Media Criticism Opinion Original Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence: When Correspondents Came Home, Part 1

Former White House National Security Adviser Ambassador John Bolton in 2018. The White House from Washington, DC, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Patrick Lawrence
Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon siteHis Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored without explanation.

20 comments

  1. Thank you. I stopped reading the NY Times years ago for the very reasons you describe.
    I look foward to your next piece.

  2. No doubt many Americans know that journalism has changed in the USA. I wrote a piece on this issue a few months ago. I called it
    https://agingcapriciously.com/2022/04/21/why-you-should-believe-nothing-you-read-or-hear-in-the-news/

    The big question is can it ever return to what we remember it as. A source of unbiased and objective insights into the world and world affairs. Probably not, since an “unbiased” source never really existed in the first place. JP

    1. after Geoffrey Gorer examined the media ,school curriculum in USSR in the 1960’s, he described the censorship in US media, school curriculum as “ludicrous”

      1. Hello, could you please point me to some of Gorer’s work in this regard? All I’m able to find are books and scholarly articles locked behind paywalls. I’d happily purchase a book, but would like to find the one most closely matching the subject matter you mentioned. Thanks.

    2. The writers in thrall to.the power and.prestige.of.the oval office have sold out.their.profession. from.what.it.was.and.what it is supposed.to.be.The NY Times is not the.only.offender There is safety.in numbers.The entire.profession with a few exceptions is worthless.The end result is an.ignorant and.uninformed.public with.predictable.results like wars and.the.election of Donald Trump,Joe Biden and.before that Barrack Obama, Bill Clinton and W. The people.get the leaders.they.don’t deserve.

  3. The same Patrick Lawrence who has articles on Consortium News? If so, I find it sad you didn’t mention Robert Parry and the site founded by him in 1995. ? In which you’re often featured on as you related the same changing in news content during the same period that drove him out of MSM.

  4. Where oligarchy-owned mass media control public debate, courageous and independent thinkers willing and able to defend unpopular viewpoints as needed are certainly fewer than 10 percent, and those willing to defend truth where this is socially, physically, or financially risky are one percent or less.

    New ways of thinking are the key, and new institutions forming a new public mind, to permit public debate, the celebration of public spirit and human values lost in our culture of greed, lying, and bullying.

    I am working to set up the Congress Of Policy Debate (CongressOfDebate dotcom) constituted to protect all points of view, and to conduct moderated text-only debate among university experts of several disciplines, of the status and possibilities of each world region, and the policy options. Debate summaries commented by all sides are to be made available for public study, mini-quizzes, and comment. The introductory book can be downloaded there.

    The debates will require a higher standard of argument in foreign and domestic policy on both right and left, and would have much reduced the group-think that led to our endless mad wars since WWII. Extreme and naïve politicians would be easier to expose, and media commentators would have a starting point and a standard for media investigation and analysis.

  5. For decades, it was known that nobody actually ‘quits’ the CIA.

    Thus, it is obvious, that the official spokesperson of the US foreign policy is now a CIA agent. In honor of the time when TV shows used to be funny, I refer to him as “Colonel Flagg”. It seems to fit rather well.

  6. I recently discovered a book – well known to many young people, often used in college courses- that explains much of what underlies these observations. The book is, “Trust Me, I’m lying” by Ryan Holiday. He explains (or confesses) how media manipulators, like himself, operate and how the new media system works. It actually may explain most of the strange things about today’s press, like those in this article.

    1. Jack, Jack.
      Let’s keep things in proportion. “All media” is not your phrase. “Most media,” or maybe “all mainstream media” is what you’re after. You are reading, and thank you for it, a medium that has nothing to do with propaganda. This is why I do not tire of pointing out the importance of the independent press. And watch this space–it grows in importance as we speak.
      “Media,” to cross your “i” and dot your “t,” as I prefer to do, is plural: Media are, my friend.
      Best wishes.
      P.L.

  7. Excellent…beyond excellent. Two offhand comments: I detest Friedman’s arse — to me, he’s the ultimate Zionist snake, always ready and waiting to profess his allegiance to the settler-colonial ideology and to its platform Israel, like the proverbial snake with forked tongue…gotta keep the natives in line w/the Zioagenda, after all. I also, for no particular definable reason, recall Lewis with considerable fondness and appreciation and respect.

    Am standing in line, panting for Part Two.

  8. Patrick:

    I would offer that journalism that criticizes power is a public service and your articles and Scheerpost itself are examples of that. It’s not about the money or abandoning principles: if it were, this site and others like it would not exist. It makes sense that since the time of Reagan, academia, the media, NGOs would all be pressured to defund, fire or marginalize those advocating for the common good and critical of power.

    I would add that a big part of it is the paradox between the hyper-individuality and personal expression elevated in American culture, and the reliance on institutions which are easily controlled by funding from govt or private wealth. There’s not much of a sense to me, in most Western cultures, of promoting informed, engaged citizens and the common good.

    What you relate about the decline of empathy and deep knowledge of other cultures, has affected me as well. I don’t share the media’s prejudice against Russia, but my knowledge of its current circumstances (life in Russia, extent of poverty or wealth of Russia’s citizens, freedom of press and expression, etc) are very limited. Any articles that you or Scheerpost can publish that sheds light on cultures around the world, how they view themselves and relations with Russia, China and the West, would be welcomed.

  9. Lawrence “critically” thinks, or maybe just pontificates, that he’s in the bright and knowing center of the world while all the others, such as Friedman, Sulzberger, Rhodes and probably everyone else, barely keep their heads above the slimy marshes best known to him.
    … A waste of time reading him!

  10. “…obsessed with flash-and-dash and ‘buzz.'” Indeed, America has been tina-ized. Layer on top of that a leadership class that surrounds itself with minions telling them only what they want to hear. It doesn’t say much for our Ivy League institutions that both the flash-and-dash and buzz generators and the lame leadership class to which we are beholding are spawned year-on-year in an ever down-cycling dumbness (and numbness).

  11. Thank you for this insightful history and analysis of the decrepit state of our media. I look forward to part 2.

  12. thank you Patrick, now I understand why it is so difficult to trust current reporters
    on what they have to say about whats going on in the world. Perhaps its even true re
    what they say about whats going on in this country. And you’ve also exposed the
    terrible dangers of such inbred reporting. I think that Max Blumenthal and his
    entourage are trying to correct the problem, I hope they stay safe since reporting
    the real truth as best you can make it out can be dangerous. As a country we are in
    real trouble.

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