News reporting is outstanding when reporting political news. It is world class when doing analysis upon political events. Political news is the greatest strength of reporting. Not even close.
Wartime news reporting:
I have read articles from papers published during the U.S. Civil War, the Spanish-American war, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam and others. These are some observations that I have.
Wartime news reporting is fairly accurate when recording friendly losses. (In a democratic society) In many cases, the accuracy is such that well after the war, the figures stated are not modified by much. Wartime news reporting is inconsistent when reporting enemy losses. In low intensity wars, reporting tends to be more accurate on this issue. In larger affairs, it is off the mark far more frequently and with much greater inaccuracy. Wartime reporting fails miserably when doing any type of analysis.
The ‘Tet’ offensive in 1968 is a good example. North Vietnam launched an offensive to demonstrate how far they had come. They committed most of the VC cadres that had been built up over 10 years. The NVA also committed 5 divisions in an attempt at a conventional battle. It was a disaster. The 5 divisions were wiped out, as were many of the VC cadres. Yet the news media reported this as a stunning defeat. The losses to the enemy were understated. The losses on our side were fairly accurate. Politically, we lost. After all, news reporting is very good at political analysis. A more current example:
Remember the 30-day war that Hezbollah and Israel fought in August 2006? The news then and now is still reporting that Israel lost and Hezbollah won BIG-TIME. (Exception: The Wall Street Journal was careful to point out that these views were political in nature.) Yes, politically this was the case. Looking at it from a different view leads me to question this. The IDF (Israel Defense Force) numbers about 150,000. All the estimates of Hezbollah that I have seen at the time placed them at about 7000 combatants. Loss of life was reported at 158 for Israel and around 2000 for Hezbollah. (This is not counting civilian losses.) In other words, Israel lost about .001% of its combat strength, and Hezbollah lost about 20%. Many well-trained combat units have broken and fled the field in disorder after losing far less than 20%. Hezbollah took a major hit. Hezbollah got hurt, BAD. At best, morale took a major hit. Even if figures were off somewhat, it took well over a year or two to recover. Please note how seldom we have been hearing about them for the past 30 months. Once again, the political view was accurately pointed out, although many other important factors had and are being left out.
I read in the Chicago Tribune in an issue in 1971 that the United States could not win in Vietnam because the V.C. and NVA controlled the countryside and we could only control the cities. In Iraq today, was the situation not reversed? Yet the reporting that I had seen in print as well as on TV all were hinting at how we could not win. Good reasons exist why the situation evolved the way they did in both Vietnam and Iraq.
The hard facts in the form of losses in numbers can be a somewhat reliable source depending upon the size and scope of the war. Not that any figures should be believed outright, they can be fairly accurate. On the other side of the coin, wartime reporting analysis is dismal. I believe that at least part of the reason why is that it is so good at political analysis. Reporting sees the news through a political lens and this distorts more than what is intended. This is important to keep in mind today when we are caught up in an ‘irregular’ war where it is far easier to see what you want to.