During Monday's White House daily briefing, Press Secretary Josh Earnest was peppered with questions about the recently-announced absence of Saudi Arabian head of state King Salman's absence at this week's Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit at the White House and Camp David, including this early exchange with Reuters' Julia Edwards that well encapsulates the contours of this narrative:
"I think we've identified the word of the day in the briefing today. No, fair enough, that was probably the word of the day in the briefing based on the press coverage before we even started going through these questions."
What he's referring to is a Sunday announcement by the Saudi Arabian government that the king would not be attending the summit, after the White House said, Friday, that King Salman would be attending. The White House and the Saudi government insist it is not a snub, but pretty much everyone in the media knows better, including supposedly in-the-tank MSNBC, whose Andrea Mitchell reported the story shortly before Monday's briefing, with the help of the Associated Press' Julie Pace:
Mitchell: The White House claiming this is not a snub. Certainly the Saudis are saying it's not a snub, but there's no other way to interpret it.
Pace: It's a confusing situation.
Got that? There's no other way to interpret it. Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz told reporters, on Friday, that President Obama was scheduled to meet with King Salman this Wednesday, and then on Sunday, the Saudis announced that King Salman would not be making the trip after all, and so this is really a confusing situation, because what could possibly have changed between Friday and Sunday? It has to mean that the Saudis are unhappy with the Iran nuclear deal, and are giving President Obama the finger at the last second. There's no other way to interpret it!
Except, of course, that there is. For some reason, Earnest decided not to go into it, but the Saudis said that the reason King Salman would be sticking close to home is that the Houthis in Yemen have just accepted a five-day humanitarian ceasefire that begins Tuesday. It's no vague "family commitment," but it sounds kind of important.
In fact, it was the subject of President Obama's last publicly-announced conversation with King Salman, just a few weeks ago:
The President and King Salman agreed that our collective goal is to achieve lasting stability in Yemen through a negotiated political solution facilitated by the United Nations and involving all parties as envisioned in the GCC Initiative. The President and King Salman also discussed the importance of responding to the humanitarian needs of the Yemeni people.
It is journalism's job to be skeptical of government "spin," but it's only one job, and it's supposed to be subordinate to informing the public and telling the truth. It's true, there are concerns among the GCC partners about the Iran nuclear deal because, as Earnest pointed out elsewhere in the briefing, there are concerns within the Obama administration, and even within Barack Obama, about the deal. Nobody trusts Iran. Khamenei himself spends half of his day pointing at a mirror yelling "Don't trust that motherf**ker!"
Additionally, as Earnest also pointed out, the leaders who will be attending the summit are not a bunch of GCC randos, they are crown princes and defense ministers and the like, people who speak for their respective countries' governments. So, the White House "spin" is that there is skepticism of the Iran deal, but King Salman legit couldn't make it, while the media spin is that there is skepticism about the Iran deal, and the Saudis and the White House are lying, and I guess the Houthis are in on it too?
What's really crazy about this is that the mainstream media has not been all that shy about rooting for a deal with Iran, or at least rooting against folks like the 47 Senators who are trying to scuttle it. This is not a case of political bias, it is purely a thirst for drama.
It is dangerous for any democracy to be put in the position of having to trust in what the government is telling you, but it is even more dangerous for that democracy's agent for the people, the free press, to demonstrate that it can't be trusted.