation seems at odds with the subject matter listed on the invitation (letters to the editor), but we accept that the subject matter of the workshop may have changed, and, not having been invited, we can’t say whether corrected publicity materials followed the ones we saw. But even if the workshop didn’t explicitly deal with “Iran, Israelis or Palestinians,” its having taken place at a conference hyping the Iran threat made doing so unnecessary, as even the most naïve observer would realize.

Furthermore, Mr. Elsner’s name, and his Reuters affiliation, appears several times on the Israel Project’s website, which make his protestations in this instance sound rather odd. For example, one can read about an appearance on a conference call about becoming a published author, moderated by Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, the Israel Project’s founder and president, that he apparently participated in last December. On another page, one reads that Mr. Elsner has lectured Israel Project Media Fellows. On the same page, one finds the following information about the program:

“During the program, TIP Fellows have the opportunity to develop long-term career-building relationships with reporters and experts on the Middle East.

“Since the media is the No. 1 source of information about Israel, this program can help reduce anti-Israel sentiment and enable audiences worldwide to understand more fully Israel’s current and future challenges.”

Needless to say, it is the news media’s responsibility to report the news, not to skew coverage in favor of one side. Most of the other journalists listed as having participated are opinion writers (Bill Kristol, Eleanor Clift and Clarence Page), with only Wolf Blitzer (who deserves some scrutiny as well) joining Mr. Elsner from among the ranks of straight news reporters or editors.

We have no idea about the content of Mr. Elsner’s lectures, though his bio on the Israel Project’s website gives some idea: “In addition to his journalism career, Elsner has taught The Israel Project’s Media Fellows about reporting on the Middle East and how to interact with journalists assigned to this region.” Why one would “interact with journalists assigned to this region” any differently than one would interact with journalists in other regions is certainly a question about which we’d be interested in hearing more, but without having attended the lectures we’re not in the position to judge their content.

Regardless, Mr. Elsner’s participation, in any capacity, in a program that seeks explicitly to boost the image of Israel, raises serious ethical questions. We’ve always been under the impression that even the appearance of a conflict of interest should be enough to put certain activities off limits, and we are quite certain that Mr. Elsner’s participation in several Israel Project events has the appearance of a conflict of interest. As a former Jerusalem correspondent, Mr. Elsner is surely aware of the sensitivities surrounding the issue of Palestine and Israel, and should know that his participation in various Israel Project events amounts to de facto if not de jure approval of the group’s agenda, and that such sanction, whether symbolic or otherwise (and whether for this or any other political organization that seeks to affect coverage that may cross his desk), is not consonant with any responsible code of journalism ethics, regardless of whether the person begging participation is a “longtime personal friend.”

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Filed under Journalism, Politics, Special Reports

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