Sunday, August 14, 2005

Guerilla media

Whilst cruising around the Chihuahua desert one afternoon in 1988 with my cavalry troop's executive officer, I listened as he waxed philosophical over an MRE.

"A tank costs $2.6 million," he said. "But what if you took that $2.6 million and bought a bunch of dune buggies, mounted guided missiles and machine guns on 'em, and offered each dune buggy crew some kind of bonus for harrying the hell out of the enemy?"

The lieutenant's idea was radical, the kind of thing you talk about with a curious young buck sergeant but never with fellow officers. Restated from a 21st century perspective, the XO was suggesting that a swarm of lightly armed, highly mobile, independently commanded guerillas might be more effective at denying a modern enemy the ability to execute its plans.

In military jargon, we might say that 1st Lt. Kontos was stealing the principles of "asymmetric warfare" from the underdog and applying them to the dominant force. Not pirates: Privateers.

I was reminded of this while reading a comment on Jay Rosen's post about "things (journalism professors) used to believe but don't believe anymore." Journalism instructor David Crisp despaired of the current state of the business, examined the ideals that now look silly and concluded that "Maybe I'll just try to teach them to write punchy ledes and forget the rest of it."

Better yet: Teach them those ideals, David, but point them away from newspapers and network television. Tell them where to find the resistance instead.

Whatever you want to call it -- mainstream media, legacy media, The Media -- the dominant media in our culture is stuck. It moves a predictable speeds, in predictable ways. It lacks verve and brilliance, but it is well supplied and armored.

You can't confront it and win. You can't "change it from within." Creating a mirror-image "alternative media" that could go head-to-head with such a force is simply not a logistical possibility.

So instead, maybe you take Crisp's journalism students and you teach them the way of the guerilla. Teach them big ideals and little survival tricks. Teach them wisdom and initiative and character. Keep them out of the halls of corporate human resources, where mediocrity prowls in jealous vigilance.

Give them blogs, and set them loose.

Some enemies cannot be defeated directly. But if you deny those enemies the ability to act as they wish, if you harry them and give them no rest, if you show the people in the countryside that there is an option, then maybe...

Just maybe.