You’ll never read a more captivating profile of a White House flack than the one about deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes in this week’s New York Times Magazine. The story has all the trappings of a Don DeLillo novel (including a winking self-awareness of that fact):
A would-be novelist witnesses the 9/11 attacks and decides he has more important stories to tell. Rapidly rising through the ranks of the national security community, he becomes the chief note taker for the Iraq Study Group, where he subtly shapes the commission’s conclusions through his selective transcriptions — just as the protagonist did in his only published short story! Then, he catches the eye of a certain charismatic presidential candidate, who boasts little foreign-policy experience of his own. Over the next eight years, he uses his literary skills — and the credulity of a beleaguered political press — to reshape the narrative of American foreign policy around his idiosyncratic vision. You may have never heard his name, but much of what you believe to be true about the world is a fiction he wrote into your brain.
All of which is to say: David Samuels’s profile of Rhodes is a fun and incendiary piece of writing. It’s also terrible journalism. And the combination of those qualities has generated a staggering number of takedowns since the story first appeared online last Thursday. Here are the ten biggest problems with Samuels’s story.
1. Samuels never mentions the extremely relevant fact that he thinks Obama’s foreign policy is apocalyptically bad.
The thesis of Samuels’s piece is that Ben Rhodes used a storyteller’s skills to help the Obama administration “actively mislead” the public about the Iran deal. In the reporter’s telling, Rhodes constructed “overarching plotlines with heroes and villains, their conflicts and motivations supported by flurries of carefully chosen adjectives, quotations and leaks from named and unnamed senior officials,” that allowed the president to “evade what might have otherwise been a divisive but clarifying debate over the actual policy choices that his administration was making” — policy choices that amount to nothing less than “a large-scale disengagement from the Middle East.”
There are several problems with this narrative — which we’ll get into in a minute — but all those other issues stem from the fact that Samuels entered this assignment with very strong feelings about the policy choices in question. And despite the fact that the story is told in the first-person, he never discloses those potential biases to the reader.
As Slate’s Fred Kaplan notes, Samuels wrote a piece titled “the rational case for an Israeli attack on Iran” in 2009. In April 2015, he participated in a panel discussion on the question, “What’s wrong with the proposed nuclear deal with Iran?” Samuels’s answer was that it would lead to “the greatest surge in nuclear proliferation that we’ve seen since the Second World War.” Samuels further suggested that Obama’s foreign-policy vision was “an experiment” that’s unlikely “to end well for humans.”
Samuels could have disclosed the fact that he believes Obama’s foreign policy threatens the survival of the human race. But instead he chose to evade what might have otherwise been a divisive but clarifying debate over the actual biases he was bringing to this story.
2. Samuels quotes his own knowing chuckle.
According to Samuels, Rhodes’s propaganda proved so effective because reporters today aren’t nearly as smart or courageous as David Samuels.
“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,” Samuels laments. “Now 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.”
Samuels argues that the slow death of print journalism — and foreign bureaus staffed by policy experts — has left newsrooms full of the young and underqualified. Rhodes — who entered the foreign-policy elite in his mid-20s, on the strength of his creative writing skills and his mother’s connections — agrees.
“Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington,” Rhodes tells Samuels. “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 another passage, Samuels chats with Rhodes’s assistant Ned Price about all the lapdog journalists they both know.
“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 Washington Post’s Carlos Lozada argues that this smug self-satisfaction — shared by writer and subject alike — is one of the things that makes the piece aesthetically “gross”:
It is the knowing chumminess of a journalist finishing sentences for a White House official who is mocking other prominent Washington journalists for getting so easily spun – and then quoting himself as he finishes the sentence, even letting us know that he did so with a chuckle. (It takes a special kind of journalist to quote his own chuckle.)
But the problem with this mutual smugness is more than just aesthetic: It’s what allows Samuels to dismiss everyone who doesn’t take his dim view of the Iran deal as an empty-headed sycophant brainwashed by an immensely talented propagandist; and then allows Rhodes to tell him that he’s right.
3. Samuels suggests that national security experts didn’t support the Iran deal because they thought it was good — they supported it because Ben Rhodes is awesome at Twitter. His sole evidence for this are Rhodes’s prideful boasts.
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.”
Other than the fact that a communications operative took credit — when prompted — for a messaging success, Samuels offers no evidence to support the implication that the “legions of arms-control experts” who publicly opined about the deal were actually just puppets controlled by the administration. As Joe Cirincione notes in Politico, Israeli chief of staff General Gadi Eizenkot called the deal “a historic turning point” that made Israel safer — an assessment shared by many other Israeli intelligence and military leaders. “To claim that Eizenhot and senior Israeli military leaders were swayed by Ben Rhodes’ Twitter account is ludicrous,” Cirincione writes. Samuels provides no compelling evidence to suggest otherwise.
4. Samuels attributes a quote to Samantha Power’s sneakers.
5. Samuels smears a journalist by blatantly misrepresenting a key quote. He smears another without offering any supporting evidence whatsoever.
