Incestuous Relationships: That’s Our Oligarchy!

Ben and David Rhodes

Ben and David Rhodes

On March 15, The New York Times ran a puff piece on Obama foreign policy adviser and speechwriter Ben Rhodes, by Mark Landler. Landler tells us that not so long ago, Rhodes was “[a]n aspiring writer from Manhattan [with] unfinished novel in a drawer, “Oasis of Love,” about a woman who joins a megachurch in Houston, breaking her boyfriend’s heart,” and that

worked briefly for Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s re-election campaign in 1997, was living a writer’s life in Queens on Sept. 11, 2001, when he watched from the Brooklyn waterfront as the World Trade Center towers collapsed. The trauma of that experience, he said, led him to move to Washington in 2002.

Mr. Rhodes went to work for a Democratic foreign-policy elder, former Representative Lee Hamilton, helping draft the 9/11 Commission report as well as the Iraq Study Group report. That report was a template for the anti-Iraq war positions taken by Barack Obama, then a senator, whose campaign Mr. Rhodes joined as a speechwriter in 2008.

Wow! A Star is born!

Landler writes that Rhodes attends National Security Council meetings and has a powerful influence on Obama’s policies. He credits Rhodes for helping convince Obama to stop supporting Egyptian dictator President Hosni Mubarak and to intervene in Libya, as well as pushing the President to engage with Myanmar. At the moment, Landler says, Rhodes is trying to convince Obama to get more involved in Syria.

Jack Shaafer at Reuters calls the Landler’s story a “beat sweetener.

A beat sweetener, as press-watchers know, is an over-the-top slab of journalistic flattery of a potential source calculated to earn a reporter access or continued access. They’re most frequently composed on the White House beat when a new administration arrives in Washington and every Executive Office job turns over, but they can appear any time a reporter is prepared to demean himself by toadying up to a source in exchange for material.

As a beat sweetener, the Rhodes piece excels on so many levels that I’ll bet the subject’s parents have framed and hung the clipping over the family mantel. Landler portrays Rhodes as a young fella with “old man” wisdom; as possessing a “soft voice” that delivers “strong opinions”; as one whose “influence extends beyond what either his title or speechwriting duties suggest”; and as someone who “cares” to the point of “anguish” but is “very realistic.”

The information content of these testimonials, made by both Landler and his sources, is just about zero.

According to Shafer, the purpose of the “beat sweetener” isn’t just to make Ben Rhodes happy.

Sucking up to Rhodes won’t necessarily earn Landler or other journalists covering the White House an automatic scoop. But beat sweeteners aren’t written with anything so crass in mind as scoops. They’re designed to keep the information conveyor lubricated (“source greaser” is another term for the practice) with journalistic goodwill. As someone who is inside the White House decision loop, Rhodes is a much better friend than an enemy.

Getting back to the NYT puff piece: two-thirds of the way through, Landler mentions offhandedly that that Ben’s older brother David (who is 38) is the president of CBS News, a job he landed in February of 2011.

Landler provides no background on brother David, never mentioning that he previously held influential positions at Bloomberg and Fox News. In fact David is the first top CBS executive who previously worked for Fox News, and he’s the youngest president in CBS history. Shouldn’t this relationship between merit more than a throwaway line in a fawning profile of an influential adviser to the President of the U.S.?

Even Benjamin Netanyahu seemed a bit startled when he was told about it during Obama’s visit to Israel.

During a receiving line on the airport tarmac, Obama and Netanyahu stopped briefly to chat with Obama’s deputy national security, Ben Rhodes.

Obama noted that Rhodes’ brother, David, is president of CBS News.

“Sounds like a very incestuous relationship,” Netanyahu observed, chuckling at the idea of siblings in power roles within the administration and the news media.

“Not if you watch CBS News,” Obama replied.

There’s video of the interaction at Politico. Netanyahu may have been “chuckling,” but I’m not. How many times has Obama appeared on 60 Minutes? Has there ever been a mention of this relationship during those interviews? I haven’t checked, but I don’t recall it happening.

Of course relationships between media powerhouses and influential politicians and their advisers aren’t unusual. Here’s a short piece on this problem at TV Newser. Alex Weprin writes:

Let’s get this out of the way: conflicts of interest are rife in the TV news business.

