Laughs Aside, Junkets Raise Serious Issues

Congressman's Naked Swim Put Spotlight on Freebie Trips

LOL: Congressman Kevin Yoder, shown here with fellow lawmakers, drew plenty of guffaws with revelations that he went swimming in his birthday suit during a trip to Israel. The revelations shone a spotlight on the junkets taken by politicians and even some journalists.
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LOL: Congressman Kevin Yoder, shown here with fellow lawmakers, drew plenty of guffaws with revelations that he went swimming in his birthday suit during a trip to Israel. The revelations shone a spotlight on the junkets taken by politicians and even some journalists.

By Nathan Guttman

Published August 23, 2012, issue of August 31, 2012.
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AIEF takes more than just members of Congress on trips to Israel; it takes journalists, too, on a regular basis. Discussing the latest Sea of Galilee events, Chris Matthews host of MSNBC’s“Hardball,” said on August 20: “I’ve been there a number of times, a trip sponsored by a pro-Israel group, Jewish group, very educational trips. They show you a lot about the geography of the land and the situation they’re facing with the Palestinians.”

MSNBC did not return several calls requesting comment on Matthews’ participation in these trips and the network’s policy on joining press junkets.

A spokesman for AIEF would not provide details on the number of reporters hosted by the group in Israel, but there are estimates based on reports of participants indicating that dozens of journalists have participated in pro-Israel junkets throughout the years.

“It’s a super-effective strategy,” said David Plotz, editor-in-chief of the online magazine Slate. Plotz attended an AIEF trip in 2007. He noted that while the junket was “incredible fun,” with business class travel and fancy hotels, organizers packed the agenda with informative tours and “amazing interesting people,” including Israeli President Shimon Peres, top officers of the Israel Defense Forces and a senior Palestinian representative. Participants were free to quiz their hosts and to pose tough questions, but still, Plotz said he left Israel with the impression that “Gaza is a mess, the [security] wall is serving its purpose and that — oh, my God —Iran is six months away from nuclear weapons.” Slate does not have a policy prohibiting participation in junkets as long as reporters clearly state where the funding came from.

Many other American publications do not prohibit trips paid for by businesses or interest groups, though it is common to require full disclosure when reporting on topics relating to the tour. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and all major TV networks insist on paying for their own expenses in all cases, as does the Forward.

“A responsible journalist has no business taking a free trip to Israel — or to any other country, or to a Hollywood film studio’s junket at a resort, or to any other destination that is involved in the subject matter that the journalist covers or is likely to cover in the future. Period,” said Samuel Freedman, a journalism professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and an expert on media ethics. Freedman stressed that even if the free trips do not create actual bias in the reporting, “they absolutely create the perception of bias, and that perception is just as corrosive to a journalist’s credibility.” Larry Lorenz, professor emeritus of journalism at Loyola University New Orleans, agreed that receiving free trips is wrong regardless of whether reporters write about the issue. “Journalism organizations should be concerned about giving the appearance of being bought.,” Lorenz said.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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