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Kessler's Wedge

Newsmax's Ronald Kessler took liberties with a Jewish leader's views on Obama, and got called on it -- so Kessler had to hunt for another Jewish leader to advance his anti-Obama agenda.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 7/15/2009

Newsmax's Ronald Kessler was -- unsurprisingly, given that he works for a right-wing website -- working against Barack Obama's election in 2008.

As ConWebWatch detailed, Kessler made his dislike for Obama clear from the beginning by highlighting inflammatory statements by Obama's former pastor while downplaying or ignoring completely Obama's criticism of those remarks. As the election approached, Kessler insisted that "Most polls may be overstating Barack Obama’s support by 5 to 10 percentage points because those surveyed may not be telling the truth about voting for him" and even dug up an alleged former schoolmate -- anonymous, of course -- to claim that Obama "didn’t hang out with a group I thought was the right group to hang out with."

After Obama took office, Kessler was eager to smear and attack Obama and his policies. ConWebWatch has previously noted how Kessler was among the Newsmax writers who promoted misleading or false claims about Obama's stimulus plan. Kessler has misled on other issues as well:

  • In his Feb. 9 column, Kessler quoted Ken Klukowski, "a legal expert who consults for major conservative interest groups," as saying of Obama: "Remember, Barack Obama has spoken out in terms of redistributive justice and considered it a shame that the Warren Court, which is the most liberal court in American history, did not engage in wealth redistribution." But Obama never said that. As ConWebWatch has detailed, the context of Obama's words clearly demonstrate that he said the civil rights movement relied too much on the court system to advance its agenda instead of promoting change from the bottom up, i.e., legislatively, and that the Warren Court did not address it was a sign that it was not as radical as right-wingers have claimed it to be. Nevertheless, Kessler repeated the false claim in his March 2 column.
  • Attacking the Employee Free Choice Act in a March 4 column, Kessler wrote: "Under labor relations laws, workers for the past 75 years have had the right to choose by secret ballot whether to sign up to join a union." In fact, workers do not "the right to choose by secret ballot whether to sign up to join a union"; that choice is made by the employer. As Media Matters summarized, under current law, a union that shows it has the support of a majority of workers can represent the workers if their employer voluntarily agrees to recognize the union, without holding such an election. The choice to have a secret-ballot election is the employer's, not the workers'. Kessler also falsely stated that the EFCA "would deprive workers of the right to a secret ballot." In fact, it would merely move the choice to have a secret-ballot election from the employer to the workers.
  • In his May 28 column, Kessler took Sonia Sotomayor's statement that "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life" out of context, baselessly asserting that the statement "underscores" a "skewed view" endorsed by President Obama that "empathy should work in one direction — in favor of minorities and the poor." In fact, Sotomayor was talking specifically about race and sex discrimination cases when she made that statement -- a fact Kessler refused to tell his readers.

Kessler has not been monolithically negative -- a June 4 column surprisingly praised Obama's speech in Cairo as the "right way to diminish recruitment of terrorists," adding that "Obama sounded like an American president who we want to succeed."

But that was an anomaly: Ten days later, Kessler was trying to undermine Obama's support among Jews.

A June 14 article by Kessler featured the claims of Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, that Jewish leaders in America are, as Kessler wrote, "deeply troubled by" President Obama's "recent Middle East initiatives, and some are questioning what he really believes." While Kessler claimed that "Hoenlein says he is only offering his personal views," he obfuscated that by asserting that "the conference he represents is a political powerhouse that includes 50 major Jewish groups. Among them are the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), B’nai B’rith International, the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, the Zionist Organization of America, Hadassah, and the Anti-Defamation League."

After Kessler's article appeared, however, Hoenlein tried to distance himself from it. The Forward reported that Hoenlein's remarks "drew immediate criticism from Jewish activists," who said that they are "a mistaken reading of Jewish public opinion," and that Hoenlein was now claiming that his "quotes were taken out of context."

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that Hoenlein was claiming that Kessler "conflated the questions with the answers":

"My point was" the community "is not monolithic," he said, noting that the article never directly quotes him saying what the lede of the piece claims, that "President Obama’s strongest supporters among Jewish leaders are deeply troubled by his recent Middle East initiatives, and some are questioning what he really believes."

In fact, Hoenlein said he said the same things in the Newsmax interview that he has told several interviewers since the president's speech, but no one else drew the same conclusion.

In response, Newsmax posted the transcript of the relevant segment of Kessler's interview with Hoenlein under the headline "Transcript Confirms Jewish Leader's Comments That Jews 'Very Concerned' About Obama," noting that Hoenlein "has backtracked, claiming to Jewish news outlets that his comments were taken out of context." (Newsmax also released the audio of the interview.) But Hoenlein never directly says what the headline claims he said -- even though, as the transcript shows, Kessler was actively trying to get him to do so. He didn't, so Kessler used a bit of inference to get to that assertion:

Kessler: Are you finding that Jewish leaders are starting to have buyer’s remorse about Obama?

Hoenlein: I can’t speculate about that. I do think, and I’ve heard and read comments that people have made, the concerns that they are expressing, that people were concerned about what was said. I’ve heard it from some of his strongest supporters, expected from his detractors, but I think many of them were concerned, even people close to him have said to us that there were parts of the speech that bothered them.

Kessler: Could I ask did you vote for Obama and now do you regret it?

Hoenlein: I never discuss how I vote.

Kessler: But have you heard that from some Jewish leaders, just privately?

Hoenlein: That they’re saying that?

Kessler: Yeah.

Hoenlein: Let’s say there’s a lot of questioning going on about what he really believes, what does he really stand for. I think there’s a lot of uncertainty right now.


Kessler: I’m just thinking of the fact he got such overwhelming support from Jews, and now what are they thinking.

Hoenlein: They are thinking, that’s what’s important. You should always be thinking. You shouldn’t vote without thinking, and after they vote, they should think about what’s going on. And people are genuinely very concerned not just about President Obama. I mean it’s a time of heightened concern, and I think this is part of it.

It appears that Kessler came into the interview with an specific agenda: to use Hoenlein to portray Jews, who voted overwhelmingly for Obama, as regretting that support. While Hoenlein didn't completely cooperate despite Kessler's leading questions, he said things that were close enough that Kessler could make the claim anyway and, thus, stay on message with his agenda.

While Kessler and Hoenlein are each trying to portray themselves as innocent victims, they both share the guilt. Kessler had an agenda, and Hoenlein cooperated just enough with it.

His interview with Hoenlein -- and, thus, his attempt to drive a wedge into Jewish support of Obama -- having backfired, Kessler had to scrounge up a new Jewish leader who could be counted on to more reliably mouth the talking points he wanted to get out. He found a reliable mouthpiece in Morton Klein, head of the right-wing Zionist Organization of America.

With Klein, Kessler didn't have to resort to the inferring he did with Hoenlein. In Kessler's June 22 interview, Klein comes right out and states that Obama "may become the most hostile president to Israel ever" and that "leaders in the organized Jewish world ... are deeply concerned about Obama’s actions and policies toward Israel, and now they’re rethinking their support for Obama during the campaign and the election."

Those were the words Kessler was trying to put in Hoenlein's mouth. Interestingly, Kessler makes no reference to his Hoenlein interview in his article on Klein.

And so, Kessler's Obama attack machine got (albeit less effectively) back on track -- that is, after all, what Newsmax is paying him to do.

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