'Webloggers,' Signing On as War Correspondents

By Howard Kurtz

Washington Post Staff Writer

Sunday, March 23, 2003; Page F04

L.T. Smash provided a terse after-action report on one close encounter with the Iraqis: "Saddam fired a couple of those Scuds that he doesn't have at me this afternoon. "He missed." No need for embedded reporters when you've got a keyboard and a modem. "Smash" is the pseudonym of a military officer who is chronicling his exploits amid the desert sandstorms -- and getting 6,000 hits a day on his Web site. For all the saturation coverage of the invasion of Iraq, this has become the first true Internet war, with journalists, analysts, soldiers, a British lawmaker, an Iraqi exile and a Baghdad resident using the medium's lightning speed to cut through the fog of war. The result is idiosyncratic, passionate and often profane, with the sort of intimacy and attitude that are all but impossible in newspapers and on television.

Many of these so-called Weblogs eliminate the middleman -- the news outlets whose reach was once needed for a broad audience -- and allow participants to have their say, typos and all, without being run through the media's Cuisinart. "The most interesting thing about the blog coverage is how far ahead it is of the mainstream media," says University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, whose InstaPundit.com site has seen a surge in traffic as the Iraq crisis has heated up, doubling to 200,000 hits a day. "The first-hand stuff is great. It's unfiltered and unspun. That doesn't mean it's unbiased. But people feel like they know where the bias is coming from. You don't have to spend a lot of time trying to find a hidden agenda."

The New Republic is running an online diary by Kanan Makiya, a leading Iraqi dissident based in Cambridge, Mass., who, among other things, recently met with Vice President Cheney. "Today there are hundreds -- if not more -- of Iraqis in America, Britain and the rest of the diaspora who are quitting their jobs and boarding planes to help rebuild their ravaged country," Makiya writes. "With the tyrant's destruction finally at hand, I am elated and worried." Says Chris Orr, the magazine's executive editor: "This is history taking place, and he has a unique and extraordinary perspective on that history. If Iraq becomes a democracy, Kanan will be one of the founding fathers."

Tom Watson, a British member of Parliament, is blogging on such matters as the resignation of the former foreign minister to protest Tony Blair's war policy: "Another sleepless night. . . . Yesterday I ended up three down from Robin Cook when he made his resignation speech. What I would have done to have moved to the end of the row, but once you're in, you're in. His speech was typed (so he must have been writing it for some time) and his hands were quivering (it must have been very difficult)."

The strength of this new form of communication is the sheer variety of voices. Despite some Internet chatter that he might be a disinformation agent, a self-described Baghdad resident posting under the name of Salam Pax at Dear_raed.blogspot.com, is being taken seriously by several Web columnists. "The all clear siren just went on," he wrote Thursday. "The bombing would come and go in waves, nothing too heavy and not yet comparable to what was going on in 91. All radio and TV stations are still on and while the air raid began the Iraqi TV was showing patriotic songs and didn't even bother to inform viewers that we are under attack. At the moment they are re-airing yesterday's interview with the minister of interior affairs. The sounds of the anti-aircraft artillery is still louder than the booms and bangs which means that they are still far from where we live, but the images we saw on Al Arabia news channel showed a building burning near one of my aunt's house."

Some of the online commentators have a mordant sense of humor. L.T. Smash, who often rails about the stupidity of his superiors, posted the following memo to Saddam Hussein: "You may have noted some blasting noises and disconcerting rumbling of the ground in your general vicinity over the past several hours. Do not be alarmed, these shock waves are the result of a long-planned demolition and urban renewal project for the greater Baghdad area." Smash even provides his own self-interview:

"Q. Can't you get in trouble for this sort of thing? Isn't this a violation of Military Regulations?

"A: I'm in the military -- I can get in trouble for just about anything. But generally speaking, this form of communication is bound by the same rules as e-mail. . . . I am voluntarily observing my own, stricter guidelines in regards to operational security."

On another Web site, a 29-year-old Army Reserve officer named Will provides regular updates on his mission: "My Official Army job is Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Weapons Specialist (impressive, isn't it). What that really means is that I go in after a Nuclear, Chemical or Biological attack, and wash cars and help people clean up their gear (in Omaha, my home, that's called Merry Maids). It's very detail oriented, and requires a lot of practice because if I, or any of my soldiers, make a mistake, it could cost lives."

There are "warblogs" of every conceivable stripe and, inevitably, a NoWarBlog, which declared during Friday's bombing of Baghdad:

"W is a war criminal.

"I weep for what W has now done to this nation.

"This looks like an attack with nuclear weapons."

Even some journalists are moonlighting as bloggers. Kevin Sites, a CNN correspondent, is posting pictures, audio and commentary on his personal Web site from the Kurdish section of Iraq. "What I'm looking at right now is long line of trucks packed with all kinds of belongings of Kurdish people moving north," he writes. CNN told Sites to suspend the blog Friday, with spokeswoman Edna Johnson saying that covering war "is a full-time job and we've asked Kevin to concentrate only on that for the time being."

One benefit of the global electronic village is that Americans who don't fully trust their own media can check reports from overseas. In January, according to Wired News, half the 1.3 million visitors to the Web site for Britain's Guardian and Observer newspapers were from the Americas. "Given how timid most U.S. news organizations have been in challenging the White House position on Iraq, I'm not surprised if Americans are turning to foreign news services for a perspective on the conflict that goes beyond freedom fries," Wired News quotes former Newsweek contributing editor Deborah Branscum as saying. InstaPundit Reynolds sees bloggers acting as a fact-checking force. "The value we add is in unpacking the spin in the media coverage," he says.