The media (ironically) overlooked the most chilling, Orwellian revelation of the Ben Rhodes controversy

NY Times' Rhodes feature shows the manufacturing of consent Chomsky warned about has soared to chilling new heights

Published May 11, 2016 11:59AM (EDT)

Barack Obama, Ben Rhodes   (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
Barack Obama, Ben Rhodes (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 right wing of the political spectrum) turned the story into a scandal that revolved around the 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.

Manufacturing consent

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."

Rewriting press releases

Obama’s former campaign mastermind David Axelrod, himself a former newspaper columnist, told the Times that the White House has invested greatly "in alternative means of communication: using digital more effectively, going to nontraditional sources, understanding where on each issue your constituencies are going to be found."

The U.S. government uses these new technologies and corporate-style marketing strategies to run "very sophisticated" PR campaigns in order to shape media narratives, and ergo public opinion, Axelrod explained.

Even the job Rhodes "was hired to do, namely to help the president of the United States communicate with the public, was changing in equally significant ways, thanks to the impact of digital technologies," the Times noted.

Rhodes "is the master shaper and retailer of Obama’s foreign-policy narratives, at a time when the killer wave of social media has washed away the sand castles of the traditional press," David Samuels wrote.

The article acknowledged that this turbulent climate is helping the government control media narratives.

The Times stressed that "40 percent of newspaper-industry professionals have lost their jobs over the past decade — in part because readers can absorb all the news they want from social media platforms like Facebook."

What the newspaper did not underscore is how public relations flacks are filling the void left by the laid-off journalists.

In 2000, there were two PR jobs for every reporting job in the U.S. In 2015, just 15 years later, there were nearly 5 PR workers for every reporter.

Commenting on this trend, David Simon, former Baltimore Sun journalist and creator of the TV show "The Wire," quipped, “This is how a republic dies. Not with a bang, but a reprinted press release.”

Nowhere is the reprinted press release more common than in foreign-policy reporting.

"All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus," Rhodes explained in the Times feature. "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."

And when 27-year-old reporters who "literally know nothing" try to report on world events from Washington, they are susceptible to the prodigious influence of the U.S. government.

Throw in the tight deadlines to which these young and likely overworked journalists are subjected today, in a world of Twitter scoops and breakneck reporting, and the temptation to simply uncritically echo government spokespeople and rewrite State Department press releases becomes tremendous.

Controlling the narrative, and tightly

It’s not just that the number — and quality — of journalists continues to shrink. The medium itself through which journalists, and the government institutions, communicate with people has changed even more drastically.

In response to the controversy, the Times article generated, Rhodes published a post on the blogging website Medium, describing "How We Advocated for the Iran Deal."

The fact that Rhodes chose to write a Medium article to respond to media criticisms exemplifies our brave new world. He did not work with a reporter to disseminate his views; working with a reporter would not guarantee that he has control over the narrative.

Instead, Rhodes published his response independently, on a popular blogging website. He maintains complete control over his words, and can give the impression that the White House is committed to transparency — while residing over what is one of the least transparent administrations in history.

At almost every level, it is the government that maintains tight control over the narrative. And when the narrative is briefly lost, it can be wrestled back in control.

The press is free on paper, but the content is tightly restricted. This is how the manufacturing of consent works. The U.S. technically is not an authoritarian state — we have freedom of the press and the government won’t necessarily break down a reporter's door if it doesn't like their article. But the major media networks are owned by a small handful of corporations, and the narratives that are allowed to be communicated in these networks are also tightly controlled by the government, particularly in-policy reporting.

Whistleblowers who try to expose the crimes of the government, who take the control of the media narrative out of the government’s hands, are ruthlessly punished.

The Obama administration has used the Espionage Act to clamp down on whistleblowers who leaked to journalists more than all previous U.S. presidential administrations combined.

These institutional barriers help keep the manufacturing of consent alive.

"Break in message discipline"

At one point in the Times feature, Rhodes chastises media outlets, complaining, "They can’t keep a secret for two hours." The Times noted that he said this "with a tone of mild exasperation at the break in message discipline."

"The break in message discipline" is an interesting phrase; it implies that there should be some kind of discipline with which the media kowtows to the government. If the U.S. truly had an independent press, why would it be concerned with breaking "message discipline"?

In order to grapple with such potentially unfavorable press coverage, Rhodes tasked the White House team with massaging media narratives.

“We’re resolving this, because we have relationships,” Rhodes said, and the Times described how a White House aid immediately began "tapping away at the administration’s well-cultivated network of officials, talking heads, columnists and newspaper reporters, web jockeys and outside advocates who can tweet at critics and tweak their stories backed up by quotations from 'senior White House officials' and 'spokespeople.'"

This is the manufacturing of consent in action. Journalists are turning themselves into willing spokespeople of the U.S. government.

"I watch the message bounce from Rhodes’s brain to Price’s keyboard to the three big briefing podiums — the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon — and across the Twitterverse, where it springs to life in dozens of insta-stories, which over the next five hours don formal dress for mainstream outlets," writes Times reporter David Samuels.

