More blurring between mainstream and blogstream
From today's WSJ: More on the success of milbloggers
Wall Street JournalJuly 26, 2006 Pg. B1
Cry Bias, And Let Slip The Blogs Of War
By Mike Spector
J.P. Borda started a Web log during his 2004 National Guard deployment in Afghanistan to keep in touch with his family. But when he got home, he decided it was the mainstream media that was out of touch with the war.
"You hear so much about what's going wrong," he says. "It gets hard to hear after a while when there's so much good going on."
Mr. Borda, a specialist, read other soldiers' blogs and found he wasn't alone. Hundreds of other troops and veterans were blogging world-wide, and many focused on a common enemy: journalists.
The 31-year-old software analyst, who now lives in Dallas, wanted to make it easier for people to read soldiers' accounts. So he started a Web site, Milblogging.com, to organize as many blogs as possible by country, military branch and subject matter. Today, the site links to more than 1,400 military blogs world-wide and was recently purchased for an undisclosed amount by Military.com, a Web site catering to soldiers that is owned by Monster Worldwide Inc.
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."
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.
The backlash takes many forms. Some bloggers point out what they see as inaccuracies and post lengthy critiques of current reporting. Others post their own stories. Some simply sling arrows.
Matthew Burden, an Army veteran, started his blog, "Blackfive," in December 2003 after he learned that an Army buddy, Maj. Mathew Schram, had been killed in an ambush near the Iraq-Syria border. Mr. Burden, 39, felt his friend received short shrift in media coverage and decided to blog about military stories he felt weren't getting the attention they deserved.
"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.
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, "justanothersoldier.com" 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.
Other milblogs are critical of the Bush Administration. An Army blogger in Iraq who calls himself "Godlesskinser," has a clock on his Web site noting how many days, hours, minutes and seconds have passed since President Bush vowed to capture Osama bin Laden.
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.
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 MSNBC.com got 24 million unique visitors last month.
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."
When Milblogging.com launched in October, Mr. Borda stayed up until 5 a.m. on some nights maintaining the site. He says he sleeps more now, but his wife still has to tear him away sometimes for family events with their two sons, ages 5 and three months. "It's different," Angelica Borda, 26, says of her husband's passion, but "I'm used to it now."
Mr. Borda receives an undisclosed monthly stipend to maintain the blog (he signed a nondisclosure agreement with Military.com). He's currently working with Military.com to attract advertisers. The site's most notable paid advertisement so far is from a group called the Iraqi Truth Project, which has made a documentary that it says "exposes the atrocities committed by the former Iraq dictator."
In the mornings and evenings, Mr. Borda scours the Net for new blogs to add to his site and responds to emails from bloggers, fans and critics. He also interviews milbloggers and posts the transcripts in a feature called "Milblogger of the Week." Mr. Borda had collected just 50 blogs when he started Milblogging.com. Today, that number has increased nearly 30-fold, and Mr. Borda believes there are thousands more blogs out there.
Mr. Borda says he isn't able to fact-check the bloggers he publishes, or to verify their identities beyond using common sense. "I do a sanity-check of the milblog, making sure it deals primarily with a military subject matter, and I also rely on readers to let me know," he says. "That said, no matter how much research you do it's unlikely you could ever verify without a shadow of a doubt that any blogger is 100% legit."
What's the future of military blogs? Mr. Borda would like to see milbloggers get their own TV shows or have their entries printed in major newspapers. The goal, he says, is to "continually be blurring that line between the media and blogging."