“Curator”: A person who is in charge of the things in a museum, zoo, etc.
That is how the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word. In today’s world, however, the word has taken on a whole new meaning. The word “curator” is now applied to describe individuals in key positions who curate news content online. So-called news curators filter and control the information made available to the online and other news media, and they are becoming more and more influential in our democracy.
These new curators were most recently in the news a couple of weeks ago, when a former Facebook curator stated that workers there prevented news stories that favored conservative viewpoints from appearing on Facebook’s highly influential “trending” section. This same person stated that news curators were instructed to artificially “inject” stories into the trending section, even if they were not trending at all.
These allegations, if true, fly in the face of Facebook’s claim that the stories on its trending section are based on Facebook’s algorithm, which allegedly was used to prioritize the stories that appeared in the section. Facebook currently boasts 167 million users – who pay nothing to use it – in the United States alone, so the power of its trending section to influence public opinion cannot be ignored. Facebook, by the way, denies the allegations.
On the heels of the Facebook revelation came David Samuels’ article in the May 8, issue of New York Times Magazine under the headline “The Storyteller and the President.” The article tells the story of Ben Rhodes, who is now 38 years old and carries the title of deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.
Rhodes is described in the article as the “single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy aside from POTUS himself.” According to the article, Rhodes and the president communicate several times each day. Up until the time he was hired, at age 31, he was an aspiring novelist.
Rhodes too, is a modern-day news curator. In a nutshell, his job is to make sure the president’s foreign policy decisions are supported by a proper narrative, preferably one designed to convince the public of its correctness. As Samuels describes him, “he is the master shaper and retailer of Obama’s foreign-policy narratives, at a time when the killer wave of social media has washed away the sand castles of the press.” Rhodes worked with a team for years to ensure that the story being told to the public surrounding the nuclear disarmament negotiations with Iran was the one that the president wanted us to hear.
How does Rhodes do it? By meticulously feeding information to “the administration’s well- cultivated network of officials, talking heads, columnists and newspaper reporters, Web jockeys and outside advocates who can tweet at critics and tweak their stories backed up by quotations from “senior White House officials” and “spokespeople.”
In other words, Rhodes drives the narrative by getting the story Obama wants told into the hands of modern-day journalists who will rebroadcast it in their columns and on their social media networks. The public is being spoon-fed select information by the administration, which arrives on our devices and in our newspapers in a re-broadcast form.
Another phrase used to describe what Rhodes does to the media: he “ventriloquizes” them. The news media are the dummies, and we are the audience.
Rhodes was hired to help the president communicate with the public, and Rhodes notes that the timing of his appointment came during a decade where 40 percent of newspaper-industry professionals had lost their jobs. Now, there are precious few newspapers that maintain foreign bureaus. The end result is that the newspapers call him to explain to them what is happening in foreign countries. In the era of social media, most of the reporting on foreign affairs takes place in Washington. The reporters tend to be very young, and very inexperienced. For Rhodes, manipulating them is child’s play. They tell his stories.
This, of course, is a stark contrast from the way reporting was done historically. The president used to go on television and address the country, and reporters would listen, interpret and report. Now, the message the president wants to deliver is more effectively carried by all of us, on social media. The key is not getting us to watch the speech. The key is getting the people we follow on Twitter, and the curators at Facebook, and other people with large followings, to re-broadcast the message. The key, sadly, is “ventriloquization” in the media. And then we re-broadcast it ourselves, blindly furthering the desired narrative.
For me, reading the article brought me back to the day when John McCain chose Sarah Palin to be his running mate. At the time, I found that act to be the most cynical political maneuver I had ever witnessed, and I refused to vote for McCain because of it. But if Samuels’ article is remotely accurate, then Obama has trumped McCain. If, in fact, his administration provides misleading information to the media that is designed to further his foreign policy agenda, then he is absolutely untrustworthy. Honestly, he could not disrespect us more.
So where does this leave our democracy? Can a democracy function not just without a free press, but without any substantive press at all? The gridlock in Congress over the last few years suggests perhaps not. The pending election suggests that a large part of the voting population cares not necessarily about logic, but about tribal identity, upending the status quo, anger, fear and jealousy. Maybe some of that is attributable to the unreliability of our news sources.
But in light of the methods employed by the Obama administration to further its agenda, I have to admit I really don’t blame them.