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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  1. The more one finds out about the American press the more one appricates our British press. In Obama press conferences the questioning seems almost reverential. Is there a reason for this temerity? Was it always this way?
    Our UK TV media have existed in an echo chamber for a generation now so I can see how these things develop.

  2. Perhaps if the United States restricted its foreign policy to what was authorised in the Constitution and stopped meddling in the Middle East, it may be less of an issue.

    • Well, perhaps you would like to define “Provide for the common defense”? As a global, and maritime power, it’s not all that easy really, as any Briton who has studied history should easily recognise. Do we always get it right? Of course not. But judging by the tone of your comment, we were wrong to declare war on Germany in 1941, after all, they hadn’t attacked us, except for a few naval skirmishes in the Atlantic.

      And yes, I too have a long term liking for the British press, although large segments seem to be succumbing to the same rot.

  3. I saw a clip the other day (I think it was linked from Guido but not certain) from a few years back where Obama (as President) addressed the White House Press representatives and made several cracks about Trump. I just thought it was so unseemly. This was the reputedly most powerful man in the world and he stoops to petty point scoring with a sycophantic audience. Oh America!

  4. What you say is true, of course, but I think you should consider the role of the public in all this.

    You say, ..”once upon a time, the value in education was learning how to tell when someone was talking rot or not”.. Now this is as true of the general public as it is of journalism. Being taught how to think rationally (or even being persuaded of its desirability), as opposed to learning what to think, seems to be fighting a losing battle on both sides of the Atlantic.

    To apply rational, critical thought to what is being routinely spun through either broadcast or ‘social’ media, one has to have a narrative of one’s own, a meaningful account of one’s own individual life and one’s life shared in a cultural ‘commons’, against which to measure, (aka ratiocinate) the narratives being so spun.

    But this is precisely what is now missing, whether deliberately discarded or accidentally mislaid, from our lives. Our existence is becoming internally Balkanised, as we lose independence in everything that has previously served to provide a robust internal narrative for our lives. We outsource everything from basic geographic capabilities, given over to GPS, through social interaction, given over to the oxymoronically named ‘social media’, to intellectual excursions into an unmediated world, handed on a plate to the ubiquitous search engines which silently manage our majority interactions through their own tinted glasses.

    All this makes us sitting ducks for anyone who can join up the dots for us, in the scatter-shot downpour that characterises our residual cultural heritage. We live in the ruins of great cities, and Rhodes and others provide unreliable guides to what it all means – their masters having systematically confiscated the real records, the effective means of reconstruction, and incidentally removed our ability to interpret ‘ourselves for ourselves’ by rendering us ‘post-literate’*.

    * It has recently occurred to me that the understandable mistake Ray Bradbury made in Fahrenheit 451 was to base it on the physical destruction of the records of truth that could lead people to an understanding of their world. Much easier than burning books, is to simply obliterate the ability of people to read them. A culture of deliberate illiteracy is a powerful partner to any regime of enforced obedience, where the virtue of the individual can then be re-aligned by the state, and centred on submission.

    • I’m not even sure that ability is the issue here.
      The saying “There are none so blind as those who will not/choose not to see”, reflects our apathetic western society. Many people choose not to look behind the curtain in the hope that if they just ignore issues long enough, they will go away. Big events are often sudden but the causes and slow drip changes that lead up to them build for years beforehand and are well known but ignored at the time.

      • Agreed. I said elsewhere, on another matter:

        ‘I wonder if we have finally reached the phase of this conflict where
        cowering, looking the other way, making excuses, blaming the victims,
        and all the other avoidance strategies – have ceased to have any
        credibility? Even with a willfully ignorant, endlessly pampered,
        misdirected domestic population.’

        Whenever we cede the power to initiate action to others, the only options we are left with are reactions, as above. Eventually, we fall into a strategy of waiting politely to react to whatever is flung at us, like an Aunt Sally (or, say, ‘Vote Leave’). We become reactionary, for which we are rightly condemned, for the wrong reasons.

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