Other Sides of the Story
When CNN news chief Eason Jordan made the off-handed remark last year that U.S. soldiers were deliberately targeting journalists in Iraq, killing 12 of them, pro-military bloggers went on the attack, calling the allegations ridiculous and untrue.
Two weeks later, engulfed in controversy over the credibility of his network, Jordan stepped down.
The incident underscores the increasing power of the blogosphere and also highlights the relatively new phenomenon of military blogging.
At the center of this movement is J.P. Borda, a 31-year-old software analyst who lives in Dallas. Borda started blogging in 2004 during his National Guard deployment in Afghanistan as a way to keep in touch with family and friends. He now runs the site milblogging.com, an aggregator of military-related blogs from around the world. There are more than 1,400 military blogs, Borda says, and most share a common goal: to take on the mainstream media.
The way Borda sees it, the media tend to ignore positive news coming out of Iraq while overplaying negative stories. "It's tough for veterans. You turn on the news, and there's a lot of negative coverage," he says. "It's frustrating to hear that when there's so much positive going on there."
Military blogs offer a boots-on-the-ground alternative, and Borda says they are catching on because many people have lost their trust in what they see as a leftist, anti-military media.
One of the most popular military bloggers is Matthew Currier Burden, a Chicago information technology executive who served in the first Gulf War. His blog, blackfive.net, is particularly aggressive in challenging the media's portrayal of the war.
Burden says the media do more than ignore good news out of Iraq. As the Eason Jordan case illustrates, the media sometimes distort or even fabricate stories, he says.
As an example, he cites a New York Times story that ran last November marking the 2,000th American death in Iraq. The story, according to Burden, used a snippet from a Marine's last letter home that made it seem like the Marine was unhappy about serving a third tour in Iraq, when he was in fact honored to serve and believed in his mission. The selective editing of the letter, Burden says, displays a bias in the media.
"I'm not saying it's this evil, vast left-wing conspiracy, but there is a bias in some of the news organizations, and the only stories you get that are positive are in the local papers. You know, local boy or girl makes good," he says. "Nobody in the military thinks Abu Ghraib is an illegitimate story. But when it's in The New York Times 40 times above the fold, and most readers don't know the name of the man who was awarded the Medal of Honor, there's something wrong with that." (Army Sergeant 1st Class Paul Ray Smith was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2005.)
Burden says it is his personal mission to make sure these stories are told.
Not all military bloggers share Burden's perspective. There is a handful, he says, who are against the war or at least critical of the U.S. military's methods. Jason Hartley of New Paltz, New York, for example, was demoted from specialist to sergeant after he wrote on his blog, justanothersoldier.com, that he loved dead civilians and wished he could shoot children. He later said he was being satirical.
"I thought the killing of civilians had just gotten out of hand," Hartley says now. "And I found it reprehensible."
Hartley agrees that there are few military bloggers who share his more liberal politics, but he says most aren't trying to take on the media. They're just trying to share their stories. "I don't think most soldiers want to be pundits. They just don't think in those terms. It's more moment-to-moment."
Hartley says there is a small but vocal minority of military bloggers who speak out against the war. Military blogging, in general, is self-policing with little oversight. All active-duty military bloggers must first register their blog with their commanding officer, who decides what can and can't be written about. "Some commanders don't appreciate talking about how a raid went wrong and how funny it was," Burden says. "There are some commanders who are OK with it. Some commanders have blogs.
"If you put anything up you have to keep in mind that number one, Osama Bin Laden is going to be reading it, your mother is going to be reading it and the commander is going to read it. So keep that in mind and then go ahead and write."
Some of the most well-read blogs get more hits than some newspapers. Burden's site, for example, gets more than 210,000 unique visitors a month. Other military bloggers have parlayed the success of their blogs into books and magazine articles. Army Specialist Colby Buzzell, for example, has published two articles of war stories in Esquire since his discharge and a book called My War, which has drawn the praise of everyone from Newsweek to The New York Magazine. Burden just finished editing a book called Blogs of War, a collection of the best writing from military blogs since September 11, 2001.
Borda, the Dallas software analyst, doesn't have any big plans beyond his blog. Still, he hopes it will effect some kind of change. By linking to more and more military blogs every day, he believes he is making it easier for people to find the news they are looking for out of Iraq. And like Burden, he believes that can make a small difference in the way people see the war.
"The media is about shaping the will of the country, about shaping our moral will to fight a war, and I believe that's where they're falling down," Burden says. "I don't think the military blogs are going to replace the media, no way. We can't compete. But we can be an alternative source. My main job is to make sure we're honoring the sacrifices these guys are making. "
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