Peter Arnett is off the air. Again

Posted: Apr 04, 2003 12:00 AM

Peter Arnett is off the air. Again.
From now on, Arnett will be covering Gulf War II for the left-wing British newspaper The Daily Mirror. NBC/MSNBC/National Geographic Explorer fired Arnett on March 31 after the “reporter” granted an interview to state-controlled Iraqi television. One major problem was that Arnett sounded more like an Iraqi mouthpiece than a journalist.

 “It is clear that within the United States there is growing challenge to President Bush about the conduct of the war and also opposition to the war,” Arnett said. It’s not clear how he could have known that, since he hasn’t been in the United States since the start of the war. He went on, “our reports about civilian casualties here, are going back to the United States. It helps those who oppose the war when you challenge the policy to develop their arguments.”

 As Arnett should know, it’s not the job of a journalist to “help those who oppose the war develop their arguments.” It’s the job of a journalist to provide accurate information, and allow his audience to make of it what they will.

 But Arnett doesn’t just misunderstand his job as a reporter; he also misunderstands the job of the Iraqi Information Ministry – the government agency that runs Iraqi television to spread propaganda for Saddam Hussein.

 “I’ve met unfailing courtesy and cooperation,” Arnett said. “Courtesy from your people, and cooperation from the Ministry of Information, which has allowed me and many other reporters to cover 12 whole years since the Gulf War with a degree of freedom which we appreciate. And that is continuing today.”

 Sadly, not all journalists in Baghdad enjoy Arnett’s freedom. Even as he was speaking to an interviewer in an Iraqi military uniform, several other journalists were sitting in an Iraqi prison. Two of them, Matthew McAllester and Moises Saman of Newsday, were detained on March 24 when they went to their hotel room to file a story. 

 Authorities handcuffed them, hauled them off to Abu Ghraib prison and interrogated them several times. They actually got a much more accurate view of the dictatorial Iraqi regime than Arnett ever has. McAllester told Newsday “there were beatings and torture going on outside our cells, in the corridor.”

 McAllester and Saman were finally released after eight days behind bars, and thrown out of Iraq. Clearly, Saddam Hussein’s government isn’t as courteous as Arnett makes it out to be. At least, not to true journalists who aren’t willing to echo the Information Ministry’s line.

 And Arnett is a good echo. He also told Iraqi TV, “the Pentagon keeps saying that the civilian casualties, particularly in Baghdad…well they are [caused by] Iraqi missiles that land amongst the people. They keep saying that, but of course the Iraqi government says they are clearly [caused by American] cruise missiles that hit the population.”

It’s healthy for a reporter to be skeptical. However, here Arnett is skeptical of the Pentagon, but not of the Iraqis. That attitude may win him support in the Iraqi Information Ministry, but it won’t win him any journalism awards.

Arnett tried to save his broadcasting job by saying he was sorry. “I want to apologize to the American people for clearly making a misjudgment,” he said on the Today show. It didn’t work. Maybe because NBC realized Arnett didn’t really mean it – as his subsequent statements proved.

On April 1 he started his new gig with the Mirror by writing, “I am still in shock and awe at being fired. And why? Because I stated the obvious to Iraqi television; that the U.S. war timetable has fallen by the wayside.” And why did he speak to the Iraqi propaganda group? “I gave an impromptu interview to Iraqi television feeling that after four months of interviewing hundreds of them it was only professional courtesy to give them a few comments.” How’s that for contrition?

Sadly, Arnett doesn’t seem to understand why he lost another TV news job. It brings back memories of 1998, when Arnett voiced the controversial, and inaccurate, “Tailwind” story for CNN. He tried to save his job then by claiming he hadn’t contributed as much as “one comma” to the report, which incorrectly accused U.S. troops of using nerve gas in Vietnam. But incompetence was not an acceptable defense, and his contract wasn’t renewed.

What’s next for Arnett? He says he’s not sure whether he’ll remain in Baghdad, or cover the war from elsewhere for the Daily Mirror. He’d do better to look in his own mirror, admit his failings as a journalist, and retire. Because at this point, the only network that’s likely to put him on the air again is Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi TV.