TCS Daily


"Everything Here Is First-Person"

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - July 27, 2005 12:00 AM

In last week's column, I mentioned independent journalist Michael Yon, a Special Forces alumnus who's now traveling around Iraq far more independently than most journalists, and reporting on things we're not hearing from The New York Times. You should check out his blog, at MichaelYon.blogspot.com, to see what I'm talking about; you might want to start with this report on busting a terrorist bomb factory and weapons cache. Yon, who has been compared to Ernie Pyle, is doing the kind of war reporting that hardly anyone else is doing these days.

Below, he explains how and why he's doing it.

 

GR: Please tell me a bit about your background, and how you decided to embark on this project.

 

MY: I was born and raised in Florida, where I learned at a young age how to successfully hunt, kill and eat alligators much larger than I am. I was different than the other boys in that my favorite three subjects were physics, physics, and physics. I also was very serious about sports, mainly because I was small and got beat up by my big brother a lot, and wanted to put an end to that which I eventually did. I joined the army for university tuition. I volunteered and was selected for Special Forces, which I enjoyed immensely, except that I hated wearing uniforms. After running several businesses, I started to write, more as a way to get perspective than as the first step toward finding out that what I most enjoy is traveling the world, exploring fascinating places, and writing about them. As for Iraq, I maintain friendships with former Special Forces teammates and other service members, most of whom are still active duty. The war is a major event for this and future generations. I had, and continue to have, complex and sometimes contradictory opinions about this war. What made me embark on this project was the need to see things first hand, to find out for myself what is going on, what it means, and how it is going to affect all of us for a very long time.

 

GR: What are you trying to accomplish with your reporting? What will the final result be? A book?

 

MY: I am chronicling my observations of this war over an extended period. My independence is important on many levels. I am beholden to no agency and I don't need to produce copy on a deadline. So I can write about what I am seeing and take time to do so properly. Journalists of many sorts fly through here for short times, and there are a handful of semi-permanent reporters from a few majors such as CNN and Time. Some of these are good and serious folks, but I think they are hobbled by working for agencies and are not free to roam and follow their instincts. Being completely independent allows freedom to roam the battle field from North to South, from Iran to Syria, and to describe without filters what I see. The events in Iraq are singularly critical to the futures of billions of people. Given that such incredible events are taking place, and that I am committed to being here as long as I still have unanswered questions....definitely, I will write a book.

 

GR: What kind of a role does technology play in making your reporting possible? Could you have done this sort of thing 20 years ago?

 

MY: The internet makes wide and near instantaneous reporting simple. Also, satellite and cell phones in Iraq allow for real-time reporting by nearly anyone. I do not report in real-time -- I am not actually a reporter -- but am able to post dispatches that are being read all around the world. I think a generation earlier my background might have afforded access that the embedded reporter system now grants just about any reporter, journalist or filmmaker. But the military's attitude toward the media has changed almost as dramatically as the technology around communications has developed. So I might have been able to tag along and observe and later write a book about my experiences, but I definitely couldn't have blogged it.

 

GR:. Do you see independent reporting as the future of news? What role do you think it will play? Should Big Media folks be worried, or should they see it as an opportunity?

 

MY: I don't think anyone can predict the future of news. Some question whether it's even really still news in the classic Edward R. Murrow sense. Clearly we are shaking the tree where the big media has been perched. The little guys are increasingly not so little, they have grasped the power of the web, and they have increasing credibility and exposure. It's still a little wild in the streets in terms of what passes for credible information. Sometimes blogs seem like the transcripts for radio talk shows. But lately mainstream media is getting the story leads for Iraq from independents and bloggers. I get contacted frequently by an assortment of big players such as the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, FOX, and just a couple weeks ago I scooped a major story from the grips of CNN. (Quite by accident.) When I want firsthand and nitty-gritty information about an area in Iraq, I search for bloggers in that area, and then decide for myself if they sound credible. For firsthand information in Iraq, the best sources definitely are not mainstream media, all of which have become fixated with counts: numbers of car bombings, numbers of dead, numbers of insurgents captured, etc. But for real stories, the majors have lost the battle in Iraq. There is no question that the best sources for detailed information in Iraq tend to be bloggers. Mainstream media straggles further behind every day. Should they be worried? If they really care about the legacy of solid journalism, probably, yes. But if they only care about the bottom line, they are probably already thinking up some "reality TV" version of the news, maybe some program where they gather bloggers from around the world, put them in a wired house and film them finding and reporting news...

 

GR: You write in a personal voice, more like the old-time reporting of Ernie Pyle than like most modern war correspondents. Why did you decide to take that approach? Is it part of reporting in your own name?

 

MY: This is the easiest question to answer. Firstly, I never studied journalism so I have little frame of reference past or present. I write in first person because I am actually there at the events I write about. When I write about the bombs exploding, or the smell of blood, or the bullets snapping by, and I say I, its because I was there. Yesterday a sniper shot at us, and seven of my neighbors were injured by a large bomb. These are my neighbors. These are soldiers I have borrowed camera gear from (soldiers who have better photo gear than I have), these are the people who risk their lives for me. I see them bleed, I see them die, I see them cry for their friends, and then I see them go right back out there on missions, and I see them caring for Iraqi people and killing the enemy. I feel the fire from the explosions, and am lucky, very lucky, still to be alive. Everything here is first person.

 

Yes, it is. And that's one of the strengths of the independent journalism that the Internet, and other technologies, make possible.

 

Yon -- fittingly, as a journalist himself -- asked me a question of his own: "Where will it all end?" I don't know, but we're nowhere close to that now. We're not even at the end of the beginning for this stuff, yet.

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