The existential risks of historical ignorance
Press manipulation, hubris and the threat of nuclear conflict
Citizens in a free society rely on news organizations to provide them with accurate information about their political leaders and their decisions, policies and initiatives. Journalists are in a tough spot because they generally have to be familiar with many topics and issues. Foreign affairs, for example, requires some knowledge of the world, history, cultures and different, often conflicting positions among governments. While they can't be experts on every subject, good journalists are curious, have an inquisitive mind and the ability to formulate questions that challenge political story lines. These qualities are particularly important when covering the office of the most powerful leader in the free world, the President of the United States.
The President’s actions can affect millions of people at home and abroad, among allies and adversaries alike. That was the case with the Iranian nuclear negotiations and subsequent deal, which remains one of the Administration’s most touted accomplishments. The deal was not universally well received. It was criticized by many in Congress and by America’s key allies in the Middle East, most notably Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Speaker of the House of Representatives took the unusual step of inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to give a speech opposing the deal before a joint session of Congress. The Prime Minister risked his relationship with the Administration by accepting the invitation.
Rhodes reaching out through Twitter. Whitehouse photo by Mori Rothman, 2011.
Spin or manipulation?
Hot political issues always lead each side to spin information in support of their position. Reporters expect it and the good ones will challenge both sides to avoid being influenced by spin. Apparently this essential check is no longer being practiced as seriously and expertly as it once was. This is the on-the-record opinion of Ben Rhodes, the President’s Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications, who was described in a profile piece as Obama’s “foreign policy guru.”
Interviewed by David Samuels for a New York Times Magazine story, Rhodes didn’t hide his contempt for the current crop of reporters, particularly those covering international events:
“All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus… 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.”
Ned Price, Rhodes’ assistant, described how they influenced the news by reaching out to dependable “compadres,” who served, perhaps unwittingly, as “force multipliers.” Their process took advantage of social media to hide their influence on reporters and their stories:
“I will reach out to a couple people, and you know I wouldn’t want to name them… I’ll say, ‘Hey, look, some people are spinning this narrative that this is a sign of American weakness… And I’ll give them some color… 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.”
Price’s and Rhodes’ attitudes are seen as part of a pattern where the White House dismisses, often with contempt, anyone outside their inner circle, including foreign policy experts and members of Think Tanks. Rhodes refers to these people collectively as “the foreign policy blob.” As the Associated Press’ Julie Pace described it:
“…this White House really prides themselves on being kind of the smartest kid in the room. That's kind of their approach to so many things… they really have this attitude, frankly, that they are the only smart ones in town and the only ones who kind of understand the goals here.”
There are fine lines between spinning, manipulation and misrepresentation. Democracies only work when we can trust our leaders to keep us informed and the press to test their assertions. This is particularly important on issues of war and potential nuclear conflict. If Rhodes and Price are right, then Americans were fed a narrative echoed by an ignorant press corps that had been cynically manipulated. Who is to blame? They both are; the press for not fulfilling their role as skeptics of political claims and the White House for taking advantage of the reporters’ inexperience to manipulate public opinion.
What were the stakes?
In Decision Making in a Nuclear Middle East I analyzed the Middle East's operational environment and concluded that a nuclear standoff between Israel and Iran would bring them to the threshold of nuclear conflict. The risks would be unprecedented, greatly exceeding those faced by the superpowers during the Cold War. At stake are the existence of Israel, the future of the Holy Land and the lives of millions across the region and beyond. This was a technical, not a political analysis, but the results carry political implications. The Obama Administration made a bet that Iran will comply with the deal and that the terms will keep the Islamic Republic from developing nuclear weapons. Others vehemently disagreed and opposed the deal. That was a debate worth having without resorting to manipulating the news to shape public opinion.
The nuclear deal and its aftermath is a subject of historic importance. If Rhodes’ views of reporters are generally accurate, then the American press is no longer responsibly serving the American people. It is instead unwittingly partnering with political operatives to promote self-serving storylines to the public. In that context, their ignorance of history, lack of curiosity and missing skepticism are exposing the American people to political manipulation on issues of existential importance to the nation. Historical ignorance, spin and bad reporting at a time of growing tensions and nuclear perils may ultimately prove as significant an existential threat to the nation as the weapons and violent groups that threaten us.
 Krishnadev Calamur, “In Speech to Congress, Netanyahu Blasts ‘A Very Bad Deal’ with Iran,” NPR, March 3, 2015, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/03/03/390250986/netanyahu-to-outline-iran-threats-in-much-anticipated-speech-to-congress.
 David Samuels, “The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign Policy Guru,” New York Times Magazine, May 5, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/magazine/the-aspiring-novelist-who-became-obamas-foreign-policy-guru.html?_r=1.
 David Samuels, The Aspiring Novelist.
 Julie Pace, Fox News Sunday Transcripts, Fox News, May 8, 2016, http://www.foxnews.com/transcript/2016/05/08/manafort-on-trump-fight-to-rally-gop-defeat-democrats-gov-mccrory-on-showdown/.
 Ozzie Paez, Decision Making in a Nuclear Middle East: Lessons from the Cold War (CreateSpace, 2016), p. 97–103.