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Milbloggers pushed aside in favour of PowerPoint and video conferencing

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Analysis The US forces' apparent moves to block frontline troops from accessing online media have been strongly criticised, and not just on free-speech grounds.

US military bloggers, or "milbloggers", were at first, apparently, savagely muzzled - you didn't hear that here - and then supposedly freed to write again, as the US Army downplayed an April operational security document which seemed to mean that every blog post had to be run past a superior in advance.

The initial story, broken by Wired, was something of a storm in a teacup. US Army operational security regs don't necessarily affect US Marines, for instance, and certainly not British troops. This was hardly the blanket clampdown that many mainstream media types have made it out to be (there was much tearful speculation among the bow-tie crowd at the recent Blooker Prize ceremonies that Colby Buzzell's 2004 warblog compilation would be the last pukka e-testimony out of the combat zones).

But the fact is that few frontline military bloggers work anonymously, and most would find this extremely difficult if they did attempt it. Thus, they are effectively writing with their superiors' consent anyway.

Moving on, only a small proportion of "milbloggers" are serving military. An even smaller proportion of those are identifiable, genuine boots-on-ground operators with a gritty story to tell and no concern for their superiors' opinion or military necessities. Buzzell was a rare example of just that, and funnily enough he is no longer a soldier but a writer.

It isn't that real combat soldiers can't or don't get online while in theatre, but in common with the rest of us they tend to waste a lot of time surfing porn or downloading music. When they feel like getting their thoughts down in writing, they're rather more likely to get onto a forum than they are to set up a blog. This is inconvenient for news reporters, who have to wade through acres of forum babble from other denizens to get to the good stuff from the front lines, but it's the reality.

Even once a real fighting soldier is online and writing, it's really hard to see how his (maybe her) testimony is any better or more valid than that from an embedded reporter in that unit. There is lots of excellent stuff available, at least as likely to give you the view from the front lines as trawling the milblogs.

Sometimes military people can be excellent whistleblowers, of course, and sometimes the internet can help with this, but the same old problems of confidentiality and conflict of interest are still there. Journalists still have to verify, cross-check, and protect their sources; blogs, forums et al aren't magic.

This is all bad news for editors and publishers hoping to ride the Web 2.0 wave and get great content for nothing. But it really is the case that if you want pukka war stories, you need to send actual reporters to the war zone. It wouldn't cost any more than bribing confused youngsters to sign made-up hostage captivity stories, after all.

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