WASHINGTON — Three weeks after The New York Times Magazine published its profile of deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, in which he describes creating an “echo chamber” of nongovernmental organizations, nuclear proliferation experts and journalists to sell the Iran nuclear deal, it was revealed a group he cited as disseminating the administration’s narrative had donated to news outlets to report on the accord, as well as to other advocacy groups supporting it.
The Ploughshares Fund, a grant-making foundation dedicated to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, gave the liberal Jewish lobbying organization J Street $576,000 to push the agreement and National Public Radio $100,000 to report on President Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy initiative and related issues.
But from where did the 35-year-old organization get its war chest to support a major media organization’s coverage of the negotiations and contribute so generously to one of the most prominent campaigns championing the deal?
Mostly through other large-scale grant-making foundations and philanthropic organizations, some of the largest in the world, such as The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Hewlett Foundation, Open Society Foundations and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, each of which gave more than $100,000 to Ploughshares in 2015, according to its latest financial report.
The craigslist Charitable Fund, of the classified advertisement website company, chipped in with between $25,000 and $99,000.
Those foundations, and others that donated to Ploughshares, generally have stated goals to support individuals and organizations working on behalf of advancing peaceful solutions to world problems.
The MacArthur Foundation is perhaps most noted for awarding its annual “genius grants”; the Hewlett Foundation, which was started by Hewlett-Packard co-founder William Redington Hewlett, is known for bestowing grants toward liberal causes; and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund was created in 1940 by members of the famed American dynasty of oil tycoons.
Ploughshares also received its share of support from members of the Hollywood community, particularly Jewish ones. It received a donation of between $10,000 and $24,999 from actor Michael Douglas, and between $5,000 and $9,999 from the Streisand Foundation, which was established by the Jewish singer-actress Barbra Streisand.
Through the rest of its donors, Ploughshares received $6,980,384 last year, much of which went toward pushing the nuclear accord, which was struck between the P5+1 world powers and Iran last July and then defeated congressional scrutiny. In September, a bill to reject the deal ultimately failed to receive the required backing to override President Obama’s veto power.
In the lead-up to the vote in Congress, J Street undertook a comprehensive campaign to support the landmark pact, and in July 2015 took out a full-page advertisement in The New York Times urging Congress to refrain from “sabotaging” the nuclear agreement.
J Street also ran TV ads and built a website to stump for the accord.
The group’s campaign ran in direct contrast to the lobbying by Jerusalem and other pro-Israel organizations, like AIPAC, to convince Congress to thwart the deal.
Such support is what Ploughshares has done since its inception. Jewish nuclear disarmament activist Sally Lilienthal established the group in 1981 as the Cold War fomented a growing fear over the rapid proliferation of nuclear weaponry. The foundation was designed to provide financial support to individuals and organizations advocating peaceful means of conflict resolution and the elimination of nuclear and chemical weapons.
Those activities have taken on a new connotation in the wake of the controversial New York Times piece that featured Rhodes describing how the administration worked with independent experts and friendly reporters to build support for the accord.
“We created an echo chamber,” Rhodes was quoted as saying. “They [the independent experts and journalists] were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.” He was also quoted as saying that “outside groups like Ploughshares” helped carry out the administration’s message effectively.
The piece revived Republicans’ criticism of the Iran agreement, as they suggested it was evidence of a White House spin machine set up to deceive the American people. The administration countered with the assertion that it had always believed in the deal, and accused opponents of trying to re-litigate it after having failed to defeat it.
In its report, Ploughshares prided itself on its role in securing the deal’s passage. Acknowledging its success had been “driven by the fearless leadership of the Obama administration and supporters in Congress,” board chairwoman Mary Lloyd Estrie also noted that “less known is the absolutely critical role that civil society played in tipping the scales toward this extraordinary policy victory.”
In the wake of the controversy that erupted when the Associated Press broke news of Ploughshares’ donations, the group’s president, Joseph Cirincione, has defended its role during the period when the deal faced congressional overview.
“It is common practice for foundations to fund media coverage of under-reported stories and perspectives. For some, this might be global health, poverty or the impact of conflict on civilians. For Ploughshares Fund, this means bringing much-needed attention to the dangers of nuclear weapons,” he wrote in The Huffington Post. “Our support of independent media such as NPR … does not influence the editorial content of their coverage in any way, nor would we want it to.”
Cirincione went on to attack the Times’s Rhodes profile and its characterization of White House cooperation with independent groups as being misleading, and suggested it had given fuel to the deal’s critics. “It is logical for opponents of the nuclear agreement with Iran to want to see their failure as the result of evil spin masters,” he said.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.