In a sense, there was no news in the recent New York Times magazine exposé of Obama foreign policy guru Ben Rhodes. It reveals that President Obama’s inner circle lacks foreign experience, is insufferably condescending, and lies to the nation. All of this we knew, so why all the fuss?
It is important for the historical record, however, that the Rhodes’s profile further confirmed what many have long suspected: that the Obama foreign policy team, among other defects, shares with their boss a certain disdain of the idea that America is a moral actor in the world, and that one of its main goals is to transform America’s own reading of its historical purposes.
When the profile’s author, David Samuels, asked Obama’s lead speechwriter, Jon Favreau, whether he, Ben Rhodes or even the president himself thought of “their individual speeches and bits of policy making as part of some larger restructuring of the American narrative,” Favreau replied, “We saw that as our entire job.”
The piece also uncovered another one of the Obama administration’s frequent lies: that it began negotiating with Iran after virulently anti-American mullahs had been replaced by more moderate ones. In fact, the administration started its negotiations with a regime even more irrational, anti-Semitic and terrorist-supporting regime than the one in Tehran now, and then went out and sold the message of the “moderate Mullahs.”
It was revealed as well that old hands such as former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta were there only to provide cover for a younger team composed mostly of writers who had zero experience overseas before joining government. The implication that this may have applied to Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry was left unsaid.
The 38-year-old Rhodes holds the title of Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications (yes, there is such a position in the White House), but in reality he runs foreign policy. It was the consensus of two dozen present and former White House insiders that Rhodes “is the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy, aside from POTUS himself,” writes Samuels.
More of a scoop, though, was that Rhodes admitted to spoon-feeding spin to leftist think tanks so they could supply a supportive micro-climate. “We created an echo chamber,” Rhodes told Samuels. “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say. ”
And then there was the most damning part, the part I thought for sure would get hacks to hack up their coffee. Rhodes boasts of manipulating journalists who should be cutting their teeth covering the police beat in Butte, Montana, but are instead at the White House.
“All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus. Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing,” Rhodes told Samuels. What senior writers still exist were used for validation.
What was Samuels’s transgression? Why, he quoted his own chuckle!
It is the knowing chumminess of a journalist finishing sentences for a White House official who is mocking other prominent Washington journalists for getting so easily spun – and then quoting himself as he finishes the sentence, even letting us know that he did so with a chuckle. (It takes a special kind of journalist to quote his own chuckle.)
You would think there’d be an uproar over this, right? No. Backlash from journalists there has been, here, here and here, and it has been furious, but it has not been about any of that. Instead, they were stung by the fact that one of their own has dared to call out the administration and them. And so they have resorted to calling Samuels both biased and yet at the same time too chummy with his subject. They’ve also charged that his writing is, wait for it, unaesthetic.
Our scribes hold it against Samuels that he never discloses his opposition to the Iran deal. They seem blindingly oblivious to the central irony: that very few liberal writers ever disclose their own biases.
Should there be a shirttail at the end of every New York Times or Washington Post piece detailing the voting practices or other evidence of biases on the part of the writer?
I happen to think there shouldn’t be. But at the same time, I do welcome the ongoing disappearance of pretensions of objectivity. I watch both Fox and MSNBC, and I know what I’m getting either way. NPR and PBS are irritating, by contrast, because Nina Totenberg and Gwen Ifill pretend they’re objective journalists. (Worse, they’re paid for this charade with my tax dollars.)
On the lack of aesthetic qualities of the Samuels piece, all our scribes agree that The Washington Post’s Carlos Lozada nails it in a critique titled “Why The Ben Rhodes Profile in The New York Times Magazine Is Just Gross”.
I like Lozada’s writings and always try to read his pieces, but for the life of me I have no idea what he’s so worked up about. Maybe the years I spent in the wires or at The Wall Street Journal, which included sometimes long stints or years in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kosovo, Hong Kong, Brussels, London, Panama, etc., didn’t prepare me for being repulsed by a journalist quoting his own chuckle. But it did allow me to see that closing foreign bureaus would come back to bite us. Something tells me, though, that the universal approbation over Lozada’s observation is about something else.
Lost on these journalists is the irony that directing their ire at Samuels can be seen as substantiating his premise — that all too often they are overly protective of the Obama presidency, especially when it came to the controversial Iran deal.
Where is the outrage about an administration that lied, or which cynically used journalists, to sell its policy? Where is concern about the fact that we now have proof that the shrinkage of the newspaper industry has cheapened our national debate and impoverished our democracy? Where is the anger that the disappearance of foreign bureaus leaves the American public at the mercy of 27-year-old reporters who know nothing and are easy prey for Svengalis such as Rhodes?
Indeed, Samuels himself took up his own defense today, raising these same points:
The story itself has vanished, replaced by a digital mash-up of slurs and invective, supported by stray phrases that have been mechanically tweezered from different texts. The issues that Rhodes raises in my profile — about the reshaping of the media, the way American foreign policy has shifted, the way the world works now — none of these things are being discussed, either. Somehow, for a small group of people with very loud megaphones, the point right now seems to be me — or rather, a digital piñata they have slapped my name on.
The Times stands by the piece, which has now been fact checked repeatedly.
Orginally appeared in Forbes