by Moshe Phillips
Sometimes there’s a thin line between a journalist reporting news about Israel, or actually shaping the story. A recent exchange between a Jewish news correspondent and a State Department spokeswoman gives us a glimpse of the tricky balance between the two.
Ron Kampeas, a widely-respected veteran journalist with the JTA news service, reported on May 6 that the plan by President Joe Biden to visit Israel next month “appears unaffected” by Israel’s approval of the construction of some Jewish housing units in communities in Judea-Samaria.
In other words, this “story” was — as in the mold of the classic Seinfeld sitcom formula — an article about nothing. He was writing about something that was not going to happen.
The question is, why would a reporter begin with the premise that perhaps something should happen? Why the assumption that Biden’s trip might be — or should be — affected? And even if, for whatever reason, Kampeas felt that something should happen, why was it still newsworthy once he found out that his assumption is wrong, that nothing is going to happen?
Kampeas explained in his article for JTA that he was referring to a conference call with State Department spokeswoman Jalina Porter on May 6, in which he participated. After the call, Kampeas wrote: “Pressed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency as to whether there would be repercussions for the announcement, and whether it would affect Biden’s plan to visit, Porter would only say…”
It’s not clear why Kampeas felt he should “press” Ms. Porter on this non-issue. Since nobody in the administration had said there would be “repercussions,” it’s curious that Kampeas took it upon himself to — in his words — “press” her on it.
What makes this episode even more interesting is that the State Department has posted a transcript of the conference call on its website — and there’s no evidence of any “pressing” by Kampeas.
According to the transcript, the call began with Porter briefly commenting on the latest Palestinian Arab terrorist attack in Israel. Then she took questions. She called on Kampeas first. He asked: “Thank you for taking the call. What if anything will be the repercussions for Israel’s announcement of approvals for 4,000 more units? I know that you’re saying that you — you’re condemning this, but will there be any repercussions, particularly related to President Biden’s visit next month?”
Porter replied by saying she would not comment on the president’s trip, and — as per standard State Department practice — she reiterated “the need to avoid unilateral steps.”
That was all. The transcript doesn’t show any follow-up question by Kampeas or any other kind of “pressing.” Nor is there any reason there should have been.
Consider what this tells us about how reporters are sometimes in a position to shape the news. Kampeas chose to focus on a non-story about a lack of repercussions. But he didn’t have to go with that. He could have asked any other question in the world, and that other topic would have become his story.
For example, Porter’s “condemnation” of the terrorist attacks was quite vague. She said: “We vehemently condemn the terrorist attack in Elad, Israel, which killed at least three and wounded many others. This was a horrific attack targeting innocent men and women and was particularly heinous coming as Israel celebrated its Independence Day.”
Porter failed to acknowledge that Palestinian Arabs carried out the attack. It would have been interesting if Kampeas had asked her why she was not acknowledging the identity of the perpetrators.
Or he might have asked if the U.S. is satisfied with the Palestinian Authority’s so-called “condemnation” of the attack, in which Mahmoud Abbas spoke vaguely about “the killing of Palestinian and Israeli civilians.”
Imagine if there had been a Palestinian terrorist attack in the United States, and our president responded by condemning “the killing of Palestinian and American civilians”!
Or maybe this: Porter said the U.S. “strongly opposes” the Israeli housing construction plan. Kampeas could have asked her whether the U.S. also opposes the Palestinian Authority’s construction activity in the territories. And if not, then why does the U.S. have a double standard? That would be a story.
Or, since he is interested in the possibility of repercussions, Kampeas could have asked Porter a question about President Biden’s upcoming meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan. For example: “For years, Jordan has been refusing to extradite Ahlam Tamimi, a terrorist involved in the murder of American teenager Malki Roth. Will President Biden be informing the king of any repercussions for his sheltering of a murderer of an American child?
We sometimes forget that what we read in a newspaper or other media outlet is not just the news, but also reflects what a particular editor or reporter has decided is newsworthy. That’s an important distinction.
Moshe Phillips is a commentator on Jewish affairs. He was a U.S. delegate to the 38th World Zionist Congress in 2020. The views expressed are his own.