John Burns and the Blogosphere

Hugh Hewitt interviewed John Burns of the NY Times on his blog earlier this year in February. The following exchange jumped out at me:

HH: Are you aware of the work of Michael Yon and Bill Roggio?

JB: I’m not. Tell me about them.

HH: Well, they’re independents who are out embedded with troops in combat zones from Fallujah to Mosul and into Baghdad, etc.

JB: Yes, I’ve heard about them.

HH: So they’re freelance people, and I was wondering if they’d influenced you at all, or if you’d met them at all.

JB: No, I’ve heard about people who do this. I haven’t met them, and you know, it’s…this new media thing is something that we’re all struggling to cope with, and of course, they have a kind of, if you will, an independence and a free-wheeling way of doing things which I think is all for the good. I think more competition, more voices, more perspectives…bring it on. It’s good for all of us, and it keeps us on our toes.

As regular readers of this blog will know I regularly mention Yon and Roggio as particularly important examples of how networks spontaneously find the most talented people to fill a particular need. As I discovered recently reading Owen Harries, the phenomena can be seen as an example of a latent function that our institutions often posses below the level of our immediate awareness. More specific to the role of bloggers like Roggio and Yon, Eric S Raymond’s in his book The Cathedral and the Bizarre cites Linus’ law (Linus Torvalds – the progenitor of Linux) to explain the role of the Internet in programming projects. “Given a large enough beta-tester and co-developer base, almost every problem will be characterized quickly and the fix obvious to someone.” In this case two ex-military men with excellent writing skills are providing an alternative view of the Iraq war that just doesn’t come though the mainstream media. MSM coverage of the war is often predictable and superficial and the Internet has found people to whom the problem is readily apparent like Hugh Hewitt, and to whom the fix is obvious like Yon and Roggio. The great irony is that John Burns is not part of the problem. His reporting is excellent.

To understand how extraordinary this situation is you have to understand how extraordinary John Burns is. He reported from Baghdad before the war and unlike his colleagues in the MSM he refused to accept Saddam’s minders. And he filed reports unfavorable to the regime. I don’t know how he got away with it, but I expect Saddam knew that if he ran the NY Times reporter out of town or worse it would end up jeopardizing the sanitized coverage he was getting from much of the MSM. CNN’s Eason Jordan gave a statement after Saddam’s fall explaining the tightrope his organization had to walk to stay in Iraq:

Working for a foreign news organization provided Iraqi citizens no protection. The secret police terrorized Iraqis working for international press services who were courageous enough to try to provide accurate reporting. Some vanished, never to be heard from again. Others disappeared and then surfaced later with whispered tales of being hauled off and tortured in unimaginable ways. Obviously, other news organizations were in the same bind we were when it came to reporting on their own workers.

One way John Burns resisted was to work on his own so he only put himself at risk, and by some combination of courage and cunning maintained his independence and his life. But the key point is this: Saddam managed to corrupt major news organizations, but he failed to corrupt Mr. Burns. As a result I trust what he reports. If he says things are bad in Baghdad, I believe him. I then might read Roggio’s blog get a longer term military perspective, and the ever hopeful Mohammad of Iraq the Model to see how an Iraqi living in Baghdad views the situation. I say hopeful because Mohammad and his brother Omar are always looking for ways their country could achieve an effective democracy and they publish a lot of analysis of the political infighting that must be resolved if the hot fighting is ever going to end. But whatever John Burns reports I take it as the report of an honest man and not a reporter finding events to fit a preexisting template of failure or success. To give a sense of how sensitive Burns is to the political implications of his work here is his response to Hugh Hewitt asking about the consequences of US withdrawal:

….the conundrum is this. If you leave, there’s all likelihood if the United States withdraws its forces in a precipitous manner, the likelihood is it seems to me that there will be a great deal more killing. If you stay, of course, the counterargument, which we can also recognize, based in Baghdad, if you stay, what if you cannot stabilize the situation, and American blood and treasure continues to have to be poured into this situation, then it comes down to in an end, a calculation which only the American people can make between, if you will, of the Iraqi interest and the American interest, the American interest in bringing the boys home, and saving for the casualties, or leaving the enormous strain that there is on the American taxpayer, now $400 billion dollars already spent, that’s an extremely difficult issue to resolve. It’s across at the very core of the political debate in the United States. We can recognize just how difficult that problem is, that if we’re…if I’m asked, as somebody who lives in Baghdad, and has been for five years, about the consequences, all I would say is if you’re going to do that, if you are going to pull back, you have to recognize that there is a very, very high price that’s going to be paid by Iraqis.

The first thing I notice about the above quote is that is not a prepared statement – and John Burns does them all the time for both print and TV. He is clearly thinking as he goes, aware that anything he says will be construed politically and is working harder to remain evenhanded than he is to achieve coherent wording. It is a mark of his priorities and how seriously he takes the difference between reporting and editorializing.

To return to John Burns’ slight acquaintance with the Blogosphere I want to point out it is me who lives in the Blogosphere while John Burns lives in Baghdad. He does not have to scour the web to try to figure out what is happening in Iraq – he is too busy staying alive while reporting it. That said, I think he shows some of the typical blindness that McLuhan speaks about when a new medium emerges. He, naturally enough as a reporter for America’s leading newspaper, (love it or hate it, and I feel both) takes the position of the MSM and his central place in it for granted. As a resident of the Blogosphere I no longer rely primarily on the MSM for my news from Iraq. I don’t pick up a copy of the Times or turn to it on the Web. First stop for war news: Bill Roggio. Best in depth reports from Iraq – John Burns. Best combat reporting from the troops point of view – Michael Yon. Best wide ranging reporting from various locations in the Middle East – reader funded blogger Michale J. Totten. Best consistent analysis of the Global War on Terror: Richard Fernandez of the The BelmontClub. Best onging political analysis the ideological war within the left, Norm Geras of Normblog. And so on….my view as a Homesteader in the Noosphere, as Eric Raymond calls it. Your experience may vary.


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