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Prologue to OJO: ver desde Irak by Carolina Podesta

Citation: Prologue of the book “OJO, ver desde Irak”, by Carolina Podesta. Editado por Distal, 2003. Argentinian book based on Carolina Podesta’s Iraq war weblog, the only Spanish-language-based warblog written by a journalist on the ground in Iraq during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and major combat operations. The following prologue to the book was translated into Spanish.


By Christine Boese

The book you have before you is a hybrid document. It was born in a particular time and place in the context of the build-up to the United States’ war against Iraq, but it also found its voice on the Internet in a very specific kind of dialogue. Carolina Podesta has fashioned this book from its online context, but many other voices were speaking with her on the site through its interactive comments feature. Those voices gave her feedback, support, discussion, and fed her thoughts, often from a great distance as she worked in Erbil, Kurdistan, in northern Iraq and then on to Baghdad during the war. Those voices fed her future words and thus are part of this book, part of the hybrid from online text to printed text.

Very few books start out as a multi-voiced dialogue and then shape into a singular text. Usually the path of a book starts with a lone author with an idea or story she wants to share, and from the text of the book, it becomes part of a larger conversation and dialogue. The path of this book begins in dialogue, shapes into a printed text, and then opens up into space for dialogue once again, as part of a new, larger conversation.

Here I will tell how I became part of this story, a midwife of sorts, from another country that might be the United States, or it really might be the virtual nation that is the Internet, cyberspace. There is much about this story I can’t know because I did not live in Argentina, the site of the largest audience for the web site “OJO” at http://www.serendipit-e.com/ojo (although statistics did show a significant number of readers from Mexican domain names). I had to read the site using the poor filter of a Google machine translation because I am dyslexic and have never learned Spanish. I’m sure there are nuances and meanings I missed that were lost in the translation.

Even with the rough translation, I could tell something significant was happening on the “OJO” site. Carolina and I had never met in person, yet I saw that her “eye” could see in ways that, as a journalist covering the war at CNN Headline News, where I worked, was not the same “eye” that I was conditioned to expect. Carolina had a broader perspective and the vision of a poet.

I wish I did understand better the impact the contribution of the weblog “OJO” had on Argentineans. All I can assess are the site statistics and the highly interactive responses posted by readers. I wish I knew what it was like to be reading updates in Argentina. Perhaps after this book comes out I will visit and have a chance to learn more.

“OJO” appeared on the Internet at a very auspicious time in terms of the dominant Western, corporate-owned media. These giant media entities (including my employer, Time Warner) didn’t see the tiny challenge appearing in the form of weblogs, or perhaps they did but were at a loss as to how to respond. I refer to the rise of journalistically-focused, often highly personal, first person weblogs, or “blogs.”

Blogs are what I do. I am a student of the blogging movement, a builder and a keeper of weblogs.

Some of you may be asking, “What is a blog?” Perhaps you have never gone online, or have never seen a weblog on the World Wide Web. Or you may have seen a blog and not known that is what it was.

In its most simple form, a weblog is a piece of software that makes it very easy for a non-technical person, or even a traveler away from his or her computer, to post regularly updates to a web site in a journal or in diary-like fashion. Many blogs are oriented to a calendar or specific dates when updates were made. In the case of “OJO,’ you could click on a date on the calendar and read what Carolina Podesta had to say on that date during the Iraq war.

The web site, http://www.serendipit-e.com/ojo, had other features as well, such as topical categories, a site search engine, an automatic table of contents, and most important, a “Comments” link at the end of each post, a bulletin board for readers to join in and continue the conversation.

All of this is made possible by an unobtrusive little database running behind the scenes created by a weblog tool called “Movable Type.” Anyone could create such a site once the software is correctly installed with a domain name and an account that supports PHP and possibly MySQL, which are both free and open source. A “Movable Type” blog can be set for quite a few different languages as well.

But there is more to blogging than a piece of software that lets you post to a web site from your laptop or a cybercafe or even text messaging from your mobile phone. Blogging also has become a significant social and political movement, experiencing rapid growth in the US but also catching on worldwide. Blogging has the potential to harness the power of the printing press more so than ordinary web pages.

This is because fans of a particular blog can subscribe to its “headline feed” for free using news feed reader software (usually free also)[1] or an email subscription. Then they will be automatically notified when the blog is updated. This puts the big newspaper headline services and the little blogs on somewhat equal footing. It also makes it easier for search engines to find and index blogs.

In the United States large numbers of ordinary people are keeping blogs. Part of the reason is the worldwide attention on blogs during the Iraq war. Blogs like “OJO” that were focused on the war put the blogging phenomenon on the map. It attracted a lot of readers and international media coverage, especially for “Salam Pax,” the so-called “Baghdad Blogger” (now also a columnist for the UK Guardian).[2]

Because I make a study of online social movements, I’ve been watching the rise of blogs through several key events leading up to the Iraq war. After observing these events, I was enthusiastic about building and sponsoring Carolina Podesta’s blog. I do live in the US, and can’t help seeing these events from a US perspective, although the impact of at least 2 of these events was felt globally. I was also quite certain blogs would have a global impact very soon, which made the “OJO” blog a perfect test case to approach audiences outside the US.

