Bret Stephens: Why Journalists Often Make a Mush of the First Draft of History

Roundup: Talking About History

Bret Stephens, in the WSJ (3-8-05):

[Mr. Stephens is a member of the Journal's editorial board.]

Remember Japan Inc.? If you were a semi-sentient consumer of news in the 1980s, it was hard to avoid the impression that Japan would soon overtake the U.S. in global economic clout, if its corporations didn't just purchase the country outright. They've got Rockefeller Center! They're gobbling up Hollywood! Chalmers Johnson, Clyde Prestowitz and other soi-disant experts pronounced sagely on the invincible Japanese model of industrial organization, while the media supplied a diet of stories about how companies such as Sony or Honda remained world-beaters, year-in and year-out.

Now consider the amazing media about-face in recent weeks on Iraq. Prior to Jan. 30, dateline Baghdad was dateline Götterdämmerung. Now it's dateline Democracy. Bombs are still exploding, but we aren't reading much anymore about how we're losing hearts and minds, or how Iraq is ethnically too fractious to have a meaningful democracy. Instead, the media connect the dots between elections in Baghdad and events in Beirut, Cairo and Ramallah, and talk about 1989.

It's right that they should do so. But we should also connect the dots between today's Iraq and 1980s Japan. The myth of Japan Inc. took hold because there was so little Western reporting to suggest that not all was well with the Japanese economy. So, when Japan's real-estate bubble burst and the economy flatlined for over a decade, the world was caught unawares. The myth of an Iraqi quagmire took hold for similar reasons -- the media was so busy telling the story of everything that was going wrong in Iraq that it broadly missed what was going right.

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The cliché is that journalism is the first draft of history. Yet a historian searching for clues about the origins of many of the great stories of recent decades -- the collapse of the Soviet empire; the rise of Osama bin Laden; the declining American crime rate; the economic eclipse of Japan and Germany -- would find most contemporary journalism useless. Perhaps a story here or there might, in retrospect, seem illuminating. But chances are it would have been nearly invisible at the time of publication: eight column inches, page A12.

The problem is not that journalists can't get their facts straight: They can and usually do. Nor is it that the facts are obscure: Often, the most essential facts are also the most obvious ones. The problem is that journalists have a difficult time distinguishing significant facts -- facts with consequences -- from insignificant ones. That, in turn, comes from not thinking very hard about just which stories are most worth telling....

It is, of course, impossible to anticipate "events," in Harold MacMillan's sense of the word. But none of the examples listed here belong in that category. Norman Podhoretz predicted the peace process would lead to war. Charles Wolf saw the hollowness of Japan Inc. Daniel Patrick Moynihan predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union. And George W. Bush understood, and said, that a free Iraq would serve as a beacon of liberty for the oppressed Arab world.

As for the media, it shouldn't be too difficult to do better. Look for the countervailing data. Broaden your list of sources. Beware of exoticizing your subject: If you think that Israelis and Palestinians operate from no higher motive than revenge, you're on the wrong track. Above all, never forget the obvious: that the law of supply and demand operates in Japan, too; that the Soviet Union was a state governed by fear; that Iraqis aren't rooting for their killers; that, if given the chance, people will choose to be free.

Simple maxims, but how much embarrassment would the media be spared if only they followed them.

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