Blogging Isn’t Just for Geeks, Foodies and Troublemakers

You can find heroic people on the Internet, too

I saw the movie Contagion this weekend, and I loved it. I’m a sucker for international thrillers, which is pretty much what the Steven Soderbergh film is—the Bourne films with a dash of House and a sprinkle of 28 Days Later. But there was one false note, and that was the portrayal of Alan Krumwiede (an uglied-up Jude Law), the craven blogger whose growing popularity is supposed to be a disease almost as deadly as the epidemic itself.

The problem with the characterization is that it’s ridiculously out of date. There was a time when thinking of “bloggers” as nerdy, acne-scarred men proffering conspiracy theories wasn’t devastatingly inaccurate. But now blogs are simply a means of communication—nothing more, nothing less. Pen and paper. Megaphone. Blog.

The old-school blogger generalizations aren’t confined to Hollywood. On the heels of my moviegoing experience, I picked up one of the many moldering copies of The New Yorker that dot my apartment like islands of reproach. In one issue, I spotted a cartoon by the fabulous Roz Chast, who made a pie chart of what bloggers write about. It wasn’t flattering, with the largest piece of the pie devoted to people blogging about what they’ve eaten.

The reality of blogging, however, is much richer. On the mental health beat in the U.S., for instance, many of the big stories that dominated headlines in the past few years were first broken by bloggers, including the pernicious overdiagnosis of childhood bipolar disorder and the Zyprexa/Eli Lilly scandal. If the average reader of the New York Times knew how much of the health reporting started from a single blog post by an unaffiliated blogger, they’d be pretty surprised. This is not to denigrate what the Times reporters do. It’s to note that the Times relies on blogs and considers them valid sources.

In other countries, bloggers risk their lives doing important journalism—and pay the price. Two recent cases are particularly enlightening.

Maikel Nabil Sanad is a blogger who has been consistently critical of the military in Egypt, both before and after the revolution. He made allegations of physical and sexual abuse against the military and cautioned his countrymen not to be overly optimistic about a new era. Human Rights Watch called his resulting arrest and three-year prison term “the worst strike against free expression in Egypt” in more than three years. Now Sanad may be dying. He’s been on a hunger strike for more than a month and is gravely ill. Amnesty International, which characterizes Sanad as “a prisoner of conscience imprisoned solely for legitimate exercise of his right to freedom of expression,” called for his release yesterday.

Then there’s the tragic case of Mexican newspaper editor Maria Elizabeth Macias Castro, 39, who blogged about drug crime in the border town of Nuevo Laredo under a pseudonym. Her decapitated body was found this weekend. From Fox News Latino:

The journalist’s legs and trunk were tossed in the grass, while her head was placed on a planter with a computer, mouse, cables, headphones and speakers.

She was so brave. Just a couple weeks earlier, the Zetas cartel killed two young people who used social networking to report drug crimes. Their bodies were hanged from a pedestrian bridge in the town where Macias Castro lived—yet she continued to blog anyway. That is true heroism, and about as far from Alan Krumwiede as you can get.