Friday, March 11, 2005

A First Draft of History?

Call the rewrite man!

Monday, March 7, 2005 12:01 a.m.

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.

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.

Take Western coverage of Israelis and Palestinians over the past dozen years. During the years of the peace process, a succession of journalists trooped through the region, reporting a handful of stories: the expansion of Israeli settlements; the chemistry between Yasser Arafat and the Israeli prime minister, and their relationship with Bill Clinton; the exact percentage of land offered by Israel at various stages of negotiation; the conflict between moderates and "extremists on both sides."

These were "true" stories, in the sense that they were (for the most part) factually accurate and reflected the realities of the peace process. But the peace process was not the only relevant reality of the time. Arafat and his lieutenants continued to call for Israel's destruction in speeches to Arab audiences. Palestinian Authority maps of the region, posted in schools and public buildings, had nothing named "Israel" on them. Billions in foreign aid were pumped into the PA, but there was little to show for it in terms of a better economy. Arafat's political opponents were sacked from their jobs, arrested, tortured or simply shot by masked men in the street.

All this was public knowledge throughout the 1990s. But because the information sat so awkwardly with the central premises of the peace process--namely, that Arafat was committed to peace and that the Palestinian problem was foreign occupation, not domestic tyranny--it tended to be dismissed as so much trivia. So the PA is corrupt: What else is new? So Arafat makes incendiary speeches? Rhetoric for the masses. Few people could recognize then that Arafat wasn't the key to peace, but the principal obstacle to it. Today that's conventional wisdom.

A similar dynamic took place once the intifada began and the media meta-narrative switched from "peace process" to "cycle of violence." Here, supposedly, Israelis and Palestinians engaged in acts of tit-for-tat killing; whenever a Palestinian suicide bomber blew up in a Jerusalem café, one could be sure to learn that his brother had been killed by the Israeli army. Yet while the cycle-of-violence hypothesis was highly convenient for reporters reluctant to pin the blame on one side, it was also falsifiable--and false: When the Israelis invaded the West Bank and killed the top ranks of Hamas, the incidence of terrorism didn't rise. It peaked.

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.

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

Copyright © 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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