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Media Analyses





Israel Seems to Irritate USA Today Columnist, Repeatedly


DeWayne Wickham has been writing a weekly column for USA Today since 1988. In it, every so often, he gets a little testy toward Israel.

The latest example of what appears to be Israel-induced irritability appeared in USA Today's March 3, 2015 print edition under the headline “Netanyahu disrespects not only Obama.” In it, Wickham painted the clash between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama, and between the president's Republican critics and Democratic supporters, as a white-black racial confrontation.

The columnist made a two-sentence nod to the ominous issues at stake. These include how Iran—an Islamic theocracy whose leaders have declared Israel must be eliminated, who battle U.S. interests in Syria, Iraq and Yemen and have made their country the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism even without the bomb—might act under the shield of nuclear weapons.

Wickham conceded, “Netanyahu has every right to criticize the nuclear arms deal the Obama administration is brokering with Iran. He fears it will leave Iran with the capability to produce a nuclear weapon.”

He then diluted if not dismissed that concession, writing “but Netanyahu easily could have voiced that criticism on Israeli TV, in a 60 Minutes interview or on Fox News.” Wickham tested readers' credulity if he meant to imply the Israeli prime minister's warnings would have resonated from the platforms he suggested like it did from the U.S. Capitol.

In any case, that was not his main concern. Something else trumped Netanyahu's worry—shared by many Democrats as well as Republicans in Congress, according to numerous reports Wickham ignored—that administration negotiators were headed toward a bad deal with Iran. For Wickham, that something was race.

Bigoted Bibi?
 
Netanyahu's “decision to bypass the normal diplomatic protocol and accept a GOP invitation to address Congress … is an affront to America's first black president,” the columnist declared.

Wickham quoted Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, as asserting “this is a real in-your-face slap at the president, and black folks know it.” Netanyahu “wouldn't have done it to any other president.”

The columnist claims the prime minister “has become an instrument of the GOP, which has shown a personal disrespect for Obama, his wife and children since this black family moved into the building many Republicans apparently think is literally a white house.”

To tie alleged Republican racism to imputed Israeli racism, Wickham reaches back 35 years to claim Netanyahu “has angered some black leaders like no Israeli leader since former foreign minister Moshe Dayan disparaged the intelligence of blacks in the U.S. Army. In 1980, Dayan questioned the ability of the U.S. Army, which had too many black soldiers ‘who have a lower education and intelligence.' Dayan's ignorant talk drew rebukes from black leaders.”

Wickham didn't say that the remark also was rejected by American Jewish Committee President Maynard Wishner and an Israeli embassy spokesman in Washington. Instead, the columnist slip-stepped to throw another punch: “Netanyahu may not have set out to offend Obama's black supporters, but that's certainly been the result.” he said. And Israelis voting for him in the March 17 elections would do the same:

“Now, Netanyahu has a lot of blacks wondering whether Israeli voters will affirm his mistreatment of this nation's first black president when they go to the polls … to choose a government that speaks for them.”

Missing many points
 
Seriously? Could it be that Israeli voters cast their ballots on issues including not only the potential threat from a nuclear Iran but also Palestinian terrorism, cost-of-living complaints and synagogue-state relations? No, not if one squints at policy issues through Wickham's race-trumps-all filter.

At the National Press Club five days before Wickham's “Netanyahu disrespects not only Obama” appeared in print, a dozen black ministers from across the country chastised Congressional Black Caucus members who were protesting the prime minister's speech. They also criticized the president's handling of Iran and relations with Israel. Were they disrespecting the president and his African-American supporters on racial, or policy grounds?

Twenty-one of the 42 members of the Congressional Black Caucus attended Netanyahu's speech. In what way were they disrespecting Obama?

One USA Today letter writer, Ted Hiemstra of Seattle, Wash. (“Divisive criticism,” March 6) wrote that “by choosing to focus his criticism of Netanyahu through the lens of racial politics, Wickham chooses to fan the flames of the racial divide in the United States. There is no evidence that Netanyahu accepted his invitation simply to embarrass President Obama. To take such a speculative position demonstrates Wickham's dedication to a divisive discourse.”

Wickham is, as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say, entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts. Early this year, again irritated by Israel and its supporters (“Big GOP donor behind Netanyahu flap?” January 27), he wrote that “[Sheldon] Adelson is a billionaire Las Vegas gambling impresario and prominent backer of conservative politicians in Washington and Tel Aviv.”

Geographically, that should have been “in Washington and Jerusalem,” capital-to-capital. Wickham's construction is like an Israeli columnist commenting on the United States and writing “politicians in Jerusalem and New York.”

Suspicion trumps sourcing
 
Wickham cast unsubstantiated allegations against Israel and its U.S. supporters in a Sept. 3, 2013 USA Today column headlined “Why the United States should not attack Syria.” The pundit wrote that he “suspects” Israel's supporters in the Obama administration and Congress of attempting to use the American military to attack Syria on Israel's behalf. The only support he offered came from one former Israeli official critical of Netanyahu. Had Wickham been writing a news article, not an opinion column, his editors would have required more corroboration than that.

Wickham claimed many backers of Israel oppose the Syrian regime because it's an ally of Iran, which threatens to destroy Israel. That's not a legitimate reason?

As for U.S. opposition to Syria's Bashar al-Assad and his dictatorship, Wickham failed to mention that the country was a key transit point for anti-American insurgents in Iraq or that, with Iran, it bolstered Hezbollah in Lebanon. The columnist thus avoided reminding readers that from blowing up the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 to recently attempting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Hezbollah, a de facto covert action arm of Iran, has been at war with the United States.

Wickham asserted then that punishing Syria for using chemical weapons against its own people—and perhaps deterring Iran from completing its drive for nuclear weapons, which the president has said endangers America as well as its allies—was not in the U.S. interest. He did not examine whether a world in which dictators use chemical weapons with impunity under their own or allies' nuclear umbrella would be.

And in a March 30, 2010, column for USA Today, Wickham declared that “the investment of treasure and perhaps blood, on behalf of Israel should evoke deep gratitude. Instead, Netanyahu's government takes a go-it-alone approach when it serves Israel's interest—the rest of the world be damned.”

Never mind that the United States took a go-it-alone approach in the current talks with Iran, opening a channel that was at the time outside the formal P5+1 (United States, France, United Kingdom, Russia, China and Germany) negotiations. Forget that Israel's never asked the United States to station troops on Israeli soil, let alone commit them to warfare on its behalf. In fact, successive Israeli governments have asked for aid, not U.S. troops, to help it defend itself.

Wickham omits that the U.S. “investment of treasure” has been something of a two-way street, from the intelligence coup of providing Washington its first copy of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's secret anti-Stalin speech in 1956 to sharing break-through drone technology in recent years.

The columnist's Israel-related work has played the race card, used geographic sleight-of-hand, voiced an unsubstantiated “suspicion” and charged Israeli ingratitude and bullheadedness. Something about Israel makes Wickham a little testy—and that makes his associated commentary unreliable.

That's unfortunate, since Wickham, a founding member of the National Association of Black Journalists and dean of historically black Morgan State (Maryland) University's School of Global Journalism and Communication, is in position to know and do better.


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