The fall of empiricism

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Via Laura Rozen comes this Jay Rosen piece on Bush Co.’s “Retreat from Empiricism.” Jay credits Ron Suskind with feeling out the Bush approach to policy making:

The only piece of political journalism ever to make me cry was Ron Suskind’s article, Without a Doubt, published in the New York Times Magazine shortly before the 2004 election. It was in that article that the famous passage appeared quoting a senior administration official on the myopia of the “reality-based community” when it came to understanding the government of George W. Bush.

Rosen goes on, making some astute observations of his own:

There’s another story almost as iconic as Suskind’s senior adviser: “we make our own reality.” When Jay Garner returns to the White House from running the American effort in Iraq, Bush, Cheney, Condi Rice and Rumsfeld are there to greet him. Not only does he know to give a falsely upbeat assessment in his written report and stick to cheerful banter during the meeting, but he finds that no one asks him a single question about the situation on the ground in Iraq. Here you have the best possible reporter, but there is no report. The scene (as described by George Packer) is highly ritualized. A message is being sent about who gets to define what’s happening on the ground, and it isn’t the people on the ground. Garner told Packer that “Bush knew only what Cheney let into his office.”

Laura singled out this section on the media:

Whereas if they tried to narrate the expansion of executive power (led by the vice president) through a revolt against empiricism (led by the chief executive) their story would be more accurate (to what happened) but less credible to more people. Because it sounds so extreme.

This is in fact a way to discredit the press that the press has not fully appreciated. Take extreme action and a press that mistrusts “the extremes” will mistrust initial reports of that action— like Suskind’s. This gives you time to re-make the scene and overawe people. There are all kinds of costs to changing a master narrative that has been built up by beat reporters and career pundits. When the press can hang on to an old and proven one it will. The Bush people understood that. They knew they could change the game on the press because the press finds it hard to act in reply. Therefore it tends to behave.

As she said, it’s worth a read.

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