An extraordinary profile of senior White House adviser Ben Rhodes, published in the New York Times on Thursday, was very revealing about President Obama. It told a complicated story of how an administration that the president promised would be the most transparent in history prides itself on successful manipulation of journalists.
The critical insight of the story is about the Obama administration's dishonesty in selling the Iran nuclear deal to the public. It turns out, for example, that the story carried by the press about the Iran deal being possible because of the election of a more moderate government in Tehran, was made up. It was a fiction, as various actual experts on the subject warned at the time. That is, in real terms, it was a lie. The deal was in fact already in the works in 2012, a year earlier than anyone knew.
And the whole idea that Iran's government was split over this deal between moderates and hard-liners was a fiction spun in order to create excuses for Iran's persistence in belligerent behavior later on. Rhodes and others worked to suppress inconvenient news at inopportune moments, such as when Iran captured ten U.S. servicemen on the day of the State of the Union address.
How does someone like Rhodes manipulate the press? It's like taking candy from a baby.
"The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns," he is quoted as saying in the piece. "They literally know nothing." Plus, if you can get think tanks to start repeating your talking points, you've created an 'echo chamber' that will confirm whatever the journalists are hearing from the administration.
One of Rhodes' assistants describes how senior reporters are often even more useful in parroting the White House line than young ones. Just stroke the egos of the old dears with a personal chat containing "some color," and "they'll be putting this message out on their own."
As insulting as this clearly is to members of the news media, revealing a widespread, shallow, egotistical laziness, the more important concerns it raises are about the Obama administration.
It shows, among other things, how the president's underlings have for years taken advantage of the susceptability of political journalists to flattery. Political reporters are almost uniformly liberal in their politics, and are laughably easily domesticated when covering an administration with which they sympathize.
Do you remember how the State Department and the Obama White House manipulated reports after the terrorist murders in Benghazi of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador? Remember how the administration spun it as a confrontation over a YouTube video, rather than a pre-planned attack by a known Islamist organization? Setting aside any questions of blame for what happened, Rhodes was right in the middle of its aftermath, spreading a story known from the outset to be false.
Foreign policy is not the only area where this White House has figured out how to play the press. We owe to Josh McElveen's moment of rare media self-awareness his account of how the White House has tried (with less success) to generate interest in Obama's Supreme Court nominee. The strategy in that case involved flattering members of the local media in states that are holding Senate elections this year with interview invitations.
And of course, don't forget how the White House's press operation successfully manipulated the media during the Obamacare debate, to frame the law's critics as liars. Obama, who promised customers big savings and the ability to keep their health plans if they liked them, was in fact the person not telling the truth. But thanks to the White House's spin operation, predictions of the narrower networks, higher premiums, adverse selection and higher deductibles that consumers are now experiencing went unheeded. The public was duped because a decpetive administraton was both willing and able to dupe a facile press corps. For all the trouble and anxiety it has caused, the uninsured rate after three years of Obamacare is only 2.5 percentage points below where it was in 2008.
The lesson here is for the journalists. When you fall in love with a political figure who embodies all your smug pieties, and when he employes skillful spin doctors, neither the object of your adoration nor his minions will love you back.
They will treat with the contempt you deserve. They will use you and make you look as foolish as you are. Except you won't know it until the publication of an extraordinarily revealing profile just six months before the next president is elected.
Your embarrassment, should you acknowledge it to yourself in some quiet, private moment, is important. But not as important as the harm you have helped bring upon the nation and world.