April 5, 2009: The mass media were embarrassed recently when someone did the math and revealed that the hot headline "90 Percent of Illegal Guns In Mexico Come From The U.S." turned out to be false. However, the real story was not that the actual number was 17 percent. Nor was it that the "90 percent" number came from someone (accidentally or purposely) who misread the data (90 percent of the guns identified as of U.S. manufacture were, using their serial numbers, indeed traced back to the U.S., and not some other country they had legally been exported to.) The real story was that there were so many sources of illegal weapons in Mexico, with the U.S. being one of the more difficult places to get weapons from. It's much easier to get a load of weapons in via ship, in a container labeled as something else. Port officials in Mexico are easier to bribe, than U.S. or Mexican border guards. South America is a magnet for international gun runners, many of them now swing by Mexico regularly, to take orders and make deliveries.
The mass media is under enormous pressure to report startling and "competitive," news. 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 war in Iraq was a good recent example of good headlines beating out the facts. In early 2003, it was obvious to anyone who had any knowledge of military, and Iraqi, history, that the invasion of Iraq would be over quickly. It was also no secret, to historians, that the Sunni Arab minority that had been running the country for centuries, would not give up easily. The troops you don't hear much about (civil affairs and Special Forces) knew what they had to do to deal with the Sunni Arab attempts to regain power. Even though the Sunni Arab terror campaign was largely suicidal to their cause, those with knowledge of the region, knew that self-destructive behavior is all-too-common in the region.
You could see the headline hunting at work in how the mass media covered the initial invasion. All you heard were predictions of hard fighting, heavy casualties and stalemate. More accurate predictions weren't rocket science. All you had to do was note that the Iraqis had a dismal track record against professional armies and would not be able to stand up to a well trained and equipped force. And this should not be a new development for anyone who carefully covered the 1991 Gulf War. Back then the favorite media fright phrase was the million man, battle hardened Iraqi desert army. But it was a matter of public record that the Iraqis had, at most, about 700,000 troops. The Iraqis had just recently fought an eight year war with Iran, and most Iraqi veterans of that desperate fight were battle scarred, not battle hardened. This was widely reported at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, but quickly forgotten by most reporters. Lastly, the Iraqis had not fought that war in the desert, but in marshlands and mountains. You only needed a map to confirm that. Thus the phrase, "million man, battle hardened Iraqi desert army", was an excellent example of scary, but misleading, reporting. Three misleading bits of information in one sound bite. And that example was but one of many. But since few people took a close look at that misleading phrase, or much of the other misleading reporting, everyone was ready to accept a new blizzard of sensationalism just thirteen years later.
The rapid collapse of Sunni Arab resistance in the 2004 battle of Fallujah should not have been a surprise to most people, but it was. American troops have already fought several urban battles in Iraq and the results have always been one-sided. The reasons why, including the fact that successful urban warfare tactics were first developed by American troops during World War II, were out there. But pointing that out did not create a career enhancing headline.
That said, there is some good news. All that Internet access has forced the mass media to get a little less sensationalistic, and to pay attention to what the many people who are actually at the scene, are reporting on the web. Of course, all that new information is sometimes simply used as the basis for another sensationalistic, and misleading headline grabber story. There is some progress, but not a lot of change. News is, after all, a very competitive business.