Twittering the Revolution

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Eighteen years ago CNN got one of its first big scoops covering the first Gulf War when they convinced the Iraqi government to let them install a four-wire – an uncensored hard telephone line – between Baghdad and Atlanta enabling them to cover Operation Desert Storm’s January bombing of the Iraqi capitol live when every other network had packed up and gone home.

It is perhaps because of this tradition of up-to-the-instant war coverage that CNN became the target this weekend of bloggers angered at the network’s treatment of the Iranian electoral irregularities and subsequent mass protests. CNET and other media bloggers criticized the network’s website for simply reporting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejab’s planned victory rally and not leading with the irregularities, noting that hours after tens of thousands of protesters began clashing with police the lead story on was still the relatively smooth transition from analog to digital TV in the U.S. Nico Pitney, a blogger with the Huffington Post combed through cable transcripts for mentions of Iran: only 91 on CNN on Saturday compared to 177 on the BBC and 149 on Sky News – Fox’s international affiliate. And critics convened on twitter to complain, making #CNNfail the top hit subject on the social networking site most of the weekend.

Twitter, instead, became the go-to source of information – and, even more importantly, organizing on the ground amongst Iranians – as Iran expelled and arrested foreign journalists, shut down the country’s cell phone service and blocked most Western media websites, including facebook. “ALL internet & mobile networks are cut. We ask everyone in Tehran to go onto their rooftops and shout ALAHO AKBAR in protest #IranElection,” twittered a supporter of Mir-Hossein Mousavi – the reform candidate who is challenging the election results – shortly before Tehran was swallowed by deafening rooftop chants very early Sunday morning. Ahmadinejab won 63.29% of the vote – a landslide victory – according to Iran’s Interior Ministry but Mousavi alleges the vote was rigged and Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei has ordered an investigation.

Twitter has two things going for it: its feeds come from not one or two or ten reporters but thousands of every day Iranians and, like CNN had in Baghdad in 1991, it has a technical advantage. As fast as the Iranian government has been shutting off IP addresses to would-be bloggers, new viable lines have opened up, helped by observers from abroad. The twitter stream #iranelection is full of IP addresses for use by Iranians to keep the outside world informed as more than 200,000 of them take to the streets in protest on Monday. The Iranian election is doing for twitter what Baghdad once did for CNN: giving it street cred as a mainstream source of news. To be fair, CNN’s coverage has now picked up and is as good as it has been on any major world disaster the last 20 years. By Sunday, CNN caught on, finally, and lead the cable news pack with at least 185 mentions on Iran – by far more than any other network. But what the frustration with CNN over the weekend showed is there is a market for minute-by-minute news that grows demanding and petulant when not fed. It is a hunger that is nearly impossible for any one organization to meet but that twitter and its legions of micro bloggers and would-be civic journalists is ideally positioned to fill.

TIME’s James Poniewozik also weighs in.