Weblog technology has been around since the late 1990s. Initially blogs weren’t very popular except among teenagers writing to and for other teenagers. The other people who used blogs in the beginning were techies: web designers, computer programmers, and engineers, using the software to document their projects. Due to the dot.com boom of the late 1990s, there were a lot of techie bloggers living in New York City on September 11, 2001 when the planes hit the World Trade Center towers. While the world was in shock, people in and around New York City were trying to find loved ones, to communicate and make meaning, and record their experiences during that life-changing event.

People made memorials, volunteered for the Red Cross, and those techies with blogs started recording stories on their blogs, gripping personal stories.

Most folks still got their primary news from all the usual channels. Blogs were still flying primarily under the radar, told about by word-of-mouth. Those who did discover the grassroots reporting found the emotions more raw and opinionated, less pre-digested and branded than mass media coverage in the US tends to be.

This was a significant shift. The bloggers felt the power and impact of what they could do and they started taking themselves more seriously. Many others also felt the impact of the 9/11 blogs and were motivated to start their own blogs as well. Quite a few of these people, the second wave, were professional working journalists. They felt a power and a service in blogging, which hit touchstones of things that had drawn them to the field of journalism in the first place.  Some had issues to work out with their employers about whether the blogs were part of their official duties or independent. Could they say anything at all on their blogs? Some did and got fired, like Steve Olafson of the “Houston Chronicle.”[3]

Blogging was still too new and Afghanistan was too remote for blog coverage to be a factor in the Afghan war after 9/11. The next significant event in the blog movement leading up to the Iraq war is the most US-specific, but it illustrates the nascent and growing social force of blogs translating into political power. While this event only affected the US, bloggers worldwide should sit up and take notice. There is an object lesson here.

In the US the position of Senate Majority Leader is a quite powerful gatekeeper in the government. The Senate is the most prestigious lawmaking body and the Majority Leader makes committee appointments, can stall or make laws disappear, and can even challenge the US president with various tactics. In December 5, 2002, this position was held by a man who knew how to use the power of his position, a Republican from Mississippi, Senator Trent Lott.

At a birthday party for the 100-year-old South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, Sen. Lott got up to make a speech. Perhaps to flatter the elderly gentleman, Sen. Lott, also from the South, made a statement that the US would be better off if Sen. Thurmond had been elected president when he ran in 1948. While a seemingly nice thing to say, at the time Sen. Thurmond was running for president he held a position that supported the segregation of whites and African Americans, an oppressive and racist policy that people in the 1960s civil rights movement, like Martin Luther King Jr., successfully fought against.

In the years since the civil rights movement, no politician could advocate such views and get elected, so old segregationists like Sen. Thurmond publicly recanted their past racist views. But for Sen. Lott to say the world would be better off if Sen. Thurmond had become president in 1948 seemed like he was saying the world would be better off with racial segregation.

The US mainstream media barely covered the birthday party speech. The next day a few prominent Democrats, including former Vice President Al Gore, condemned the statement. Other Senate Democrats forgave Sen. Trent Lott easily. By the third day the story was dead in big media outlets.

Bloggers did not forgive such a statement so easily.[4] The political blogs in the US sank their teeth into the story and would not let go. They were doing research, ranting and raving, throwing their words into the blog echo chamber (many blogs also constantly link to each other, giving stories a longer news cycle) until the story reached escape velocity. A week later the mainstream media was forced to report on the blog furor and also to give more coverage to the original story. Two weeks later Sen. Trent Lott was in the center of a growing grassroots political firestorm that had bypassed the traditional media. Many claim Sen. Lott was eventually forced to resign his powerful position in the Senate on Dec 20, 2002 primarily due to the pressure by bloggers.[5]

The third event that significantly advanced the blog movement was the crash of the Space Shuttle Columbia over a large section of Texas in February 2003.  This was a global news event with a broad local impact: large numbers of Texans had debris falling onto their property, some of it quite dangerous and toxic.

Blogging works best when it harnesses grassroots power in posting or in the linked “Comments” board: the first-person observations or the voices of ordinary people. One Texas newspaper realized that fact and put up a blog on its web site devoted specifically to the shuttle crash and found debris. It opened the site to direct posting by readers as they became reporters telling their stories. They were also encouraged to post digital pictures of debris on their property and assist with the investigation.

For a time, that newspaper’s blogspace was getting more web traffic than the paper’s official reporting. This shift speaks volumes about what sort of coverage people were hungry for and what may be lacking in traditional journalism.

This was the atmosphere in the blog universe online as the rumbling began that the US would soon go to war with Iraq, with or without the backing of the UN. Among journalists who remembered the 1991 Gulf war, there was concern about how this new war would be covered. In 1991 reporters got very little access on the ground and became highly dependent on daily briefings and analysis by retired generals. We didn’t know if this war would be any different. We had just heard at CNN about the proposed embedding process, but had no way of predicting whether or not it would lead to improved war coverage.

