On March 19, shortly after Saddam Hussein defied President Bush’s deadline to go into exile, Tom Brokaw of NBC broke into Law & Order, airing on the East Coast, to announce the start of bombing. Al Jazeera provided the initial visuals. By phone, Brokaw spoke with Peter Arnett in Baghdad, on assignment for National Geographic television. As the night wore on, NBC was only too eager to claim Arnett as its own.
But Arnett’s star turn was short-lived; within two weeks he was dismissed for saying that the coalition’s initial war plan was not working. That he said this–and more–on “state controlled” Iraqi television seems beside the point. All Iraqi television is state-controlled. And had Arnett said this on a privately owned network elsewhere, it still could have been beamed around the world.
Arnett may have stated the obvious, but his interview was insensitive (four journalists were missing when he praised the work of the Iraqi Information Industry) and unnecessary, given all the reporting he had to do. But it fell far short of a fireable offense. The behavior of NBC, which initially supported his Iraq appearance, was hardly a profile in courage. The losers in all this, of course, were viewers, deprived of reporting from the only US-based television correspondent remaining in Baghdad.
For Arnett, this was an ironic and painful chapter in a career that began very differently. In The First Casualty, the authoritative history of military journalism, Phillip Knightley recounts how Arnett arrived in Vietnam, a 27-year-old New Zealander working for the Associated Press, whose job was to observe with “as much professional detachment as possible.” Arnett stayed until war’s end thirteen years later, spending more time in the field than any other reporter and earning a Pulitzer Prize.
Then, as a CNN reporter during the Gulf War, he became even more of a household presence, as the only television correspondent permitted to remain inside Baghdad. For this, he was damned and praised. In a letter to CNN, thirty-nine members of the House of Representatives claimed that Arnett’s reports endangered the lives of US servicemen and gave the “demented dictator a propaganda mouthpiece.” CNN supported and even lionized Arnett, who reminded viewers that he was allowed to see only what his Iraqi “minders” wanted him to.
By the late 1990s, Arnett’s relationship with CNN had soured. He was the on-air reporter for a documentary that accused US forces of using sarin gas on a Laotian village in 1970 to kill US defectors. CNN quickly backed away from this show. Arnett mounted the candid, if hardly endearing, defense that he was merely reading a script. His contract was not renewed.
This time, Arnett went to Iraq as an employee of National Geographic Explorer, which airs on MSNBC. After NBC, along with CBS and ABC, ordered their staffs out of Baghdad for safety reasons, the network was happy to use his reports–until he went on Iraqi TV. At first, NBC sprang to Arnett’s defense, calling his remarks “analytical in nature.” Then, fourteen hours later, after criticism mounted, particularly on Fox TV, NBC and his other bosses flailed as they tried to save face. NBC News president Neal Shapiro said it was wrong for Arnett to grant this interview and “discuss his personal observations and opinions.” In the Washington Post, the head of MSNBC spoke of Arnett’s “clearly pro-Iraqi or anti-American viewpoints,” not mentioning if this view of Arnett would nullify the coverage he had provided in the first days of the war. National Geographic TV’s president told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Arnett had “violated the rule of becoming the story”–a thought I have never seen expressed as a journalism “rule” before.
Alessandra Stanley in the New York Times pinned responsibility for Arnett and Fox’s Geraldo Rivera (who was expelled from Iraq for reporting troop movements) “on news executives who tempted fate by relying on reporters they knew to be unreliable.” That is harsh. Beyond reciting Arnett’s role as narrator for the sarin gas documentary, she gave no evidence of his unreliability. Stanley had her own change of heart, later suggesting that “NBC would have looked better sticking by him than it did giving him up as soon as criticism grew acute.” That observation seems right.
Journalism has changed enormously since Arnett reported for the AP. Journalists in most mainstream outlets have considerably more leeway in reporting and writing, with the distinctions between reporting and interpretation often melting away. Arnett may not have used this leeway wisely, but he deserved better treatment for his heroic coverage.