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COLUMN ONE

Lone Gun in War Reporting

Michael Yon's blog made him a hero among backers of the effort in Iraq. As his profile grew, so did debate on the quality of his work.

February 09, 2006|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

More than one U.S. senator endorsed him. So did retired Lt. Col. Oliver North and platoons of American fighting men and women. Actor Bruce Willis called him the only correspondent "telling the truth about what's happening in the war in Iraq."

Michael Yon may not be a household name, but he emerged last year as the reporter of choice for many conservatives and supporters of the war. His blog inspired so much buzz that by last month only 83 other blogs, out of about 26 million on the Internet, received more links from other websites.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday February 14, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
War correspondent -- A front-page article Thursday about Internet war correspondent Michael Yon said that during a firefight last summer in Mosul, Iraq, Yon called for a grenade to be thrown at the enemy after a U.S. soldier came into the line of attack. It was before.

Yon's emergence from obscurity is emblematic of Internet-age journalism, in which a lone writer with little experience can build a significant following by deeply mining a specialized niche. In the blogosphere, opinions fly with abandon. Unconventional characters thrive who would make the mainstream media blanch.

What big newspaper or television network, after all, would have taken a chance on a self-taught war correspondent who once killed a man in a barroom fight, and whose last venture had him pursuing an American cannibal around the globe?

Would the mainstream media have kept him on the job after the day he grabbed a soldier's rifle (during an alley fight in Mosul) and fired off several rounds at the enemy?

Even Yon, a 41-year-old former Green Beret, can't quite put a name to the job he created. Part journalist, part entrepreneur, part soldier of fortune, he sometimes infuriated his military handlers with his blog (www.michaelyon-online.com), even as it gave American soldiers a robust new voice.

*

On Jan. 30, 2005, election day in Iraq, most mainstream reporters were trying to capture the sweep of the war-ravaged nation's first tentative stab at democracy.

Michael Yon concentrated on what was right in front of him -- the minute-by-minute tally of exploding mortars and small-arms fire; the chatter from an Army radio ("Cobra Six reports polling station tango hotel zero two has been vacated") and hundreds of Iraqis braving gunfire to cast their ballots.

That convinced Yon the new democracy could work. "One day, when Iraqi children read about their history, the courage of their parents on January 30, 2005, will fill them with awe," he wrote.

Over the next 10 months, that came to be Yon's voice: hard-boiled narration juxtaposed with sentimental and sweeping commentary.

Most intelligence about the enemy "comes from detainees, who cough up their [comrades] like cats choking on hairballs," he wrote. On night patrol, he told of "creeping through stinking alleys ... bringing worry to men who should be worried."

His reports mainly came from his months embedded with the 24th Infantry Regiment.

The "Deuce Four" saw plenty of bloody urban fighting while bringing order to the city of Mosul. The unit lost 16 of about 700 men, with 181 wounded.

Yon became a champion of the unit and particularly its commander, Lt. Col. Erik Kurilla, a charismatic West Point graduate who describes himself as "a glass-three-quarters-full sort of person." That optimistic outlook infused Yon's dispatches.

While a New York Times reporter found Iraqi security forces struggling with dishonesty and internecine rivalries, for instance, Yon described the same forces as having great promise.

"Amazingly, these Iraqis continue to load up in those little trucks and go to work, knowing the odds are that they will, sooner or later, get shot or blown up," Yon reported of the Iraqi police in October.

"The only true martyrs I've seen in Iraq are these men, ordinary in most respects, who step forward and put everything on the line for the idea of Iraq."

As Yon's profile grew, so did disagreements on the Internet about his work.

David Wallace-Wells wrote in Slate that Yon "combines detailed, intimate storytelling with an authorial sense that the war is neither quagmire nor farce, but a heroic, Manichaean struggle -- and, as such, deserves to be reported in the grizzled, noirish style of war reportage from earlier eras."

But Carl Prine of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, a National Guardsman and former Marine, saw platitudes, thin reporting and a lack of context in Yon's work.

"As someone who has seen a great deal of combat in my life and who earns his daily bread as a reporter," Prine opined on the Internet, "I can assure you that a lot of what Michael Yon writes is misleading, inaccurate and vapid."

The blogger's alreadyincreasing popularity jumped sharply in May, after his report on a bomber's attack as children greeted soldiers in an armored Stryker vehicle.

Yon snapped pictures of Maj. Mark Bieger cradling a mortally wounded Iraqi girl, Farah, her tiny burned legs poking out from the blanket swaddling her body.

The Army released the photo and wire services distributed it worldwide. Several commentators said it synthesized the suffering of the Iraqi people and the empathy of American troops. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) read what she called Yon's "honest and inspiring" story on the Senate floor.

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