CBS News president (and former Fox News executive) David Rhodes is the brother of one of President Obama’s advisers Ben Rhodes. NBC News anchor Andrea Mitchell is married to former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan. Bob Schieffer‘s brother Tom Schieffer was President Bush’s Ambassador to Japan.

In other words: potential conflicts happen all the time. The question is when should they be disclosed? Typically subjects with a conflict aren’t allowed to cover anything related to that conflict. If they do, a disclosure is a must….

In Washington, the journalists, the politicians and the lobbyists hobnob at the same parties, and many of them are friends. If everything was disclosed then just about every story from every reporter in DC would end with “I am a friend of a friend of this person” or “I hooked up with this person at 3 AM after the White House Correspondents Dinner.” Obviously that doesn’t happen, but sometimes a story does hit a little too close to home.

But isn’t this also an important reason why we don’t have an independent or serious news media?

Thinking about the incestuous nature of our Washington-New York oligarchy also leads to questions about how a young guy like Ben Rhodes–he’s just 35 now, so he was barely 30 when he began working for Obama in 2008–managed to come so far so fast.

Investigative reporter Russ Baker was stimulated to ask these and other questions after he read the Lindler’s NYT article. He notes that Rhodes appears to have come out of nowhere directly to the halls of power, just as his boss seemingly did. Baker writes:

What’s especially strange about the article is that, for those of us who continue to wonder how a virtual cipher rose so quickly from the Illinois legislature to become the most powerful person in the world, we end up wondering the same thing about an aspiring novelist from New York City who fairly catapults to enormous influence in shaping policy regarding some of the most complex and sensitive matters facing this country….

Though the Times never underlines this, the careful reader comes to realize that Rhodes’s guiding philosophy is as hard to discern as the precise reasons that he has the president’s ear. In 1997, he briefly worked on the re-election campaign of New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Republican. Shortly after 9/11, the aspiring novelist suddenly decided to do his part for society, moving in 2002 from Queens to Washington, and quickly found himself “helping draft the 9/11 Commission report as well as the Iraq Study Group report.” [....]

We are never even told what kind of education Rhodes got, or where, or whether he has ever been anything beyond an aspiring novelist. There’s no indication of what he did on Giuliani’s campaign (he would only have been about 19 or 20 at the time) or whether his preference for the mayor who presided over the 9/11 response had anything to do with his going to Washington, or miraculously being hired by Democrat Lee Hamilton to explain 9/11 to the public.

From these improbable beginnings, Rhodes is suddenly a speechwriter on Obama’s presidential campaign. How did he come to Obama’s attention? The article doesn’t say. However, it does note that the Iraq Study group report on which Rhodes worked “was a template for the anti-Iraq war positions taken by Barack Obama” as a senator and candidate.

Baker sums up his suspicions as follows:

Once we start asking questions about Benjamin Rhodes, this leads to questions about Obama, about the Times and CBS and journalism in general. And it leads to questions about how much we, the most smugly self-assured people on earth, understand about how anything of significance actually works.

In this case, it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether some particular faction or other might have spotted “talent” and “agreeability” in Rhodes, and helped hasten his rapid ascent to the top.

Baker located answers to some of these questions. From a very stunted Wikipedia entry, Baker learned that Ben Rhodes got his undergraduate degree from Rice University. He pulled together a timeline of the twin careers of Ben and his brother David:

Searching sources other than the Times, we find that David Rhodes was a production assistant at the fledgling Fox News Channel around the same time Benjamin was volunteering for Giuliani—and was the conservative channel’s news desk Assignment Manager when the planes struck the Twin Towers. Highly trusted by Fox’s chairman Roger Ailes, he managed Fox’s coverage of three presidential elections, including the one where his brother was writing Obama’s speeches, was hired by Bloomberg TV right after Obama’s election, and in 2011 was named president of CBS News.

It was Baker’s article that got me started I found Googling for more background on the very successful and powerful Ben Rhodes. In fact I spent much of the day yesterday searching for more background on the very successful and powerful Ben Rhodes. I’ll put that into a second post that I hope to put up later today.