In the piece’s most infamous passage, Samuels discusses social media with a White House digital strategist named Tanya Somanader:
“People construct their own sense of source and credibility now,” she said. “They elect who they’re going to believe.” For those in need of more traditional-seeming forms of validation, handpicked Beltway insiders like Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor helped retail the administration’s narrative. “Laura Rozen was my RSS feed,” Somanader offered. “She would just find everything and retweet it.”
As Goldberg explains in his response to the piece, Samuels appears to either misinterpret — or else willfully misrepresent — Somanader’s quote:
Rozen’s Twitter feed, for those of us who covered the Iran negotiations, was famous. She was absolutely frenetic, —who was talking to whom in the hallway, which foreign secretary had stepped out to go the bathroom—and she seemed to retweet everyone, from Ayatollah Khamenei to Benjamin Netanyahu.
In other words, when Somanader says that Rozen tweeted “everything,” she doesn’t mean that the reporter was doing the administration’s bidding, but rather that she, well, tweeted everything. It’s hard to see how Samuels missed her meaning, unless he doesn’t know what an RSS feed is, and was too incurious to inquire.
As for his implication that Goldberg “retails” the administration’s message, he fails to provide even a misleading quote to substantiate that claim. (Goldberg makes a case that Samuels has personal animus toward him and ought to have disclosed that in the story.)
6. This sentence is insanely wrong.
“It has been rare to find Ben Rhodes’s name in news stories about the large events of the past seven years, unless you are looking for the quotation from an unnamed senior official in Paragraph 9.”
Rhodes is one of the most frequently quoted officials in the Obama administration.
7. The piece suggests that Obama kept the public in the dark about the deal’s origins. He didn’t.
The central fiction in the Obama administration’s narrative about the Iran deal, per Samuels, was that the diplomatic effort was only undertaken after Hassan Rouhani “beat regime ‘hard-liners’ in an election and then began to pursue a policy of ‘openness.’” While it’s true that the Obama administration emphasized this development in its messaging around the deal, the president publicly expressed interest in the talks before Rouhani’s election. And the secret 2011 talks that opened engagement were exposed well ahead of the congressional vote — thanks to the investigative reporting of the aforementioned “narrative retailer,” Laura Rozen.
8. The piece portrays a communications official defending his administration — through the assertion of facts — as an Orwellian nightmare.
The piece’s first illustration of Rhodes’s nefarious talents comes when Iran captures ten U.S. sailors the day of Obama’s final State of the Union address. Samuels watches as Rhodes stumbles upon a winning angle.“We’re resolving this, because we have relationships,” the strategic communications official declares. The reporter narrates what follows:
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. 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.
Here, Samuels dystopic tone masks the fact that Rhodes message is, well, true. The Obama administration was able to resolve the crisis in less than 24 hours because, as Slate’s Kaplan writes, “top-level officials in Washington and Tehran had ‘relationships’—something that hadn’t been the case in the previous 37 years (since the 1979 revolution).”
9. This phrase is not accurate.
Samuels writes that Rhodes is “invisible because he is not an egotist.” Which is why he has agreed to participate in a magazine feature story about how incredible he is at his job.
10. Samuels suggests that Rhodes made the Iran deal possible by stifling a rational debate that could have galvanized dissent. He offers no evidence for this claim.
Finally, even if you granted all of Samuels’s other premises, his thesis still wouldn’t hold up for the simple fact that the administration’s messaging effort on the Iran deal wasn’t particularly successful. As Dan Drezner notes, Americans don’t actually have a very high opinion of Obama’s foreign policy. The Iran deal didn’t go through because Americans overwhelmingly supported it; it went through because Americans didn’t care all that much either way. As Drezner writes:
Opponents of the Iran deal massively outspent and out-advertised proponents. Furthermore, contra Samuels, this blitz had an effect; in polling, the Pew Research Center found that there was an appreciable increase in opposition to the deal over the summer. But Pew also found something else: despite the blizzard of advertising and media coverage surrounding the Iran deal, respondents stated that they knew less about the contours of the deal two months after the debate started. Why? Because the issue “had not resonated widely with the public.”
If you read Samuels’s profile as a literary work — rather than a journalistic one — its fundamental flaw becomes a transcendent virtue: A lamentation of Ben Rhodes’s talent for seeding narratives in an unsuspecting public is itself an attempt to covertly perpetuate the unreliable narrator’s ideology. Form dissolves into content, subject into object.
Like Rhodes, Samuels is a storyteller who uses a writer’s tools to advance an agenda that is packaged as journalism but is often quite personal. He is adept at constructing overarching plotlines with heroes and villains, their conflicts and motivations supported by flurries of carefully chosen adjectives, misleading quotations, and leaks from named and unnamed senior officials. He is a master shaper and retailer of neoconservative foreign-policy narratives. And he has a bright future ahead of him in the field of strategic communications.