Who is a journalist?
Retired soldier Bill Roggio was a computer technician living in New Jersey less than two months ago when a Marine officer half a world away made him an offer he couldn't refuse. Frustrated by the coverage they were receiving from the news media, the Marines invited Roggio, 35, who writes a popular Web log about the military called The Fourth Rail ... to come cover the war from the front lines. ... He raised more than $30,000 from his online readers to pay for airfare, technical equipment and body armor ... Scrutiny of what the Pentagon calls information operations heightened late last month, when news reports revealed that the U.S. military was paying Iraqi journalists and news organizations to publish favorable stories written by soldiers, sometimes without disclosing the military's role in producing them. ... Roggio could not be issued media credentials unless he was affiliated with an organization, the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning research organization in Washington, offered him an affiliation, according to an entry on Roggio's blog"
The article occasioned a lot of commentary in the blogosphere. Blogger Scout Prime says "Blogging isn't journalism. I am not a journalist. Though I have many problems with journalism today in America I certainly do not advocate substituting the function of the press with blogging and certainly not propaganda blogging brought to you by the military and the American Enterprise Institute." Matt at Blackfive says: hold on, there were journalists before there were newspapers, except that formerly recollections took longer to publish. "In the past, the experiences of war have produced poetry and novels and memoirs. ... In real time, on the Internet, officers and enlisted men and women are chronicling the war on weblogs". Others are not convinced. A poster at Livejournal says bloggers are government propagandists and should be identified as such. "One needs to ask who supplied the $30 k for Mr. Roggio's trip. Such a payment could be hidden monetary support for the Bush administration as Roggio's are manly but syrupy sweet paeans to the wonderful war in Iraq effort." Michael Yon, himself the subject of the Washington Post story, faces the issue of propaganda squarely and asks readers to compare a photoessay on the Iraqi elections prepared by an unattributed source which he had posted on his site and a photoessay prepared by MSNBC and asks, what the difference is between the two in terms of accuracy of content and presentation? He argues that both relate true events and are crafted for effect. If the flag of legitimacy does not fly from within the internal construction of the photoessays themselves, where is it grounded?
I think Ranting Profs comes close to the essential issue when observing: "Finally, there's a recognition that the enemy is engaged in information operations, that there needs to be some critical reflection regarding what they do and how they do it, that there's a strategy underlying their behavior. On the other hand, that's treated with equivalence to information ops American forces engage in. The difference is American forces are trying to influence the way articles are placed by, you know, influencing the way articles are placed, while the enemy are trying to influence the way articles are placed by staging events -- meaning by killing people. It ain't quite the same thing."
But the weakness of this argument is that it reduces everyone to a propagandist working for one side or the other. To avoid unfairness in dishonesty, dishonesty must become general. That renders the question of legitimacy moot, but I believe it is not. Legitimacy is rooted within an a journalistic piece itself; it is not an added on at an editorial desk in a famous building. 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 Ranting Professor correctly says that both the US and enemy sides are consciously engaged in an information war. What is overlooked, I think, is that in the battle for credibility accuracy matters. If their claims to superior accuracy were undoubted, the mainstream media can easily afford to ignore the amateurish efforts of a few soldiers and bloggers to get 'the other side of the picture' out. In terms of professional writing skill, press credentials and technical support, Mr. Roggio with his scrounged up $30,000 can hardly hope to compete with professional journalists backed by Fortune 500 companies. That he and others like him are considered a threat says more about the mainstream media than anything else.
As a child, I listened to my grandfather recall how, during the War, Japanese-controlled radio nightly reported sinking half a dozen American battleships, a score of destroyers and countless aircraft carriers -- day after day. MacArthur, they said, would never return. Then one morning in late 1944 as gramps was walking along Manila Bay he heard the strange drone of approaching aircraft. As it happened, my father (he had not yet met my mother) was walking along the outer perimeter of Nielsen Field some miles away at that same moment and saw two Zeros begin to roll down the runway in a desperate scramble to get airborne. They got a few hundred feet into the air when Hellcats came right down onto the deck and shot them both down before his astonished eyes. Bam, and they were gone. Grandpa climbed the highest building he could find and watched, amazed, as carrier aircraft sank every Japanese vessel in the harbor, until but one resisted, settled on the shallow bottom. On the fantail of that single vessel, one dogged Japanese sailor kept up a steady fire with his Hotchkiss until a naval fighter came right to the water and traded tracers with the brave Japanese sailor until he was no more. What died that day wasn't simply the shipping in the harbor; nor even the Zeros at Nielsen Field, but the credibility of every Japanese-controlled radio station. What propaganda fears above all is truth.
Bill Roggio questions some of the Washington Post's facts and responds to his critics. For example Mr. Roggio says that contrary to the Post's article, he was not accredited by the American Enterprise Institute. Nor was there anything special about the process through which he was embedded with units in Iraq, pointing out that it's a well-worn route which one of his critics was actually invited to join. He also provides details on the $30,000 he raised to fund his trip and how small the donations individually were.
Read the whole thing.