Media

How the Foremost Weapons Expert on the Syrian Civil War Scoops Major News Organizations from the Comfort of His Easy Chair

The Internet and a lot of focus have enabled Elliot Higgins to be a leading journalist.

Fans of All The President’s Men, The Front Page, His Girl Friday or TV’s Lou Grant get an embroidered and comic taste of what working journalism was like before the Internet. In legend and fact, scruffy, underpaid, rowdy, competitive, ego-driven, alcoholic reporters knock on strange doors at midnight.

I’ve been a journeyman reporter much of my working life. Routinely, you get an idea or an assignment, find multiple “sources” (people who like talking) on and off the record, pound the pavement, duck into the Hall of Records (like Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo or Jack Nicholson in Chinatown), and knock off deadline copy for a “want it yesterday” hard-assed editor. Sometimes a story pans out, sometimes not. But you have to get out there banging on doors and rubbing shoulders.

No more. Today, with “advocacy journalism” or “citizen journalism,” you can pursue your passion without ever leaving your easy chair. At first I hated the barbarian invasion of techno-amateurs who weren’t even paid (hey there, Huffington Post!). There’s no substitute for actually being on the spot in person, but as Lara Logan of "60 Minutes" has recently shown, that’s no guarantee you can’t fake the news.

Elliot Higgins of Leicester, England is a self-taught, unemployed, married-with-child, former war-games player whose Brown Moses blog (named after a Zappa song) has made him indispensable as the go-to person on the Syrian war. (His story is in the Nov. 25 issue of the New Yorker.)

An admirer of Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein, Higgins has never been to Syria and doesn’t speak Arabic, yet he has “become the foremost expert on the munitions used in the Syrian war.” Via You Tube and other Internet open sources, he focuses on tiny visual details and often gruesome footage of massacres by both sides. He scooped the world, and moved political mountains, by deducing where and how Assad flung poison gas on his people. Establishment newspapers like the New York Times, government intelligence agencies and Human Rights Watch have come to depend on his liberal impartiality.

Higgins is unselfish, collegial and “is confident that other bloggers can adopt his forensic methods…The key…is to carve out a narrowly bounded area that others have overlooked, and then focus.” He told the reporter, Patrick Keefe, that "there are a lot of obsessive people out there who could probably put their passions to a more productive use.”

Cliché alert: the genie is out of the bottle. There must be tens of thousands of similarly obsessed keypad nudniks out there, some very destructive and some very helpful. A recent New York Times investigation of a woman’s murder in Florida, maybe or maybe not by her law enforcement boyfriend, with her family stonewalled by the Florida cops, rallied around a blogger 2,700 miles away in Washington State. “Over the years, the woman, who blogs as 'Cloudwriter,' had trained herself to spot suspicious cases of domestic abuse involving police officers. The subject had special meaning for her, she said, because she had had a troubled marriage to a police officer.”

Leicester’s Elliott Higgins seems to be an exceptionally honest, responsible guy. As we know from the recent fiasco at Reddit, which rushed onto the Internet naming and shaming the wrong culprits for the Boston marathon bombing, websites can get it disastrously wrong without a hard-eyed professional editor to pull them up. There are a lot of paranoid nutcases on the Internet.

But it’s out there and can be used by us obsessives. Go unto Brown Moses and see for yourself. But you best arm yourselves first with a strong stomach and a taste for gallows humor.

Clancy Sigal is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. His latest book is Hemingway Lives! (OR Books). He can be reached at clancy@jsasoc.com.

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