Thursday, May 18, 2006

MSM Scrapings vs. Real Reporting

Here’s a good example of why the drive-by media can’t hold a candle to the blogosphere when it comes to news or analysis.

The story in this case is Venezuela’s threat to sell its American-acquired F16 fighter jets to Iran. This is merely saber-rattling with empty scabbards but you’d never know it from reading the bored and boring account in the Chicago Tribune:


Venezuela’s military is considering selling its fleet of U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets to another country, possibly Iran, in response to a U.S. ban on arms sales to President Hugo Chavez’s government, an official said Tuesday.

Gen. Alberto Muller, a senior adviser to Chavez, said he has recommended to the defense minister that Venezuela consider selling the 21 jets to another country. Muller said he thought it was worthwhile to consider “the feasibility of a negotiation with Iran for the sale of those planes.”

The Iranian Embassy in Caracas said no such deal has been formally proposed.

The U.S. State Department warned that Washington would have to sign off on a sale of the F-16s, a possibility spokesman Sean McCormack suggested was highly unlikely.

The article, no doubt written by a journalism major who spent lots of time and money on J school credentials, goes on for several more space-filling paragraphs. However, the article is a puff -- no substance in the writing, and no military or political information in the head of the journalist. Or at least none he is willing to share.

Now, look at the same story as told by Spook 86 on his blog, “In From the Cold”:


Hugo’s Used Fighter Sale

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is taking another poke at the Uncle Sam. He’s threatening to sell his nation’s small fleet of F-16 fighters to Iran, apparently in retaliation for a U.S. ban on arms sales to his government.

General Alberto Mueller, an advisor to Chavez, has recommended to the defense minister that Venezuela sell its 21 F-16s to another country. Mueller said he thought it was worthwhile to consider “the feasibility of a negotiation with Iran for the sale of those planes.” The comments came one day after the U.S. announced a ban on additional arms sales to Venezuela, which totaled $34 million last year. Before the ban was announced, Washington had been putting a slow squeeze on Venezuela’s access to American military technology. Previously, the U.S. had refused Caracas’s request for upgrades to its F-16s, the most capable fighter in the Venezuelan inventory. Members of the Chavez government have also suggested that Venezuela might “share” its F-16s with Cuba, in response to the U.S. arms ban.

Short of military action, there really isn’t much we can do to block the F-16 transfer to Iran or Cuba, if Chavez decides to go ahead with the deal. But careful observers will note that neither Tehran or Havana is exactly jumping up and down at the prospect of obtaining Yanqui F-16s.

And with good reason. The F-16 is more than a sleek, 80s-era fighter jet. It’s a complete weapons system. If you plan to operate the F-16, you’ll need simulators, extensive training, infrastructure upgrades and a massive inventory of spare parts, among other things. Needless to say, those “extras” don’t come cheap. Beyond that, there’s the question of where you can actually obtain the stuff you need to operate an F-16 squadron. Limited quantities of spare parts and munitions can be purchased on the gray market, and Venezuela could provide some assistance in flight and maintenance instruction; but to make the jets fully operational, a customer needs access to U.S. contractor support and technical data, which (in turn) requires approval of the U.S. government. Obviously, George Bush and Don Rumsfeld aren’t about to sign off on an F-16 transfer to Iran or Cuba.

What about other countries who have F-16s? Well, if those countries want continued access to U.S. military hardware, they can’t afford to get caught in an illegal arms transfer involving a pariah state. True, there are some exceptions to this rule (Israel’s transfer of F-16 technology to China in the Lavi/F-10 program comes to mind), but it’s doubtful that any current U.S. customer--especially those with a desire for future arms sales--would accept the risks entailed in supporting an illegal sale of the Venezuelan jets.

Additionally, the Iranians and Cubans already have access to fourth-generation fighter technology, thanks to their acquisition of MiG-29 FULCRUMs from Russia. The FULCRUMs in the Iranian and Cuban inventories are, in some ways, more sophisticated than the early-generation F-16s that Hugo is trying to unload. Iran and Cuba have something else in common, too: both have had difficulty in keeping their FULCRUMs in the air, despite full access to Russian training and technical support. Without similar assistance for the F-16s, those jets would become little more than ramp decorations at some Iranian or Cuban base, slowly rusting in the sun.

Case in point: remember those Iraqi aircraft that were flown to Iran at the end of Operation Desert Storm? To date, only a handful of those fighters have returned to operational service, and only with support from the Russians. French-built Iraqi aircraft (notably Mirage F-1s) have fared even worse, spending years on the tarmac before the Iranians managed to get a few airborne. Today, most are back on the ramp, grounded by a lack of spare parts, maintenance and qualified pilots.

It’s also worth remembering that simply having a fourth-generation fighter doesn’t give you state-of-the-art employment capabilities. Tactically, Iranian and Cuban fighter pilots are no match for their western counterparts, and that axiom holds true for whatever airframe they might operate, including the F-16. It takes years of effort to develop the doctrine and tactics required to maximize the F-16’s combat capabilities, and that’s something the Venezuelans simply don’t have.

Mr. Chavez may be having a fire sale down at the ol’ used fighter lot, but he’s going to find a dearth of serious buyers, even among our adversaries. Havana and Tehran may kick the tires a few times, but they’re unlikely to conclude a deal to acquire the F-16s. Like other countries, Cuba and Iran want useable combat systems--not expensive toys that simply fill up an aircraft parking ramp. One year from now, you’re likely to find Hugo’s F-16s in the same spot they currently occupy--on the tarmac at a Venezuelan Air Force base.

