Peter Arnett, cretinous liar

Brent Bozell

4/3/2003 12:00:00 AM - Brent Bozell

In 1995, then-CNN star Peter Arnett told The American Spectator's John Corry that "Rush Limbaugh is the king. He is also a cretinous liar, with off-the-wall opinions. And he has the audacity to call himself a journalist."

Arnett was half-right: Rush is the king of all media. But the rest of that diatribe doesn't describe Rush. It fits Arnett -- to a T.

You won't hear that from the princes of our press corps, now tiptoeing silently away from Arnett in embarrassment. Arnett was deified by the media establishment even after (or was it because?) he trashed America from Baghdad in Gulf War I, delighting his Iraqi censors with bizarre stories like the one about American soldiers shooting at the arms and legs of innocent Iraqi shepherds.

When Arnett's book Live From The Battlefield was released in early 1994, his colleagues veritably swooned. New York Times reporter Bill Keller lauded Arnett as the "quintessential war correspondent of our half century." Newsweek Senior Editor Russell Watson called him "the best war correspondent of his generation."

The only explanation for Arnett's long-overhyped reputation is the triumph of politics over professionalism and hype over substance. The media elite had found themselves a hero: a reporter "brave" enough to claim that America was an evil player on the world stage, a nation that could drop cluster bombs on civilians or gas its own soldiers. The charges made were defective in their veracity, but electric in their audacity, and that's all that mattered to a press corps starving for role models.

The truth is a stubborn thing, however, and it's winning out. After years of being celebrated as a world-class journalist, Peter Arnett has developed a talent for getting fired. When he made the outrageous decision to go on Iraqi TV to praise the freedom granted by his Iraqi censors and tout how the U.S. war plan "failed," he was fired not only by NBC, but by MSNBC, and National Geographic News -- a triple-sacking. He apologized on the "Today" show for his "misjudgment" in choosing media platforms, but not for his Baath-Party-friendly orations.

Arnett should have been fired for the stupidity of his claims to Iraqi television. The first war plan "failed" and the Pentagon's writing another plan? To reach that conclusion one must have working knowledge of a plan Arnett has never seen. There's a "growing challenge" to President Bush? Polls haven't slipped since the war began, and continue to hover in the stratosphere. Iraqi propaganda ministers allow a "degree of freedom"? Tell that to the American reporters and photographers who were abducted and imprisoned by "Information Ministry" goons.

The real mystery was not why NBC & Co. fired Arnett. Why did they hire him in the first place?

CNN also fired Arnett in 1999, almost a year after his role in another anti-American debacle, as star reporter on the program "Valley of Death," which claimed that U.S. forces knowingly killed their own "defector" soldiers with nerve gas in Laos during the Vietnam War. In that case, CNN folded on the veracity of its dastardly claims like a tent.

But still there were no apologies from Arnett. Instead, there was pathetic excusifying: "I was never informed that my face on the air gave me responsibility for a major story," said the allegedly brave reporter. "I'm a company guy. You want me to read a script, I'll read it."

His reporting for CNN during the first Gulf War displayed a very similar and equally casual disregard for the veracity of his stories -- so long as America was the target. On a March 21, 1991, story on ABC's "Prime Time Live," Arnett was questioned about the possibility that the Iraqis were disguising a chemical plant behind that infamous "baby milk factory," Arnett countered dismissively, "Why would they go to all the trouble of doing that? Was their nuclear weapons plant disguised as a bagel factory?" Throughout the ABC interview, Arnett revealed his reporting was based upon lame suppositions, not actual knowledge. When asked about a military command center he called a "civilian shelter," he admitted: "I didn't go deep down. I really didn't have any equipment for digging. I just, to this day, I can't really believe that was a command center."

It took Arnett just hours after his sacking to find another venue, and in no time at all, he was back at it, charging he lost his job because of a "right-wing media" conspiracy. Arnett also suggested that "Some reporters make judgments, but that is not my style. I present both sides and report what I see with my own eyes."

Arnett's new employer is the Daily Mirror of London, one of the most radical anti-American tabloids in the world. A perfect fit for a cretinous liar.