Oh, and I admit I was also inspired by my memory of this photo that I know you’ll also likely recall from early in Obama’s first term. The smiling guy sitting at the table in the back on the right side is Ben Rhodes. After head speechwriter Jon Favreau (on the left of the Hillary cardboard image) posted it on his Facebook page, Dak and I figured out who the other speechwriters in the room were and wrote a little about them.

favreaujonwashpost44

You can treat this as a regular morning post and put your links in the comments as always. But I do hope some folks will wade through this post and discuss what I think are serious issues about the incestuous relationship between the corporation media and the government.

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43 Comments on “Incestuous Relationships: That’s Our Oligarchy!”

  1. Pat Johnson says:

    Politicians and the media are just one big “incestuous family”. It’s all about “access” and being invited to the “right events” which spells success in this circle.

    How can we expect “objectivity” when these journalists/reporters are on the e-vite list for parties, dinners, luncheons, and gatherings where they “rub shoulders” with their hosts and the expectation that if they desire a return engagement they “soften” their reporting to fit what is required?

    These relationships led up to the cheerleading and drumbeating that urged the Iraq War when these “stenographers” essentially transcribed what was “dictated” by the powers that be but today express a “mea culpa” long after the event turned sour.

    Power and money are the lure of attraction and has nothing to do with honest reporting. It’s all about access, access, access.

    It must be “thrilling” to have a politician refer to you by your first name, or find yourself bestowed with a nickname from Bush. Apparently it signifies you “made it” but only if you have managed to “play ball” and obey the “rules”.

    All you need to know is “who’s who” these days then take it from there.

    • ecocatwoman says:

      Modern day courtiers & courtesans. At least those who fall out of favor aren’t thrown into the Tower of London or beheaded – or maybe they should be…………

    • bostonboomer says:

      I know all of that, but I still get shocked all over again when I see such blatant evidence of the ways in which the ruling class assure their continued control of our political and economic system.

      Ben Rhodes is a perfect example of someone who started out on third base and thinks he hit a triple. But this story shows that the elite media is also willing to believe this myth because they are mostly from the same class–people born to wealthy, successful parents who were able to attend the best schools and had the connections to land the best jobs right out of college.

      As Jack Shafer wrote,

      Hiring Rhodes — or somebody with his resume — wasn’t an improbable choice. It was entirely predestined. Unnoted in the Times profile are the facts that Rhodes also wrote policy speeches for former Virginia Governor Mark Warner, that other Hamilton aides joined the Obama campaign, and that Rhodes’s wife, Ann Norris, works for Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) on foreign policy and defense issues.

      Why pretend Rhodes was an outside shot for the job? Did the Times decide the piece lacked sufficient tension to hold reader interest, and inflated the story with the bogus notion that he’s an accidental West Winger? Your guess is as good as mine.

      My guess is that most NYT reporters are from similar upper class backgrounds as the Rhodes brother, but they want to see themselves as struggling to make it to the top.

      • RalphB says:

        I think your assumptions are entirely correct. By the way, the Michael Lind link you posted on last night’s thread was wonderful. I’d like to see a lot more of an Anti-Rentier agenda from someone or some party.

      • bostonboomer says:

        Michel Lind is a {gasp!} socialist, I think. He speaks the truth. Here’s the link for anyone interested:

        Defeating Useless Rich People

      • Fannie says:

        Amen, thanks BB. Just prior to reading this I saw where Rep. Ray Lahood held a town meeting, and the tea party members had the media crews removed from the meeting. It’s a power grab alright, especially when Lahood did nothing to stop the tea party from removing the local media. This is part of what communities are up against, and it’s not comming together for “citizens”………..all citizens.

    • jawbone says:

      Big Money and Big Corporations own both: the pols and the media.

  2. peggysue22 says:

    Great post, BB. Then we wonder why the ‘press’ fell all over themselves with our invasion of Iraq and are now in full ‘mea culpa’ mode on the 10th anniversary of Mission Accomplished. As if some of us don’t remember where they stood ‘back in the day.’ Incest gives birth to continued incest. I watched the doc on MSNBC that Rachel Maddow put together, Hubris. Which was well done, basically a timeline of the Iraq propaganda and the players involved. What was sickening was having to listen to the after show with the likes of Chris Matthews, proclaiming his resistance to the war from the start. Hello! I specifically recall Matthews talking about how sexy the war was, how Bush’s statement with the Mission Accomplished banner behind him was ‘brilliant,’ and how women in particular love this kind of stuff. Ugh!

