Can we trust media reporting on a new nuclear deal?
Mar 2, 2022 | Jonathan Tobin
In the spring of 2016, The New York Times Magazine published an article that was the Rosetta Stone for understanding media coverage of foreign policy during the presidency of Barack Obama. In a profile of then-Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, the piece let the speechwriter turned faux international relations expert explain how the Obama Administration helped sell a sceptical public and Congress on its signature foreign-policy accomplishment: the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
While the portrayal of Rhodes’s trademark arrogance was the main takeaway from the feature, it also illuminated the process by which the White House marketed an indefensible policy. Rhodes boasted that the national press was so ignorant of the topic and so eager to parrot administration talking points that he had little trouble manipulating accounts of the negotiations with Iran and portrayals of what even its supporters had to admit was a flawed agreement.
Casting aside any pretence that what went on could be confused for actual journalism, what he described went beyond the usual process by which officials try to “spin” the news to the press. Instead of merely persuading writers to mimic pro-deal arguments, Rhodes did something that was referred to in the article as more akin to “ventriloquism”.
What another Obama White House colleague called their press “compadres” were the puppets in a shadow play that largely controlled how the accord was portrayed in mainstream outlets. The result was the creation of a “media echo chamber” in which Obama’s narrative about the pact – the best possible option for the West and the only alternative to a war that no one wanted – was blindly accepted.
Given all that has happened since then, the events of 2015 may seem like ancient history. But a discussion of the process that Rhodes was candid enough to reveal is just as, if not more, relevant today than it was then.
There are two reasons for that. One has to do with the further decline in the mainstream press; and the other is the fact that the world is apparently about to get another, even weaker and more disastrous Iran nuclear deal shoved down its throat by the Biden Administration with the help of a pliant press corps.
Media bias used to be a controversial subject since most journalists, and especially those in leading corporate outlets, clung to the claim that they were largely objective even long after that ceased to be true. But the presidency of Donald Trump caused a great many of them to cast aside any pretence of fairness and instead become openly partisan.
The willingness of publications and broadcasters to spend years reporting as truthful what were ultimately revealed to be inaccurate, if not entirely bogus, claims that the former president colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election was bad enough. But in 2020, the same outlets – abetted by even more powerful Big Tech firms in control of social media platforms – refused to report on legitimate stories about corruption involving President Joe Biden’s son Hunter, lest any discussion of the charges undermine the effort to defeat Trump.
The bifurcation of the media, with those on the left reading, listening and watching one set of media and those on the right following different outlets, has been a crucial factor in fuelling the tribal culture war that largely characterises most contemporary US political discourse. Both political camps bear part of the blame for this ugly new reality. But the willingness of outlets like the Times, CNN and MSNBC to ignore stories that embarrass their political allies while the Wall Street Journal and Fox News highlight them makes any consensus about important topics impossible.
If legacy media is only willing to shine a light on administrations when they oppose them, then not only does that undermine their credibility but results in a citizenry consistently robbed of the information it needs in order to properly evaluate crucial issues.
That was certainly the case in 2015 when the “echo chamber” failed to adequately report about what was actually in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – or JCPOA, as the deal was formally named – as opposed to what Obama’s aides wanted Americans to think about it. Had they done so, Obama and then-Secretary of State John Kerry might not have been able to get away with portraying a deal that actually effectively guaranteed that Iran will get a nuclear weapon once its weak provisions expire at the end of this decade, as preventing that outcome. They would realise that it did not give Teheran’s theocrats a chance “to get right with the world,” as Obama put it. Rather, it actually ignored their illegal missile program and status as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and then gave it the financial wherewithal to continue with both in an even more dangerous fashion.
Today, the challenge for the media is to honestly evaluate the Biden Administration’s claims about Trump’s Iran policy that it has reversed. But the same echo chamber is again at work. Players involved with the first agreement are now dutifully regurgitating claims that Trump’s efforts to address the deal’s shortcomings by withdrawing from it in 2018 and then applying “maximum pressure” to the regime to get it to return to the negotiating table was a failure that could never have succeeded, as if Rhodes himself was still pulling their strings.
If another even weaker Iran deal is soon to be concluded, Americans deserve more than partisan spin about an agreement that is likely to make the world an even more dangerous place than the one that Obama originally concluded. But because liberal journalists went into the tank for Obama, against Trump and now stand for Biden, a large portion of consumers of the news won’t get the information they need.
The price of a partisan press isn’t just paid by journalism’s growing credibility gap. Media bias on this scale is a devastating blow to democracy that all too many of those who claim they are worried about the peril to our form of government will never recognise.