'New York Times Magazine' Profile Stirs Controversy Over Iran Nuclear Deal

May 13, 2016
Originally published on May 16, 2016 2:25 pm
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

An article from The New York Times Magazine has stirred days of controversy in political journalism and national security circles. The piece was a profile of one of President Obama's chief national security aides, Ben Rhodes. It explores just how Rhodes and the Obama administration were able to sell the Iran nuclear deal to the public. It contends that they did so through creative spin and manipulation of the press. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik is joining us to walk through the dust-up and the response since. Good morning.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: For those listeners who will not know, who is Ben Rhodes?

FOLKENFLIK: A fair question. So Ben Rhodes was an aspiring novelist who got very interested in national security issues after 9/11. And he ultimately joined President Obama as a speechwriter on national security issues and rose to be the deputy national security adviser, so not only a speechwriter but a very close aide who works with him on national security diplomatic issues.

MONTAGNE: And in a nutshell, what did The New York Times Magazine piece reveal about the Obama administration's strategy in pushing the Iran deal?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it made the case, on several levels, that the arguments that the Obama administration put forward in its rhetoric was deceptive about the way in which it was pursuing the deal and its timing. And that it used spin and manipulation to get reporters and the press to simply parrot out talking points and masterfully convince the public somehow that dealing with the Iranian government was a good idea and that we could trust them that they would not develop nuclear arms.

MONTAGNE: And obviously, Ben Rhodes was in the thick of that. This was a profile of him, but part of it is him talking about this deal and - let me quote him - saying, "most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talked to is 27 years old," and he goes on to say, quote, "they literally know nothing." What about that?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it reflects an incredibly contemptuous assessment of how the press corps deals with national security issues - I don't think particularly fairly by Ben Rhodes. It's not clear to me that that's entirely how he actually looks at their performance. There were a number of reporters of great distinction who were mentioned in there. Take Laura Rozen - has been writing for Al-Monitor and has reported on these kinds of issues for some years. She was described in the piece as being the RSS feed for one of Ben Rhodes' chief deputies as though she were some sort of microphone, what the administration wanted her to say. Instead, what that person was saying was this woman was getting information from everywhere, from sources and from journalists in other countries that were playing a role in these multilateral talks with Iran at various points, and bringing them to the attention of American readers, American journalists and also American government officials, that they were relying on her for information. I think that that was a way in which the reporter, David Samuels, seems to have misunderstood the way in which reporters were functioning.

MONTAGNE: Misunderstood or is it possible to say himself did a little manipulating? I mean, there's been a backlash against him as well.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, there has. I have no reason to believe that Samuels, in that instance, did anything intentional at all. But Samuels is someone - he's a journalist, but he's someone who had strong views about the Iran deal in certain ways - publicly criticizing it, calling in 2009, in a piece published in the Slate, for the rational case for bombing Iran, instead of perhaps negotiating with government officials in that country. That's something that was not revealed to readers. I think it's fine to assign somebody who may have a contrary point of view to write about something for a magazine like The Times Magazine. But certainly, readers deserve to understand that, particularly when the case being made is that the Obama administration's rhetoric was deceptive.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thanks very much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

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