"It’s a tutorial in the making of a digital news microclimate — a storm that is easy to mistake these days for a fact of nature, but whose author is sitting next to me right now," he adds.

The phrase "a storm that is easy to mistake these days for a fact of nature" is crucial here. The Times is acknowledging that the social media responses we see to political events like this may appear to be natural, but are thoroughly unnatural, crafted in a way to reflect the best way possible on the government.

In the 21st century, social media platforms influence how the media functions. The vast majority of Americans, and increasingly people around the world, get their news through social media. It constructs the way they see the world — along with their place in it.

"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," Samuels wrote later.

Exemplifying the problem

The New York Times article itself is not without problem. In fact, it is subject to the very manufacturing of consent which it exposes.

The discussion of Syria in the piece is a paragon of this media disciplining apparatus in action. The Times wrote that the Oval Office made the "decision not to support the uprising against Assad in any meaningful way."

In other articles, the Times has repeated this dubious claim, that the U.S. did not intervene in Syria, as have a variety of other media outlets. Yet repetition does not make something it true.

The U.S. has spent many billions of dollars training, arming and funding rebels in Syria, often working hand-in-hand with the Wahhabi theocratic dictatorship in Saudi Arabia, which funds and exports Islamic extremism throughout the world and "remains a critical financial support base for al-Qa'ida, the Taliban, LeT, and other terrorist groups," a secret U.S. State Department cable released by WikiLeaks acknowledged.

Even more importantly, close U.S. allies Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and others have poured weapons and resources into Syria, supporting rebel groups including al-Qaeda-aligned al-Nusra. Turkey essentially gave extremist groups free reign to cross its border whenever they saw it fit.

This strategy ended up being a  disaster, and helped fuel the rise of extremist groups. For this reason, the Obama administration has, over the past few years, slowly moved away from the policy. The government crafted a similar spin campaign to pretend that it never intervened in Syria; many journalists have taken the bait hook, line and sinker, uncritically echoing the talking points.

The discussion of drone strikes in the article also exemplifies how the White House has massaged media narratives.

"The parts of Obama’s foreign policy that disturb some of his friends on the left, like drone strikes, Rhodes says, are a result of Obama’s particular kind of globalism, which understands the hard and at times absolute necessity of killing. Yet, at the same time, they are also ways of avoiding more deadly uses of force — a kind of low-body-count spin move," David Samuels wrote. He did not attempt to push back against the argument in any way.

Renowned investigate journalist Jeremy Scahill, a leading expert on the U.S. drone program, has debunked this myth. The claim is an attempt at "historical revisionism about what is going to be one of the most deadly legacies of the Obama era," he argues, and is based on a deeply flawed system of counting the dead that the U.S. government has embraced "which almost always will result in zero civilians killed."

Researchers at the Council on Foreign Relations likewise have found that drone strikes in non-battlefield settings result in 35 times more civilian fatalities than airstrikes by manned weapons systems in conventional battlefields.

A brave new world

Rhodes' story is certainly an interesting one, Hollywood-esque in spirit. The former creative writer, studying in an MFA program at New York University, decided on the day of the 9/11 attacks that he wanted to abruptly switch paths and begin writing about international affairs.

Six years later, Rhodes worked for the Obama campaign. Just over a decade later, he had established himself as "the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy aside from [Obama] himself," as the Times puts it.

He is repeatedly compared to Holden Caulfield, the angst-filled protagonist of the fiery bildungsroman "The Catcher in the Rye." This contemporary Caulfield became the man who communicates with Obama "regularly, several times a day," in meetings, calls and emails, the man who shares with the president a thought-reading "mind meld," as the Times put it.

With a blockbuster-style story like this, it's easy to see why people could get distracted. But the pundits missed the most important, and dangerous, revelation in the piece.

Clearly, the kinds of insider relationships journalists have with government officials today are by no means new — after all, this is what Chomsky was writing about in the 1990s, and these trends go back much, much longer.

Yet, today, at a time when journalism is in crisis, when the number of reporters is quickly decreasing and the number of PR officials is rapidly increasing, the threat is compounded. The prodigious "spin campaigns" the Obama administration is concocting pose serious dangers to the independence of the press.

"It has been rare to find Ben Rhodes’s name in news stories about the large events of the past seven years," the Times wrote. Like all good PR workers, "He is invisible."

Yet, he is one of the most influential figures in U.S. foreign policy. "Once you are attuned to the distinctive qualities of Rhodes’s voice," the Times added, "you can hear him everywhere."

In other words, Rhodes is the ultimate PR flack. The way in which the Times exposed, and meticulously at that, how this Rhodesian public relations modus operandi has taken over is of great service to the public.

The way much of the media fixated on Rhodes' remarks about White House's Iran deal strategy, however, was not of great service to the public. The much bigger controversy was not the PR campaign around the Iran deal, but rather how this PR campaign is a small part of a significantly larger brave new world, one in which the U.S. government exercises enormous influence over the ostensibly independent media.

The separation of press and state is slowly dying, and the press isn't doing much to help save it.

By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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Ben Rhodes Noam Chomsky