Through a friend I met Carolina Podesta and another journalist in Kurdistan. I immediately offered to build and host blogs for them.

My first thought was selfish. I wanted to be sure there were independent, non-embedded voices reporting on this war. I wanted to build their blogs because I wanted to read their blogs. I was hungry for that blog-style of first person observation. I wanted to know I had a source on the ground in Iraq that could take me past the official version of events.

Then, as I thought about it more, I realized other bloggers were probably getting ready to do the same thing, and that a vital body of Iraq warblogs could have a real impact on the way this war was covered. I had a sense that this war, unlike the remote Afghan war, could be a way in which journalistic blogs could have their moment in the sun, and that we may well be doing something historic. In the end, I believe that turned out to be the case.

The embedding process did keep mainstream coverage of the war from being so driven by briefings and the official, public relations-spin version of events, but globally, there was widespread suspicion that “embedded” meant “in bed” with the soldier’s units and the official point of view. This drove many readers to warblogs. As warblogs gained popularity and traffic as the war progressed, traditional media found itself covering “the warblog story.”

What was interesting about those prominent warblogs was that their writers were largely armchair reporters or “news aggregators.” These bloggers read news coverage of the war avidly and critically and linked to key pieces of information they were researching. They also openly advocated particular positions or points of view across the entire political spectrum. Yet these sites contained little to no original reporting.

As the war went on, however, attention began to shift to blogs written by people who were actually “on the ground” in Iraq, like Carolina Podesta or Joshua Kucera, or the “Baghdad Blogger.” These writers gave first-hand accounts of what the war was like for ordinary people, using specific detail often overlooked, homey little details like the cost of bread, difficulties of travel, people evacuating.

Another interesting story began to be reported at this time in the European press. Non-US news services were reporting an increase in web site traffic from US domains. Many of the “news aggregator” warblogs were ranging outside US media and putting links on their sites to overseas sources, especially the UK “Observer” and the “Independent.” The BBC was even hosting warblogs for its correspondents on the BBC site. CNN did ask one of its Iraq reporters, Kevin Sites, to stop posting to his blog.[6] Time magazine, also part of the corporate entity Time Warner along with CNN, asked Joshua Kucera shortly before the battle of Baghdad to stop posting to the blog I built for him, despite having originally given permission. Among the mainstream media outlets, there were considerable differences in policy on how to handle the blogging phenomenon. Were these blogs a “threat” to traditional media reporting? Or were they something to be embraced by the traditional media?

In the end, Carolina Podesta’s blog was a great success in ways I could not have anticipated. She brought a Spanish language blog into this historic moment when world media coverage of the Iraq war was crucial due to limitations of perspective within the US mainstream media by the highly polarized and fear-driven political climate created by 9/11. Many warbloggers outside of the US performed this amazing service.

Carolina’s blog was also a success because of its transcendent nature. Carolina sought perspective and looked to literature, looked to the world of ideas, tried to put uncertain events in a larger context. The many readers who commented on “OJO” often responded to this. It was personal. Carolina and I had never met face-to-face, but when things got scary in Iraq, I felt the personal connection so strongly I sat and worried about her, was she safe? Did she get back from Mosul OK? Joshua Kucera, another blogger and reporter in Kurdistan, wrote to me that in 4 years of reporting for the US media from overseas, he had gotten more feedback on his work from his blog in the first two weeks of the war than in the previous 4 years combined. Readers get involved with blogs. They start to care.

Carolina also brought something extra to her “eye:” a good dose of heart. That also comes through even in Google machine translation. The people of Argentina are lucky to have her. I am proud to have been a midwife to this blog, and Carolina’s “eye” will always have a place on my site, serendipit-e.com. Serendipity means learning on a journey through accidental discovery. This is one of the best accidental discoveries I’ve ever made.

 


[1] For Windows users, one such free news feed reader can be downloaded at http://www.feedreader.com. There are many others as well. For Mac users, Net News Wire Lite is the most popular, and can be found at http://ranchero.com/netnewswire/.

[2] “UK Paper Recruits Iraqi Blogger.” Associated Press. May 30, 2003. http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,59057,00.html

[3] “Houston Chronicle writer gets canned for running a Web site.” Richard Connelly. Houston Press. August 8, 2002. http://www.houstonpress.com/issues/2002-08-08/hostage.html/1/index.html.

[4] “Bloggers catch what Washington Post missed.” Oliver Burkeman. The Guardian. December 21, 2002. http://www.guardian.co.uk/usa/story/0,12271,864036,00.html.

[5] In the current US presidential election campaign, Democratic candidates are still capitalizing on the momentum of political blogs. Many candidates and their supporters are keeping campaign and fund-raising blogs. Howard Dean is leading the field in fund-raising among Democrats, with $15 million largely raised in small contributions from the Internet and through his official campaign blog.

[6] I should note that my blog-building has nothing to do with my job at CNN Headline News. I do blog research and development on my own time. My views here are my own and do not represent the views of CNN or its parent company, Time Warner.

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