New York Times Goes to the Source

What's the best antidote to critics' wailing that your coverage of Iraq is lacking? Hire some soldiers to write for you direct from the front lines.

Over the past three years of war in Iraq, the New York Times has been an evergreen target for both critics and supporters of the war, with one side blaming the paper for uncritically reporting the president’s prewar claims of WMD, and the other claiming that the paper has a stridently anti-war message.

When you’re the biggest guy in the room, you obviously provide the biggest target — a position the Times is no doubt used to by now. But for those critics who slam the paper for ignoring what soldiers are doing on the ground on a day-to-day basis, the paper has replied with the best weapon at its disposal: It has set up a group blog of four active-duty soldiers and Marines currently deployed in Iraq, telling their stories as they experience them.

Since March, the blog, called Frontlines, (which, criminally, is behind the “TimesSelect” pay wall), has been updating on a nearly daily basis, capturing the swirling mix of excitement, loneliness, frustration, boredom and pride these soldiers experience during their deployments. With newsrooms scaling back their staffs in Iraq, and reporters unable to be everywhere at once, these posts give the public exactly the kind of on-the-ground, day-by-day glimpse into the reality of the war that I bemoaned we were missing back in January, while writing from Iraq myself.

Contacted by email by CJR Daily, one of the bloggers, Army Captain Will Smith, 30, who is serving in Tikrit, (and whose personal blog is SavvySkull), said that he decided to start a blog in January of this year because when he was home on leave, “all I saw on the news, heard on the radio, and saw in the papers were stories about death, fighting, and bombs. There is so much more to Iraq than just the fighting.”

Marine First Lt. Jeffrey D. Barnett, 24, who is stationed in Fallujah, also said that he started blogging in January, 2006, (on his blog Midnight in Iraq), and like Capt. Smith, was surprised to be contacted by an editor at the Times a few weeks later, asking for contributions for the upcoming “Frontlines” blog.

Smith and Barnett make up just two of what, the one-stop shop for military bloggers, says are at least 332 service members currently blogging from Iraq.

Lt. Barnett said that he first set up his blog in order to let friends and family know what he was up to while deployed. “I wanted to convey my thoughts to everyone I knew,” he said, “yet leave them open for others to read if they should so choose. I really had no idea how to “blog” when I asked my friend and webmaster, Eric Atkins, the best way to accomplish my intent. He set up my blog for me, gave me some web space, and I have been up and running ever since.”

Both Smith and Barnett are serving their first tours of Iraq, and both say that their superiors are aware that they’re writing for the Times, and have given their blessing. Capt. Smith said that “I haven’t publicized it too much in my unit, as I think some senior officers could become scared by the name of the NY Times in conjunction with “reporting” or “blogging.”” One sticking point, he said, is that since his job entails knowledge of classified information, he has to be very careful not to inadvertently let something slip that could affect his unit’s operations.

He says that while he has seen some blogs that he feels share too much information about ongoing military operations, “So far no one has told me to quit, or change what I say.” But this isn’t true for all military bloggers in Iraq. Smith related the story of a friend who posted pictures on his blog, and though Smith didn’t feel like the pictures gave away any important information, the blogger was still told not to update his site any longer while in Iraq.

Barnett says that while “about half” of the Marines he works with know about the blog, he doesn’t think too many check it regularly, since due to time and technological constraints, most Marines simply “check their Yahoo! mail and that’s about it. Blogs are a tough sell here.”

Although his superiors had no problem with his Times affiliation at first, Barnett’s period of contributing to Frontlines is ending after his next post, due, as he says on his personal blog, to “a litany of rules and regulations that make it next to impossible for an active duty Marine to work for a media publication such as the Times.”

But what he did contribute, as First Lt. Lee Kelley, 34, serving near Ramadi, Warrant Officer Michael D. Fay of the Marine Corps Reserve and Capt. Smith have, were some of the most personal, informative accounts of the daily lives of Americans serving in Iraq that have been published by any major American paper.

Another reason, at least in part, that both men began blogging was to get out a story about Iraq that they don’t normally see in the American media. Barnett says that “I have noticed a trend to report every little death and skirmish that occurs out here…I would certainly like to see more positive stories, but I know those don’t sell papers. I absolutely do not trust the MSM,” he says — ignoring for the moment that right now he is the MSM — “and I am glad the populace is embracing warblogs as a way to get the real truth. Maybe it’ll even add some accountability to the MSM.”

Smith has a bit of a different take on the coverage of the war, saying that “I think the media does not intentionally lie or misreport the news. I think they are ignorant of how insurgent warfare is waged, and they play right into the hands of the forces we are fighting.” As an example, he cites was a story that ran last summer about a controversial Department of Defense program about which he had personal knowledge (and one which he will not name specifically), that created a stir in the American media. Smith thought that the DoD program “was a great idea and a needed solution to help us wage the war here.” He also thought that the media got the story wrong. “What they were reporting was not, in fact, the real story. I think we need embeds here in Iraq, and I think news organizations should provide insurgent/unconventional warfare training for those who wish to cover the fighting. Not doing so is akin to having a football fan report on neurosurgery.”

This, of course, might be easier said than done. While it would be great if embedded reporters came to the task armed with an intimate knowledge of the military and how it operates, in reality, this probably just isn’t possible.

But, given the length of the war in Iraq, and the number of reporters who have embedded, it would be safe to assume that the American media is churning out an entire generation of young reporters who have had their “boots on the ground” in combat, so that the general intimacy the media has with the military is probably greater now than it ever has been.

Still, with Frontlines, readers of a newspaper Web site have the opportunity to get the story directly from the source: The men and women doing the fighting. And the Times deserves credit for trying to plug a hole in its own reporting by adding active-duty military bloggers to its roster.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.