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October 1, 2003

PressThink Review: Front Line Voices Hands Over the Mike

A new site gathers first person accounts from the American military who have served in Iraq. Great Idea. One day old. So what are they thinking?

Front Line Voices, a new site that had its debut today, will publish verified first-hand reports from the front lines of Iraq, written exclusively by soldiers.

This is a very good idea. (Background.) And its aim is true: corrective for press accounts that are skewed, half-reported or radically incomplete. But can a site restricted to voices of men and women in the military provide a useful counterweight to the news?

Yes, it can. For whatever our outward positions on war and re-building, most of us know inside we have no idea what it’s like to serve in the military and, say, occupy someone else’s country for their benefit. Journalists can try to tell us. But when soliders are willing to tell us, we have every reason to tune in, adjust our sense of the real, and redraw the map in our heads. A witness is always a corrective to what we’ve heard.

The site’s concept is admirably simple: First hand accounts, all military. Open to submissions. Verified by the site’s editors. Honest, real, unfiltered except for typos. What free-thinking citizen wouldn’t want that? What right thinking Web person wouldn’t say bravo? Front Line Voices, you have my support. What you are doing is important. Don’t blow it. However, I have read your introduction, and in the spirit of friendly criticism offer a reply, knowing of course that you’re just getting started— pouring the concrete, as it were. Intro says (so far):

Since, as the saying goes, perception is nine-tenths of reality, those who control what we learn about the war in Iraq and other conflicts have an immense power. They can spin a victory into a failure, and a perceived failure in the fight against tyranny can only strengthen the resolve of tyrants.

It has increasingly been the complaint of many troops that the picture that the media is painting of the progress in the War on Terror is far from reality. The mission of this site is to get out the full story by posting first-hand accounts as written by men and women who have actually been to Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no editing or commentary by those who run this site, and we will print any letter or story submitted by a legitimate source who has served overseas. Our only goal is to offer you the opportunity to read these stories and to find out what the reality is.

1. Point out the people who believe this creepy saying: 90 percent of reality is perception. I am not one. Are you? It’s the first idea in your introduction, but I doubt you believe it. That 90 percent of what’s happening on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan—the hard reality of it—is a matter of our perception, and not, say, the matter of real aching hearts and real flying bullets and real changes in a liberated people? Perception you vote for, as nine tenths of the real? It is a common saying. Also a dumb saying; and anyway, Front Line Voices is supposed to be a reality check. If you’re a reality check, it’s better to insist on a hard reality out there, rather than the soft primacy of manipulated perception.

2. “Those who control what we learn about the war in Iraq and other conflicts have an immense power.” Okay. But isn’t the premise of Front Line Voices that no such control exists? The media power won’t have the power to themselves if we can create and popularize intelligent, eyewitness sites like Front Line Voices, so let’s make it happen, people. Right? Maybe I am not your market. But I don’t bookmark you because the news media controls what we learn about the war’s aftermath. I bookmark you because I know the opposite to be true. No one controls what we learn if we know where to look and link. That’s the genius of the Internet, the public tool you’re working with.

3. So junk the first paragraph, it’s hostile to what you’re doing. Keep the second— it’s clear, factual, sincere. Where it says the mission of this site is to get out the full story… change to the mission of this site is to get out a fuller story. It’s nonhostile, and what does it cost you? Only the illusion that there’s ever the full story gotten out. Keep in mind if you’re good at this, some of the most clued-in readers of your site may be journalists.

4. I have a suggestion for you about how you got certain ideas that defeat the premise of your site (Points 1 and 2.) Perhaps you got them from what your champion Glen Reynolds calls Big Media, or from journalists who work in it. Here’s a sample I have written about in PressThink, an offhand comment from Richard S. Dunham of Business Week: “Still, in politics, perception is reality, and the public remains convinced that Bush is rooted deeply in the political center.” (Need more quotes like this, ask.) Now why is it in the interests of certain self-inflated or absent-mined journalists to inform us that 90 percent of reality is… aha, just perception? Because it makes them deathly important! Suppose a lawyer informs you that 90 percent of succeeding in anything is knowing the law. If you agree, you really need that lawyer or one like him.

5. The undercurrent of Big Media and its Awful, Choking Power Over Us gives your enterprise a false kick at the start. From what I can see, Front Lines was built by free citizens, in full command of their public senses— not by Prisoners of Rather. So the power of television to control our perception, of journlists to spin us around til confusion reigns, must be coercing other Americans, in other zip codes. Well, who are they? How you picture these media-fed others counts. If it’s something like, “the busy masses out there, who watch Jennings and Rather and CNN and think they have the news,” which is my guess, then please be careful. Raymond Williams is the author of one of this site’s mantras (right column): “There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses.” Tyrants, they see people as masses and successfully so. Don’t posit the existence of media victims if you’re the media’s critics. Victims won’t read your site; free thinking citizens might. Some will be left, but some will be…

6. I applaud Front Line Voices, because it is a serious, volunteer effort to enrich information with witness testimony (a key method of the human rights movement.) Let facts on the margin come to the middle. Yes. This we want. But if the founders plan to publish “first-hand accounts as written by men and women who have actually been to Iraq and Afghanistan,” they ought to remember that this description includes a great many journalists who have actually been there too, embedded or not but working in a dangerous place. If the issue is sacrifice, journalists in Iraq have their dead.

7. The moral authority of the witness—also a premise of the Voices site—is closely related to the moral authority of the correspondent on scene, mike in hand, deputized by the public as its eyes and ears. Compelling first hand accounts that tell us what’s going on elsewhere are a close cousin to journalism, which is why one of Front Line’s key concerns has to be verification of identity. Properly so. Journalism 101 is get the names right. Should we publish this great letter we got if we’re not sure who it’s from? That’s Journalism 201. Editors, don’t assume an antagonism with the press. You’re a corrective to the press, a different filter, and a great many journalists would say “we need that.”

They’re right. Your aim is true. I hope the site works.

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 1, 2003 11:35 PM