October 20, 2014

Headlines Mislead on Troop Strength Cuts

Defense hawks and political opportunists are sure to decry the Pentagon’s recent announcement that it aims to reduce the Army’s troop strength to the lowest levels since before World War II. However, a closer examination of the Defense Department’s intentions yield different conclusions than those proclaimed across headlines today, some more accurate than others.

Pundits are already framing this expected drawdown as a strategic and moral retreat. But even a cursory look at the actual numbers shows that more caution must be taken when describing the Pentagon’s plans in this way. Yes, the expected numbers are the lowest in 74 years, but our post-Afghanistan numbers would still be roughly double our pre-WW2 numbers according to the Pentagon’s plan. In fact, the difference between our current levels and the proposed levels, a difference of 72-82,000, would be significantly less than the difference between our pre-WW2 numbers and the proposed numbers, a difference of 173-183,000.

Where many reporters, editors, and bloggers are making their mistake is in their assumption that a drawdown to the lowest numbers since the pre-WW2 numbers equates to a drawdown to the pre-WW2 level, and that’s simply not true. In 1940 the Army’s troops levels stood at 267,000. The following year that number shot up to over 1 million and nearly quintupled by the end of the war before coming back down again, although it never dropped below 480,000 thereafter. But even in the Pentagon’s proposed new troop strength level for the Army, the numbers are still nearly double the pre-WW2 level.

So which outlets botched their rapid-response interpretation of the Pentagon’s troop strength plans in their headlines and articles? CNN’s blog got it wrong in both, while Fox News, NBC News, and Time’s blog got wrong in the headline but self-corrected in the article text. The Hill had a headline focusing on the impact of the Pentagon budget on benefits, but incorrectly characterized the troop strength reduction further down in the body of the article.

And which outlets got it right? Politico nailed it, as did the Washington Post and the Associated Press, which takes the prize for the best context on the numbers, given that it was the only major piece I could find that simultaneously disclosed what the actual pre-WW2 numbers were for comparison.

While the erring journos should get a pass on intent here (they surely did not mean to mischaracterize the numbers, but likely just failed to understand the to/since distinction), expect to see others in the pundit class jumping all over these inaccurate headlines to score points against the White House.

The media, like academics, are under intense pressure to publish or perish, although at a much more insanely rapid pace. There’s often little time to dig into data, analyze announcements, research background, and develop context before the headlines and stories must be generated and posted. So by the time that level of thought and context can be put into analyzing the important events we cover, the dizzying partisan spin of the insta-posts has become fact in the minds of most of America.