No Pundit Survives Contact With a Historian

James Dunnigan’s article in yesterday’s StrategyPage, “No Pundit Survives Contact With a Historian,” makes an interesting (if self-serving) argument:

The reporting of military events in StrategyPage often differs from how the mass media describes the same events. That’s because the mass media is under enormous pressure to report startling and “competitive,” news. StrategyPage isn’t. Our editors and contributors have a background in history and historical simulation (wargames), and that provides a very different perspective. Our analysis, based on historical trends and past performance, is far more accurate than the dramatic headlines the mass media use to describe the same events. But not as dramatic. Reality tends to be dull.

Dramatic headlines have, for over a century, been the key to success in the media business. While most reporters believe their job is simply to report what happens, as accurately as they can, editors know better. Accurate reporting loses out to sensationalistic reporting every time. Thus we like to say that, at least when it comes to long term accuracy, no pundit survives contact with a historian.

Editors also rely on the fact that most consumers of mass media news do not revisit old stories to see how accurate they were. Historians, however, do that all the time.

The rest of the piece goes on to explain the advantages of war gaming and historical simulation, techniques Dunnigan and his crew employ, over traditional journalistic coverage. It’s somewhat one-sided but does a good job of explaining why reporters, focused excessively on the moment at hand, are so often wrong in their analysis.

FILED UNDER: Media, Military Affairs
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. “Editors also rely on the fact that most consumers of mass media news do not revisit old stories to see how accurate they were.”

    I would tend to disagree with that statement. Consumers may not revisit old stories but they do remember old stories, especially if they were wrong.

  2. Bob Hawkins says:

    One of the advantages of being a messy housekeeper is, I keep turning up old newspapers. Papers from a few months ago seem to come from an alternate universe. Which means that today’s paper probably comes from an alternate universe.

  3. DC Loser says:

    “It’s somewhat one-sided but does a good job of explaining why reporters, focused excessively on the moment at hand, are so often wrong in their analysis.”

    You might also add to that, bloggers.

  4. JakeV says:

    He’s right that old newspaper articles often seem to have been written in an alternate universe.

    Unfortunately for his argument, old articles from StrategyPage often give the same impression. Like this one for example. Or this one.

    But don’t take my word for it. Do a search for “Iraq” on the StrategyPage site and make up your own mind about the superiority of their predictive and analytical powers.

    (And notice that they make predictions only reluctantly, almost always hedging their bets considerably when they do venture a prediction.)

  5. JakeV says:

    Hm, links didn’t work. Well, here’s a quote from one:
    Who’s winning in Iraq? Hardly anyone noticed, but U.S. troops aren’t losing. American casualties have been steadily declining since they peaked last November (414, including 82 dead). The casualties went down to 306 in December, 234 in January and 167 last month. In February there were twenty American soldiers killed in action, or .79 per day. This was the first month, since the war began, that the troops killed fell to less than one a day.

    That’s Dunnigan, in March 2004. Now, strictly speaking, he didn’t predict anything there. But the trend he points to dramatically reversed itself very shortly after this article was written.

    Here’s Dunnigan again:

    What is really happening in Iraq? The media make it sound like another Vietnam, with the Iraqi population sliding towards mass resistance as Iraqi society collapses in violent anarchy. But the reality is a lot different. Attacks on coalition troops are declining, the availability of public services is increasing and public opinion towards the coalition becomes more favorable each day.

    That was from July 2003. The assessment that Dunnigan criticizes is, of course, incorrect. Unfortunately Dunnigan’s own assessment has proven to be entirely wrong as well.

  6. Kalblog says:

    Pundits and Historians
    James Joyner links to a very interesting post at StrategyPage on the difference between pundits and historians. I think it’s interesting because pundits, whose job is essentially to offer non-stop commentary that is sometimes not that thought-intensiv…