War News: Go Beyond the Usual Suspects
by Dan Gillmor
March 21, 2003
What follows is this Sunday's column. I've gotten
permission to post it early, because it feels
In the 1991 Gulf War, the American public was fed an a
homogenized version of reality. The news consisted of
the same sound bites, presidential declarations,
Pentagon briefings, etc. -- essentially identical
information no matter what the media source.
In the first 24 hours of the latest Gulf War, the same
situation prevailed for the vast majority of Americans.
This time around, however, a minority -- but a growing
one -- had learned a lesson from the aftermath of the
Sept. 11 attacks. They had a robust online alternative.
The World Wide Web, e-mail lists and other online
sources offered content with context and nuance.
Maybe you didn't have time at the start of this war to
check out the alternatives. In coming weeks and months,
please make the time.
The amount of information this time is going to be
overwhelming. Hundreds of professional journalists are
in the Middle East covering the events, and the Web
gives us access to most of what they're going to tell
Many are "embedded" in combat units. They'll provide all
manner of on-the-ground reports, albeit censored, using
modern communications technology that will shock us with
Some of the coverage will come from media that do not
parrot the U.S. government's view of the conflict. In
the weeks leading up to the war, when much of the
American press dismissively covered internal dissent and
mocked the rest of the world's misgivings as weak-kneed
whining, many people started looking to British media
for the kind of information and opinions they weren't
Several weeks ago, the London Observer broke a story of
U.S. spying on the United Nations delegations of
Security Council members. It quoted a memorandum by a
National Security Agency official. The U.S. media
organizations that bothered to cover the story
downplayed it, but it was big news elsewhere -- and on
The rise of the passionate amateur, meanwhile, has given
us valuable new insights. Nowhere is that more true than
in weblogs and other kinds of personal media that
transcend the soapbox genre. Collectively, they expand
the marketplace of ideas.
Some webloggers serve a clearinghouse function, becoming
a collaborative filter and conversation. They sort
through the journalism, professional and amateur, and
point the rest of us to the most interesting coverage.
I also subscribe to a number of mailing lists where
other subscribers do much the same thing. They spot
interesting new coverage, and tell everyone else on the
list. I'm a big fan of Dave Farber and his 'Interesting
People' list; Farber's readers tell him about useful
material and he tells everyone else.
The soapboxes have their own unique value. These are
political weblogs that deal mostly with policy issues,
with the war and international politics at the top of
the current agenda. Sometimes they're the classic "sound
and fury, signifying nothing," but the best force us to
reconsider our own biases. I frequently disagree with
Glenn Reynolds, but his postings are always relevant,
The source and quality of information are as important
online as in traditional media, but more difficult to
verify in some cases. As I write this, meanwhile,
there's a serious discussion online about the bona fides
of a weblogger who says he's in Baghdad, telling us how
things look to an Iraqi citizen. We're developing new
hierarchies of trust for this new medium, just as we
have for the traditional publications and broadcasts.
I don't know if the most deeply interactive nature of
the Net will emerge fully in this war, not the way it
will when information technology and networks are even
more pervasive than they are today. We'll get a hint of
it as on-the-ground journalists with fancy portable
telecommunications gear give us their perspectives.
If you want to be informed, roam widely. Watch and read
things that support your own beliefs. Then look for
commentary and data that don't. It's all out there.
The need for a better-informed citizenry has never been
greater, not in an era of such pivotal changes and
world-shaping decisions. Yet there has rarely been such
prevailing shallowness in public discourse.
Our business and political leaders know that reality is
an infinite palette of grays, not starkly black and
white. We know that, too, because we deal with those
subtleties in your everyday life. Yet our leaders --
and, yes, major elements of the mass media -- reduce
complex issues to simplistic slogans. Why do we go along
I'm not asking you to change your mind on fundamental
issues. But I implore you to use these new tools to keep