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 Milblogging.com, 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.”