Journalist, now soldier, Carl Prine is now awaiting his turn in the sandbox. He was kind enough to return fire on my critique in the comments to a previous post. I’ll post my response here, since it deserves to go on the front instead of a comments string.
No response yet from Michael Yon, primarily because he’s incommunicado for a short period. His assistant wrote back, however, and was gracious enough to pass on the implied gauntlet throw on my part. One thing I did learn is that the fan mail for Yon is pretty impressive–he’s been getting cratefuls of snail mail, way more than one person can handle. I can easily wait for Yon to rest up and take his time on replying if he so desires.
I should also emphasize that these are people who put their money where their mouth is–they are in the arena, and it’s their blood and sweat in the sand of Iraq while I sit here in Omaha. It is not the critic who counts, and here I only offer critique. My interest was originally in probing what made an outstanding war correspondent, but the conversation has extended a little. I offer my comments as an informed consumer of media and a guy who is a student of war on his good days.
Now for a discussion of Prine’s return fire.
Hello. Odd to be here. Iâ€™m in uniform now, awaiting the ultimate call-up in October, so Iâ€™ll be respectful, sir. Iâ€™m not sure about the courtesies and customs for military decorum in a blog response, but rest assured I mean no disrespect to either you or your rank.
Welcome to the blogosphere, at least to its back porches and kitchens (start a blog and you’re in the parlor). I find that following the lead of the senior milblogger’s rules, tempered with LTC (and Rev.) Donald Sensing’s infamous Rule #6, and a little common sense, do pretty well for us. I’m a submariner by culture–we care mostly about whether one is competent or not, and I thank Prine for his service and will join him back in the sandbox as soon as I can figure a way to scam it. (It’s been too long since I sweated in the Gulf. Volunteering doesn’t apparently work when you have the experience that I do. Someone else thinks what I’m doing now is somehow more important, which I doubt).
First, it should be pointed out that my comments on Yon were direct answers to specific questions. It is odd to see them taken and spatchcocked into some kind of arbitrary tilt with Michael Yon. The main thrust of the questions I answered was concerning the role of the press in covering the military, and, most especially, the suggestion that the work Yon did was somehow â€œbetterâ€ than what seasoned war correspondents turn out.
Kelly’s blog would have, I would bet, somewhere around the same order of magnitude of readership as the Post-Gazette, particularly when under an Instalanche. This readership is worldwide and focused. The ‘comment extraction’ method of highlighting something interesting is fairly common. At least one blogger (Bill Whittle) is paying rent with proceeds from a book he compiled from a blog that started when someone chained his comments together as one, rather spectacular, essay, and goaded him into writing. I’d had the idea of putting that post up for a while; although I’d never heard of Prine before, I’ve a high regard for what Yon has done, and figured Prine wasn’t just some crank but a guy who didn’t know he had stumbled into a somewhat more hostile audience that perhaps he was used to.
I have concerns with Prine’s critique which I’ll restate.
- What the established media considers itself, where it thinks its place is in the world, and how credible it thinks it is, is at odds with what many people (their customers) think. This disagreement is most noticeable in the blogosphere, although it can also be seen anecdotally, through falling readership and viewership, and through how seriously major media is taken compared to the past.
- We are in a war where the enemy both understands that our “national will” center of gravity is able to be attacked, and understands how to manipulate and leverage media for its own gain. The stance of the major media tends to have a cost and a benefit; in this case I would argue that the cost is not worth it.
- Blogs are a new medium. It is a different way of writing, and things that might make less sense in another medium work better on a blog.
The latter points I’ve addressed in other places, or can easily be found looking at other blogs. I’ll focus on the first one.
Prine references a RAND postmortem on the invasion embed program. I generally concur wih his observations, and wrote about similar issues from the warrior side here.
RAND is particularly concerned about protecting OPSEC. This is a curiousityfor the military because reporters historically and currently have been very, very good at making sure their copy doesnâ€™t get U.S. servicemen killed â€” but military bloggers recently have racked up a fair number of OPSEC snafus thatâ€™s led to a new Army emphasis on cracking down.
Quite frankly, the bloggers didnâ€™t seem to comprehend how their instantaneous stories and photographs might aid the enemy. Ironically, this is something seasoned war reporters understand quite well and high-ranking military officers donâ€™t. Itâ€™s something I think we can teach them.
I don’t necessarily think teaching the senior officers is the primary need. We need the individuals to get it, to let the “strategic corporal” be such, to continue the pattern the Marines make famous as “every Marine is a public affairs officer”. Not everyone will get it–this is a skill that is not universal. What I see as the need for the senior officers to learn is to accept risk for the gain of the public vision of what’s going on (like John de Ville points out in his comment about Civil War letters being so important for local news).
