The Death of Shock and the Life of James Brown
I'm on vacation this week, so I wasn't planning on much blogging. But my last act in the office last week was to exchange emails with military blogger (or milblogger) Michael Yon, and his responses spoke volumes.
I wrote about Yon last year, while doing a story about the tension between reporters and those who insist the media is missing all the "good news" stories in Iraq (these days, only the First Lady has the stones to make that claim). He'd earned some fame as a military guy who went over to Iraq and hung out with the troops without representing a news agency. Yon tried to get at the reality of soldiering in Iraq and Afghanistan through his posts, though some initially hailed him as the guy who would tell the good news all the other reporters would not.
I wrote about him again when he and his blogger buddies took on Shock magazine -- an awful collection of lurid photos which editor Mike Hammer called "the Life magazine of the future," but mmost people just called a horrible mess. Turns out, they nicked one of Yon's signature photos for the cover of the magazine from a photo agency which wasn't authorized to sell it, according to the blogger.
So when news broke late last week that the magazine -- which Yon said continually stiffed on settling the dispute -- finally gave up the ghost, six months after it debuted, I reached out to Yon for his thoughts. The blogger is back in Iraq, probably for the next year, enjoying the sweet sight of watching Shock go down in flames on the other side of the world.
The time difference made speaking by telephone difficult, but he emailed answers to a few questions:
Actually, the blogosphere did it. I only learned about the magazine’s use of my copyrighted photograph on the cover of its first issue when numerous readers first noticed it and contacted me about it, some furious thinking I’d allowed the image to be used in that way, and on Memorial Day, of all days. I informed a few colleagues that I’d never authorized the use and that’s when bloggers like Blackfive, Pajamas Media, Op-For, Little Green Footballs, Instapundit, Michelle Malkin, and Pundit Review in Boston mercilessly pounded HFM, which is the largest magazine conglomerate in the world. The efforts of this Army of David’s (as Glenn Reynolds characterizes the blogosphere) brought the fight to the internet and felled another Goliath who only a few years ago would have walked away unscathed.
How was your dispute with them resolved?
The dispute was never resolved. If they were telling the truth about their launch costs, then the only thing resolved is that HFM has apparently lost tens of millions of dollars in the past half-year trying to keep Shock alive. The legal battle has not even begun, and the bloggers have not finished yet either. As news of the dispute spread, some military bloggers started stabbing away at HFM flagship publications like Car & Driver with boycott calls. It's very easy and inexpensive for the bloggers to attack, yet fantastically costly for Goliath to keep dodging stones. Competition in the magazine industry has never been tighter and as the demise of Shock, the third HFM title that’s been shelved this year, shows, there is not much slack for flagging sales, no matter what the cause. Some believe that with persistence the entire two billion dollar behemoth can be defeated without ever going to court, by picking off their publications, one by one. This could take years, but the statute of limitations gives us time and we can also attack on multiple fronts.
How did you hear about the magazine's end, and what was your reaction?
I heard about it when a few bloggers emailed me links to news stories. I was heading out to the Kuwait airport to catch a flight to Qatar, one of the last stops on my trip back to embed with our troops in Iraq. I was ecstatic at the news and gratified that “the Army of David’s” had succeeded in another just cause.
Does this end your dispute with them?
The dispute is just beginning. HFM has refused to negotiate but clearly the demise of Shock, after such a clumsy launch, has changed the dynamics. As long as they refuse to negotiate, they and their distributors will be hit steadily and mercilessly in the months ahead as we begin suing those retailers who refused to pull the magazine even after having been informed that it violated my copyright. Many were urged to continue selling it in a letter from HFM CEO Jack Kliger, but their actions facilitated and furthered HFM’s criminal infringement. The collapse of the title doesn’t cancel out the retailers’ liability for willfully infringing on my copyright, any more than it absolves HFM of its accountability to US laws. HFM has broken federal law. They had a chance for a quick settlement, but instead engaged in a spiral of insipid spin tactics that insulted the entire blogosphere and are learning what that means. I could die next week in Iraq, but HFM and Borders and 7/11 and the others will still feel the fire from the Army of David’s.
Why are you in Iraq now?
I am in Qatar researching some important military operations, and am scheduled to arrive in Baghdad on Christmas day. I’m heading there now for the same reason I went in late December 2004: I want to see for myself what is happening there, and I want to document my observations, good, bad or ugly.
You were initially hailed as someone who challenged the negative reporting of media from Iraq. How do you feel about reporting from there now?
