Bias by CNN Correspondent Ben Wedeman More than Just a Tweet

Americans expect news journalists to be objective, or at least to strive for objectivity. That is why Octavia Nasr lost her job as CNN’s Senior Editor of Mideast Affairs after publicly expressing her views about Lebanese cleric Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, a man who has argued in favor of suicide bombings against Israelis and denied the Holocaust. Nasr’s posting on Twitter, which stated that she had great respect for the “Hezbollah giant” and was saddened by his death, led readers to lose confidence in her ability to be objective about the Middle East conflict.

We might never know exactly whether or how Nasr’s views contributed to skewing CNN’s Mideast coverage, since her work was mostly behind the scenes. Not so with CNN’s Senior International Correspondent Ben Wedeman. As with Nasr, a post on the Cairo-based correspondent’s Twitter page raises serious questions about his objectivity. But in this case, the journalist’s contributions to CNN seem to answer those questions in a way that should deeply trouble the network, as they suggest that his biases excessively influence his reporting.

In a June 29, 2010 tweet, Wedeman directed his followers to an “excellent” article, as he put it, by the harshly anti-Israel professor/blogger Juan Cole. Judging by that warm praise, Wedeman embraces, and thinks his readers should likewise subscribe to, the radical and facile narrative put forth by Cole in the recommended piece. Cole’s article claimed:

[Israel’s] isolation derives from Israeli policies, of illegal blockades … and systematic land theft and displacement of occupied civilians under its control, along with aggressive wars on neighbors, which target infrastructure and civilians and are clearly intended to keep neighbors poor and backward.

In other words, Cole and Wedeman promote the argument that Israelis send their sons and daughters to war not for the country’s security and preservation, but out of sheer malice. The Six-Day War, according to this view, did not stem from Egyptian acts of war and threats of annihilation. The war that followed wasn’t forced on Israel when Syria and Egypt launched a surprise attacked against the Jewish state on Yom Kippur in 1973. Hezbollah’s missile salvo on northern Israel and cross-border kidnaping raid wasn’t the reason for war in 2006, nor were the thousands of rockets and mortars fired from Hamas’s Gaza Strip, which made life in southern Israel intolerable, the cause of Israel’s Gaza operation in 2009. Those crazy Israelis simply want their neighbors to be “poor and backward.” (Moreover, according to this line of thinking, Israeli official Mark Regev was lying when he described Israel’s belief that “a healthy, successful, prosperous Palestine is in the interest of the state of Israel. Living next to a failed state, a failed economy, would only be a recipe for further violence.”)

That Wedeman presumably shares Cole’s extraordinary biases should in and of itself raise red flags at CNN headquarters. But even if he does inwardly share Cole’s sharply biased views, can he at least but those biases aside while reporting?

It seems not. In a conspicuously one-sided piece he wrote in early 2008, for example, Wedeman insists that Israel’s security barrier had all but destroyed Bethlehem’s economy by “reducing … to a trickle” the number of tourists visiting the town. But it was clear at the time that the number of tourists visiting Bethlehem during Christmas, the town’s primary tourist season, had in fact skyrocketed since Israel completed the barrier between Bethlehem and Jerusalem in 2005. That is, his biased narrative influenced the accuracy of his story.

The problem continues. Wedeman’s most recent commentary, a July 19 analysis piece entitled “‘Groundhog Day’ for Mideast Peace Process,” promotes the view that Israel is the party primarily responsible for holding back the peace process, that it refuses to engage in “confidence-building measures,” and that eastern Jerusalem, which includes the Old City’s Jewish Quarter and the holiest site in Judaism, in fact belongs to the Palestinians.

Referring to a Cairo meeting between Benjamin Netanyahu and Hosni Mubarak, Wedeman claims in his article that

The main focus of the talks in Cairo was to convince the Palestinians and Israelis to move from, until now, largely fruitless “proximity” or indirect talks to direct negotiations.
He repeated this theme elsewhere in the piece, stating that U.S. diplomat George Mitchell “has been trying to coax the two sides back to the table.”
In reality, though, the Israelis needed no convincing. Again and again, Israeli officials have urged the Palestinians to join them in direct negotiations, and again and again Palestinians have rejected Israel’s requests. On June 22, for example, a Reuters story noted that
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed the Palestinians on Tuesday for the absence of direct peace talks and insisted negotiations should resume right away “without delay and without preconditions.”

Or as AP explained on June 28,

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been holding indirect talks with the Israeli government over the past two months but said Monday that Israel has not offered enough to make it worthwhile to move to direct talks.

In response, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said direct talks are the only way to solve the conflict.

A July 1 AP story likewise reported that

Speaking late Thursday at an Independence Day party at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu appeared to respond to Abbas’ move by repeating his call for direct peace talks.

Mitchell has been shuttling between the Israelis and Palestinians for two months with the aim of relaunching direct negotiations in the fall. But Abbas said earlier this week that he has not received enough encouragi ng signs from Israel to warrant that. …

Speaking late Thursday at an Independence Day party at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu appeared to respond to Abbas’ move by repeating his call for direct peace talks.

“I would say to President Abbas that the best way to convince Israelis that you are serious about peace is to begin serious, direct peace negotiations,” he said.

And just two days before Wedeman published his piece, Agence France Presse explained that “Netanyahu has repeatedly called for direct talks….”

Wedeman not only obscured Israel’s repeated calls for direct talks, but also directed blame for toward Israel for the fact that those talks are not occurring:

Direct talks were suspended in December 2008 when Israel launched its offensive against Gaza. The 2009 election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, never a peace process enthusiast, made reviving direct talks all the more complicated.

The correspondent’s use of the passive voice — talks “were suspended” — meant readers weren’t told that it was the Palestinians who cut off talks in December 2008. And Wedeman’s glib suggestion that Netanyahu is an opponent of the peace process whose election complicated the move to direct talks further obscures Israel’s requests for face-to-face negotiations.

If Wedeman wanted to let readers know that the peace process is complicated, why did he not mention Palestinian infighting or Hamas’s stubborn refusal to renounce violence, accept Israel’s right to exist and honor previous agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinians? (The word Hamas does not appear even once in the analysis.) And what about the complications stemming from Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s continued glorification of terrorists?

It gets worse. After falsely casting Israel as a party that needs to be “convinced” to re-launch direct negotiations, Wedeman went on to claim Israel refuses to make confidence-building gestures to help Palestinians until those talks start: “The Israelis say that direct talks must go ahead, and only then will Israel initiate confidence-building measures.”

In fact, as noted by New York Times reporters Isabel Kershner and Fares Akram on the same day that Wedeman’s piece was published, “Israel is considering confidence-building measures to propel the Palestinians toward direct talks.” And these would be on top of additional measures already taken by Israel, such as a settlement moratorium, the removal of roadblocks, and other steps.

Wedeman’s bias is perhaps most glaring when he refers to “Palestinian occupied territory, including East Jerusalem,” thus accepting as self-evident the Palestinian position on the area in dispute. Eastern Jerusalem is in fact a mixed Jewish/Arab area under Israeli sovereignty, but which the Palestinians argue should be part of their state. Complicating the tense conflict over eastern Jerusalem is the fact that the area houses Judaism’s holiest sites and the cradle of Jewish history alongside holy Muslim shrines. Writers of “analysis pieces” are expected to educate readers about the nuances behind the news, not obscure those nuances while unquestioningly accepting and promoting one side’s claims over the other’s.

If CNN hopes to be “the most trusted name in news,” their Senior International Correspondent must be reminded of the difference between “analysis” and pro-Palestinian advocacy.

Click here to read a follow up story discussing Juan Cole’s response to this article.

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