Excellence is where you find it. In this case a dispatch from Michael Yon from Hit, Anbar province, in Iraq. For me it is the best single dispatch I have read in this long difficult war and speaks volumes about the nature of independent journalism and what we are learning about it. Learning as we go I would add, as bloggers like Michael Yon lay down a new layer in the history of journalism. I wont spoil the experience of reading Michale Yon’s The Final Option - you have to read it yourself to appreciate what I have to say about it in media terms. So go on – read it now.
First of all it would be harder but not impossible for many regular reporters to tell this story, not because they lack the skill, but because the conventions of thier profession often preclude first person accounts. The use of the first person is permissible at times and I can see this account as a ‘special report’ in a major newspaper like the New York Times or a newsweekly like Time. But independent journalists like Michael Yon are not necessarily trained in the standard media practice and are often reacting directly to the material before them and writing it up in the way that seems right to them at the time.
Amateurs sometimes produce better ways of doing things because they have no overseers or editors to force them to produce material in the accepted mode. Yon’s work is not alone and while it almost certainly does not appeal to everyone it is one example of the new kind of writing that is to be found on the Internet. Simply doing what comes naturally can lead to mediocrity, but I don’t believe that is what is happening with Yon and others. The Internet operates on different principles than the hierarchical world of the traditional media where you need a job to have access and to even apply for a job you need years of training. On the Internet everyone with access to the Net can have a go. It is at this juncture that I believe we need a theory to explain why excellent new work is emerging on the Internet.
Eric S Raymond developed a theory of network dynamics to explain why the programmers of the open software movement – most notably those working with Linus Torvalds developing the Linux operating system – have been able to give serious competition to Microsoft. I take the position that Raymond’s theory can be extended to apply to other network phenomena such as the emergence of a new kind of journalism. Raymond expounded his theory in detail in has The Cathedral and The Bazaar which is available in book form or free online here. He states the core principle in computer programming terms as Linus’s Law: “Given a large enough beta-tester and co-developer base, almost every problem will be characterized quickly and the fix obvious to someone.” I wont try to translate Linus’s Law formally until I have worked with it more, but it goes roughly like this: Given a large enough network, new opportunities will emerge along with individuals with the talent to exploit them without necessarily involving individually insurmountable infrastructure barriers to become effective. By insurmountable barrier I mean individuals don’t need a $100,000 computer or $10,000,000 in venture capital to play, but may need specific tools such as blogging software or about $30,000, according to Michael Yon, to equip themselves for work in Iraq.
So I am proposing that it is in the very nature of networks that the best come to prominence without prohibitive outside support. I think of it as the invisible hand of excellence and I believe there have been many times and places in human history where the conditions were right for the emergence of such excellence.
I will tell you a story by way of example: Once upon a time when journalism hadn’t been invented there was a great intellectual and political ferment in the coffee houses of London. Many clever writers were peddling their ideas and their words using the new cheaply available medium of print. Two of these writers, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, got it right and started a little daily printed ‘number’. It wasn’t a newspaper or a magazine, because those exact forms hadn’t been invented yet. They called it The Spectator. The year was 1711. It was remembered for the quality of Addison and Steel’s writing and was revived in the form of what we now think of as magazine in 1834. It is still published and is the oldest surviving periodical in the English language. Wikipedia sums up Addison’s style this way:
His style in his essays is remarkable for its ease, clearness, and grace, and for an inimitable and sunny humour which never soils and never hurts. The motive power of these writings has been called “an enthusiasm for conduct.” Their effect was to raise the whole standard of manners and expression both in life and in literature.
We don’t have enough distance to judge Michael Yon’s work summarily this way, but like Addison’s it has come to prominence form obscurity on the basis of its excellence. Prominent enough for Bruce Willis to want to make a movie based on Yon’s early work describing the heroic efforts of the ‘deuce-Four (1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment) in Mosul in 2005 . This work is often compared to WWII journalist Ernie Pyle who was known for his ability to portray the daily life of the ordinary soldier. Yon’s work would stand out for that quality alone but since that time he has shown he is more than a man who can get the feel of what it is like to be with the troops in combat. He has annoyed both the left and the right side of politics by challenging their preconceptions about the war. He has shown he has an outstanding ability to capture the feelings and emotions of war in writing from many viewpoints, as well as, in still and motion pictures. Part of his special skill comes from the way he blends personal experiences in the moment with keeping the reader in touch with both the facts and the feel of the larger picture. He does it by breaking the rules of print journalism – including the personal in his narrative without making himself inappropriately the center of attention. It isn’t that this hasn’t been done before – V. S. Naipaul’s travel books are brilliant examples of how the writer’s personal experience can be used to enrich the narrative without contaminating it. Still, the opportunity to do this in the area of war reporting was there on the Net and Michael Yon took it up and had the ability to make it work.
Here is an example of his mixing the personal with the objective taken from The Final Option. There are two scenes in the example involving events in police stations – in the first a group of angry, armed recruits are milling around outside. In the second, armed police officers are tensely awaiting what could be a serious outbreak of violence inside one:
I waded into the crowd of men and came into another group of our soldiers and asked what was happening. Nobody exactly knew, but I could see some of our guys trying to isolate the troublemakers. One of Crissman’s men took away a man who looked fit to be tied. The soldier took the screaming man behind a humvee and gave him an ice-cold water from the cooler, told him to calm down, which worked actually, until another man carrying a gun started screaming again.
I scanned the rooftops and saw some of our guys point automatic weapons down at the crowd below, and one of which was aimed straight at me. I waved my hand high in the air at the soldier or Marine.
While describing the second situation he reveals that the American soldiers he waved at in the first situation were not actually aiming at him as he describes a very different emotional atmosphere :
Importantly, none of this was overt. Nobody was pointing weapons at each other or shouting; nothing like that. Nobody was threatening anyone. Unlike the loud ruckus earlier where men had cocked their weapons, and our guys on the roof were aiming just over my head at machine guns I had not seen (making me think one of our guys was aiming at me), I did not sense that a shootout was forthcoming that time. Yet this time there was no posturing whatsoever, but I could smell the danger as clearly as high voltage.
That is just a very small example of Michael Yon’s way of mixing events and personal experiences in an unconventional way and making it serve the story. He actually gives the key dramatic moment of The Final Option away with an opening picture, but makes the story work dramatically because the real story is in how it all happened. For example, Michael was present at the center of the action from beginning to end, yet while it was happening he didn’t know what was really going on. More powerfully we are made conscious of the uncertainty of the situation as we discover with him that Lt Colonel Crissman – the man who took the key decisions and then acted on them – didn’t know where it was all leading or how it would work out. By including his personal experience in the narrative Yon preserves the provisional and volatile nature of real events and avoids the pat hindsight so common in journalist’s accounts that make the outcome seem inevitable.
Postmodernism would tend to dismiss Michael Yon’s version of the truth of the situations he describes as one among many truths. And they would be right. But they also would argue that we are not in a position to discriminate which of these truths is more or less important. I would argue some truths are relatively more important than others and human progress often rests on our ability to recognize when the hidden hand of excellence is present. I may be right or wrong about Michael Yon in the long run but I think he will do very nicely as an illustration of the general principle of emergent excellence until a better ones come along.