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The media's rush to judgment.

Quick, facile pronouncements on Clinton, the Gulf War, and Japan dramatize a dangerous new tendency: a McLaughlinized press would rather jump to conclusions than work to get it right

When I started working for this magazine nearly 22 years ago, Richard Nixon was about to win re-election over George McGovern in the face of mounting evidence about Watergate. One of the first stories I did for the magazine, which like so many other stories reflected the heavily guiding hand of our editor-in-chief, Charles Peters, blamed The Washington Post and its Woodward-and-Bernstein team for not pushing the story harder while it could still have made a difference at the polls. Surely (I asserted) the paper could see that the trail of incriminating facts was leading straight toward Nixon himself. So why did the stories taper off and the paper seem so timid in the month before the election? If the Post was willing to go for Nixon's jugular, why did it wait until he'd been returned to office before doing so?

Ah, to have such problems today. Some residents of Oregon might still sympathize with my old complaint about the Post's hesitancy. If the Post itself, along with the Oregonian, had pushed harder with stories about Bob Packwood in the month before the 1992 election, Packwood might have been removed from the Senate quickly and cleanly. But these Oregonians would be in the minority. For every case in which today's press errs by being over-cautious, as in the Packwood episode, there are dozens of cases of the reverse--of reporters and commentators reaching sweeping conclusions for which they cannot possibly have proof. The result is to aggravate the cynicism and short attention span that characterize today's political culture. We read about one world-threatening peril this week, a completely different one next week--and pretty soon we are numb to all of them. Here are three examples of what I'm talking about:

* Four months after Bill Clinton's inauguration, the verdicts were in: He had failed disastrously as a leader and his administration was for all practical purposes at an end. In early June, Time published its cover story on "The Incredible Shrinking Presidency," and Newsweek's cover showed a picture of Clinton with the caption, "What's Wrong?" The Washington Post ran a front page story presenting Clinton as a case study of what it means to use up your "political capital." A New York Times editorial asked "Can the Democrats Govern?" and a Times columnist wrote, "Four months into a new presidency, people who voted for it are wondering if it can be saved." The weekend talk shows rang with schadenfreude-edged dissections of "another failed presidency." Even David Broder, usually the soul of sobriety, weighed in with a column calling Clinton's performance a "calamity that reached beyond our borders." This column ended, "That this is happening to a man who will remain as president for the next 43 months is an international disaster."

Comeback Kids

Whoa! No one knows just how strong or weak Bill Clinton will look by the end of his administration, or even what emergencies may have arisen by the time this magazine comes out. But that is exactly the point. No one could possibly know, four months into a president's first term, how things were going to turn out in the long run. With the possible exception of William Henry Harrison, who caught pneumonia on Inauguration Day and died a month later, no president has made mistakes in his first four months in office that proved to be the fatal and decisive errors of his presidency. Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt got off to strong legislative starts in their first years in office. John Kennedy, by enduring and learning from the disaster at the Bay of Pigs, became much more sophisticated about foreign policy during his first year. But most of the events that lead us to classify presidents as successes or failures occurred well into their terms. Jimmy Carter's main success, the Camp David peace agreement, took place near the end of his second year in office. His most obvious failures, involving the Iranian hostages and the Soviets in Afghanistan, occurred in his final year. George Bush triumphed in leading the Desert Storm coalition during the second half of his term. He reneged on his "no new taxes" pledge in his second year and vomited on Kiichi Miyazawa in his last year.

In short, however we ultimately feel about Bill Clinton, it will be different from the way we felt four months into his term--because that has always been the case with presidents. The very pundits who had been pronouncing Clinton dead in June proved this point in the following two months, with the predictable raft of stories about the president's miraculous comeback." He demonstrated his legislative skill by getting his budget passed; he demonstrated determination by drawing a line in the sand about NAFTA; he demonstrated his charm on a visit to Japan; and he demonstrated that he took established Washington seriously by hiring David Gergen. Six months into his presidency, Bill Clinton was a success again.

