How the White House manipulated the media to sell the Iran deal

The New York Times Magazine published a profile of White House adviser Ben Rhodes Thursday. The profile devotes a lot of ink to Rhodes’ role as a manipulator of the media, both new and old.


The story frames Rhodes as “the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy aside from Potus himself.” The conceit here is that Rhodes is not Barack’s Brain but only because the two are said to be utterly simpatico. As Rhodes puts it, “I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends.”


But that’s not the creepiest part of this story. The really creepy part is how Rhodes “ventriloquizes” friendly reporters into carrying water for the White House on whatever issue is at hand:

Rhodes singled out a key example to me one day, laced with the brutal contempt that is a hallmark of his private utterances. “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.”

In this environment, Rhodes has become adept at ventriloquizing many people at once. Ned Price, Rhodes’s assistant, gave me a primer on how it’s done. The easiest way for the White House to shape the news, he explained, is from the briefing podiums, each of which has its own dedicated press corps. “But then there are sort of these force multipliers,” he said, adding, “We have our compadres, I will reach out to a couple people, and you know I wouldn’t want to name them — ”

“I can name them,” I said, ticking off a few names of prominent Washington reporters and columnists who often tweet in sync with White House messaging.

Price laughed. “I’ll say, ‘Hey, look, some people are spinning this narrative that this is a sign of American weakness,’ ” he continued, “but — ”

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


The so-called “force multipliers” were a big part of selling the Iran deal:

As Malley and representatives of the State Department, including Wendy Sherman and Secretary of State John Kerry, engaged in formal negotiations with the Iranians, to ratify details of a framework that had already been agreed upon, Rhodes’s war room did its work on Capitol Hill and with reporters. In the spring of last year, 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,” he admitted, when I asked him to explain the onslaught of freshly minted experts cheerleading for the deal. “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”

When I suggested that all this dark metafictional play seemed a bit removed from rational debate over America’s future role in the world, Rhodes nodded. “In the absence of rational discourse, we are going to discourse the [expletive] out of this,” he said. “We had test drives to know who was going to be able to carry our message effectively, and how to use outside groups like Ploughshares, the Iran Project and whomever else. So we knew the tactics that worked.” He is proud of the way he sold the Iran deal. “We drove them crazy,” he said of the deal’s opponents.


We’re told over and over that President Obama is just a rational problem solver, but then that’s all spin too. The person master-minding his foreign policy strategy is a White House partisan using friendly media to manipulate news coverage and win partisan battles. As the profile’s author, David Samuels, notes, Rhodes capitalizes on the ignorance of young reporters with “brutal contempt” and then celebrates the victories they half-knowingly help him win.

As it happens I had my own minor run-in with one of Rhodes’ force multipliers. Joe Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund (mentioned in that last excerpt) wrote a piece for the Huffington Post last May talking about the Iran deal. One of the claims he made in this story was about how tough the inspections regime would be under the new deal:

I was with International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano last week. He told an international gathering of non-proliferation experts that with the new inspection procedures, “If there is any abnormality, we can detect the change on the following day, on the very same day or in one week’s time.”

Only, as I detailed here, Director Amano wasn’t talking about the new Iran deal when he said that, he was talking about ongoing inspections. When I pointed this out to Cirincione he sort of agreed I had a point, but never updated the story.


In any case, the entire NY Times piece is worth a read. It offers insight in to what the Obama administration really is behind the glossy, problem-solving exterior. Rhodes’ cynical but clearly effective manipulation of reporters is everything a conservative media critic could ever have feared was the case.

Ace of Spades has more on the story here.

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