AIPAC's spokesman as press punching bag
02/13/2011 - 10:04
James Besser

So AIPAC has a new press spokeman. I wish Ari Goldberg well; he's going to need it.

In 25 years of covering the pro-Israel lobby I've grown to have a certain sympathy for its press minions – at times human punching bags standing between a skeptical press and wary organization officials who shun publicity – except when they want it.

AIPAC, like many big lobbies, is schizophrenic about the media; it craves recognition for its accomplishments and acknowledgment of its power on Capitol Hill, but it also doesn't want the outside world to know too much about exactly how it works its daily miracles.

Conspiracy theorists and Walt-Mearscheimer acolytes single AIPAC out as particularly nefarious because it's mostly a bunch of Jews lobbying for Israel, but the truth is, most big lobbies operate in basically the same way.

It's not a dirty business, exactly, but it's also not the high-minded stuff our kids read about in civics textbooks. I mean, you don't seriously think members of Congress write all those bills, resolutions and dear colleague letters without a lot of outside help, do you?

Every lobby would like the public to think that it simply presents accurate information to lawmakers – who then do the right thing. What they don't want us to see: the myriad interactions between lobbyists, staffers and lawmakers, the tradeoffs both sides make, the pressure from constituents that lobbyists bring to bear, the implied and sometimes more direct threat of political repercussions for a “wrong” vote, the sometimes direct role lobbyists play in writing and revising legislation.

As I said: this is hardly unique to AIPAC, it's the way power lobbies work. AIPAC gets more attention because it does it better than most lobbies and because anything involving Middle East politics is a lightning rod for conspiracy theories about dark, malevolent forces.

That inevitably leads to friction with reporters, whose job isn't to just reprint press releases but to find out what's really going on.

AIPAC tries, mostly successfully, to keep reporters from too much contact with its lobbyists, and its current executive director, Howard Kohr, is like the Invisible Man to journalists.

The AIPAC board is well instructed in how to talk to reporters without saying much, or simply not to talk to reporters at all, something they periodically carry to absurd extremes.

I'll never forget the time I approached the AIPAC president at a policy conference – this was more than a decade ago – and asked simply “How's the conference going?”

His angry answer: “We don't talk to the press.”

At the same time, there have always been plenty of AIPAC insiders who are among those anonymous sources you're always reading about in news stories – sometimes because they talk to reporters at the behest of the AIPAC management in an effort to spin the news, sometimes because they are running internal gambits and need reporters to play a role.

There was a time when AIPAC was rife with internal dissension – which provided reporters with a lot of interesting news from AIPAC professionals who were at war with colleagues within the organization, although determining the veracity of those leaks was generally difficult.

Under Kohr's leadership and in the wake of the Espionage Act case a few years back, internal conflict has mostly evaporated – good news for AIPAC, now a generally happy and contented shop, frustrating for reporters seeking inside contacts willing to dish.

AIPAC hates it when we get a story wrong, which is easy to do when it maintains radio silence. It also sometimes hates it when we get stories right – when we reveal their hand in something they want their friends on Capitol Hill to get credit for.

As I said: lobbies are all schizophrenic about the press. And this makes it particularly hard for AIPAC press people.

I have to say the recently departed Josh Block, who lasted nine years, was about as responsive as a PR person could be in this environment, and was never unpleasant about it. Given that a former AIPAC press guy almost punched me out for sitting in the wrong seat at a policy conference speech, that's important. AIPAC isn't a more open organization, press wise, but it's less unpleasant about being closed.

Comments

"Conspiracy theorists and Walt-Mearscheimer acolytes single AIPAC out as particularly nefarious " Since the FBI has investigated AIPAC three times, does that make them "conspiracy theorists?" Isn't stealing trade secrets, acting as an unregistered foreign agent, and stealing national defense information (all documented in FBI reports) pretty nefarious activity?

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