The most significant aspect of these "comeback" stories is that, by the logic of the earlier "failure" stories, a comeback should have been impossible. If Clinton in his first four months had "used up" his political capital, if his administration was an "international disaster," if his errors were "fatal"--the term used repeatedly on talk shows--then by definition he could not have recovered. If reporters really believed these things, then they'd have no good reason to keep covering Clinton: He was doomed. But of course the reporters didn't believe the things they were saying. They had seen enough politics and knew enough history to realize that nothing could be settled by the fourth month. Nonetheless, something in the climate of modern journalism made them feel either pressured or entitled to exaggerate.

* In the build-up to the war against Iraq three years ago, some people said that American forces would be slaughtered and others said it would be an easy win. The optimists turned out to be right. People like me, who said that the war could go on for months, were proven wrong. I'm happy to have been wrong about this, and I still believe that when it comes to military commitments the risks of mistaken pessimism are smaller than the risks of mistaken optimism. (Ask Robert McNamara.)

Yet barely three days into the war, the pundit class had leapt beyond the immediate finding--that American forces would rout the Iraqis in a hurry, with little damage to themselves--to the more grandiose conclusion that every bit of equipment in the U.S. arsenal had worked miraculously well. The Patriot missiles were shooting down every Iraqi Scud. The smart bombs were flying in the mail slots and down the exhaust fans of Iraqi military installations, meanwhile sparing innocent civilians. Hah! The joke was on all the people who had said that the American arsenal was full of high-tech turkeys that would fail when put to the test. "When the Patriot downed nine missiles out of a volley of ten over Saudi Arabia late Sunday, it knocked down more than Scuds," a reporter for The Los Angeles Times wrote one week into the war. "It overwhelmed the doubts of even those who had called last week's single-shot success beginner's luck." On the talk shows Republicans demanded apologies from those who had criticized the Reagan defense build-up.

Just Desserts

I had a stake in this argument, since I had written in the early 1980s about the risks of relying on very costly, highly complex weapons that worked much better in the laboratory than in the dirty, confusing circumstances of real war. This might seem to be another case in which people like me should be happy to be proven wrong--except that the seeming success of the first few days of combat did not prove us wrong. Within months, it became clear that the initial "Everything worked!" euphoria was ill-founded. At a congressional hearing three months after the fighting, two authorities who usually agree on very little about weapons design--William Perry, generally seen as an advocate of high-tech weaponry, and Pierre Sprey, who had for years made the case for less-complex weapons--agreed that the Patriot had not performed as advertised. Sprey said that, according to Israeli intelligence, Patriots had scored a mid-air hit on only one incoming Scud--not all of them, as TV viewers would have assumed, or 24 of them, or nine out of ten, as had been reported during the war. Perry said (according to David Evans of the Chicago Tribune) that the Patriot simply "is not effective" against battlefield missiles like the Scud. One Scud had fallen on a U.S. barracks in Dharan, causing America's major casualties in Desert Storm. During the fighting Pentagon officials said that Patriots had not fired at this Scud because the air-defense system assumed that it had already broken up in flight. Within six months of the fighting it emerged that the Patriot's guidance software had simply failed to detect and lock onto the missile. The laser-guided "smart bombs" shown on the news clips seemed to have hit their targets without fail. In fact, Congressmen were told at the Perry-Sprey hearing, it had taken 72 "smart bomb" sorties to destroy one bridge.

In retrospect, the most accurate assessment of complex weaponry during the fighting was that of retired Admiral Eugene Carroll, of the Center for Defense Information, who said on Crossfire":

We're nine days into a war. All we know

about this war sitting here right now is

what we've been told through the filter in

Riyadh and the filter in the Pentagon.

Certainly we've seen bombs hit targets

and collapse buildings. We haven't seen

bombs that missed targets, but I'll guarantee

you some have. We haven't received

reports on how these systems are

holding up. Are they operationally ready

in sufficient numbers? The verdict is not

in on technology although there are some

remarkable performances out there.

