AIPAC press strategy during the 2009 policy conference – ‘heavy handed’ or business as usual?

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My minder at the AIPAC policy conference was Jason Rosenberg. I don't know much about him, except that he's not a full time AIPAC staff person, he worked as a volunteer for the conference. A quick google search turned up that he seems to do media consultant for Democratic party related issues and events. I'm not really sure. Phil and I first met him when we arrived at the AIPAC conference. After getting our credentials he brought us up the escalators and showed us to the press area in the main plenary hall. Initially, he struck me more as an usher of sorts, to help media avoid the throngs of conference goers and navigate the enormous Washington, DC conference center. Only later it was clear to me that he had other responsibilities as well.

I should start by saying that, for the most part, AIPAC’s staff was incredibly welcoming and gracious to Phil and me. In all honesty, I was never really clear on why AIPAC agreed to give us credentials to cover the conference. It’s
not a secret that Mondoweiss is critical of the Israel lobby and takes
shots at AIPAC, and we had heard that other less out spoken journalists
were being denied credentials (for unclear reasons).  We were two of over 300 reporters who were credentialed for the Policy Conference this year including seven Arab television networks, several Israeli media outlets, all the major US TV outlets, including CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX, C-SPAN, APTV, Reuters, the New York Times, Washington Post, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Huffington Post, Politico, Think Progress, the American Prospect, and the Inter Press Service. Also, Jason and other AIPAC staff were very attentive to our needs, would promptly answer any questions we had and were always available to us. There was some friendly ribbing, like when one AIPAC staffer reminded us that we’d used them to raise money for our site, or when they referred to us and some other lefty journalists as the “anti-Zionist minyan,” but in all honesty he wasn’t that far off. I just wish we had actually hit 10 people to make a quorum.

Things started to change for Phil and me near the end of the second day of the three day conference. We were in the gala event, enduring the numbing repetition of the roll call of all elected officials in the room, when Phil was pulled aside by an AIPAC staff person. I couldn’t hear the conversation, but knew it was a response to a post Phil had published earlier only 10 minutes before. Phil agreed that he had missed the nuance in AIPAC’s position, and filed another post. We both figured this comes with the territory of the immediate publication on the internet. 

I didn’t think too much about it, until the next day. It was the pinnacle of the conference, with back to back keynote speeches by John Kerry and Joe Biden. It was the moment we were all waiting for as it would be the first real indication of how the Obama administration was going to engage with AIPAC and all that we had seen over the previous two days. As part of my work with Mondoweiss I was twittering the speeches, as things were unfolding too quickly for blog posts. The trouble began about five minutes into Biden’s speech when I tweeted an article from YNET that caught my eye from my email:

Not mentioned at AIPAC: Israel begins revoking Arabs' citizenship - #aipac

8:56 AM May 5th from TweetChat

The text “Israel begins revoking Arabs' citizenship” was the headline of the article that had been posted on YNET, the website for Yedioth Ahronoth the mostly widely read newspaper in Israel.

Within a minute or so of posting, Jason tapped me on the shoulder. In a low, insistent whisper he told me that the post was unfair and that I needed to correct it. I was really confused and caught off guard. I was half trying to hear what Jason was saying and half wanting to pay attention to Biden’s speech, the real reason I was there. I asked him what was unfair? He said what I sent out did not reflect the content of the article. I told him I didn’t write it, that it was the headline Ynet had given the article and that I was only passing it along. He said I needed to change it. I reiterated that I hadn’t written it, Ynet had, and I had only forwarded it. He then argued with me that the article dealt with terrorists and that wasn’t clear from the headline. He said that people were already starting to forward (or "retweet") the post and it was important to correct it. Again I told him that I didn’t write the headline and that I wasn’t going to change it. He insisted. I began to realize that this was not a request but a demand, Jason wasn’t going away. I was missing Biden’s speech. Jason then clarified that AIPAC does not comment on internal Israeli policies, so it was unfair for me to expect that this issue would come up in the conference. In the moment it struck me as disingenuous as AIPAC is always referring to Israeli democracy as an argument for a strong US/Israel relationship (which revoking citizenship would seem to contradict), but it also felt like a technicality that I could use to end the stand off, so I told Jason I would make that correction. I turned around to refocus on Biden’s speech. A few seconds later Jason asked, “Are you going to do it?” I hadn’t realized that he was still there. I thought I could maybe have until the end of the speech. Guess not. I posted this:

RE: Israel begins revoking Arabs' citizenship. AIPAC reminds me that they do not comment on Israeli domestic policies. #aipac

9:02 AM May 5th from TweetChat

It’s surprising to see six minutes passed during this exchange. It felt like a minute or two if that. Caught up in the moment I didn’t really think about it. It wasn’t until after the conference that the importance of what happened really sunk in. Part of this came from talking with other journalists who were there, and others who weren’t let in at all. At least one other journalist, who also has a critical perspective, had a similar experience of having an AIPAC minder over their shoulder, insisting on changes. I told them as a newcomer to the journalistic side of things that I didn't know what to expect and that part of me suspected that this is exactly how things always worked in Washington. They told me they had never seen anything like it.

I was about to just chalk it all up to a first time learning experience until I found out that The Guardian’s Chris McGreal didn’t even get into the conference, and wasn't happy about it. He had been approved to go but the week before ran a piece saying that AIPAC funds members of Congress, which is not the case–AIPAC is not a PAC–then amended it to say that the group “drives fundraising for some members of Congress” – which AIPAC also felt to be inaccurate. McGreal said it was an issue of interpretation. “Well I’m withdrawing your credentials for the conference unless you correct it,” he says an AIPAC spokesperson told him. “This is absurd. I won’t bow to threats,” McGreal said. He duly showed up at the convention center but was told he wasn’t welcome. He says his treatment was “unpleasant, aggressive,” and “heavy handed,” and crossed a line: for all the criticism he got working as a correspondent in Israel for four years, he never had credentials revoked.

The more I've thought about my experience the less shocking it has become to me. I’m not naive enough to think that Jason and the AIPAC staffers are not there to spin the journalists who get access. They allow us in and in many ways we were a captive audience to whatever AIPAC wanted to feed us. The line that I feel was crossed what that between providing spin and attempting to impose content. The pressure that was exerted on me went beyond giving information on background to insisting on editorial changes. I’m not sure what would have happened if I flat out refused to make the changes, and I’m sorry I didn’t find out.

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