    Matt Taibbi had a disturbing column on his blog the other day, speaking to the ‘truths’ that too many Americans are loathe to address, how corruption, deceit, double-dealing, double-talk are the underpinnings of the system, the only thing holding the rotting timbers up. There are not that many true journalists out there; most have become sycophants to the powers that be,had their heads turned for money, for access, for the life in the bright lights.

    This is an important piece. Thank you for writing it!

    • bostonboomer says:

      Thanks, Peggy Sue. It’s great to see you!

      There are so many examples of this process, that I hardly know where to begin. As Russ Baker points out, Barack Obama did to some extent come out of nowhere. He managed to get into the best schools and connect with the ruling class types. But Baker also notes that Presidents can be exceptions to the rule:

      The great exception to this rule being, of course, presidents themselves. Obama’s own rapid rise from obscurity, like that of George W. Bush (he at least of famous lineage), was astounding, and, if you think about it, it’s kind of remarkable how little we really understand about how and why Obama himself got to the top beyond the package of smarts and charisma—or about what exactly he believes in. We’re a long way from JFK—whose death 50 years ago blunted a tradition of edgy frankness and risk-taking we also associated with FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, Truman, etc.

  3. Pat Johnson says:

    Speaking of “third base” consider Luke Russert who became first a political analyst then a correspondent followed by an anchor all within 3 years at MSNBC! All at the ripe old age of 24!

    Not because he had ever managed to work his way up but because he was the son of Tim Russert.

    It doesn’t get more “incestuous” than this. Fresh out of college, I am assuming he never bothered with filling out job applications but was immediately hired with a fantastic salary and his own parking space.

    In real estate it is all about the “location”. For Luke it was all about “the name”.

    • bostonboomer says:

      Yes, he’s a perfect example–utterly unqualified, but handed a top media job anyway, thanks to dear old dad dropping dead and other the other third-basers feeling bad about it.

      • ANonOMouse says:

        Luke is such an abysmal news-person. Everytime I watch him I remember the buddy-systems, the nepotism, the insider networks that we, the serfs, had shoved in our faces throughout our work lives. You can’t help but wonder how many hard-working, super qualified people were passed over to give Timmy a legacy slot.

      • ANonOMouse says:

        excuse me, I meant to write “to give Timmy’s son a legacy spot”

    • Fannie says:

      That’s the truth, see it all the time.

  4. ANonOMouse says:

    Very good post BB.

  5. janicen says:

    Thank you for your work putting this together. It smacks of so many things; incestuous relationships between the press and politicians and class privilege to name two. But you can’t ignore the white male angle either. So Rhodes went to Rice. What were his grades? What work did he do as an undergrad? And by the way, he doesn’t even have a graduate degree and he’s a White House advisor? My daughter is working her ass off as an undergrad journalism student making the Dean’s List, on the editorial board of her college newspaper, and the first sophomore to be nominated for Editor in Chief and plans to go to grad school to earn a master’s degree but I’m gonna out on a limb and say her career success will pale in comparison to Rhodes’.

    I’m going to call this crap out whenever I see it because it’s an area where we feminists have made very little progress. My husband was chatting with a colleague who climbed very quickly to a very high level position and he was remarking how “lucky” he was and isn’t this a great country because here he is a high level executive who went to a tier two college for undergrad and was only a C student. Look how far he came! Even my husband missed it until I asked him, when he retold the story, “How many women do you think get “lucky” like that?”

    Burns my butt.

    • janicen says:

      And I’m going to go even further and suggest that if the President of CBS News had asister who was an aspiring novelist living in Queens, she would not end up a White House Advisor.

    • bostonboomer says:

      I have quite a bit more info on Rhodes’ background that I’m going to put in a second post. He went to grad school at NYU to get an MFA in creative writing, but I’m not positive that he got the degree. I’m going to try to find out. At Rice he had a double major in English (creative writing) and political science.

      It is somewhat surprising that he and his brother David were able to get to the top of their fields in their 30s without attending an ivy league college. That probably says a lot about who his parents are. If you look at his father’s resume, he obviously has top notch connections. I suspect his mother comes from a ruling class family, but I haven’t been able to find out anything about her so far–not even her name.