Carroll is usually identified as an "advocate," since the Center for Defense Information generally recommends smaller defense budgets. Yet his "advocate's" point was exactly the one most journalists should have been making--that the evidence was not in, that it was a mistake to accept initial battlefield reports at face value, that there would be time to decide what worked and what didn't when the smoke had cleared. But few journalists and virtually no pundits could be bothered with such boring niceties. The talk show verdict was: Technology, Yes. Doubters (and Iraqis, and Scuds), No. Next Topic!

* Late last year, American punditry discovered that the Japanese economy was doomed, much as the Clinton administration had been a few months before. During 1993 the Japanese economy contracted slightly, rather than continuing its decades-long record of steady growth. The Tokyo stock exchange plunged to levels at least 60 percent below its peak from the late 1980s; American companies made inroads against the Japanese in the car, semiconductor, and computer markets. After decades of smug boasting about their "no layoffs" policy, big Japanese firms began talking about having too many people for the work at hand.

From this evidence two conclusions might be drawn. One is that something fundamental about the Japanese economy really had changed. For the previous 125 years, since the Meiji Restoration of 1868 began a massive effort to catch up with the industrialized West, Japan's economy had seemed capable of moving only one way: forward. The only serious setback in that period had of course come in the decade before and during World War 11, which led the country to disaster. With that exception, Japan had always advanced, and had generally done so faster than outsiders anticipated. But any system can reach limits, and perhaps that is what had happened to Japan in 1993. American competitors may have grown sharper, after their own difficulties in the 1980s. Japanese consumers and oppressed salarymen may at last have had enough. Ten years from now it may be clear that the production-at-any-price system came to an end in Japan in the early 1990s, just as the military-strength-at-any-price system collapsed in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.

But there is another possibility. Ten years from now, it may be clear that Japan's "crisis" of the early 1990s, rather than representing a fundamental change, was actually like other "crises" in its economic history. In 1972 the Japanese economy was shaken to its foundations by the rise of OPEC and the sudden skyrocketing of oil prices. Japan, which produces virtually no petroleum of its own, feared that it would literally be left to freeze; at a minimum its products would be priced out of world export markets. Yet within a decade, the oil shocks seemed, if anything, to have left Japan's economy stronger. By radically reducing its energy use and shifting to less energy-intensive industries, Japan was better positioned than the United States or Western Europe to deal with supply disruptions in the future. (This is why the Japanese government was so unenthusiastic about Operation Desert Storm. So what if the Iraqis controlled Kuwait's oil supply? Japan didn't need the oil as badly as the Americans did.)

In 1986, the Japanese economy was shaken nearly as badly by the yen's sudden doubling in value against the U.S. dollar as it had been by the earlier oil shocks. Economists had been saying for years that an undervalued yen gave Japanese exporters a crucial advantage; within months that advantage was stripped away. Western economists were unanimous in saying that Japan's export surge was at an end. Who would buy the Sonys and Toyotas when their price doubled?

Half a dozen years later, it was clear that endaka--"high yen"--had left Japan's industries, including its exporters, stronger than ever before. They could acquire assets around the world at bargain prices with their newly powerful currency. They shifted low-wage work to low-wage countries, and expanded high-wage jobs in Japanese factories. The government worked with banks and industries to coordinate a mammoth investment program, so that industries could stay competitive as the yen went up. The Westerners who wrote about the "hollowing out" of industrial Japan in 1986 turned out to be wrong.

Industrial Strengths

Maybe this new "crisis" of the Japanese economy really is different, and maybe this time the Japanese business system will not be able to respond. But at the moment no one can be sure of that. We can be sure of two things: first, that Westerners have repeatedly been wrong before in counting Japan out, and second, that the Japanese economy retains tremendous strengths.

The savings rate in Japan is still at least three times higher than America's. This is a nuisance in the short term, since it makes it harder for Japanese consumers to spend their way out of a recession. It is a godsend in the long term, since it gives the country's industries more money to invest. The Japanese central government usually operates with a balanced budget or a budget surplus, in contrast to America's gigantic deficits. Again in the short run this depresses spending but in the long run it gives the country great maneuvering room. (How different American politics would be now if we could approach health care, education, environmental problems, and scientific research with a "money is no object" attitude.) For the next decade the fastest-growing markets in the world will probably be in Southeast Asia and China. Japanese manufacturers enjoy near-monopoly positions in many of these markets. Despite the "collapse" of Japan's economy, unemployment is lower there than it has been in America for many decades and no major company has announced significant layoffs. Despite the huge numbers of bad debts on the books of Japanese banks, no major bank has been allowed to fail. (Instead, the government acts as mid-wife for mergers in which stronger banks absorb the weak.)

