Yesterday David Samuels, author of the Ben Rhodes profile for the NY Times Magazine published last week, wrote a response to his critics. It’s well written and goes a long way to explaining what was behind the piece itself and also how the reaction to it has played out.
The piece is written in the style of long-form journalism with slow build up explaining exactly when Samuels first noticed Rhodes and kept track of his role in the administration. But things really get going when Samuels explains the working relationship he had with Rhodes on the piece. They key here is that Rhodes did not see himself as a victim of a hit piece in progress. On the contrary, Samuels says the two of them saw the piece shaping up as a kind of friendly bet about what the media had become:
When a White House adviser — not Rhodes — mentioned a “war room” for selling the Iran deal, a phrase that disturbed me, I went back to Rhodes and asked what it was and who ran it. He arranged for me to interview anyone I wanted. They were all candid and factual. They explained to me how they had used state-of-the-art tools and a sophisticated understanding of the way information moves in the social-media age to sell a deal that they clearly believed to be in the United States’ national interest.
But why were any of them talking to me? I soon surmised that Rhodes’s motivation in allowing me to peek behind the curtain came from a disquiet he felt at the possibility, or the likelihood, that the machinery he managed so brilliantly would soon be in the hands of his successors, who might use it to do things that he thought could be quite dangerous — like goading the United States into another pointless, bloody foreign war. Rhodes readily admitted to me that the work he does is a potentially dangerous distortion of democracy, but he also felt that it had become a necessary evil, caused by the fracturing of the 20th-century mass audience and the decline of the American press. He expressed a deep personal hopelessness about the possibility of open, rational public debate in a brutally partisan climate. But didn’t the country deserve better? I kept asking him. Over time, our conversations around this point evolved, without either of us directly mentioning it, into a kind of gentleman’s bet: My article would go as hard as I could at the truth as I saw it, The Times would publish it, and one of us would be proved right while the other would be proved wrong.
If you skipped over that blockquote you should really go back and read it because it puts the article, and to some extent Rhodes, in a somewhat different light. Rhodes’ bluntness about the “war room” may have been pride at its success. It may also have been arrogance, which is something Samuels alludes to in the original piece. But it was also, at least partly, a concern that this new kind of partisan battle is a worrisome new normal.
And that brings Samuels to the “gentleman’s bet” over whether there was still room in the media space for a different kind of debate, one that was deeper than the “echo chamber” soundbites Rhodes had crafted to sell the Iran deal. The article itself would be a kind of test case.
After the piece was published Samuels watched as his own views were distorted into a “neocon” caricature based on exactly two pieces of (misinterpreted) information. Samuels says that, contrary to the spin, he agrees with Leon Panetta that, on balance, the Iran deal was a good idea. But his critics were more interested in bashing him.
It has been fascinating for me to watch my story, which was largely read on its own terms outside of Washington and even by the White House itself, go through the looking glass of social media. The story itself has vanished, replaced by a digital mash-up of slurs and invective, supported by stray phrases that have been mechanically tweezered from different texts. The issues that Rhodes raises in my profile — about the reshaping of the media, the way American foreign policy has shifted, the way the world works now — none of these things are being discussed, either. Somehow, for a small group of people with very loud megaphones, the point right now seems to be me — or rather, a digital piñata they have slapped my name on. It seems fair to say that Rhodes won our bet.
It will be interesting to see if Rhodes disputes any of this but, as Samuels frames it, the critics’ response has only proved that Rhodes’ cynicism about the media was right.