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WEB EXCLUSIVE | JEFF JACOBY

Iraq’s good news chronicle

THE FIRST installment appeared on May 19, 2004. Headlined ‘‘Good news from Iraq — bet you didn’t know there was any,’’ it offered a respite from the grim litany of insurgent violence, Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse, and coalition casualties that the mainstream media’s coverage of the war tends to dwell on. In Iraq, it proclaimed, there was news to cheer: the democratic election of town councils in Dhi Qar province. The publication of 51 million new Ba’ath-free textbooks for Iraqi schoolchildren. The ‘‘brain drain in reverse’’ that was bringing thousands of educated Iraqi expatriates back to their homeland to teach. The revival of Kurdish music, long suppressed under Saddam. The reflooding of the ruined southern marshes. The 3-1 upset soccer victory over Saudi Arabia that meant Iraq was going to the Olympics. And more.

The writer was Arthur Chrenkoff, a 32-year old Australian with a talent for research and writing who had launched a blog — chrenkoff.blogspot.com — six weeks earlier. Weary of the drumbeat of bad-news reporting out of Iraq, he started rooting around for some good news. He discovered that there was plenty of it — encouraging developments that actually had been reported in one way or another, but that rarely drew the spotlight the way negative accounts did.

Chrenkoff had been thinking about this for a while. On April 3, when his blog was just four days old, he posted an entry about ‘‘what is really happening in Iraq’’ that listed a few of the things that were going well. But he kept it brief. ‘‘I won’t bore you with a litany of good news,’’ he wrote.

Good news about the war, he was to discover, didn’t bore readers. His May 19 entry, which ran to three single-spaced pages when printed, drew a phenomenal response, fueled by favorable mentions in some of the best known and most widely read blogs — Instapundit.com, NationalReview.com, and OpinionJournal.com’s ‘‘Best of the Web Today.’’ A week later he ventured forth with ‘‘Good news from Iraq, Part 2’’ — this one five pages long — and the response was even more enthusiastic.

And thus was born an Internet phenomenon. Every few weeks brought a fresh roundup, each longer and more information-packed than its predecessor. Chrenkoff’s summaries became must reading for anyone wanting to keep up with more than just the violence and debacles in Iraq. Before long, more than 60,000 people (by Chrenkoff’s conservative estimate) were reading each installment of ‘‘Good news from Iraq,’’ many of them at OpinionJournal.com, which began posting each segment in full on its own site. On June 30, he began a second series of compilations, ‘‘Good news from Afghanistan.’’

The ‘‘good news’’ format was straightforward. It briefly described the latest positive developments and linked to a source providing more complete information. Typically these were published news stories, but they could also be government releases, military reports, industry Web pages, opinion polls, or accounts by Iraqi civilians.

The success of the series, Chrenkoff told me, took him by surprise. ‘‘I couldn’t believe that no one had done it before,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m usually not a pioneer. ... But there was obviously a niche there that needed filling.’’

That ‘‘niche’’ — a widespread interest in the things going right in Iraq — was obvious. So why didn’t Big Media fill it? At a time when traditional news organizations are desperately hunting for ways to stanch the loss of their audience, why did it take a novice blogger in Brisbane to figure out that readers would welcome some regular attention to good news

from the front? After all, Chrenkoff isn’t a journalist. He doesn’t do original reporting. His signal contribution was something quite different: an attitude that the successes in Iraq and Afghanistan are as newsworthy as the setbacks, that the chaos and bloodshed are not the whole story, and that if there are reasons for hope and optimism about the Iraqi and Afghan futures, they deserve to be brought to the public’s attention no less than all the reasons for dismay.

‘‘The war on terrorism and the effort to bring democratic reform to the Middle East is the most important enterprise in which America is involved,’’ says James Taranto, the editor of OpinionJournal.com, who early on recognized the importance of Chrenkoff’s work. ‘‘But you don’t get the sense that the mainstream media appreciate this. You get the sense that they’re rooting for America to lose — or at least that they wouldn’t be upset if America lost.’’ By contrast, he suggests, ‘‘American journalists covering World War II basically saw themselves as being on the side of their country’’ — and their patriotism was reflected in their journalism.

Perhaps the cynicism that pervades much contemporary journalism reflects a complacency about the democratic liberty that World War II was fought over. Chrenkoff, who was born in Poland in 1972 and spent the first 15 years of his life behind the Iron Curtain, has a different attitude. Living under late Eastern European communism was not remotely as awful as living in Saddam’s Iraq, he told me, but ‘‘the experience still left me with an understanding of just how important it is to try spreading freedom and democracy around the world.’’ It also filled him with ‘‘huge empathy for all the other oppressed peoples around the world, such as — until recently — Afghans and Iraqis, whose plight had been ignored by the realists or isolationists of both the left and the right.’’

Last week, Chrenkoff posted ‘‘Good news from Iraq, Part 35.’’ It was 44 inspiring pages long — and the last of the series. (He has accepted a position with an employer whose rules won’t permit him to keep blogging.) ‘‘I don’t know what Iraq and Afghanistan will look like in five or 10 years’ time,’’ he wrote in a farewell, ‘‘but I hope for the best. If, despite all the horrendous problems and challenges, both countries manage to make it through and join the international family of normal, decent, and peaceful nations,’’ many people will wonder how they managed to get there. ‘‘But you, who have read these round-ups for the past year and a half, will not be surprised.’’

Jeff Jacoby’s e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.

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