No one in America, and probably no one in Japan, can prove how this combination of strengths and vulnerabilities will balance out for Japan over the next decade. But that hasn't stopped American punditry. Late last year the talk-show consensus was that the Japanese model had been conclusively proven a failure. My old friend Robert Samuelson, writing in Newsweek in December, offered three pieces of evidence to show that the Japanese miracle was over: a continued decline in department store sales, one-day furloughs for the Mazda Motors work force, and a comment from Japanese industrialists that they "may have to start laying people off" if the economy didn't rebound. Within a week of his column's appearance, Xerox announced that it would cut its permanent work force by 10,000, and Boeing said it might lay off 3,000 people. For years, Samuelson said, Japan's economy enjoyed "special advantages"--an undervalued yen, sleepy competition in the United States, an ability to copy technology others had pioneered. "All these favorable conditions are now vanishing," he said. Well, maybe--but we've heard similar conclusions before, and so far they've always been wrong.

About a month before Samuelson's column appeared, The New York Times publicized a study rebutting the impression that American industries had fallen behind Japan's in productivity. (The headline: "Why the U.S. Is Indeed Productive.") The study, which had been conducted by the consulting firm McKinsey and Company, concluded that Japanese industries, taken as a whole, were only 79 percent as productive as American industries. Yoo-Ess-Ay! Yoo-ess-ay! Yet the details of the study left a quite different impression from the upbeat headline. The industries in which America was more productive than Japan were: computers; soaps and detergents; beer; and foods. The industries in which Japan was more productive: automobiles; auto parts; metal-working; steel; and consumer electronics.

"The evidence that we found, for the first time, is that the more open you are, the more productive you become," said a McKinsey official whom Sylvia Nasar of the Times quoted. In fact McKinsey's list would seem to prove just the reverse. The areas of America's strengths have been, in different ways and at different times, among its most protected industries. The computer industry got going largely on the strength of government contracts; the beer and food industries are both subject to notorious protectionist provisions. (America's trade fights with Canada often involve wood and beer.) Every industry on Japan's list of strengths has for decades been affected by formal and informal trade restraints. This doesn't prove that America should adopt a similar policy, and it doesn't prove that Japan's economy will continue to grow. But it does suggest that it's too early to print stories with an "America has won!" tone.

What is going on in the Japan case is partly a struggle of ideologies. By the tenets of post-World War II American economics, the Japanese economy can't really have worked. Our principles tell us that protectionism and government regulation ultimately backfire. Japan has obviously been regulated and protectionist, so anyone with an American economics training is on the lookout for signs that Japan has finally failed. Moreover, having heard for years about the annoyingly hard-working and omni-competent Japanese, many Americans are relieved and delighted that Japan can have problems, too.

Yet what is going on in all these cases is something broader: It is the clinching evidence that John McLaughlin has supplanted Woodward and Bernstein as the symbol of Washington journalism. The Woodward and Bernstein era, for all its excesses, at least celebrated journalists for their reportorial effort. In the "McLaughlin Group" era, Washington journalism celebrates positions, opinions, spin, and "takes" on an issue. In the culture of "Crossfire" and McLaughlin, you're all For an issue or you're all Against it. It is weak and wet to say, "No one knows."

Yet no one knew, in June of 1993, how Bill Clinton would ultimately fare as president. No one knew, after a week of fighting in the Persian Gulf, what the after-action reports would show about U.S. weapons. No one knows today whether and how Japan will respond to its current distress. Worst of all, no one knows how long we will have to wait until the journalistic culture changes again.
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Title Annotation:errors in news reporting
Author:Fallows, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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