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Watchdog 2.0

The emergence of a video showing pedestrians mowed down in Baghdad by U.S. gunships illustrates how traditional media's watchdog role is being usurped.
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Since yesterday morning, a disturbing and an unusual video has been making the rounds on YouTube. It shows gun camera footage of a strike by two U.S. Apache helicopters on a group of pedestrians in Baghdad, including two Reuters reporters, the soldiers mistook for insurgents. The footage is remarkably clear, and it's accompanied by audio transcript of the soldiers' comments during the attack and in its aftermath.

The video, which is titled Collateral Murder, is particularly disturbing because the attack appears to be unprovoked, although it may have been preceded by gunfire on the ground somewhere in the vicinity. The soldiers' remarks as they fire their 30 mm cannon are strikingly flippant. "Look at those dead bastards," one says. "Nice," another responds. It is unclear, however, whether the soldiers actually violated any laws of war or rules of engagement. A Pentagon investigation cleared the soldiers involved of violating the military's own rules of engagement.

Collateral Murder has garnered considerable press attention, most of which has naturally focused on its content.

But it's also notable for another, albeit less important, reason, which is its source. While it's viewable at its own Web site, it was posted to YouTube by Wikileaks, a Web site that publishes anonymous submissions and leaks of sensitive government documents. (Reuters had been trying unsuccessfully since the July 12, 2007 event to get the video through official channels like the Freedom of Information Act.) Wikileaks has become widely known in recent years among journalists, bloggers and government officials; Collateral Murder is likely to significantly expand its audience.

In recent years, a number of prominent bloggers have argued that the American press establishment is in the process of being replaced by a new, online journalistic superstructure. Their rhetoric is often hot, and reporters and editors at traditional news outlets have taken strong exception to the idea that their work can be replicated or improved upon by unpaid or untrained individuals.

But it has become increasingly difficult to argue that Internet journalism is simply shorthand for bloggers re-chewing original reporting conducted by professional news organizations and then spitting it out with a more partisan flavor.

Like blog and Twitter reports that came out of the uprising in Iran last summer, Collateral Murder provides arresting evidence of this. It was obtained by a nonprofit Web organization, it was posted to YouTube so that anyone online can see it, and its impact has been immediate: When I looked at the video Monday afternoon it had been viewed under 400 times and had been accompanied by very little news coverage; by evening it had been viewed more than 25,000 times and was featured on the front of The New York Times Web site. (By the time of this article's posting, Wikileaks' Collateral Murder on has been viewed 1,745,943 times. Copies have been made and hundreds to thousands have viewed each of those as well).

Wikileaks has certainly lived up to the adversarial role expected of Western media -- as Wired has pointed out, the Pentagon has suggested it might serve as a reference guide for evildoers.

It is also worth noting that in the past the natural outlet for classified material of this nature would have been a television news network. The video is difficult to view, but there's something powerfully edifying about seeing the material unmediated by an anchor's introduction and a news team's editing. Watching it, one feels privy to a scene of war that normally transpires out of sight, and its value as a piece of journalism, if nothing else to the families of the Iraqis who were killed, is undeniable.

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