I don’t often cut and paste a complete post, but this time you needed to see the wealth of information about the skills and technology needed to make this deal realistic -- not to mention the excellent style, and the opinion about the final outcome based on his knowledge of the recent history of the fates other aircraft in the Middle East.

See what I mean? You yawn over the instantly-forgotten MSM account. The blogosphere version sticks in your memory and gives you some insight into egomaniacal tyrants and their gyrations. You also learn a bit about the complexity involved:

It takes years of effort to develop the doctrine and tactics required to maximize the F-16’s combat capabilities.

In other words, we're not talking cellphones here.

As I said, MSM scrapings and empty scabbards.

6 comments:

Fausta said...

As far as technology goes, the average 2006 brand-new private passenger plane is a heck of a lot more advanced than Hugo's flying jalopies.

Starling David Hunter said...

Dymphna,

your post raises several important issues, among the foremost being the relative benefits to speacialization and generalization. As I understand it, J-school trains generalists, i.e. it teaches journalistic tradecraft but does not put as much emphasis on content. You don't have to have a solid or deep understanding of any particular area though it probably helps if you want to be a science or economics reporter.

It is my belief that bloggers, on the other hand, tend to excel to the degree to the degree that they specialize. People write much more forcefully, clearly, and persuasively when you write about topics with which you have first-hand experience and expertise. The blogosphere is filled with such people who, in additional to having domain-specific expertise, can also write reasonably well.

Taken as a whole, the blogosphere represents a collection of experts connected by the medium through which they express themselves rather than through membership in the same single profession or organization. As I see it, this constitutes the basis of its comparative advantage relative to many , if not most, mainstream media organizations.

The problem for the MSM organizations is that it is prohibitively expensive, if not downright impossible, for any one of them to keep such a high degree of expertise on the payroll all the time. How often, after all, does a story requiring in-depth knowledge of F-16 fighters come up. I don't know the answer but I do know that it is not frequently enough for anyone to justify keeping such person on the payroll all year.

The solution that MSM organizations have had over the years is a reasonable and reasonably efficient one: hire broadly-trained generalists to cover certain broad topics areas, e.g. sports, economics, politics, etc., and then have them find and interview experts when necessary. This keeps costs to an acceptable level.

The problems with this approach are now becoming more evident. Of the most relevant to this discussion is that a generalists can't always ascertain when they have the facts right and when they have been fed a line of bull. Even without imputing any ill intent or biases, it is very easy for a generalist to get the facts wrong about complex issues that are on the margins of their comfort zone. Add to this the time pressure that many face (news is a business whose product has a rapidly decreasing shelf-life) and you have a recipe for shoddy and second-rate reportage. Again, this can be the case without assuming that reporters have particular agendas or biases.

To be fair, good reporters who cover a subject or topic for years can become really valuable experts. The challenge as I see it is for news organizations and their reporters to do a good enough job over the several short terms that comprise the long-term required to gain that expertise. In the rapidly changing news-and-views industry, one fuelled by blogs and the internet, time is the one thing they may be sorely lacking.


I not am shedding tears over this: it's how capitalism is supposed to work. News organizations will have to adapt to these changes or die. Right I bet that on the whole they adapt, though some will certainly be meeting their end.

Cross-posted at
The Business of America is Business

Dymphna said...

Starling--
Since the MSM generally isolates itself with academia and other left wing p.c.-types it remains ignorant of some basic scientific and technical knowledge that leaves it unfit to report well on things like medicine, physics, engineering. As part of the elite, many subjects like religion are seen thru the pc prism (or prison, take your choice). Basically they seem to dwell on theatrics and scare tactics.

This is nowhere more apparent than the hysteria generated in the aftermath of Katrina, which also brought out another MSM shortcut to understanding: find someone to blame. One is left to wonder how the story would have been covered had it happened on Clinton's watch...

You're right: they have to follow Darwin's law --adapt or die. It remains to be seen which it will be though I'm not betting any stock purchases on the outcome.

David said...

Starling...I think it is unlikely that many legacy media organizations will adapt to the new environment...for the same reasons that the big integrated steel companies failed to meet the challenge of the minimill, and that Baldwin Locomotive, king of the steam-engine era, did not become a successful manufacturer of diesel locomotives.

It is possible for a company that has been successful at one stage of a technology to be successful at the next stage, but it takes very strong leadership, and that is always in short supply.

fluffy said...

This is a great story. Two other stories I learned about by reading the right side of the blogosphere.

This story about a mass re-enlistment of 640 soldiers, posted by The Dread Pundit Bluto.
This story about Saudi men (not boys) riding a public school bus in Tampa, posted by The Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler.

Without the blogs these stories would not have seen a national audience. Actually, the school bus incident just happened yesterday, so it might get out. Breath will not be held.

Doug said...

Starling wrote:
"and then have them find and interview experts when necessary.

...Even without imputing any ill intent or biases,
"
---
But since they bring along their baggage, I will comment on it:
Honest experts abound in the military, but when given the choice of our military or Jazeera du Jour, too often they go for the pathetic potage.
Sick, but true.