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Weblogs cover the war without mainstream restraints

By Rona Kobell
Sun Staff
Originally published March 27, 2003

A young architectural engineer who calls himself "Salam Pax" writes that he's been dodging Iraqi guards as he darts through a smoke-choked Baghdad on his way to buy groceries.

Sometimes, he disappears for days (he has been silent since Monday), leaving the anxious readers of his Weblog, "Where Is Raed?" wondering if he's alive. Thus far, though, he has returned each time, to paint a picture of Iraqi suffering that is often more compelling than the grainy images of bombings on American newscasts.

That no one has proved conclusively that Salam Pax is really in Baghdad - or that he exists at all - has not affected his popularity. Thanks in part to mentions from the BBC and the Wall Street Journal, the masses have flocked to Pax's site - http://dear_raed.blogspot.com - eager for a window onto the war's effect on an average Iraqi.

Despite the onslaught of information from the networks, 24-hour cable stations and radio reports, information consumers are increasingly looking to the Internet for still more news about the conflict with Iraq. Some want more frequent updates. Some prefer reports delivered with a clear pro-war or anti-war slant. Still others are logging on because they think there's more to the story than journalists can tell, thanks to both the Iraqi government's restrictions and the rules of their own news organizations.

"People know that the mainstream media are being careful about what they communicate, and they're hoping that this guy is going to tell them something that maybe Peter Arnett's editors aren't going to let him repeat," said Paul Boutin, a technology columnist for Slate.com who regularly reads Pax. "You don't want someone to hand you a packaged answer. You want to take pieces from different sources and make your own decision about what's happening."

Weblogs, called blogs for short, are online journals that are relatively easy to develop and maintain. Blogstreet.com, a Web site that tracks such things, claims that more than 100,000 such journals exist. Some are goofy, offering video spoofs, outlandish conspiracy theories and a variety of unsubstantiated opinions. Others concentrate on digesting hundreds of newspaper articles, then linking readers to the original source for more information. More are created every day - with the pace picking up as war neared.

On sites such as www. lt-smash.com, soldiers are blogging, albeit cryptically, from the battle's front lines. At www.sgtstryker.com, a mother is posting e-mails from her daughter, "Cpl. Blondie," in the field. And Kuwaitis and Israelis are posting dispatches of what they see on group blogs, then responding to questions from those away from the front.

"When we watched the bombing of Baghdad in [1991], we were passive," said Alan Nelson, who created the blog Command-Post.org as a clearinghouse for war stories from newspapers Americans don't usually read, such as Australian and Pakistani outlets. "Now, people are participating in the information much more. They feel engaged in what's happening."

Nelson launched Command-Post with a friend on March 20. Since then, he said, the site has recorded more than 250,000

visitors. One reason for its popularity, Nelson said, is that it sticks to dispatches from reputable news organizations and does its best to vet those who post. If a reader wants to post a rant, Nelson said, he politely explains that Command-Post is not the forum for it.

Nelson admits he's skeptical of bloggers. Most are one-man bands that, unlike newspapers, don't have editors, fact-checkers or rules about what's appropriate to publish. Readers can find a mainstream newspaper's address in the phone book. But they can't find "Lt. Smash" or "Cpl. Blondie," never mind the even more cryptic Salam Pax, whose name is a combination of the Arabic and Latin words for peace.

"What's surprising to me, though, is how serious many bloggers are about finding the truth," Nelson said.

Dan Gillmor, a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News who is writing a book about the intersection of technology and journalism, said the blogs provide a service even if their accuracy is questionable.

"The more voices, the better, in my view," he said. "Now we have to figure out how to aggregate them and sort through the enormous noise in search of the best signal."

Some mainstream war correspondents have taken notice of the bloggers' connection with readers and started journals of their own. CNN reporter Kevin Sites was filing startling pictures of Iraqis along with diary-style entries on his Weblog until his employer asked him to stop. Many regular readers wrote in to praise Sites and excoriate CNN for censorship.

If news organizations haven't exactly embraced the concept of online journals, they do seem committed to updating their Web sites regularly. And, unlike during the gulf war 12 years ago, when CNN made its name as the pioneering 24-hour cable news station, Americans now have a much wider range of choices for information.

Fox News, MSNBC and the British and Canadian broadcasting corporations offer extensive war coverage online and on television. Thousands of satellite subscribers also can watch Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based news agency that's closely covering the conflict. Those without such cable access can read Al-Jazeera online, in English or in Arabic.

This information proliferation means that, if U.S. networks refuse to show graphic images of war on television, readers can find them on their own.

Recently, ABC decided against airing images of Iraqis interviewing American prisoners of war and of the bodies of dead American soldiers that had been broadcast by Arab news outlets, saying that to use the footage would be exploitative. Matt Drudge, the scribe behind the Web site "The Drudge Report," disagreed. He posted the photos from the video feed.

"The families of the murdered U.S. troops have been notified," he wrote. "And if anchormen and others in the media have viewed it, why can't the average citizen?"

Matt Welch, columnist for the Canadian National Post, agrees with Drudge, who was one of several online journalists to post the images. Welch compares the decision not to run the pictures with one several networks made after Sept. 11, 2001, not to show workers at the World Trade Center jumping to their deaths.

"I think we deserve and need to see images of horror and war, with obvious restraints built in for showing torture," said Welch, who is working with former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan to start a new Los Angeles weekly. Welch, who blogs his own war commentary at mattwelch.com after many East Coast writers have gone to sleep, said he received about 45,000 hits Tuesday - the second highest since he began posting on Sept. 16, 2001.

Welch said he's "impressed as hell" with bloggers' initiative, drive and energy. He particularly appreciates Command-Post and the new Kuwait-oriented Weblog qHate.com, which recently posted a video featuring President Bush tap-dancing and Osama Bin Laden dressed like the "Where's Waldo" character in children's books. The best blog writers hew to the Mike Royko-Herb Caen style of writing, he argues. They may be amateurs, but they know how to engage readers and spark debate.

"People with absolutely no training or experience in journalism are having advanced discussions about the relative reliability of the Jerusalem Post, Arab News, Reuters and the Associated Press," he said. "It's extraordinary, I think. And it's very, very healthy for journalism."

Copyright 2003, The Baltimore Sun

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