The Wall Street Journal published an article on Military blogs by Mike Spector entitled Cry Bias, and let Slip the Blogs of War that I find both heartening and infuriating. Heartening in that it does report the basic fact that most military bloggers find media coverage of the war distorted. Infuriating because it scrupulously avoids dealing with why that might be true and none too subtly undermines the very idea that milbolgs could, never mind actually are, breaking the MSM (mainstream media) monopoly on how the war is perceived.

In general the Milbloggers welcomed the article and didn’t criticize it and maybe that is good politics. My point of view is that of a student of media and history, which includes an understanding of military tactics and strategy, so I am not inclined to let the article pass without criticism. At the outset I will say the article is better than most I have read in that it does forthrightly state, rather than misrepresent, the case Milbloggers make. The article comes to grips with the size of the the phenomena – 1400 Milblogs – and properly reports the significance of JP Borda’s not only because it consolidates links to all milblogs in one place, but also because it has reached the critical threshold of creating enough value to be purchased -specifically by Monster Worldwide. Yes, that Monster.

Now, Mr. Borda finds himself at the center of a growing blogging movement. Military bloggers, or “milbloggers” as they call themselves, contend that they are uniquely qualified to comment on events in armed conflicts. Many milbloggers also argue that the mainstream media tends to overplay negative stories and play down positive military developments. For many of these blogs, says Mr. Borda, “the sole purpose is to counteract the media.”

Now read the paragraph that immediately follows the one above:

There have always been at least some soldiers who have wanted to go to battle against Big Media. Some in the military blamed coverage of the Vietnam War for turning American public opinion against it. What’s changed? The Internet now allows frustrated soldiers and veterans to voice their opinions and be heard instantly and globally.

I have read the article carefully and there is nowhere any carefully constructed sub-text implying that so many soldiers might be right about MSM coverage. Mr. Spector admirably maintains his stance of objectivity when it comes to the charge of bias against him and his colleagues. Look at that little aside about Vietnam coverage. “What’s changed?” What is the implication of that remark? I think it is that nothing has changed and that the author feels that the press was right about Vietnam and is similarly right about Iraq and by extension that the soldier bloggers are wrong in claiming the existence of significant good news. Look again at the headline: Cry Bias, and Let Slip the Blogs of War. I think it is indirectly telling us that Milbloggers are falsely crying bias and that their blogs are just the usual dogs of war that have slipped their leash. In doing so Mr. Spector is invoking the core meme of MSM reporting on Iraq – that Iraq is doomed to failure in the same way as Vietnam and that it is the MSM’s task to put a leash on any claims to the contrary.

Not withstanding the above dig, Mr. Spector goes on and lets the case for the milbloggers come through:

“Does Abu Ghraib need to be told 40 times above the fold in the New York Times when half your readers couldn’t name the guy who won the Medal of Honor?” Mr. Burden says.

Michael Yon, a 42-year-old Army Special Forces veteran, is perhaps the most attention-grabbing blogger, with appearances on MSNBC and CNN. In December 2004, he embedded himself with troops in Iraq and posted dispatches online for the next several months.

Most of Mr. Yon’s writings related heroic acts by American troops and Iraqis. Mr. Yon also praises some media coverage of Iraq. But in an interview, he says many reporters “haven’t stayed long enough to see what’s going on. Most of the reporting is not deep enough.” According to Mr. Yon, Iraqis are determined to fight insurgents and embrace a new government, a storyline he says he doesn’t see in mainstream news coverage.

Then undermines it with the first sentence of the next paragraph:

Not all milblogs wave the flag.

The sentence is perfectly legitimate as a transition into a discussion of anti war Milblogs, but is also a dismissal of the immediately preceding material as simply ‘waving the flag.’ And we all know how superficial and embarrassing that is, don’t we? It is also a false charge. Michael Yon, and I have read all his posts, is sometimes very critical of the Administration and his stories of combat go much deeper than mere flag waving. Its great combat reporting that I believe will stand along side Ernie Pyle’s reporting in WW2 because it captures the tragedy and terror of war along with the heroism and courage.

But to be fair to Mr. Spector the whole paragraph reads thus:

Not all milblogs wave the flag. Some have drawn attention for posts that irk the chain of command. Jason Hartley, a National Guardsman from New Paltz, N.Y., caught flak for posting comments on his blog, “” that he said were satirical. Mr. Hartley, who served in Iraq, wrote that he loved dead civilians and wished he could shoot children. He claimed the comments were meant to highlight what he sees as the military’s nonchalant attitude toward civilian casualties, but his superiors weren’t amused. Mr. Hartley was eventually demoted to specialist from sergeant, and his commander, Capt. Vincent Heintz, wrote in a sworn statement that the blog “disparaged the Army in a manner unbecoming of an NCO (non-commissioned officer).”

