David Baker doesn’t exactly agree that he has the toughest job in Israel, but he doesn’t deny it either. As the media front man for the Prime Minister’s Office, that kind of ducking and weaving comes with the territory, but Baker — a New Yorker by birth and rearing — can take it.
“I’m from the boroughs — I’m a cool New Yorker,” he said, half-kidding, on a phone interview from Jerusalem on June 17, a few days before heading to the United States for one of his frequent visits.
Baker, the senior foreign press coordinator for the prime minister, will speak about Israel and the media at Congregation Agudath Israel on Friday evening, June 21. His talk is funded by the Bnai Zion Foundation and cosponsored by the Community Relations Committee and the Israel Program Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Baker said — carefully phrasing it — that he hopes that Jews and non-Jews will come to hear him. “I’m very grateful to have this opportunity to dialogue with them,” he said. While he might be hoping for a friendly audience, he insisted he is ready for a frank exchange. “You can tell, I can take a punch,” he said. And not to miss the media opening, he pointed out that he also has speaking engagements later in Tenafly, Manhattan, and Florida.
Baker, who made aliya in 1985, has held his current position since 2000, serving with Prime Ministers Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, and now Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s his task to present official policies to the international media and introduce government spokespeople to the press.
“I have a good product,” he said. But unlike the marketing people who assert that any publicity is good publicity, he wouldn’t mind having his “product” not quite so much in the international eye. “They know Israel exists,” he said.
And while there are plenty of tough issues to deal with, and plenty of negative press, there are good times, too. “You take your lumps, and that’s fine,” Baker said. “It’s a high-intensity job and I enjoy it.” Coming from a media background — he worked for a few years in the Eyewitness newsroom in Buffalo, NY, and for various English-language publications in Israel — he is confident about his ability to get through to them.
He cited a recent instance when a major news organization used “certain terminology” that he felt misrepresented Israel’s situation. He protested “in a gentlemanly way,” and though the journalist in question didn’t agree, he made the change. “He said it was out of respect for the way I had handled the matter,” Baker recalled. “If you’re fair and you treat other people with respect…,” not always but most of the time, “you get treated with respect.”
As things stand at the moment in the States, Baker said, “There is a high level of understanding and support in the American public regarding Israel’s security needs and the challenges we face. The American media can be quite scrutinizing of Israel, especially in its editorial pages and its op-eds, but overall we do get our points across, and while it may be a pitched battle sometimes, we accept that and we are up to the challenge.”
As for dealing with college students, whom he also often speaks to, and dealing with new forms of media, he said, “Students are more informed Mideast-wise and know the issues better than in previous years. They are more eager to challenge me when I am up on that stage and I welcome that and enjoy a good tussle. It helps me make Israel’s case.”
New media formats have given pro-Israel activists the tools to extend their reach in a most expedient way and are open to using the tools the Prime Minister’s Office provides — Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, Instagram, and, Baker said, “our website is quite popular — pmo.gov.il.”
“On the other hand,” he said, “Israel’s detractors on campus also use these tools, from other sources that are hostile to Israel, and that makes our job more challenging.”