Michael Yon’s latest is up, an evocative finish to some great work with the Deuce Four.
Carl Prine’s been slagging Yon’s work over at Jack Kelly’s place. Prine is a credible journalist who has extensive, and recent, experience with combat reporting. In the comments to a few posts (this post, and also this one) Prine says:
I have written elsewhere how limited Yon’s work is. It’s good for what it is, but he’s not the best writer and his writing suffers from what every junior on the circuit experiences — the “soda straw” effect.
That’s no rap on him, just a fact. He’s good for an entertaining look at a slice of life, but not a fuller picture.
I’m not sure who is “raving” about Yon. Nor am I exactly sure how Yon can continue to do what he’s doing and make money. He seems to be scraping by on donations.
In the marketplace is the arbiter of value, then Yon has little. If he was so beloved, if there were so many raves, then he mgiht be a bit more successful.
But that’s his business, not mine. All I know is if Yon is supposed to replace the MSM, he’s not doing it.
I presented you with a reasonable measure of value. In a capitalistic world, value is judged by one’s relative worth in a marketplace of talent.
You discuss how people are “raving” about Yon. But no one is buying his product. In fact, he must accept donations to support an embed slot (slots, by the way, where room and board come free of charge).
and most coherently,
Here are some of my problems with Michael Yon, and this is purely a subjective appraisal:
1. He’s not a very good writer. He doesn’t understand, yet, that not every detail needs to go into a dispatch. Not everything is relevant. Sometimes it seems as if he’s simply mentioning people to curry sources or because, well, he’s there with them and he needs to add their names. It bogs down the prose. Many of his postings are unorganized, cliche-ridden and rambling jumbles of words. There is a reason he’s getting by on donations and not selling this.
For those who want to read often brilliant accounts of battle, in Iraq and other places in the third world, I would suggest Soldier of Fortune. Every freelance war correspondent has punched his ticket at some point with SOF. Despite its popular reputation, there are very good stories there about conflicts few people think about.
And, yes, even I wrote for SOF. There, professional editors are on hand to turn some of Yon’s mess into readable copy.
My best advice to Yon would be to show, not tell. He has a lot of sentences that begin with an action but then tred dangerously into “so” as he begins to explain why they did it. Don’t assume your readers are so stupid. Show, don’t tell, and do it well enough that you don’t need to explain every line.
And economize! You mentioned Ernie Pyle. Pyle was a very great writer. His chosen weapon was the column. About 20 inches. He would describe a battle by concentrating on the most important, human elements of the story.
Check out these pieces, especially the moving story about the death of Capt. Waskow, and you will see what I mean —
Just because you have a sympathy for GI Joe doesn’t mean your writing is illuminating his experience or preserving his moment in history. If I’m in the infantry, I’d rather have a guy like Filkins write about me than Yon.
The NY Times guy combines fact with poetry and context. He “gets” me AND “gets” the general reader. He’s the conduit for the merger of the two, and he’s willing to put his life on the line to do it.
2. Much of what he reports isn’t very interesting. This is the bane of every soldier just as it is of every correspondent. Much of war isn’t interesting to either the general reader or the participants. During these moments, good writers turn to character studies of the people doing the fighting. This is nearly always interesting because people — not jargon, not bloviating sendups about how wonderful the CO is, not some tedious minute-by-minute accounting of a movement to the LOD — are always fascinating, if you know how to ask the right questions and put what they say into context.
3. Context. Yon has no understanding of the larger aspects of this war. He decries the various media at various times for various descriptions of violence, then says, in so many words, “That’s not happening here!” But it might very well be happening in Sadr City or Ramadi or Hit or Tikrit that day. He doesn’t have the larger picture upon which to judge the war. Don’t get me wrong, I can think of a zillion newspapers that also get this wrong, but they’re still better at it than him.
4. He’s not a good reporter. He misses things that should immediately trick up some imagination. Here’s something he wrote the other day:
“So, of course, glitches and snags started occurring the first day. Among other things, key gear failed; but overall, the Surge was going well.”
Uhhh, what gear failed???? You know that’s important to the guys whose gear is failing! You know it’s important to the people who might be reading this! It doesn’t have to violate op-sec and it doesn’t need to be negative in tone, but you must mention what’s just not working.
If you’re not going to ask those tough questions or give the reader the answer, then don’t raise it by putting it in your copy.
People forget today that Pyle was controversial in his time because he took on, directly and unsparingly, the War Department. He was so tenacious that one of the policy goals he championed became known as the “Ernie Pyle Law.” It gave GIs 50 percent extra cash for combat service, a tradition that continues today.
