Barack Obama

In early 2015, President Obama joined the other permanent UN Security Council members plus the European Union to thrash out a nuclear deal with Iran. The deal was ill-advised and has such an iffy ratification history among all participants, that USNews quipped that it seemed President Obama made the deal with himself.

To sell the sour deal in the US, President Obama relied on the White House storyteller. According to the New York Times MagazineObama hired a novelist as his foreign policy guru. Ben Rhodes, the storyteller, did as bid and whipped up an origin story for the Iran deal.

That is quite an interesting story in itself, which is why the NYTMag published David Samuel’s feature piece on Rhodes. But the fact that the US President had a fabulist running his foreign policy comms didn’t make the story infamous. A name drop did.

Rhodes described to Samuels how the White House staff used social media to advocate for the Iran deal, and Samuels spoke with the woman who ran the social media rapid response: [emphasis mine]

As she explained how the process worked, I was struck by how naïve the assumption of a “state of nature” must seem in an information environment that is mediated less and less by experienced editors and reporters with any real prior knowledge of the subjects they write about. “People construct their own sense of source and credibility now,” she said. “They elect who they’re going to believe.”

Then came the offending passage:

For those in need of more traditional-seeming forms of validation, handpicked Beltway insiders like Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor helped retail the administration’s narrative.

Goldberg, and other journalists, took issue with this statement of favour. Goldberg wrote a defence of himself in The Atlantic a few days later.

I have no reason to doubt its factual accuracy. That is probably how the Goldberg and Rhodes conversations went and how Goldberg arrived at his conclusions. I found it a little odd that Goldberg brought a story about his wife into it, but then I realised that underscores how much Goldberg’s does not want to connect the dots: Rhodes is not impuning Goldberg’s honesty, but his critical thinking skills.

Rhodes fed the story to Goldberg because he could rely on a lack of critical examination, which is essential when you are weaving a story to cover real events. You want to find someone who wants to believe you so much that they don’t challenge their own assumptions.

Or harsher, Rhodes used Goldberg as a useful idiot. That’s why he handpicked him for persuading those in need of more traditional-seeming forms of validation. Goldberg is a reporter at a respected magazine. For a certain type of culturati, social media will not do. They need a respected reporter from a legacy source to stamp APPROVED on a story. Rhodes found his rubber stamp.

Frankly, journalism today is full of rubber stamp reporters. Rhodes knows that is how he is able to sell the stories his way. Samuels mentions the news shift to social media that we witness each day, and then quotes Rhodes:

“All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he said. “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.”

I’ve heard the same know-nothing complaint made about policy advisors in DC and I’ve experienced it in US journalism. Ability to write seems to replace rather than augment considerations of knowledge or expertise. This is one of the reasons I still prefer British papers outside of local news. The know-nothing problem has not fully migrated across the Atlantic yet.

Research could solve some of this problem, but in the first-to-post race that has become US news, who has time for that?

In an email discussion not long ago, an editor advised the group I represented to reorganise our research presentation. In modern web magazines, writers have no time to do research, he said. If we wanted a topic to get coverage, then we should spoon feed our studies to the writers.

I respect the practical point to make the good information easy to find and understand. But, once upon a time, the value in education was learning how to tell when someone was talking rot or not. I gather that they no longer teach those skills in journalism school.

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