Desert Fox Online
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, Jan. 4, 1999
Eliot Cohen, head of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Fox News Channel on-air commentator, professes not to watch TV.
He might be dismissed as just another troglodytic Washington wonk were it not for his unbridled enthusiasm for the Internet. While television dominated as the mass medium of choice for Desert Fox--the code name for the recent bombing of Iraq--it was the web that gave depth to the 70-hour escapade.
Each network backed up its reporting with deep web resources, and the websites stayed with the story after television moved on. The conflict was big for the web: According to Media Metrix and Cablefax Daily, on Dec. 16, MSNBC had its second highest traffic day ever, and CNN's website logged enough hits the same day and next to score its second and fourth-busiest days.
Like the rest of us, Cohen quickly developed a survival plan to navigate the multitude of channels available online. Search engines were useless in finding the special Desert Fox websites that emerged and indexers such as Total News could not keep up with the pace of a real time war, delivering stale content.
Cohen employed a set of well traveled bookmarks, returning again and again to sites that delivered the goods. He particularly liked the Yahoo! Full Coverage site, the BBC and the British government special website on Iraq.
Cohen is particularly critical of the way the U.S. military made use of the net. "The Pentagon really doesn't view this as an opportunity," he says. "There is an overall impression that the entire exercise is somewhat grudging."
Though Cohen admits that the Pentagon DefenseLINK site was essential for transcripts and photos, he laments that the special Desert Fox website posted at the 11th hour was filled with little more than "stupid happy talk." Official websites are great to find out details of what a Tomahawk or CALCM missile is, Cohen says. But, he adds, "they don't treat people as grown-ups the way that say CNN does."
While Cohen was scouring the web for facts and news, he eschewed MSNBC because he felt it was too slow to load. Traffic on the MSNBC site quadrupled during the attack. "The Internet has become the medium of choice for news consumers," says Merrill Brown, editor in chief of the Microsoft-NBC venture.
Virtually every news website quickly posted a special Iraq page, in most cases repackaging "Showdown" sites from earlier November and February crises. MSNBC's site, for which I also write, is extensive and includes reporting from NBC correspondents and news analysts. ABC, CNN, and the BBC joined MSNBC with multi-dimensional original coverage.
Yet for every site that excelled, there are others, some extremely popular (such as USA Today) that proved little more than holding pens for canned wire service coverage.
Internal navigation continues to be a challenge on the Internet. I don't know how many times one of the major media websites cleverly camouflaged what would have been a useful map or application had one been able to find it. Good navigation is why the Yahoo! and other multi-source specialized portals such as the Federation of American Scientists mega-site continue to flourish.
Live video and audio links are increasingly commonplace among on network sites, and were particularly interesting during Desert Fox. Fox News and the BBC had live video feeds from Baghdad. For those in the fast lane, the RealGuide Iraq site provided links to the major multimedia windows.
"There cannot be just one way to describe the problem with Iraq," says Jan Oberg, director of the Swedish-based Transnational Foundation, an organization which aggressively uses the web. "However professional CNN is, it exposes the American foreign policy and security establishment to an extent that borders on monopolizing truth."
The Internet, Oberg points out, permits one to combine many sources and perspectives, find the less well-known facts and construct an independent opinion.
The Iraqi Government also maintains a cyber presence through its Mission to the United Nations. As the bombs fell, the top item on its news page was a Dec. 19 article from The Washington Times describing how the White House orchestrated UNSCOM's mid-December report to justify air strikes. I guess the Iraqis have more things to worry about than copyright infringement.
William M. Arkin, author of "The U.S. Military Online," is a leading expert on national security and the Internet. He lectures and writes on nuclear weapons, military matters and information warfare. An Army intelligence analyst from 1974-1978, Arkin currently consults for Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, MSNBC and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
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