I don’t see anything like that coming out of Yon. He doesn’t really question much. He doesn’t put things into a larger context. He’s the COPS version of reporting, without the cool reggae music and the crackheads rolling around in their underwear.
5. He really has no clue about what he’s doing, so he trashes the efforts of others. Let me give you an example:
“What is seen on television and in the papers is practically always inaccurate, or is at least poorly framed.”
As someone who has seen a great deal of combat in my life and who earns his daily bread as a reporter, I can assure you that a lot of what Michael Yon writes is misleading, inaccurate and vapid. That’s why something like this is so scary —
“On others, I’ve been so close to the action, my face gets smacked by flying shell casings. I come away with information and details no other writer could possibly have.”
But he doesn’t know how to convey those details or make them meaningful. He mangles details, often electing cliche over simple but powerful description.
Because of the fragmented media today, we don’t have figures such as Pyle (who wrote for more than 300 newspapers, the dominant medium of the age), so few people get to read the great work done by embedded and un-embedded reporters.
I referenced only one of them at the NY Times, but I would put his work up with Pyle’s, and not Yon’s.
This isn’t a professional jab at Yon. I believe foremost in the primacy of the written word, and I don’t care who does the typing. Don’t forget that Hemingway was a soldier first. So was James Dickey. So, too, Norman Mailer.
I have some disagreements with Prine. To continue his “money” analogy, I’d like to point out that I’ve not paid money for a New York Times article in decades, and have donated to Yon. Perhaps I’m the niche market, but perhaps there’s something else there. I don’t think Yon is doing this so much to be a successful reporter as he is acting on a more deep compulsion–he often talks of his friends who died on the bridge in Falluja as a driver for what he wants to do.
What Yon is providing is a quite different product. I can understand Prine’s critique of Yon’s writing style, but I trust Yon’s writing where I most emphatically do not trust the NYT. It’s matched reports I get other places. There are dozens of good sites saying the same thing Yon’s saying about inaccuracy and narrative frame, with hundreds of posts to back their claims.
Prine also complains about the “soda straw view”, but that’s what blogs do–they report their little corner of the world. If that’s what you’re looking for, detail about a small part of the world is just fine–and sorely missed in “Dead Soldier Counter Goes Up As Insurgents Gain Strength” articles. Conversely, if you sometimes don’t want the soda straw view–say, during Hurricane Katrina–you can be stuck with it. One of the most germane critiques of Katrina reportage involved reporters generalizing from the six feet they saw around them. Those reporters get paid a lot of money–so they’re better, right?
I, and I would expect other readers of Yon, deeply distrust the narrative frame employed by bigger media. We also enjoy the personal connections that Yon describes because this is missing from most news sources. This is different, and therefore refreshing.
This discomfort with the news we get from professional journalists isn’t as obscure a feeling as Prine would have us believe. Jacksonville, Florida’s paper, in a military town, is getting heat from its own readers–and its ombudsman–for blandly reprinting wire copy and printing the “Dead Guy Counter” as if it means something. One notable exception is Omaha’s paper, which over the last few weeks has been prominently reporting what its Guardsmen are doing and what they are saying about it. (Here’s a typical example from today, at random–I don’t see this kind of article in many papers, and not just because of the lack of defeatist tone.) Omaha also is responding to their readers in its change in focus.
The most important thing I see Prine misunderstanding is that this is an information war*. Prine talks about “illuminating his (the soldier’s) experience” and “preserving his moment in history”–but also important is “maintaining the national will to win”. The other side is using our open society to attack and kill us. They are using media to get what they want, change minds, recruit. They understand how to manipulate public opinion, and why the VC’s Giap was so successful in attacking our “national will” center of gravity. Our press has guys like Seymour Hersh trolling for any bad story he can find–no matter how untruthful or damaging–and a culture that often despises the military’s belief system and modus operandi. (Strong word? You should hear what I hear at the J-schools, from the midshipmen, from the journalists.) This is a fight to the death against an ideological foe, and the battlefields include public opinion. “Objectivity”, a fake sense of moral superiority, and facile “blood and circuses” misdirection on what matters in the long term most emphatically does not cut it.
Prine, however, is putting his money where his mouth is. He took a pay cut and enlisted. I don’t know why he thought it was the best approach, but he is doing the hard thing. I only wish I felt that more of his comrades in the press were as willing to serve alongside us, either reporting, or fighting.
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Prine also recommends the writing of Dexter Filkins.
* I’ve mentioned “information war” a couple of times: re public affairs and media, the Kevin Sites incident, the Newsweek riots, et cetera. Just search around and you’ll find all sorts of stuff.
Over the long term, Rantingprofs has the goods on the rhetoric and narrative frame; Countercolumn straddles journalism and military and critiques very well.