April 01, 2003

SACKED THREE TIMES: War correspondent

SACKED THREE TIMES: War correspondent Peter Arnett has been fired by all three of his employers (NBC News, MSNBC, and National Geographic) after he gave an interview to Iraqi state-owned television in which he praised the "determination" of Iraqi forces and stated that the US war plan had "failed."
Arnett, as anyone who was alive during the first Gulf War remembers, reported for CNN from a hotel in Baghdad along with colleagues John Holliman and Bernard Shaw, and the image of their pictures on screen against the backdrop of coalition bombing was as iconic as any from that war. Arnett was later disgraced as a journalist (and let go by CNN in 1999) after he put his name on a bogus story about use of sarin gas by US troops in Vietnam. But once it became clear the US was about to go to war in the Gulf once again, someone doubtless raised the possibility of recreating the "great TV" from the first Iraq war- and since Shaw is retired and Holliman is dead, Arnett was NBC's only remaining option. Then, after CNN's two correspondents were expelled in the opening days of the war, Arnett became the only Western television reporter in the Iraqi capital. All in all, it took a tremendous stroke of luck for Peter Arnett to get a second chance at a career in war reporting, and it took him less than two weeks to blow it.
As a journalist I respect Arnett's right to free speech, as well as his right to his opinions- but taking those opinions to Saddam Hussein's official government propaganda organ was, I feel, an act that crossed the line into what is unacceptable for a war reporter. And in cozying up to the Iraqi regime, Arnett not only came dangerously close to providing aid and comfort to the enemy, but he also committed the sin of bad journalism: clearly he should know better than to think the US plan has completely failed, or that the Iraqi people are more or less on Saddam's side.
Arnett's fall further illustrates a fierce debate that's been going on since the start of the war on what role the media should play. Many on the left have accused elements of the media (primarily Fox News Channel) of doing nothing but parroting propaganda straight from the Pentagon, while some on the right have accused elements of the media (primarily the New York Times) of spinning war news to make the war appear to not be going as well as it is, believing the reporting of bad news to somehow translate into a hatred of America and a secret wish that Saddam Hussein wins the war. Either way, it doesn't seem as though anybody's happy with the war coverage; indeed, in the last week I've heard more people complain about the television coverage than about the actual war.
As usual, I think the pure ideologues of the left and right are both full of it. Yes, it's true that the Fox News has gone totally overboard in their coverage of this war, leaping over the line into pure advoacy and making their bald-faced lie of a slogan (Fair and Balanced!) even more meaningless by the minute- and even more sadly, their ratings are likely to skyrocket since what their audience wants is unapologetic American boosterism. And CNN appears generally clueless in most phases of their coverage, whether its the smarmier-than-ever Aaron Brown, the hideous, Jew-baiting manbeast Christiane Amanpour, or Wolf Blitzer, who last Friday announced an explosion in Kuwait City, and then spent 15 minutes on the air reporting absolutely no information on who or what had caused it. But while Western reporters in Iraq are restricted (rightly) by their inability to expose future battle plans, to argue that the 400-some "embedded" reporters, who are traveling with military units around the clock, are given "no access" is nothing short of ridiculous. And don't forget, before Arnett "came out of the closet" as someone who was proud of Iraq's tough resistance, his name was frequently tossed around as one of those reporters who weren't tough enough on the US.
That said, the right-wing prejudice that anyone the slightest bit critical of the war is a vile hater of the United States of America has expanded to include anyone who second-guesses any aspect of the war plan or even reports any type of bad news. The New York Post Saturday accused the Times of wishing for America to lose the war just because they reported that Iraqi resistance has been tougher than was expected. Um, isn't that what happened? Are we supposed to think the American people are too childish to be able to handle bad news? As a journalist myself and a supporter of both the US and the war, I feel strongly that truth should be any reporter's first pursuit, even if it results in bad news that Donald Rumsfeld may not want us to hear.
I don't doubt that there are those in America who really do hope the United States loses the war (like hopefully soon-to-be-ex Columbia professor Nicolas De Genova, who said last week that he hopes the war results in "a million Mogadishus.") And Arnett's comments certainly showed that he's unworthy of being the only Western reporter in Baghdad. But let's not throw the whole mainstream media in with them. Reporting a war is a tough job, and it's wrong to let ideological blinders be the chief determinant of what is or isn't good reporting.

Posted by Stephen Silver at April 1, 2003 06:08 AM
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