Barack Obama, Ben Rhodes (Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
There is something deeply ironic about the controversy that exploded this week around Ben Rhodes and his remarks in a New York Times magazine feature.
Rhodes, President Obama’s right-hand man on foreign policy, briefly discussed in a roughly 10,000-word article how the White House carefully crafted a polished PR campaign to sell the Iran deal to legislators and the public.
The media exploded. Countless news outlets and magazines (particularly on the rightwing of the political spectrum) turned the story into a scandal that revolved aroundthe Iran deal — while largely overlooking myriad other issues the article addressed.
Yet a closer read shows that there is a much more important, and chilling, revelation to be drawn from the Times story, and the Iran deal is only one small part of it.
David Samuels’ May 5 article, “The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-Policy Guru,” is a kind of case study of the relationship between the U.S. government and media in the 21st century — a relationship that should be antagonistic, but is instead more and more cozy.
The piece offers a detailed look into a brave new world of journalism, one comprised of reporters who are ever-dwindling in number, and who are increasingly ignorant, rushed and susceptible to dexterous government spin campaigns — what some might call public relations, and what others might call propaganda.
The line between PR and propaganda has always been a thin one. When a government is involved, this is doubly true. What is most dangerous of all is when this line is thin between the government and the press.
There is often talk of the separation of church and state, but much less so of the separation of press and state. The New York Times’ Rhodes feature — and the media response that so ironically reflected the very problems it exposes — demonstrates just how precarious the situation is today.
“People construct their own sense of source and credibility”
As the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, Ben Rhodes’ job is to help the White House craft and nurture favorable media narratives, and then use them to sell policies to the public.
The Times referred to Rhodes as the “Boy Wonder of the Obama White House” and the virtual voice of America. He has been a co-writer of all of Obama’s major foreign-policy speeches.
In one of the article’s most disturbing anecdotes, Rhodes’ assistant Ned Price explained to the Times that the easiest way for the White House to shape the news is with its press briefings, and with the help of its “force multipliers” and “compadres” in the media.
He “tick[ed] off a few names of prominent Washington reporters and columnists who often tweet in sync with White House messaging,” the Times wrote.
“I’ll give them some color,” Price added, “and the next thing I know, lots of these guys are in the dot-com publishing space, and have huge Twitter followings, and they’ll be putting this message out on their own.”
These putative journalists are technically independent, but they work in tandem with the U.S. government. They don’t need to be on the state’s payroll; they are putting the messages “out on their own.”
Times reporter David Samuels followed up, noting how this 21st-century form of journalistic manipulation “is something different from old-fashioned spin, which tended to be an art best practiced in person.”
In the past, “In a world where experienced reporters competed for scoops and where carrying water for the White House was a cause for shame, no matter which party was in power, it was much harder to sustain a ‘narrative’ over any serious period of time.”
Today, Samuels continued, “the most effectively weaponized 140-character idea or quote will almost always carry the day, and it is very difficult for even good reporters to necessarily know where the spin is coming from or why.”
The Times calls this “the soft Orwellian vibe of an information space where old media structures and hierarchies have been erased by Silicon Valley billionaires who convinced the suckers that information was ‘free’ and everyone with access to Google was now a reporter.”
Yet the most shockingly Orwellian moment in the article is when Tanya Somanader, the director of digital response for the White House Office of Digital Strategy, openly insisted to the Times, “People construct their own sense of source and credibility now… They elect who they’re going to believe.”
This view, that source and credibility, and perhaps even facts themselves, are individual and arbitrary is the death knell for journalism.
In their 1988 opus “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media,” intellectual juggernaut Noam Chomsky and co-author Edward Herman detailed how U.S. news outlets frequently serve as a handmaiden of government, military and corporate interests.
Chomsky and Herman posited a “propaganda model” in which “the media serve, and propagandize on behalf of, the powerful societal interests that control and finance them. The representatives of these interests have important agendas and principles that they want to advance, and they are well positioned to shape and constrain media policy.”
The scholars explained how structural factors such as ownership, funding and advertisements exert enormous influence on media coverage. “The same underlying power sources that own the media and fund them as advertisers, that serve as primary definers of the news, and that produce flak and proper-thinking experts, also, play a key role in fixing basic principles and the dominant ideologies,” Chomsky and Herman wrote.
Perhaps the biggest influence on media narratives, “Manufacturing Consent” shows, is the policy of the U.S. government. Chomsky famously wrote extensively on the examples of U.S. policy in Vietnam, Indonesia, East Timor and more. But the disciplining apparatus the government uses with the press was never as explicitly spelled out in the 1980s, when Chomsky and Herman were closely analyzing it, as it has been today, in articles like the New York Times’ Ben Rhodes feature.
The Times detailed how “Rhodes’s war room did its work on Capitol Hill and with reporters,” ensuring that “legions of arms-control experts began popping up at think tanks and on social media, and then became key sources for hundreds of often-clueless reporters.”
“We created an echo chamber,” Rhodes stated openly. “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”
It is precisely this media disciplining apparatus, this manufacturing of consent, that allowed the Obama administration to spread blatant lies about the killing of Osama bin Laden. As Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh exposed, the U.S. government’s internally inconsistent narrative of events had little basis in reality, but the compliant press ate it up.
To be clear, the Iran deal was likely a good decision. For anyone concerned with the U.S.’s hyper-militarist policies, taking a peaceful, diplomatic step toward rapprochement with Iran, one of the Middle East’s major superpowers, is a historic breakthrough, and could help quell some of the violence in the region.
But the danger lies in the method used to sell the deal. Rhodes and the Obama administration as a whole are setting an incredibly dangerous precedent with this manufacturing consent 2.0 strategy — just like the precedent the administration has set with secretive undeclared drone wars and extrajudicial assassinations.
These policies will be continued in the future, and will be justified by pointing to the policies of the Obama administration. If a hypothetical President Hillary Clinton insists the U.S. must invade Syria or re-invade Iraq, her White House will use these same strategies and tools to shape media narratives and to sell policies to the public — just as, if a hypothetical President Trump insists the U.S. must extrajudicially assassinate dissidents, he has a drone program that can do so. President Obama will have established the precedent future commanders in chief will need to justify such actions.
Rhodes himself is aware of this. When the Times asked him “whether the prospect of this same kind of far-reaching spin campaign being run by a different administration is something that scares him,” Rhodes “admitted that it does.”