Brooks & Son: An Unofficial Disclosure

Posted by Michael Getler on

Although I don’t speak for PBS and have no power to make them do anything, I’m telling my readers, in case some of them haven’t heard, that David Brooks, the well-known New York Times columnist who also is a Friday night fixture on the analysis segment of the PBS NewsHour for many years now, has a 23-year-old son who recently volunteered and now serves in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

I decided to do that because, as of this writing, PBS and the NewsHour haven’t decided whether to tell that to their viewers.

To those who follow events in the Middle East, to news junkies generally and those who, for whatever reason, choose to write and comment about journalistic ethics and transparency, this is interesting news.

It was first brought, broadly, to public attention in this country by Margaret Sullivan, my fearless and fellow ombudsman (the New York Times, of course, has its own name—public editor—for this position) last week (Oct. 8) in her online columnheadlined, “Should David Brooks Disclose His Son’s Israeli Military Service?”

Before the Times

The news about Brooks and his son actually first appeared on Sept. 17 in an interview with David Brooks that appeared in the magazine of the Hebrew-language edition of the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz.  It was quickly translated into English and reported here by the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles and followed up by a Sept. 23 article in New York magazine.

But it was the posting by Sullivan, whose work is widely watched by media-mavens, that got the attention and caused a mild eruption among that collection of folks I mentioned above. Sullivan had heard from some Times’ readers before she wrote, and after her column appeared I began to hear from a fair number of people who asked about Brooks’ role and lack of disclosure on the NewsHour. A sampling of those letters follows farther down in this column.

Silence So Far

I watched the regular NewsHour segment last Friday, Oct. 10, with Brooks and syndicated columnist Mark Shields moderated by co-anchor Judy Woodruff to see if it would come up. It didn’t. The next day, I sent a representative sample of the letters to the new executive producer of the NewsHour, Sara Just, asking for a response.

On Oct. 15 she responded with this statement:

“David Brooks is primarily an opinion columnist for The New York Times. He appears on the PBS NewsHour to offer his opinions, not as a reporter. His son's service with the Israeli Defense Forces is not a secret. We agree with the New York Times' editorial page editor, Andrew Rosenthal, that Mr. Brooks' long-standing views about Israel are informed by many factors. We also agree with the Times' public editor, Margaret Sullivan, that Mr. Brooks should not be barred from commenting about Israel. She has recommended that he address the issue of his son's service in the IDF in a future column. That seems reasonable to us as well. If a situation arises in which Mr. Brooks will be appearing on the NewsHour and discussing Israel and its military, we will consider how we might disclose his son’s service to the audience at that time.”

Pro and Con

Sullivan had interviewed Rosenthal before writing her column and he offered this defense of Brooks:

“I do not think he ever had an obligation to say that his son made this choice, any more than if his son had joined the U.S. Air Force (although I recognize that Israel is more controversial in some people’s minds).

“In any case, David talked about it freely in an interview, which has been tweeted about and blogged about, so it’s hardly a secret. He is a columnist who not only has opinions, but is paid to express them in the Times. Those opinions are formed by all kinds of things, including life experiences, and I’m sure his opinions about Israel are formed by those experiences and his personal beliefs. They are not going to change whether or not his son is serving in the I.D.F., beyond his natural concerns as a father for his son’s safety and well-being. If David wants to mention this in his column, that would be just fine, but I don’t believe he has an obligation to do so.”

Sullivan concluded this way:

“In general, I agree with Mr. Rosenthal about columnists and their family members. I don’t think readers usually need to know what the spouses of columnists think or what brothers do for a living, or whether a daughter has joined the U.S. Army. But this situation strikes me as a more extreme case. Mr. Brooks’s son is serving as a member of a foreign military force that has been involved in a serious international conflict – one that the columnist sometimes writes about and which has been very much in the news.

“I strongly disagree with those who say Mr. Brooks should no longer write about Israel. But I do think that a one-time acknowledgment of this situation in print (not in an interview with another publication) is completely reasonable. This information is germane; and readers deserve to learn about it in the same place that his columns appear.”

