Rhodes to Perdition
An exposé on journalism in the Obama era
By JAMES TARANTO WSJ May 6, 2016
David Samuels’s lengthy profile of Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, is meant to be a puff piece. In some ways it is: Rhodes comes across in the New York Times magazine story as very effective and powerful, but also as morally dubious. Even more dubious, in Samuels’s presentation, is the state of American journalism in the Obama era.
Consider this passage:
Like Obama, Rhodes is a storyteller who uses a writer’s tools to advance an agenda that is packaged as politics but is often quite personal. He is adept at constructing overarching plot lines with heroes and villains, their conflicts and motivations supported by flurries of carefully chosen adjectives, quotations and leaks from named and unnamed senior officials. He is the master shaper and retailer of Obama’s foreign-policy narratives, at a time when the killer wave of social media has washed away the sand castles of the traditional press. His ability to navigate and shape this new environment makes him a more effective and powerful extension of the president’s will than any number of policy advisers or diplomats or spies.
To put it less flatteringly, Rhodes is a masterful propagandist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—an administration, like any large organization, needs people to speak to the public on its behalf, and to engage in such advocacy is not, in itself, dishonorable.
But lying to the public is. Samuels describes what he calls the “innovative campaign to sell” Obama’s Iran nuclear deal:
The way in which most Americans have heard the story of the Iran deal presented . . . was largely manufactured for the purpose for selling the deal. Even where the particulars of that story are true, the implications that readers and viewers are encouraged to take away from those particulars are often misleading or false. . . .
In the narrative that Rhodes shaped, the “story” of the Iran deal began in 2013, when a “moderate” faction inside the Iranian regime led by Hassan Rouhani beat regime “hard-liners” in an election and then began to pursue a policy of “openness,” which included a newfound willingness to negotiate the dismantling of its illicit nuclear-weapons program. The president set out the timeline himself in his speech announcing the nuclear deal on July 14, 2015. . . . While the president’s statement was technically accurate . . . it was also actively misleading, because the most meaningful part of the negotiations with Iran had begun in mid-2012, many months before Rouhani and the “moderate” camp were chosen in an election among candidates handpicked by Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
This is the section of Samuels’s profile that has received the most attention, and understandably so. “Congratulations, liberals of the Washington press corps and elite organizations: You’re a bunch of suckers,” writes John Podhoretz in the New York Post. “We all know this because the Obama White House just told us so.” Make that the Obama White House and the New York Times!
The campaign for the Iran nuclear deal will likely draw comparisons with the Bush administration’s effort to promote military action in Iraq. There are similarities, but also key differences. Before joining the Obama campaign in 2007, Rhodes had worked as “chief note-taker” for the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, where, Samuels writes, he “developed a healthy contempt for the American foreign-policy establishment, including editors and reporters at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker and elsewhere, who at first applauded the Iraq war and then sought to pin all the blame on Bush and his merry band of neocons when it quickly turned sour.”
The Iraq effort was promoted using false information, but even Rhodes does not claim the deception was deliberate. As Samuels writes: “For Rhodes . . . the Iraq war was proof, in black and white, not of the complexity of international affairs or the many perils attendant on political decision-making but of the fact that the decision-makers were morons.” The Obama administration decision-makers aren’t morons, just con artists.
Not that the public fell for the con. Most polls found the public skeptical of the deal, and the administration succeeded in attracting only the bare minimum of support (all from Democrats) necessary to avoid rejection by Congress. In those respects it is similar to ObamaCare, passed with only Democratic votes and over strong public opposition—and sold, as we now know, through a campaign of deliberate deception that implicated the president himself.
Another similarity with ObamaCare is that the administration can count on its allies in the press to relay its propaganda uncritically. The Samuels piece describes this in especially stark terms:
Rhodes has become adept at ventriloquizing many people at once. Ned Price, Rhodes’s assistant, gave me a primer on how it’s done. The easiest way for the White House to shape the news, he explained, is from the briefing podiums, each of which has its own dedicated press corps. “But then there are sort of these force multipliers,” he said, adding, “We have our compadres, I will reach out to a couple people, and you know I wouldn’t want to name them—”
“I can name them,” I said, ticking off a few names of prominent Washington reporters and columnists who often tweet in sync with White House messaging.
The fault here lies not with the ventriloquist but with journalists who decide to be dummies.
Samuels observes that we no longer live “in a world where . . . carrying water for the White House was a cause for shame, no matter which party was in power.” That last qualification is telling: It suggests that the Washington press corps is partisan as well as (selectively) servile, and leaves open the possibility that the journalists would reclaim some of their adversary spirit in the event of a Trump administration.
That seems likely to us, though the effect might be surprisingly similar. Candidate Trump has proved rather effective at using the press’s hostility to advance his “narrative” and “messaging.”