I reported what I observed first hand. I did not go there with an agenda to challenge the MSM, but I learned after much time in Iraq that many MSM reports seemed agenda-driven and that much of what passed for news in America was not an accurate reflection of what I was seeing. I did not know what a blog was when I landed in Baghdad. I was not part of or party to the battle between alternative and mainstream media. I blogged because it was a low-cost way to get my photographs and dispatches before a wider audience. I did not selectively report only good or bad news. I reported on the progress being made because I was there to see it being made. I reported on mistakes being made when I saw them being made. When I left for Iraq I saw there was no shortage of “expert commentators” so I thought I would concentrate on what the soldiers I embedded with were doing, seeing, and thinking and the same for those Iraqi civilians who I encountered. People over here responded to that and with each new dispatch my readership was doubling and sometimes tripling. People seemed hungry for news based on the kind of first hand from the ground up writing I published on my website and not a lot of the MSM reporting was doing that kind of reporting. However--and this is a very big however--some of the best reporting from Iraq comes from MSM. The trick is finding the right MSM writers to read. Dexter Filkins is a great. Tony Castenada is an unsung jewel. Monte Morin, Rich Oppel, and love him or hate him, Mick Ware earns his opinions. Jacki Lyden. Lee Pitts. Tom Ricks. There is a long list of excellent writers and I've left most of them out. No, I do not dismiss the MSM. I learn too much from them, and many are extremely courageous. I have said many times that its not so much who they work for but how long they spend in a place so they can put information into an informed context. I object to anyone, bloggers or mainstream reporters, who pop in for a week or two and start making broad statements about what’s going on. A lap dog blogger is no better a news source than an agenda driven journalist.
Given the steady sectarian violence, is it fair to criticize journalists who have reported repeatedly on the danger there?
No, but I was the first writer, to my knowledge, to definitively say that Iraq was in a state of Civil War. I published those observations in February 2005, when I wrote about the 1st ID heading back to the US after completing a long deployment. I have increasingly warned about the growing Civil War, both from over there and from the US. In fact, if I have a criticism here, it's that practically no writer would admit this fact for more than a year after I first went on record with it. [Eric--you and I actually talked about this maybe six months ago.] In fact, there was more violence going on than I could convey in my own writing. The danger is severe. It’s always been concentrated in certain areas, and the reporting is usually focused on those areas. There are places in Iraq where progress has been made and Iraqis are running things and making them work. But whether or not that gets reported on often enough doesn’t change the fact that violence in the other areas has not abated and by all accounts appears to have gotten only worse. I’ll be in those areas next week so I will letting people know very soon what I see when I hit the ground.
What kind of journalism is needed from Iraq now? Will you provide it?
We need more photo journalists. Photo-journalists are in a unique position and have certain advantages in this particular area at this time. But good ones are hard to come by, and especially those who are willing or able to spend month after month after month at war and I continue to believe that people get better over time at understanding and reporting the events here. I think it would help everyone understand if they could hear more from a variety of people on the ground: the soldiers, civilians, and contractors who are living the history as they make it. I'll do the best I can to capture what they experience in photographs and words until either my courage fails me, a bullet finds me, or the military tells me it's time to go.
Any other thoughts you think my readers would be interested in?
Good Bless America. Like “Merry Christmas,” I know it’s been said many times before, but I've been around this world so many times, and in so many places, that no matter how hard we may have it at home at times, I still say, God Bless America, and today, Merry Christmas. As tempting as it is to be there with you, I will be with our troops where I belong.
Last DEGGANS Punditry in '06!
In case you missed it, the transcript for my appearance on Howie Kurtz's CNN m,edia show Reliable Sources is here. I remain amazed that a guy as laid back at Baltimore Sun TV Critic David Zurawik could sound like he's blowing a head gasket when he gets on camera. He's learned his TV pundit skills well.
James Brown Lives on YouTube
The James Brown she knew was the guy from Living in America -- a James Brown who was already a parody of himself, twisting during performances like the weird Uncle you always stay away from at parties.
But the Godfather of the '60s and '70s -- this was the guy who inspired stage moves by everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Prince; the guy who controlled his band like a tyrant and ruled his stage like a champion prizefighter. Before he became known as the drugged-out crazy man who chased people from an insurance seminar with a shotgun, he was redefining black music and personifying the proud black man in America.
Rest easy Godfather. Crazy as you could be sometimes, you still earned it...