How Valuable is Current Event Reporting? The Case of Vietnam
I’ve had some complaints about how the news media operates. And my less than rosy view of the news is hardly unique – Bryan Caplan, for example, has written on this very blog about his own misgivings about the news. But because I’ve never seen a dead horse that didn’t look like it needed a good beating, I thought I’d add a thought experiment that illustrates another reason to discount the value of being “up to date” with the “latest news.”
Let’s think of an event of historical significance – not a recent event, but still within living memory for many people. The Vietnam war would be a good example. In the decades since that conflict began and ended, we have learned a great deal about both what led to it, as well as what actually happened while it was ongoing. Hundreds of history books and scores of documentaries have been released detailing new information and casting new light on the war. And as time goes on, it seems extremely likely that our understanding will be further refined by new discoveries and new examinations of existing materials.
Now, imagine someone has just miraculously awoken after spending decades in a coma, fully mentally alert despite their long slumber. Upon awakening, they learn of the existence of the Vietnam war, and they want to know what led to the United States entering that war. If you wanted to help them get the best possible understanding of what happened, which of these two routes would you suggest?
- Provide them with a recently published book on the Vietnam war from a reputable historian, or perhaps suggest they watch the recent and acclaimed documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.
- Suggest they go to a library with a good newspaper archive and read all the stories that were being published in the news as the war was beginning.
You’d obviously suggest the first course of action, right? Someone trying to understand what led to US involvement in Vietnam purely from the information that was being published in the news media at the time would end up somewhere between poorly informed and actively misinformed. This isn’t unique to the Vietnam War, of course.
A common experience from reading history books is noticing the historian’s task of distinguishing what was being said at the time from what the historical record has established. There are a multitude of reasons why contemporary commentators can get things wrong. Events that were attention grabbing at the time and seemed very important can turn out to have been relatively trivial in retrospect. And events that were overlooked or seemed minor at the time might turn out to have had a very large impact. Sometimes relevant information is classified or otherwise unavailable until well after the event has passed. Other times, formerly hostile parties may establish better relations and begin sharing information with each other that casts a new light on the historical record that commentators at the time couldn’t have possibly known.
The Vietnam War provides a clear example of all of this, but this is true of history more generally. The gap between “what the historical record shows” and “what was being said in the news at the time” is usually very large. And when viewing the news today, you should assume the gap between current news reports and reality will be approximately as large. It’s not literally zero information, but it rarely provides more than a vague outline at best. Mark Twain once reminded us to never let school interfere with education – to that I would add, never let the news interfere with being well informed.