      • RalphB says:

        You might just take a look at Rice. As a small elite university, with a lot of very successful graduates, it can provide a nice launch for a youngster.

      • Beata says:

        BB, just look at DePauw. The Lillys, the Pulliams, and the Quayles all have a history of attending that little college in Greencastle. Powerful “old boys networks” exist at schools other than the Ivy League.

      • bostonboomer says:

        You’re right, Ralph and Beata. All three Rhodeses–father and two sons graduated from what is now the James A. Baker School of Public Policy at Rice, which I imagine is pretty prestigious. I wasn’t suggesting that there aren’t plenty of elite schools that aren’t in the Ivies.

        But the NY-DC axis is very important in the rise of rich kids in media and government too.

      • bostonboomer says:

        Very appropriate!

  6. NW Luna says:

    Talk about conflict of interest! Journalists and newsmedia execs should have to publish a list of their connections, right under the masthead.

    • bostonboomer says:

      I agree. At the the very least, CBS should have to make an announcement every time they interview Obama or any top administration figure.

      I’ll have more in my second post on how every influential Ben Rhodes is in the administration.

  7. bostonboomer says:

    Another great example of what I’m talking about is David Ignatius. No one ever mentions that his father was Secretary of the Navy and later president of the Washington Post.

    • bostonboomer says:

      Also too: Cokie Roberts.

      • jawbone says:

        I recall hearing frequently back in the early days of All Things Considered that Cokie was the daughter of two high powered Dem pols. She made a lot of being the daughter of Lindsey Boggs, mentioned her father somewhat less, iirc.

      • bostonboomer says:

        Cokie’s dad was Rep. Hale Boggs. He was House Majority Leader and served on the Warren Commission. He died in a mysterious plane crash in Alaska in 1972. There are conspiracy theories about that crash, because Boggs was one of the Commission members who doubted the single bullet theory. He also made a speech that got him blacklisted by Nixon.

      • janicen says:

        Not to mention her brother, Thomas Hale Boggs of the huge DC law/lobbying firm Patton Boggs.

      • bostonboomer says:

        Right. Cokie is DC royalty.

  8. Pat Johnson says:

    Another perfect example is in the Jerry Sandusky case.

    The “rumors” were not unknown to the local press in Paradise Valley but because of the relationship between the press, the university, the local law officials, and the political establishment of PA, the rumors were never examined. Too much money was at stake and the system was all tied up in the success of its football franchise to ever be revealed.

    Reporters were obedient to their superiors who were obedient to the powers that be, primarily Paterno who wielded the clout throughout that state.

    The outcome was breathtaking in how far up this went in the chain of discovery when action was suspended and the victims ignored.

  9. RalphB says:

    Charles Pierce: The Class War Comes To The Suburbs Another day in a nation of suckers.

    • janicen says:

      Thanks for the link to Pierce. I forget to read him sometimes. I don’t know what’s wrong with me lately but I find myself breaking into tears over what’s happening to the middle class. I was bawling like a baby watching “American Winter” on HBO. My dad was a union leader after he came home from the war back in the 1940’s and for forty years he fought for weekends off, 40 hour workweek, paid vacation, sick and disability, workers comp, health insurance, life insurance, etc. You know the drill. Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s a factory worker could count on those things along with job security until retirement at age 65, and health insurance and pension benefits upon retirement. None of those things currently exist for people without college educations or for people with college educations for that matter. Of course fewer and fewer can afford the exorbitant costs of college unless they pledge servitude to the bank lending them the fortune required for not much of an education and even fewer opportunities.

      Mark my words, I’m saying it here today, I’m leaning more and more toward socialism. Socialist policies might be the only thing to save this country from an all out communist dictatorship like happened in Russia. When things get so fcking bad for the majority and so fcking good for an extreme minority, even the military will join the revolution. It sounds crazy but we are getting closer and closer to a tipping point.

  10. purplefinn says:

    Mind boggling how these “young” men became powerhouses. Excellent research, BB.

  11. littleisis says:

    He looks just like all the other dueschbags obamas frat house, I mean White House, is filled with. They are probably all related and can be traced back to the same dueschy family. Great article!