Don’t attack ‘em, hire ‘em

Bill Roggio’s work is an excellent example of what can happen when a successful bazaar style blogger comes into conflict with an established cathedral style newspaper. I don’t believe it has to happen this way and that it wont when bloggers are better understood. After building up an audience reporting the Anbar campaign in Western Iraq, Roggio decided in November 2005 that he wanted to go to Iraq and see for himself. The units he had been tracking in Iraq had noticed that he understood what they were trying to do and called him and invited him to embed with them. That was nice, but Bill has a full time job and a family and is not a reporter and so was unqualified to embed. He asked for contributions for his trip from his readers and quickly raised the needed $35,000 in small contributions. He then had to get the necessary press credentials and arrange for time off work. He managed all that and spent some time in Iraq. His combat reporting turned out to be a good mix of local detail along with his usual strategic appreciation. But what was really interesting was what happened after he got back. The Washington Post reported on his trip and conflated his reporting with that of contractors who had been paid by the Pentagon for writing favorable stories about the US war effort in the Iraqi press. The thrust of the Post’s piece was that Bill may have been paid by the Pentagon to write propaganda. His long term readers and particularly those who had contributed to his tip jar were outraged. The controversy is still going on as I write this, but I see no evidence that Bill Roggio did anything but a superior job of reporting on the counter insurgency strategy of our forces in Western Iraq and then confirmed his analysis with a visit. Wretchard at The Belmont Club makes the argument that just because someone’s reporting disagrees with a particular point of view does not make it propaganda.

“Consider Patrick Cockburn’s report on the Iraqi elections at the Independent:

Iraq is disintegrating. The first results from the parliamentary election last week show the country is dividing between Shia, Sunni and Kurdish regions. … The election marks the final shipwreck of American and British hopes of establishing a pro-Western secular democracy in a united Iraq.

It is totally irrelevant to question Mr. Cockburn’s motives, intelligence or literary style. The only source of legitimacy that matters is whether Mr. Cockburn’s journal of events is accurate. If Mr. Cockburn’s description of Iraq as disintegrating proves true then his tidings, however unwelcome, will not be propaganda any more than reporting the sinking of the Titanic was. But by the same standard, most of Bill Roggio’s work at the Fourth Rail and Threats Watch will pass muster as legitimate journalism in terms of accuracy, his lack of regular press credentials notwithstanding. Mr. Roggio has written many accounts of operations in Iraq which have not been contradicted by subsequent events. The clear mark of a propagandist is one who consistently misrepresents events, allowing for occasional errors which every human being must make. Track record matters. The reason that John Burns of the New York Times may be better regarded than Robert Fisk is because Burns has consistently proved the better observer of events. Moreover, the longer the retrospective, the better Burns looks.”

The relationship between bloggers and the mainstream media has often been one of mutual criticism. Bloggers and their readers sometimes fail to realize that sometimes the media do an excellent job. The established media on the other hand tend to dismiss the blogs as amateur efforts of little account and that pose no threat to the preeminent place that their established institutions hold – particularly the power to choose what is deemed newsworthy and how it will be framed. What they fail to realize is that it is not just any guy, but the person who has risen to the top because they have just the right skills and talent to do an excellent job in a particular field. And the blogger, sometimes but not always, actually does a better job.

The Wapo story is here and Roggio’s response is here.

The astonishing thing is not that the Washington Post decided to attack Roggio, but that they didn’t try to hire him. The key point here for me is not that one style is always better than the other, but that those operating under an older style often fail to recognize and deal intelligently with the newer style. Roggio’s value lies in his audience. That is, those of us who want to know what our troops are trying to accomplish, how they are doing and where the latest operation fits into the overall scheme of things. We don’t want to read comforting propaganda that everything is going fine and we don’t want to read discomforting propaganda that implies everything is going badly. Instead we’d like the details of the successes and failures and what is being done about them. Because of bloggers like Bill Roggio and, I would add, Iraqi and military bloggers, it has actually been much easier to follow the war in Iraq through the web than the Europeans were able to in WW2. They had to piece together what might actually be happening by listening to the propaganda broadcasts of German, Russian and British radio and making their best guess. But I digress. If a lot of people are willing to send Bill Roggio money to go to Iraq a major newspaper should be able to translate that interest into increased circulation. And if the Washington Post really is loath to print anything that questions the idea that Iraq is an unwinnable quagmire then the more conservative Washington Times should help themselves to the boost in readership that Roggio’s work could bring.

One Response to “Don’t attack ‘em, hire ‘em”  

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