Don’t Hate The Player, Hate The Game

Last week a New York Times Magazine profile about a certain White House aide has set all of Washington D.C. on fire.  Was the Iran Deal a sham?  Are journalist all stupid?  People demand answers.

In case you live under a rock, this extensive profile was about Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications a.k.a. the White House’s media person for all things foreign affairs.  In the article, Rhodes makes a handful of comments that ignited the latest Washington faux scandal.  If you really did miss it, read about it here, here, and here.

While the critiques are extensive, Michael Cohen of the Boston Globe points out that “the reaction to Ben Rhodes profile is more interesting than the piece itself – a good reminder that DC is like one giant high school.”  I couldn’t agree with him more.  

The interesting aspect of the profile isn’t the surface level name calling that garnered all the attention, but rather the larger picture that is painted of the modern media and how news and narratives are spun from the White House out to the average citizen.

It is no secret that news as an institution has changed greatly over the past decade.  Print newspaper subscriptions have plummeted.  Weekly news magazines are faltering and cable news has turned into one giant, political reality show.  The ADD-like nature of the news cycle has killed journalistic skepticism that made the major networks popular in the first place.  (Brief side-note, accusing the press of failing to counter the White House spin machine is nothing new.)

What journalist found so insulting about Rhodes’ candid remarks on selling something from the White House is that he is mostly right: and the truth hurts.  The communications strategy for the Iran Deal was by no means as big of a success as the author made it out to be – Morning Consult polling showed that almost twice as many people opposed the deal as were for it prior to its signing – but it was still a lesson in how the media’s shifting priorities have allowed it to be manipulated.

Rhodes notes that many outlets no longer have even half the foreign bureaus that they used to, so instead of gathering hard news on the ground, stations and papers rely on junior staff sitting at computers in Washington picking facts off the internet.  That is hardly in-depth reporting.

He also observes that many outlets are so keen on pulling in outside “experts” and other figures that if an institution – say, the White House – can get friendly “experts” on television who don’t have White House titles, their point of view gains credibility despite not having been thoroughly vetted.

As with everything these days, the prime examples come from the advent of Trumpism.  Trump’s ideas are ludicrous, but he has friendly “experts” who get spots on cable television to defend him and lend him credibility.  By simply debating the merits of a wall along the border suddenly it seems like that could be a legitimate policy instead of a crackpot idea floated by a human yam.

Even this week – and I literally cannot believe this is a real, actual thing – the media refuses to nail down Trump for lying about impersonating his spokesman thirty years ago.  There is even a video of Trump admitting that he did this and yet still I heard Wolf Blitzer earlier today allow a Trump surrogate to say that it was “allegedly Trump” and he “isn’t sure whose voice that is.”  Because the media gives a voice to a second opinion, even a ludicrous, lying one, it is allowed to stand as legitimate in the record.

In this case, Rhodes’ only crime is acknowledging that the White House is aware of the power of being heard and used that power in order to pitch a major initiative to the public.

Continuing his streak of brutal honesty, Rhodes points out that he hardly encounters a reporter over the age of twenty-seven and that this generation of reporters can’t possibly have the life experience to understand the gravity of what they are reporting or draw in-depth judgments.  

A handful of people I know from my graduating class – also millennials – have acquired journalism jobs at major outlets.  These “kids” are publishing articles on Iran, the election, social issues, and more.  Everything they publish carries with it the weight of the organization they write for, but their life experience only comes with a memory that stretches back to the beginning of the Iraq war.

If one of them publishes a piece primarily based on State Department fact sheets and White House quotes, it will likely contain the exact bias that Rhodes was looking to spread.  It will then be cited as “the Washington Post says” and forever be part of the case.  

Having only studied journalism and political science in college and researched the subject from their desk, are these authors really qualified to be offering in depth commentary on something as important as the Iran nuclear deal?

The truth is they aren’t and if I were Ben Rhodes and I were looking to sell something I know is going to be controversial, these writers are the first people I would make sure every White House press release on the subject went to.  

Rather than take personal offense, the journalists responsible for vetting government policy should take a hard look in the mirror.  If the implication of the profile is correct and Rhodes sold a rotten deal, then these journalists should be asking themselves what questions they should have asked rather than grousing about being slighted in a shameless puff piece about a guy with a basement office in the White House.

Follow on Twitter @EighteenthandU

Photo credit: AP


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