The Cable

White House Spin Doctor Tries to Unspin Situation He Spun Himself Into

Ben Rhodes is trying to untangle a web that he has spun for himself.

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Things are getting meta for White House Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes.

In a profile published last week in the New York Times Magazine, Rhodes — President Barack Obama’s top foreign-policy spin doctor — made several jibes at how the media covers the White House. Rhodes boasted in the article about creating an “echo chamber” in the press to sell the administration’s landmark Iran nuclear deal to the public. He derided reporters for their youth and inexperience, and marveled at his own deceit in building public support for a controversial diplomatic agreement with Iran. 

Now, after a weekend of criticism against his own admission that he crafted a “narrative” to support the Iran deal, Rhodes is in damage-control mode. Late Sunday, he took to Medium to issue a new bit of spin to spin himself out of the mess he made in the Times profile.

Rhodes now argues that the Obama administration made no attempt to deceive the public about the diplomatic agreement with Iran, while tacitly apologizing to any reporters he may have offended.

“The critical point that the deal’s opponents are missing in the current debate is that we believed deeply in the case that we were making: about the effectiveness of the deal, about the value of diplomacy, and about the stakes involved,” Rhodes wrote. “It wasn’t ‘spin,’ it’s what we believed and continue to believe, and the hallmark of the entire campaign was to push out facts.”

The Times article, written by journalist David Samuels, portrayed Rhodes, a once-aspiring novelist, as cleverly exploiting the media’s weaknesses in covering international affairs to push the White House’s agenda, particularly on the Iran deal. In one passage, Samuels’ likens Rhodes to Holden Caulfield, the protagonist from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and said the spin doctor’s greatest writing was selling a narrative to the Washington press corps and the public at large.

That Samuels compares Rhodes, who has attained enormous success and power by pushing manufactured talking points, to Caulfield, who famously despises all forms of phoniness, represents one of the profile’s great ironies.

“The way in which most Americans have heard the story of the Iran deal presented — that the Obama administration began seriously engaging with Iranian officials in 2013 in order to take advantage of a new political reality in Iran, which came about because of elections that brought moderates to power in that country — was largely manufactured for the purpose for selling the deal,” Samuels wrote in the profile.

In another widely cited quote from the article, Rhodes and Ned Price, a deputy, derided reporters and bragged to Samuels about having “created an echo chamber.” The two men implied that the rise of internet journalism and cutbacks in the industry have made journalists easier to manipulate and unable to cover foreign news objectively.

“All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” Rhodes told Samuels. “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.”

For the record, this reporter is 27, has reported abroad, and knows considerably more than “literally nothing.”

Now, Rhodes appears to have realized that it was perhaps less than diplomatic to dismiss the entire press corps as a herd of know-nothings.

“[There] was no shortage of good reporting and analysis  —  positive, negative, and mixed  —  about the Iran deal. Every press corps that I interacted with vetted that deal as extensively as any other foreign policy initiative of the presidency. A review of the press from that period will find plenty of tough journalism and scrutiny,” he wrote on Sunday in a strained attempt to convey the sense that he has a modicum of respect for the free press.

The portrait of Rhodes led Foreign Policy’s Tom Ricks to describe Rhodes as “the asshole who is the president’s foreign policy guru.” Other observers have been similarly critical, and as reporters and editors in Washington consider whether Rhodes did in fact pull the wool over their eyes, there will be no small measure of satisfaction in watching this spin doctor try to untangle himself from the web he has spun for himself.

Photo credit:BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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