Ben Rhodes and the 'Retailing' of the Iran Deal

Here’s what the New York Times Magazine’s story gets wrong.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Several days ago, I received an email from Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of a Washington think tank called the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Dubowitz is an expert on sanctions, and has been one of the most ardent and effective opponents of the Iran nuclear agreement (though not quite effective enough to stop it, as he himself would note). The subject line of Dubowitz’s e-mail was, “Rhodes,” and his message to me was simple: What Ben Rhodes just did to you is terrible. “You’re a great reporter,” Dubowitz wrote. “Keep up your important work.”

My problem, at that moment, was that I didn’t know what Ben Rhodes—President Obama’s deputy national security adviser—had done to me. But Dubowitz’s Don’t worry, you’ll probably be okay in the long run-tone put me in an apocalyptic frame of mind.

Dubowitz was referring, it turns out, to a single line in a long profile of Rhodes in the New York Times Magazine, written by the one-time Atlantic writer, and current Tablet Magazine literary editor, David Samuels. The profile posits that Rhodes manipulated the press, and the public, into believing various untrue things about the Iran deal. Deep in the article, Samuels named me as one of those manipulated reporters, writing, in a discussion about the way he believes information to be transmitted today, that, “For those in need of more traditional-seeming forms of validation, handpicked Beltway insiders like Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor helped retail the administration’s narrative.”

On one level, I found this brief passage amusing, because, as Dubowitz and others in the opposition camp might acknowledge, I have not been an overly enthusiastic advocate of the Iran deal. Laura Rozen’s colleague at Al-Monitor, Arash Karami, made note of this as well, asking on Twitter, “in what sick DC warped world is Jeffrey Goldberg in anyway sympathetic to Iran? It’s beyond delusional.” (Karami, to be sure, is a bit unfair in his characterization of my position: I like Iran very much, but I’m not fond of the Jew-hating, gay-hanging, Baha’i-persecuting, terror-loving, nuke-seeking, misogynistic, fascistic clerics who currently rule the country).

On another level, though, I did not find this mention of my name amusing at all, because Samuels is making a serious, unsourced, and unsubstantiated allegation against me in an otherwise highly credible publication (one for which I happened to work, in fact). And he did so without disclosing that he holds a longtime personal grudge against me.

On Friday, I sent an e-mail to Jake Silverstein, the editor of The New York Times Magazine, outlining my concerns. In brief, I noted that the accusation Samuels leveled against me was unfair; that he had not given me an opportunity to respond (nor was I ever contacted by a fact-checker); and that he offered no proof that I “retailed” anything on behalf of the administration. I also provided Silverstein with links to several articles I had written during that period that were critical of the Iran deal, and of the U.S. approach to the issue (including a post unambiguously titled, “Iran is Getting Away With Murder”).

I also wrote, in my e-mail to Silverstein, “As you may remember, I interviewed the President a number of times during the Iran negotiations, but, like your colleague Tom Friedman, I used those opportunities to ask the President about the tactics and premises of the negotiations. Ultimately, as an opinion writer, I came to the conclusion that the Iran deal was a deeply imperfect agreement that was nevertheless better than any proposed alternative. But I managed to come to that conclusion by myself.”

I also told Silverstein of my unhappy history with Samuels. I won’t bore you with this sad story, but five years ago, his wife, Alana Newhouse, offered me a position at Tablet Magazine, which she edits. I accepted the job, but then I quickly came to feel that she and David—he was a senior editor at Tablet—weren't dealing with me in a straightforward way on a number of fronts, and, ultimately, I chose to stay at The Atlantic. Since that time, I have been the intermittent target of criticism in Tablet, and a more-than-intermittent target of Samuels’s personal animus. (He is not particularly careful about sharing his negative opinions of me—or others, by the way—with people who are friends of mine). Samuels should have disclosed this history to the reader.

Silverstein wrote back almost immediately, at good length, and with considerable sympathy for my concerns. (He has allowed me to quote from his response): “I want to be clear that I don't think this implies that you were not one to ask difficult questions of the administration, or publish any pieces that made defenders of the deal unhappy,” Silverstein wrote. “That's obviously not the case. Yours has consistently been one of the most important voices writing about foreign policy in the American media. I don't know anyone who doesn't think that. And clearly that includes Rhodes, who is too smart to expect that a writer like yourself could be spun like the 27-year-olds he seems to have such contempt for. A better way of putting it may be that, according to David's reporting, on this particular subject, Rhodes seemed to think that where you were coming out on the deal was in sync with where he was, and this led him to consider yours a valuable platform.”

Silverstein went on, “I don't deny that David put some English on the ball in his portrayal. As you know, he is, by nature, a dyspeptic writer. But his assertions are backed up by the reporting he did. That said, I did not know about his history with you. This troubles me, and it's certainly something I'll bring up with David, but I don't believe it had a material effect on the outcome here.”

Silverstein, in my opinion, did not respond to the core question: When, and where, did I do this “retailing”?

I also called Ben Rhodes. Like many reporters in Washington, I’ve known Rhodes for years, and have interviewed him repeatedly. (One of Samuels’s strangest assertions is that Rhodes is an “invisible” player in Washington; he does not seem invisible here, and he is also among the most frequently quoted senior administration officials in—wait for it—The New York Times, as has been noted to me by several Times reporters who were appalled by the Samuels piece).

