Several major Jewish media outlets have raised their collective voices in staunch opposition to what they perceived as a less than welcoming attitude towards press coverage of the recently held AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) policy conference in Washington, DC.
Last week the New York Jewish Week and its associate publication, the New Jersey Jewish News penned strongly written editorials taking the organizers of AIPAC (the largest pro-Israel lobby in the US) to task for intentionally impeding reporter access to the varied breakout sessions at AIPAC.
It appears that once press credentials are granted to a journalist to cover the AIPAC Policy Conference, journalists are pretty much limited in which sessions they are allowed to attend and provide coverage of. Moreover, reporters are eyeballed quite scrupulously by those that AIPAC assigns to keep the press sequestered – away from the actual policy conference.
The bold and unprecedented editorial was titled “Why We Won’t Be at the AIPAC Conference.” The editorial team at the Jewish Week said: “a conference with 20,000 attendees, and dozens of sessions with many hundreds of delegates, is by nature not conducive to keeping secrets, especially in the age of instant tweets and texts. If members of the press agreed to the ground rules of attending ‘off the record’ sessions, it would allow the media to get a sense of the important give-and-take that occurs in these informative sessions without violating journalistic or AIPAC boundaries.
“AIPAC has a long history of being wary of, and less than friendly toward, the press,” the editorials continued. “Members of the media enter the AIPAC convention through a separate entrance and must be accompanied by staff to proceed to the main area where sessions are held – and, at times, even accompanied to the rest rooms. Such treatment doesn’t foster trust and mutual respect. AIPAC officials say the press is overly critical in its coverage of the lobby; maybe there’s a reason that goes beyond political ideology. Trying a more open approach could help.”
This reporter was told by David Ben Hooren, the longtime publisher of the Jewish Voice (www.jewishvoice.com) that during the recent policy conference, he engaged in a discussion about the limitations of press accessibility to breakout sessions at AIPAC with Howard Kohr, the organization’s executive director. Mr. Ben Hooren told this reporter that Mr. Kohr claimed that he was totally unaware that such an anti-press policy had been implemented during AIPAC.
Mr. Ben Hooren informed this reporter that the accommodations that AIPAC provided for the press were essentially threadbare. “During AIPAC, they put the members of the press in this tiny room that maybe held about 30 people at the very most. The vast majority of journalists could not fit in so they ended up congregating in the hallways outside the abysmally inadequate room.”
Mr. Ben Hooren also noted that during the entire three day conference the only news channel that was available for consumption was that of CNN. “I just find that quite interesting. I wonder why attendees and members of the media could not watch FOX News or any other news outlet,” Ben Hooren observed.
Finding this year’s press registration process more than a tad bit odd, Ben Hooren said, “Prior to the AIPAC policy conference, I was awaiting my e-mail confirmation of my press credentials for the longest time. I only received them two days before the conference commenced and that was quite disconcerting. Because of AIPAC’s tardiness and unprofessionalism, I was compelled to incur enormous and totally unnecessary expenses. I had to pay $1000 for a flight to DC and could not find a hotel room because of the last minute arrangements that I was forced to make. In the end, I had to pay $400 for a room in a substandard hotel. The truth is, that is not the way in which an organization of this size and prestige should behave towards members of the media who seek to provide coverage.”
Allison Kaplan Sommer, a respected journalist at Haaretz pointed out the classic irony of the AIPAC press imbroglio. In her report she said that a panel discussion at AIPAC entitled “Free Speech and Freedom of the Press in Israel” was listed as “off the record and closed to the press.”
Ms. Sommer made note of the fact that she was one of three Israeli journalists participating in the panel but technically, (according to AIPAC’s draconian version of the rules) it was prohibited for her to be present in the room where the panel was taking place. She also noted that both she and her fellow journalists would be barred from quoting each other.
Many other breakout sessions were also off limits to the press. While fair minded elected officials might have proffered the platitudinous line about “a free press represents the cornerstone of democracy” – it would ruefully appear that democracy, or what we once knew of it, was on life support at AIPAC.
Maintaining such an onerous posture towards the press is not a new concept at AIPAC. This archaic policy has been implemented for many years now. All sessions that do not take place on the main public stages are verboten to the fourth estate.
Ms. Sommer writes of AIPAC’s media phobia: “It’s a policy that has long gotten under the skin of reporters covering the conference, particularly American-Jewish and Israeli reporters who view the conference as an important opportunity to take the temperature of the community. Privately, some younger AIPAC staff members acknowledge the absurdity of trying to make the sessions secret in an age where there is a smart phone with a recording device and camera in every pocket – and in which numerous breakout sessions featured journalists themselves as speakers, as in the “Free Speech” panel.”
But let’s not even entertain the notion for a single, solitary moment that this rigid press policy is an exclusively Jewish or pro-Israel incarnation.
Truth is, this reporter received similar if not worse treatment while covering the annual three day summit of the Christians United for Israel (CUFI) organization a number of years ago. Following reporters to the restrooms and keeping them penned up until the sessions take place that the organizers deem appropriate for media consumption is unfortunately, all too common place.
This is precisely the reason why this reporter in consonance with The Jewish Voice have made the decision to never attend and provide coverage of any CUFI summit in the future. And that is beyond a shame as our Christian Zionist friends, (especially Pastor John Hagee) have been our stalwart allies in our unflagging support of Israel.
In the spirit of true freedom, democracy. liberty and justice that the State of Israel was predicated on since its inception and in that same spirit that AIPAC appears to be holding a torch for, it would be highly advisable for those in decision-making roles to seriously re-think their unpalatable and quite frankly, abhorrent press policy. There is no two ways about it. It smacks of the kind of fascist totalitarianism that we have witnessed before in the annals of history.