Before firing Peter Arnett - the Tokyo Rose of our time - NBC issued a ludicrous statement defending Arnett's interview on Iraqi TV as a "professional courtesy." When the condemnations started rolling in, NBC saw the handwriting on the ratings wall and quickly cut him loose. NBC News President Neal Shapiro said, "It was wrong for Mr. Arnett to grant an interview to state-controlled Iraqi TV - especially at a time of war - and it was wrong for him to discuss his personal observations and opinions in that interview." Arnett later apologized on the "Today" show, but the damage to what remains of his career was already done (Arnett was reprimanded by CNN in 1998 for a report that accused U.S. forces of using sarin gas on a Laotian village in 1970 to kill U.S. defectors and left that network).
Would Edward R. Murrow, William Shirer or Walter Cronkite have allowed themselves to be interviewed on German radio as a "professional courtesy" during World War II? No, because they correctly viewed the Nazis as the enemy of humanity and American forces as the liberators of Europe. What did they study in school that Arnett skipped?
Arnett gave aid and comfort to our enemy when he delivered these gems on Iraqi TV: "Clearly the American war planners misjudged the determination of the Iraqi forces," and "Clearly (Baghdad) is a city that is disciplined .. My Iraqi friends tell me there is a growing sense of nationalism and resistance to what the United States and Britain are doing," and "Our reports about civilian casualties here, about the resistance of the Iraqi forces are going back to the United States and help those who oppose the war." It took 63 days to get the Taliban out of Kandahar, Afghanistan, and Peter Arnett is declaring a more formidable war that is less than two weeks old a "failure"?
Arnett's remarks may encourage Saddam Hussein to fight on. This could lead to the deaths of more American and British soldiers. Arnett is a naturalized American. He does not deserve his citizenship, and his comments go far beyond any journalistic ethic with which I am familiar.
Some journalists may think they can reprise their anti-war role from the Vietnam period, but this time the public is not going to let them get away with it. Most journalists probably can't change the oil in their own cars (limos if they're anchors), much less service a tank, but suddenly they have become experts on the pace of troop movements, supply lines and the service requirements of tanks, trucks and armored personnel carriers. Shallow news anchors and retired generals with no direct information about war plans or their execution speculate and "opinionate" endlessly. The only thing most reporters know about war is what they have seen in the movies. Had they been covering World War II, they would have called for the court-martial of Eisenhower and Patton for causing too many civilian casualties.
As bad as some of the American media are, things are worse in Britain. If Saddam Hussein listens to the BBC World Service, he might think he is winning. A column in last Sunday's (March 30) Telegraph by Caroline Lees, who says she is "stranded in Eritrea," reveals the frustration of British citizens with their media. Lees says the BBC is her only source for war news, but "I am tired of the relentless bombardment of worst-case scenarios, endless analysis of problems before they occur, and blow-by-blow accounts of perceived errors by the coalition forces. I realize war is never easy, and it is not the BBC's job to pretend things are going well when they are not, but all I ask, as a listener, is a little balance."
With competition for viewers (and readers) hotter than ever, the big media cannot afford to ignore complaints about biased and negative reporting. The proliferation of cable TV means news consumers have more choices than they did during the Vietnam War. The New York Times reported last week that combined ratings for Fox Broadcast and the Fox News Channel were second only to the larger NBC network.
Is it too much to ask journalists simply to report what is happening in the war and to stop endless speculation and editorializing without direct and credible knowledge of the facts? Apparently it was for Peter Arnett, and NBC, sensitive to the ratings war, made him a casualty.