Mr. Hartley says the military displayed “a neo-conservative, knee-jerk reaction” to his blog. “I’m a bleeding heart liberal in the guise of a soldier, and sometimes it comes out in my writing,” he says.

I have absolutely no problem with reporting anti-war Milblogs. That is real journalistic balance. No matter that anti war milbloggers are a small minority, good reporting mandates that their voice be noted too. The whole issue of Soldiers and freedom of speech is an interesting one. Soldiers operate under military law and so have less freedom of speech than civilians, but ironically the Pentagon has come out far ahead in the impact of the milblogs. So they stifle them at their peril. Mr. Spector, to his credit, doesn’t not demonize the Pentagon:

The Pentagon, taking notice of the impact of such writings, has a committee studying military blogs over the next several months. In the field, the Army has issued formal guidance about blogging, reminding soldiers not to post information that might tip off the enemy. And U.S. Central Command officials in Florida have started contacting bloggers — military and civilian — when they come across posts that contain what they view as inaccurate or incomplete information. But overall, military blogs remain independent, with little organized oversight.

However, in the paragraphs that follow Mr. Spector does a very subtle job of undermining both the importance and credibility of Milblogs:

Military blogs receive a fraction of the hits generated by mainstream news Web sites. Mr. Burden’s site, for example, receives about 210,000 unique visitors per month, he says. In comparison, Nielsen/Netratings data shows got 24 million unique visitors last month.

That means that one well known blog – Blackfive – gets a bit under 1% of the hits per month that MSNBC gets. That is one of 1400 Milblogs – most of which get less than Blackfive – but a few ones like Yon’s probably get way more. A more correct comparison would be the total unique hits of those 1400 blogs.

Mr Spector then prepares the way for an apparently balancing reference that is the bottom line message of the entire article:

But milbloggers, who only began online postings in earnest within the past three years, have become increasingly energized and organized in their efforts to counteract existing media coverage. In April, bloggers convened in Washington, D.C. for the first ever milblogging convention.

The frustration of milbloggers is understandable, says Alex S. Jones, a former New York Times reporter who heads the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. But he adds, “If the overall picture is one of continued violence and a significant lack of stability in many parts of Iraq, the individual shards of good news could be more of a distortion than a reflection of the truth.”

There is the key hit undermining Milbloggers and a perfect restatement of the core view that the MSM are putting out 24/7 about the war in Iraq. The Milbloggers are claiming exactly the opposite of “the overall picture is one of continued violence and a significant lack of stability in many parts of Iraq, the individual shards of good news could be more of a distortion than a reflection of the truth.” Where to start? The condescending faux sympathy for Miblogger’s frustration is a good one. Rather like punching someone in the nose and then expressing sympathy for their nosebleed. Maddeningly, Jones goes on to just assume as if it was not the center of the controversy that we all know Iraq is a complete disaster of instability and violence because we have all seen the pictures and that any good news must be just little broken bits lying in the cracks between the large areas of devastation. Ironically, the choice of the word ‘ shards’ also reveals the actual method of the MSM in creating the negative picture in Iraq. It is this: they report individual tactical failures with gruesome pictures knowing full well TV’s power to turn the public against a war which they themselves discovered during the Vietnam war. They generally leave out context except to imply all this mess is indicative of inevitable failure as in Vietnam. They almost never address what the US strategy might be and absolutely never discuss the enemy’s transparent strategy to use the media to create an image of an unstoppable insurgency in the Western Press.

I am not someone who thinks that there is no bad news from Iraq. My current view is that the war has come down to a decisive battle for control of Baghdad. The coalition has never controlled it nor had the troops to do so. Baghdad had to wait until regional areas such as Fallujah and Anbar province were subdued. The outcome is by no means certain and I am not that hopeful – it is a huge task. But I do know and understand the strategies involved because I have read milblogger Bill Roggio’s brilliant strategic explanation of the Anbar campaign in 2004. And I have read Michael Yon’s detailed reports of how the ‘Duce -Four’ – the American unit he was embedded with – worked with the then very new Iraqi Army to reduce the insurgency in Mosul. Can we defeat the insurgency and the militias in Baghdad? I don’t know, but I know there is absolutely no reason to look to the MSM to provide any strategic insight or even report the occasional shard of good news when we get something right.

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