The Historic Collapse of Journalism

I have never gotten over a story The New York Times ran in its Sunday magazine back in May 2016. Maybe you will remember the occasion. It was a lengthy profile of Ben Rhodes, the Obama administration’s chief adviser for “strategic communications.” It was written by a reporter named David Samuels.

These two made a striking pair — fitting, I would say. Rhodes was an aspiring fiction writer living in Brooklyn when, by the unlikeliest of turns, he found his way into the inner circle of the Obama White House. Samuels, a freelancer who usually covered popular culture celebrities, had long earlier succumbed to that unfortunately clever style commonly affected by those writing about rock stars and others of greater or lesser frivolity.

Rhodes’ job was to spin “some larger restructuring of the American narrative,” as Samuels put it. “Rhodes is a storyteller who uses a writer’s tools to advance an agenda that is packaged as politics.” A professional flack straight out of Edward Bernays, in plain English. A teller of tales trafficking in manipulable facts and happy endings. “Packaged as politics:” a nice touch conveying the commodification of our public discourse.

Rhodes and Ned Price, his deputy, were social-media acrobats. Price, a former C.I.A. analyst and now the State Department’s spokesman, recounted without inhibition how they fed White House correspondents, columnists, and others in positions to influence public opinion as a fois gras farmer feeds his geese.

Here is Price on the day-to-day of the exercise:

“There are sort of these force multipliers. We have our compadres. I will reach out to a couple of people, and, you know, I wouldn’t want to name them…. 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 followings, and they’ll be putting out this message on their own.”

Rhodes gave Samuels a more structured analysis of this arrangement:

“All the newspapers used to have foreign bureaus. Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what is happening in Moscow or 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.”

I wrote at length about the Times piece in Salon, where I was foreign affairs columnist at the time. There was so much to unpack in Samuels’s report I hardly knew where to begin. In Price we had a complete failure to understand the role of properly functioning media and the nature of public space altogether.

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Author: HP McLovincraft

Seeker of rabbit holes. Pessimist. Libertine. Contrarian. Your huckleberry. Possibly true tales of sanity-blasting horror also known as abject reality. Prepare yourself. Veteran of a thousand psychic wars. I have seen the fnords. Deplatformed on Tumblr and Twitter.

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