The Fourth Estate is Broken, and the White House Knows It

It’s very rare to get a peak behind the curtain into how the policy sausage is made in this White House. But every time we do, Americans come out looking like suckers.

First, we learned about White House Senior Adviser David Plouffe’s strategy dubbed “stray voltage,” in which they purposefully spark controversy, often by knowingly using incorrect statistics, in order to generate conversation and embed ideas in the public consciousness. As Slate’s John Dickerson wrote of the strategy:

Under this approach, a president wants the fact-checkers to call him out (again and again) because that hubbub keeps the issue in the news, which is good for promoting the issue to the public. It is the political equivalent of “there is no such thing as bad publicity” or the quote attributed to Mae West (and others): “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.” The tactic represents one more step in the embrace of cynicism that has characterized President Obama’s journey in office.

Now, via a New York Times’ profile piece on national security adviser Ben Rhodes, we learn that the Obama Administration is applying a similarly manipulative approach in a realm with much larger stakes: foreign policy.

In the jaw-dropping report, Rhodes gleefully confesses that his role is to build a nice-sounding narrative, almost irrespective of the facts, and then sell it to the public via a cadre of friendly reporters who take the story and don’t ask questions. Using this strategy, Rhodes was able to build his greatest triumph – securing the Iran nuclear deal, which, coincidentally didn’t happen at all like Americans were told. The Times’ David Samuels reports:

The way in which most Americans have heard the story of the Iran deal presented — that the Obama administration began seriously engaging with Iranian officials in 2013 in order to take advantage of a new political reality in Iran, which came about because of elections that brought moderates to power in that country — 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.

The story that Rhodes, who not coincidentally was once an aspiring novelist, told was about a younger, more moderate faction of Iran, led by Hassan Rouhani, gaining increasing traction in a country previously ruled by “hard-liners.” One of the purported outcomes of this generational and cultural shift was a newfound willingness to negotiate its nuclear aspirations. It’s a nice-sounding story. If only it were true.

Instead, the meat of the negotiations actually took place in 2012, well before Rouhani was “elected” president. And Rouhani, far from a moderating force, was hand-selected by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the same Supreme Leader who continues to encourage chants of “Death to America,” and explicitly promised that despite the deal “our policy towards the arrogant U.S. will not change.”

In order to make the narrative a reality, Rhodes ignored “the Blob,” his name for the American foreign-policy establishment, which again is a codeword for news editors and reporters, diplomats, former military, and others with experience in foreign policy who just so happen to see the world differently than President Obama. Instead, he focused his efforts first on wooing young reporters.

“All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” Rhodes told the Times. “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 experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”

Rhodes exploited that. And he also manipulated so-called “force multipliers,” which is a term used to describe more senior reporters who are willing to parrot a message, if it’s juicy enough to make it look like they got the scoop. Samuels writes:

“I’ll say, ‘Hey, look, some people are spinning this narrative that this is a sign of American weakness,’ ” [Rhodes’ assistant Ned Price] continued, “but — ”

“In fact it’s a sign of strength!” I said, chuckling.

“And I’ll give them some color,” Price continued, “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.”

One reporter was so willing to parrot anything the White House said that they called her an “RSS feed” who would “just find everything and retweet it. Using these gullible reporters, the White House was able to turn Washington into it’s own ventriloquist dummy, who were capable of selling the Iran deal and incapable of questioning the narrative. Samuels writes:

It could only work if water-carriers did the White House’s job for it, and nonprofit water-carriers did their faithful duty. “We created an echo chamber,” Rhodes tells Samuels about the journalists and think-tankers who were discussing the Iran deal based almost entirely on information given to them by the White House. “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”

This style of leadership should be terrifying. Democracy isn’t too far away from despotism if government leadership has a monopoly on the information necessary for voters to make decisions. We can no longer separate faction from fiction, narrative from reality, and sadly, that seems to be exactly the way the Obama Administration wants it. cr