tampabay.com

Blogs are CentCom's new target

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
Published February 12, 2007


TAMPA - It begins almost imperceptibly, one lonely posting on a blog. It says that U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan use candy to lure children so they can be used as human shields.

Patently untrue.

But in an age when the lines between traditional media and the blogosphere are blurred, a dark rumor can spread like a kindergarten virus, unchecked and unchallenged.

U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa is taking notice.

Since 2005, CentCom officials have jumped into the blogging fray, facing the realities of a new electronic age in hopes of combating misinformation on the Web, or just getting its own news out.

A three-person team monitors blogs - Internet journals with commentary from ordinary citizens and, often, links to news articles - that concentrate on CentCom's area of responsibility, which includes Iraq and Afghanistan.

Team members contact blogs when inaccuracies or incomplete information is posted. They also ask bloggers if they can post a link to CentCom's Web site, or they offer access to CentCom information and news releases.

In the case of the story about children being used as human shields, CentCom posted a comment to the blog pointing out the mistake.

"It lets CentCom get information about soldiers directly to the American people," said Lt. Col. Matthew McLaughlin, a CentCom spokesman. "It allows us to bypass those traditional media business models that dictate what gets covered and what doesn't. It's not a story when a soldier does something that helps 50 people in Afghanistan."

He said it isn't about the media being biased. Instead, he said, CentCom recognizes that the media often has neither the time nor space to tell a complete story.

Army Reserve Maj. Richard McNorton, a former team member, told the American Forces Press Service, "Now online readers have the opportunity to read positive stories."

Some bloggers, especially those leaning to the political right, applaud the effort, saying CentCom is bypassing a bias imposed by the media. Others on the left, and some media watchers, question the effort.

"Information that comes from government in an unfettered way needs to be taken not just with a grain of salt but with a big bag of salt and a decoder ring and maybe special glasses," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Blogs, he said, don't operate with the transparency of the media. A blog may be backed by a political party, a candidate or a corporation without a reader knowing.

"Americans have traditionally had a great reluctance letting the government get involved in the news business directly," Rosenstiel said. "We've got a name for that. It's propaganda."

Hungry for truth

Don't tell that to Rosemary Welch, 47, a Long Beach, Calif., woman who blogs full time under a site called DoD (Department of Defense) Daily News, a blog that Welch describes as right-leaning. The site contains a link to CentCom and posts information provided by it.

"The media's not looking at the entire picture," she said. "The more they can reach out, the better, because we're not seeing this information on TV. We're hungry for the truth."

Capt. Anthony Deiss, who works on the CentCom blog team, said that its members don't engage in discussion with bloggers and that they offer CentCom's resources to those of any political persuasion.

"We don't tell anyone, 'You should or shouldn't say that,' " Deiss said. "We stay in our lane."

With terrorists using the Web as a tool, the military would be remiss if it didn't also use it to counter misinformation, he said.

After CentCom contacted a blog called Newsrack, which had posted stories critical of the war on terror, CentCom's blog team sent an e-mail offering access to its Web site so the blog could find out "what is really happening."

"It verges on propagandizing people," said Thomas Nephew, the 48-year-old research analyst in Washington, D.C., who runs the blog. He viewed the response as being critical of his site.

CentCom officials deny that they are trying to spin anyone.

"With the proliferation of information today, if you're not speaking to this forum, you're not being heard by it," McLaughlin said. "We don't want to cede this information arena to anybody. We think we owe it to the American taxpayer."

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3436.