I asked Rhodes if he told Samuels that he, or other administration officials, had ever handpicked me to retail their case for the Iran deal. This is what Rhodes said: “I told him that our goal was to try to convince you and a handful of other columnists that the Iran deal wasn’t a total catastrophe. I told him I don’t think I ever convinced you that it was a good deal.” I asked again, “Did you tell him that I was handpicked by you to ‘retail’ your public relations message?” “Of course not,” Rhodes said.

It is not unusual, of course, for an administration to try to convince journalists that it is right and that its critics are wrong. The reverse is also true: Opponents of the Iran deal tried to convince me, and other journalists, that the agreement was, contra Rhodes, a catastrophe. These people would include such figures as Dubowitz, Senator Lindsey Graham, and various Israeli officials.

I don’t want to litigate the underlying premises of the Samuels’s piece here—though I know that people like Mark Dubowitz have much interesting commentary about what Rhodes said concerning the Iran deal, and I hope to explore this subject further. The main reason I don’t want to litigate the content and conclusions of the piece here is that I don’t trust the reporting.

I would say that Carlos Lozada’s evisceration of the piece in The Washington Post—published under the non-subtle headline, “Why the Ben Rhodes profile in the New York Times Magazine is just gross”—captures many of my feelings about it, particularly about its aesthetic shortcomings. One of the substance-related oddities of the piece is that it doesn’t address what is actually Rhodes’s most concrete accomplishment in government—leading the secret negotiations that restored diplomatic relations with Cuba. This is a controversial accomplishment—many of the administration’s critics believe that it ceded too much to the Cuban government in the course of these negotiations, but it is an actual accomplishment, one that provides insight into what could be called the Obama Doctrine.

In addition to my concerns about Samuels’s deployment of unsubstantiated allegations in the piece, and about the obvious lack of fact-checking, I consider it a strange lapse on the part of the Times Magazine to keep from its readers the fact that Samuels was an ardent opponent of the Iran deal, and was advocating, as early as 2009, for the bombing of Iran. This doesn’t disqualify him from writing about Rhodes—if anything, this disclosure would have made the article more interesting, if he had leveled with the readers about his actual views.

On Sunday evening, in another e-mail exchange, Silverstein wrote (again, in an on-the-record response):

I want to be clear about what the piece was not saying. Neither David nor the Times Magazine was saying that you were some kind of unthinking shill for the administration. Of course not. In the context of that paragraph, what I took the sentence to mean is that Rhodes and the people working for him on the Iran deal had a small group of journalists in the traditional press who they saw as the most important conduits for them to get their message out, and that you were among that group (perhaps the most important in that group). David was describing a system for crafting and disseminating information, and this paragraph tried to show how the people operating that system saw the press, and in particular, saw you. David has extensive reporting—many hours of taped interviews—that supports the notion that Rhodes and others around him saw you as a key figure in how they would get their message out to the world. But let me be clear: It is not our belief that they felt this way because they saw you as intellectually pliable, or someone who would do their bidding.

As far as proof goes, we have David's interviews. But again, as I said in the earlier email, since this was a story about Rhodes primarily, we didn't elect to go into this material. (I also believe that it is reasonable to assume that, because the administration has trusted you so many times with such significant access, that, well, they trust you. Though again, I feel compelled to add that them trusting you is not itself evidence that you are in cahoots with them. And also to add that the work you produce with that access is of great value).

I want to reiterate that I am sorry for the fact that David did not reach out to you before publication to tell you what his reporting showed, and to get your response. That should have happened. But having spent some time today going back over David's reporting with him, I still don't think this merits a correction. That said, I am going to submit this to the standards editor at the Times tomorrow and see what he thinks. And if he feels that a correction of any kind is warranted, we will post it as soon as possible.

I would note that Silverstein is acknowledging, in this e-mail, that the Times did not attempt to figure out whether or not I actually did the thing Samuels accuses me of doing before publishing the accusation against me.

I did not raise the separate but related issue of Samuels’s accusations concerning Laura Rozen with Silverstein. She is waging her own fight there, apparently, and she has found plenty of support among fellow journalists who believe that Samuels has smeared her. I know Laura, though not well, and I would definitely not place myself in her ideological camp on matters related to Iran or Israel. I would say, however, that she is a dogged reporter, and Samuels’s own limitations as a reporter come through with clarity in his treatment of her. He quotes, in that same passage in which I am referenced, a White House aide named Tanya Somanader, as saying, “Laura Rozen was my RSS feed. She would just find everything and retweet it.”

Samuels is implying here that Rozen was doing the bidding of the White House, but he doesn’t seem to understand her role. Rozen’s Twitter feed, for those of us who covered the Iran negotiations, was famous. She was absolutely frenetic, tweeting about everything—who was talking to whom in the hallway, which foreign secretary had stepped out to go the bathroom—and she seemed to retweet everyone, from Ayatollah Khamenei to Benjamin Netanyahu. Rozen was an important part of my Twitter feed, too, and she was also an important part of the Twitter feed of Iran deal-opponents. It appears that Somanader was suggesting to Samuels—assuming she was quoted accurately—that she read Rozen in order to develop an encyclopedic understanding of what other people were saying about the negotiations. It seems as if something else that Samuels doesn’t understand is Twitter, which you should understand, if you’re going to write about it.

For those eight people who are still reading this, I’ll let you know if and when the Times corrects the story.