My Thoughts

First, I agree with Sullivan, and I confess to some sympathy for David Brooks. His son is an adult who, I presume, makes his own decisions. Unfortunately, the Arab-Israeli conflict has been going on, in one form or another, for as long as the oldest among us can remember and Brooks Sr. has a lengthy body of work containing his views. So what he says can be tested against what he has said. He is also a commentator and analyst, not a reporter, which makes some difference. And, in my experience, journalists and commentators would not risk their professional credibility and career to write something that is colored by this kind of connection.

Four years ago, the Times was involved in something similar when it became known that its Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner, also had a son in the IDF. The then ombudsman argued that, as good as he was, he should be re-assigned. The top Times editor at the time did not do so. I agreed with that because Bronner had shown himself to be an excellent correspondent with nothing in his clip file that revealed bias and it would seem that readers would suffer from removing him from this key bureau, in my view.

Serving in the Israeli military actually doesn’t even mean that a writing-parent would be supportive because Israeli military policy—set by civilians—is often highly criticized in the West, including by many American Jews, and the missions can be controversial and dangerous.

The BIG Difference

But—and it’s a big one—the most important thing in cases like this, and indeed in many complicated cases testing journalistic ethics, is preservation of the credibility of the news organization, which is central to public confidence in what they read and watch in the long run. So transparency and public disclosure of even perceived individual conflicts of interest—especially of the kind we are dealing with here—seems to me to be crucial as a minimum.

The NewsHour, Brooks and Disclosure

Which brings me to the PBS NewsHour response, which is also being used by NPR, where Brooks also serves as a commentator. I find it weak and excessively conditional; “if a situation arises…we will consider how we might…” Waiting, maybe, until there is another segment with Brooks discussing the Israeli military may be a very long while. Meanwhile the latest war in Gaza this summer is still fresh in everyone's mind and so the questions raised by critics are left to linger.

I was disappointed last Friday when the program failed to address it. Having witnessed numerous snowballing journalistic ethics issues in many places, it always seems to me that not acknowledging or confronting it early turns out to be a mistake. And so I don’t think this statement to me and that I make public helps at all, but rather enhances a sense of not taking these complaints seriously. Brooks does work fulltime for the Times, but he is clearly a high-profile and veteran part-timer at the NewsHour and millions of viewers watch him.

Besides, this happens to be an interesting press issue, worthy of at least a brief discussion. And it is the kind of potential conflict that the NewsHour would or should ask about of a guest being interviewed.

To the Guidelines, for Guidance?

Is this non-disclosure a violation of PBS’s own editorial standards and policies? Hard to say for sure because this kind of connection is not addressed with any specificity. I’ve often said that one can find exceptions in the guidelines to many of the rules set out in those guidelines, but on balance I would say that non-disclosure to NewsHour viewers on the air in this case would be at least a violation in spirit of the guidelines.

For example, at one point in the “Fairness” section, it says: "To avoid misleading the public, producers also should adhere to the principles of transparency and honesty by providing appropriate labels, disclaimers, updates, or other information so that the public plainly understands what it is seeing."

Under "Objectivity" it says: “…the audience generally should be able to know not only who the sources of information are, but also why they were chosen and what their potential biases might be.” And included under examples of "Unprofessional Conduct" is “…real or perceived conflicts of interest…”

But the examples and context cited for these categories in the standards don’t seem intended to apply to the kind of issue at hand. And just to make sure there is wiggle room, the introductory section on “Editorial Standards” says this in the first paragraph: “Moreover, a criterion considered mandatory for straight news reporting may not always be appropriate for a documentary, dramatic or other type of program or content.”

Here Are Some of the Letters

 I'm extremely disappointed to learn that David Brooks was providing commentary on the Israel/Palestine conflict while his son was serving in the Israeli military. This is information that is critical for listeners to know when evaluating Brooks' input on such a controversial issue.   While service in the military of one's own country could reasonably be expected, serving in a foreign military force is an extremely unusual practice that should be prominently disclosed.

Jeffrey Brewster, Glenside, PA

~ ~ ~

As a professor of media studies, who teaches on the ethics of journalism in several classes, I was surprised by David Brook's remarks in support of Israel while it was waging its ruthless war against Gaza, especially in that I am a sustaining member of our local radio affiliate of KCVR and believe in both NPR & PBS as one of the few independent media resources in this country. After some research, I know now why these remarks were bizarre for a media outlet like yours; his son was serving in the Israeli military!! I can't believe that not only you would ignore this stark conflict of interest, but also not disclose it to your audience! 