We also need editors and journos to understand the cause and effect of their writing as well. Let me use Prine’s example of what he sees as flawed writing:
Rather, the point is that you simply DO NOT PUT IT INTO YOUR COPY IF YOU DO NOT PLAN ON EXPLORING IT FURTHER IN THAT STORY. What Yon has done is tell the enemy that â€œkeyâ€ equipment failed while the Coalition tried to kill them. Heâ€™s also told the American reader â€” and taxpayer â€” that something apparently very important to our men in the field has not measured up. Itâ€™s unfair to the reader to raise that question and then not answer it. A seasoned reporter would never do it, and an editor would not allow it into a story. Unfortunately, Yon doesnâ€™t have an editor.
In one sentence, he gave succor to terrorists AND denied the American public the information thatâ€™s so vital to a democracy. Thatâ€™s tough to do in so few words. What Ernie Pyle would have done was simple: He would not have put it into that column, but he would have remembered it, and written about it later, when the men were out of danger but before Congress went home. That way, the problem could get fixed with some accountability.
Perhaps the Pyle comparisons are like the near-continual Rosa Parks comparisons we get for anyone protesting something for more than a week. Not many guys, like the late Michael Kelly, really are remembered like Pyle, so that becomes the shorthand. I would agree that the comparison is not correct (and understand why it rankles for a war correspondent) but have lived on USENET long enough to ignore hyperbole.
I understand Prine’s complaint about not putting something into copy–I’ve heard it in playwriting, where the adage is “don’t show a gun in the first act unless someone shoots it in the third”–but that’s not the point Yon is making, I think. We don’t necessarily care about having some grand inquisition on the failed piece of whatever and Congressional hearings on The Great Whatever Scandal. That “squeaking truth to POWER!!” is not the point. Yon is describing something that resonates with military people; “whatevers” always break down and we have to work around it. I as a reader could not care less about having some congressman opine about The Status Of Whatever. If it’s really important, do a grand expose’, but perhaps propelling the story along by explaining what triggered the mindset and situation of the guys is most effectively done the way Yon did it. Much reporting of this war has fit the frame Prine implies; Something Doesn’t Work So IT’S SCANDAL! In this way the normal friction and logistics struggle of war is not comprehended and forgotten. (See any discussions of logistics by guys like Jason van Steenwyk, and compare how van Steenwyk complains about armor to how the press complains about armor.)
The effect of the reportage we see is without memory. See the maps guys like Chester or the CT Blog or Bill Roggio or Belmont Club build, with time-based analysis. What does it mean when someone vaguely remembers that this isn’t the first “Zarqawi #2” we’ve killed recently? What the heck is really going on? You can’t know by what you see in the paper, or see on TV. The story is of the moment, not the bigger picture. The effect is one where “we have always been at war with Oceania”–not exactly Speaking Truth, power or otherwise.
I’m not so much unhappy with Prine’s picking apart Yon’s writing. We could all be better writers. What did bother me was the next para:
This isnâ€™t a question of â€œnew mediaâ€ or â€œold media.â€ Itâ€™s about your unique responsibility under the Constitution to serve as a Fourth Estate. The various print media have survived wire type, radio, TV and the Internet. Most interestingly, the so-called print MSM are a large part of the Internet information stream. I write my stories as much for an Internet audience as for the typical reader of pulp. I think this is pretty universal.
This is a response from someone who thinks entirely too highly of his profession. I’d like to have pointed out where the Constitution outlines those unique responsibilities for a Fourth Estate of Government; I don’t seem to remember where that article is. (The First Amendment does not establish a Fourth Estate, and does not create a guild of bonded, J-school newsmen.) A free and inquiring press is important, we have special protections, but at the same time they are not worthy of special deference as people or godlike awe. This difference in viewpoints is why the press gets outraged when the President says he doesn’t read newspapers, not realizing that declining readership may just mean others also came to that conclusion. (I could also mention why major media doesn’t have that much credibility, but I digress.) It’s also self-deluding–how is someone who works for General Electric or Disney speaking truth to power? (What does that phrase mean these days, anyway?) Who is the power? Whose truth? (Washing of hands to follow.) How about counting how much copy comes out of Afghanistan these days, compared to what comes out of the blogs (including the Afghani ones)?
Prine’s response also does not yet indicate an understanding that the Fourth Estate might just not be what he thinks it is. New media is different, but it is also part of media. Heck, even one of Yon’s photos showed up all over the front pages of the papers–with a story that galvanized people who read it. Sometimes they report things others don’t, and in great depth. Sometimes they report with knowledge no reporter has–like when a submarine gets in trouble and submariners with decades of experience explain to the layman what’s happening, following the story for a long time.
There’s a reason the reaction to Yon has been visceral. He’s filling a need people had, and that need is still there because he’s one of the only guys filling it. That’s why his work is better than some guy relying on Iraqi stringers to bring him something he can cobble into “Death Toll Rises As Morale Drops: Equipment Failure Overshadowed By Defeats”. Perhaps you newspaper guys might want to figure out why he’s so popular in this little corner of the world, and see if there are lessons to be learned from his methods. You can help him get an editor while you’re at it, sure–but some people really like his writing, too, and the blogosphere has a data-corrective effect you may have not noticed before…
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