By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost
This is the first of a two-part series examining the collapse of foreign coverage in mainstream media.
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 CIA 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. Rhodes described a White House press corps comprised of post-adolescents thoroughly dependent on the geese-feeding arrangement, especially when they reported on national security questions: “They literally know nothing.”
Rhodes and Price were describing some qualitative turn in the media’s relations with power. I do not mean to suggest these relations were ever in living memory very good, but at some point there had been a swoon, a giving way from bad to worse. “When you read routine press reports in The Times or any of the other major dailies,” I wrote of the Rhodes profile, “you are looking at what the clerks we still call reporters post on government bulletin boards, which we still call newspapers.”
When did this come about? Why had this come about? Was there yet worse to come? How did we get here, in other words, and where are we going? These were my questions. They are still my questions. I am moved to consider them again by the coverage of mainstream correspondents working in Ukraine. Among the many things we may want to call them, they are geese.
My first inkling that something was changing in the way the American press looked out at the world and reported what its correspondents saw was close to home, a small-bore case—small bore, something large to think about in the telling of it. I was living in Japan at the time, the late 1980s through the mid–1990s. Apart from my duties for the International Herald Tribune, I was writing “Letter from Tokyo” for The New Yorker.
There was a long and honored tradition of “Letters from” at the time: Janet Flanner from Paris, Jane Kramer from all over Europe, Mollie Panter–Downes from London. Bob Shaplen, whose gave his career to Asia, was long The New Yorker’s “Far East correspondent” and wrote Letters from more or less every Asian capital. It was Shaplen, late in his career and his life, who handed off to me.
What distinguished The New Yorker’s foreign coverage, including all the Letters from, was the way it was produced. Those who wrote it were not only there: They had been there a long time, typically, and knew their various theres thoroughly, even intimately. They wrote not from the outside looking in, noses pressed against glass, but from within the places and among the people they were covering. You got the inside dope, as they used to say, when you read their pieces—the whispers in the palace, the chatter on the street. The stuff ran far deeper than anything you could read in the dailies.
My New Yorker was Bob Gottlieb’s New Yorker, Gottlieb having succeeded the famous William Shawn in the editor’s chair. Bob wanted to give the magazine an update while preserving its special character. Then Bob was ousted in favor of Tina Brown, who was obsessed with flash-and-dash and “buzz.” Everything had to have buzz. David Samuels could have profiled Tina: She was that sort. She ruined the magazine. She is long gone now, but The New Yorker has never recovered from Tina.
Tina’s editors accepted the Letters from Tokyo I filed after she took over, but none ever ran. In my next and last dealing with The New Yorker, a few years later, I proposed a profile of Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo Prefecture, an accomplished sailor, and a fire-breathing nationalist full of anti–American bile. I liked Ishihara precisely for his bile, though when you interviewed him he stopped just short of pistol-whipping you.
The New Yorker took no interest in the proposed piece. A few months later it ran a profile of none other than Shintaro Ishihara written by a reporter sent out from New York who, it was clear from his report, had but superficial knowledge of his topic or anything else to do with Japan.
My experience was soon evident in The New Yorker’s foreign coverage altogether. It no longer looked to correspondents who were long and well dug in overseas, but to people sent out for a story and then brought back. I describe a subtle turn, but it had profound implications. A magazine noted for its coverage of foreign places “from the inside out”—my phrase for it—decided it wanted reportage that put the American sensibility first. The outside in would more than do. I read this now as an early indication of a shift in America’s way of seeing others—or not.
In 1995, as my final files to The New Yorker were going unpublished, Tom Friedman took over “Foreign Affairs,” a column with a long, I will not say hallowed history at The New York Times. Friedman’s arrival, with his bluster, his beer-belly prose, and his liberal jingoism, was another sign of the times. Big Tom writing in that space twice a week made it very clear that the practices of correspondents and commentators were changing—which, I can see now as I could not then, marked a change in the American consciousness.
I never much liked the Foreign Affairs column. Its relationship to power always seemed to me ethically questionable. It began in the late 1930s as “In Europe” and was ever after among the most sensitive assignments at the paper. C.L. Sulzberger, scion of the owners and a CIA. collaborator during the Cold War, captured that patrician certainty the U.S. possessed during the first few postwar decades. When she took over the column in the 1980s, Flora Lewis described a Continent restless within NATO’s confines and the American embrace. Here and there in the archives you can find columns that test the limits of the franchise. But you will never find one in which the limits are made visible.
Rereading such people, I am struck by certain things nonetheless. They had an appreciation for complexity and diversity—not just out in the wild dark beyond the Western alliance, but within it, too. However bad the work—and Cy Sulzberger’s columns collected clichés like barnacles on a sailboat’s bow—it derived from living and working abroad for many years. They display the confidence Americans felt amid the American Century. But rarely, if ever, were they triumphant or righteous. They didn’t have anything to prove.
The first thing Friedman did when he inherited the Foreign Affairs space on the opinion page was move the column to Washington — no more living among others. The second thing he did was stop listening to others apart from a few friends and acquaintances. In The Lexus and the Olive Tree, his execrable hymn to neoliberal globalization as led by the U.S., he described himself as a “tourist with attitude.” Tom had it in one. As he explained in that 1999 book, his favorite sources were bond traders and hedge fund managers.
“In today’s global village, people know there is another way to live, they know about the American lifestyle, and many of them want as big a slice of it as they can get—with all the toppings. Some go to Disney World to get it, and some go to Kentucky Fried in northern Malaysia.” This was Big Tom in the Foreign Affairs chair. This is the degeneration of American comment on the world beyond our shores—in “real time,” let’s say.
The Foreign Affairs column is now gone altogether, I should add. The Times killed it years ago. Why would anyone want to read a column with a name like that, after all?
If my topic is a gradual lapse in the professional practices of American journalists, a gradual indifference to “being there,” we cannot think about this on its own. Their delinquencies are to be understood as symptoms of a larger indifference among us toward the world that has taken hold since, I will say, Germans dismantled the Berlin Wall and the U.S. entered its memorably awful decades of triumphalism. Gradually since then, it has mattered less and less what other people think or do or what their aspirations might be. The only way to see things is the American way.
The cases I have described are early signs of this turn for the worse. But if they are symptoms, they are also causes. It is possible to be both, after all. This is the power of media when put to perverse purpose. Many of us have become progressively indifferent to others since the 1990s, and this is in large part because our print and broadcast media have shown us how.
The events of September 11, 2001, changed things again—in the practices of our media, in the Zeitgeist altogether. Fifteen years on from those tragedies, Ben Rhodes and Ned Price were feeding their geese. Six years on from that, we are getting the worst press coverage of overseas events I can remember from the correspondents fielded in Ukraine.
To be continued.