Ahlam Muhtaseb, San Bernardino, CA

~ ~ ~

I invite  the Newshour into my home almost daily, feeling you are my respected friends, whom I can trust. So, learning that David Brooks' son is in the IDF saddens me....not his choice to be there but that as a listener and reader, I was not told. Especially during the days of recent horror in the Gaza attacks. It makes you and David like the Secret Service head who didn't tell the whole truth when she said the intruder had gotten to a portico. Yes, he got there, but, oh so much farther. And, the administration at the TX hospital who didn't tell the whole story about Mr. Duncan's first visit to the hospital. I thought you (and David Brooks) were better, more honorable. So, I write with sadness, in hope that PBS, all those at the NewsHour who are guests in my home, and particularly David, will understand this HUGE error, decide how to deal with the error, and let the public know  you goofed in a profound way.

Barbara Briggs-Letson, Sebastopol, CA

~ ~ ~

I am a regular viewer of the NewsHour. For years I have relied upon the opinions of David Brooks, which I understood to be those of a well-informed and objective United States citizen, with undivided loyalty. The revelation that David's son chose to serve in a foreign military, rather than that of his own county, is deeply concerning to me. David has spent almost two decades shaping public opinion on America's foreign policy in the Middle East. It's hard to avoid the feeling that David has misrepresented himself.

While this alone may not implicate journalistic ethics, David's failure to disclose his son's Israeli military service before reporting and opining upon the Israel-Gaza conflict undoubtedly does. I trust that David's failure to disclose was an oversight, made in good faith. But it raises questions.  Would disclosure dispel any legitimate concern? I would like to see him address these questions on the NewsHour, tonight [Oct. 10, 2014] if possible.

Charles Babbitt

~ ~ ~

I'm really troubled with the news that David Brooks' son in Israeli Army while he's an expert on the conflict on your show(s). It's clear case of conflict of interest. That's unacceptable and you can't imagine the damage it does to trust. I feel CNN, NY Times and WSJ already damaged their reputations and hope it's not the case with PBS.

Yama Rahimi

~ ~ ~

Just a short note today to request that you extend greater transparency into your political pundits. Can you really believe that it is objective to have David Brooks' as a commentator on anything to do with Israel when his own son was serving in the Israeli military while he was praising Israel during its invasion of Gaza?

I will only ask that you relook at your own copy on your website that suggests that “PBS and our member stations are America’s largest classroom, the nation’s largest stage for the arts and a trusted window to the world.” Can you really suggest that you can be trusted PBS if this is the level of objectivism that you present?

Andrew Giles

~ ~ ~

As a long time donor to PBS , I am dismayed to learn that David Brooks, a regular contributor to your programs, has had such a blatant and, until-now, hidden conflict of interest as a father of an IDF soldier … he pontificates on a subject matter, and while I generally disagree with his views, until now, I felt that they were impartial, wrong but impartial … His opinion on the politics and issues of the region are no longer valid, I will be tuning him out … furthermore, I will no longer be contributing to PBS until an apology for duping your viewership is made

Rommel Nobay

~ ~ ~

I am writing to complain about PBS's lack of transparency with regard to David Brooks' conflict of interest in reporting about Israel. It is ridiculous that you have not disclosed his son's service in the IDF while he praises Israel's actions on your station. Your viewers deserve to know about the biased opinions you are providing to them and be able to make their own decisions based on having the correct information. I would argue he doesn't have the right to comment on Israel's conflicts while he has such an obvious conflict of interest in accurate reporting because viewers don't always give biases their due credit, but at the very least, it should be disclosed so they can decide for themselves. Thank you.

Rachel Tabbal

~ ~ ~

I am very disappointed at PBS for allowing David Brooks’ conflict of interest to go unnoticed. When his son was serving in the Israeli military, he was providing pro-Israel commentary during the Israel's attack against Gaza a few weeks ago. You must send a clear message about journalistic ethics by apologizing for not revealing this matter to the public earlier, and by removing him as a senior commentator for PBS. Please note that the use of the public media for one’s own biased political views is UNACCEPTABLE.

Laguna Hills, CA

Posted on Oct. 16, 2014 at 12:16 p.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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