War-time blogging and the legacy of Thatcherite media handling

The news media have been correctly criticised for initially failing to penetrate the Bush administration's claims about weapons of mass destruction in pre-war Iraq and its allegations of ties between Saddam Hussein and international terrorism.

Reporters at The Washington Post did detect scepticism about these claims among some sources in the intelligence communities and the military. But those sources understandably refused to be identified, and the stories that we did publish about their scepticism were not given the same prominence in the newspaper as the administration's claims. That turned out to have been a mistake, for which I accepted responsibility.

We should have been more aggressive, even though I doubt it would have affected the Bush administration's determination to go to war, or the initial widespread public support for it in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks. The administration's belief in Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction was widely shared — and even foolishly encouraged by the Iraqi regime.

Most governments have become more aggressive in their efforts to control the flow of information and shape the messages reported by the news media — especially in times of crisis.

The Bush administration has tried to shape coverage of the war in Iraq by limiting most official high-level access to carefully controlled briefings in the Green Zone in Baghdad and the Pentagon in Washington.

Information control tactics Wartime information control tactics employed by the Bush administration appear to be vestiges of what American officials and military leaders believed they learned from how the government of prime minister Margaret Thatcher managed coverage of the 1982 Falklands War.

Only selected and closely supervised British journalists were allowed to accompany British forces to the Falklands. Propaganda and purposeful misinformation about the Thatcher government's decision-making, strategy and tactics in fighting the war was spoon-fed to so-called Lobby journalists in daily secret briefings at the Defence Ministry and elsewhere.

A year later, the Reagan administration replicated all of it in the invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada, where it limited access to the invasion to controlled pools of American journalists. Those who tried to get to the island by boat on their own and report independently were detained by American forces.

Journalists were allowed to report independently, at their peril, during the 1991-92 First Gulf War. And reporters accompanying American forces in what came to be called "embeds" had more access. But their view was still limited by their relatively isolated locations in a fast-moving invasion that had been preceded by a devastating bombing no American journalist could witness. The bulk of information about the war came from — and much of the message of its coverage was shaped — by briefings by American generals in Kuwait and Washington.

Some say the answer to the economic threats to old media journalism will be citizen journalists, some of whom will contribute news to newspapers and their internet news sites, while others write and conduct their own weblogs on the internet.

After all, anyone can be a journalist on the internet. And the cost is minimal.

I am not one of those old media journalists who fears or looks down on bloggers. I believe they have achieved a mutually beneficial relationship with the old media. Most bloggers link to and comment on journalism elsewhere on the internet, especially old media journalism, whose content many bloggers depend on and respect. They drive a large amount of reader traffic to newspaper websites. The blogger Matt Drudge, for example, is one of the largest drivers of reader traffic to washingtonpost.com.

Many newspaper websites, such as ours, name the blogs which most often link to our journalism. This increases reader traffic for those blogger sites and, in turn, they are more likely to link again to our site.

Bloggers serve as watchdogs Some bloggers do original reporting, which, while often incomplete or overly opinionated, provides tips that newspaper reporters turn into solid stories, sometimes major stories. Bloggers also push old media journalists into covering issues they may otherwise ignore.

In the US, many bloggers also serve as watchdogs for the old media, pouncing on our every mistake. This has made American journalists more accountable and responsible. It is now much more difficult to get away with plagiarism, or journalism not firmly rooted in fact.

In a way, blogging is an old American tradition that has re-emerged once again in a new technological form. The 18th century pamphleteers and fledgling newspaper proprietors who agitated for American independence — and then held the Founding Fathers themselves accountable with colourful political coverage, investigative reporting and invective — were the bloggers of their times.

The American press lords of the 19th and early 20th centuries founded newspapers that initially behaved more like opinionated and sensationalist blogs of today than the self-consciously responsible, non-partisan newspapers that dominated American journalism in the rest of the 20th century.

Citizen journalists lack expertise Even then, during the cultural upheavals that began in the 1960s, blogger-type journalism reappeared in the alternative, counter-culture weekly papers that sprung up in many American cities.

But most citizen journalists lack access, expertise and institutional support to replace — rather than supplement — trained journalists working for established news organisations. Those journalists have produced the most reliable and revelatory coverage of the war in Iraq, for example, rather than bloggers.

As we've seen once again since the start of the war in Iraq, the most important journalism is accountability journalism — which holds people in power, whether government or private, accountable to everyone else.

Accountability journalism has been an important part of the coverage of the war in Iraq. Accountability journalism revealed questionable practices by the Bush administration in its detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects, leading to investigations, court action and changes in policy. Accountability journalism uncovered corruption in the US Congress, leading to resignations, more investigations and some convictions.

Despite their serious economic challenges, old media news organisations must find ways to protect and encourage accountability journalism, which is vital to open, representative democracies such as the US and Britain.

At the same time, the internet does make possible more reader and citizen participation in old media journalism.

In fact, one of the big attractions on the internet is opinion. Whether in blogs or on major media news sites, people are eager to express their own opinions and read about other people's opinions.

Disproportionate focus on war Broadcast and cable television news networks have significantly increased their coverage of international news and foreign policy since the 2001 terrorist attacks in the US and the beginning of the war in Iraq. Some of the coverage has been remarkably good, and it has helped shape Americans' views about the Iraq war in particular. But a disproportionate amount of this coverage is focused only on the war and terrorism, rather than the conditions underlying conflict around the globe.

Fortunately, people anywhere who want to know more about the world outside their communities can now turn to the internet for deeper coverage of international news. This almost universal access to quality journalism for anyone with the means to use the internet may become one of its most important contributions to people around the world, in addition to its capacity for information-sharing and communication of many other kinds. The internet, along with cable and satellite television, has helped make the war in Iraq, for example, one of the most closely watched conflicts in history.

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