The sacking of Peter Arnett.

The sacking of Peter Arnett.

The sacking of Peter Arnett.

Media criticism.
March 31 2003 7:25 PM

Sacking Arnett for the Wrong Reason

Having opinions shouldn't be a firing offense. Credulous behavior, on the other hand …

Peter Arnett
Arnett: Not wronged, but wrong for the wrong reasons.

Everybody has an opinion about whether Peter Arnett was wrong to appear on state-run Iraqi television yesterday and sound off on the failure of the U.S. invasion; the administration's "reappraisal" of battle plans; the Iraqi "determination" to fight; and what he called the "growing" domestic opposition to President Bush's war.

NBC News, one of Arnett's employers, had two sets of opinions about their reporter's remarks. At first, the network defended its man in Baghdad unequivocally, saying:

His impromptu interview with Iraqi TV was done as a professional courtesy and was similar to other interviews he has done with media outlets from around the world. … His remarks were analytical in nature and were not intended to be anything more. His outstanding reporting on the war speaks for itself.

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Less than 12 hours later, the network decided that Arnett's behavior was in fact a firing offense and gave the veteran war correspondent the pink slip. 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.

One day, NBC considers his remarks "analytical" and his appearance a "professional courtesy"; the next, the whole affair is just plain "wrong." If NBC was so clearly of two minds, the least they could have done would be slap his wrists with a suspension and keep him on as a witness to the seige of Baghdad.

Arnett deserves firing, but not for the reasons NBC gave.

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The network's overnight reversal has more to do with corporate damage control than the parsing of proper journalistic conduct. Had NBC—or National Geographic Explorer, Arnett's primary employer, which also fired him today—supported the reporter, they would themselves have become the focus of the controversy. (As it was, Fox News Channel's John Gibson, TV news's only albino werewolf, was eating MSNBC alive last night as he hashed and rehashed the news of the Arnett interview.) It was better, from NBC's perspective, to bury the issue quickly and pat Peter's face with a shovel than to examine the ethics of his appearance.

What are those ethics? Should Arnett—or any reporter working for a U.S. news concern—automatically be fired for speaking to the state-run media of a nation the United States is trading bullets and bombs with? No. A reporter should be free to talk to anybody he wants to talk to, from Satan to Santa Claus, in pursuit of a story—even if that entails a trip to Hell or the North Pole. Should a reporter keep his "personal observations and opinions" to himself? Not necessarily. Reporters share their views about current events and politics with regularity on television and in the press. And since the outset of the war, nearly every TV anchor, Kuwait correspondent, embedded battlefield reporter, and weatherman has, at one time or another, volunteered an opinion about its progress.

If we are to construct a case for Arnett's dismissal, let's use his advanced stupidity and gullibility as the posts and beams, and not the fact that he, like most of us, has opinions and spoke his mind.

What Arnett said on Iraqi TV was rattlebrained: He posited growing opposition to President Bush at home, when there are no meaningful indicators of such opposition. (And how would he know, anyway, seeing as he's stuck in Baghdad?) He maintained that the United States is "reappraising the battlefield, delaying the war … and maybe rewriting the war plan" because of Iraqi opposition to the invasion. Was he privy to the original war plans? Could it be that the war plan is being "revised" in response to one set of actual battlefield successes (the capture of the oil fields; U.S. troops on the periphery of Baghdad; the control of Iraq's only seaport, et al.) in lieu of another set of unrealized ones (the hoped for "collapse from within" of Saddam's dictatorship)?

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In short, Arnett said some stupid things on Iraqi television. But it was nothing Democratic foes of the war haven't been saying for a week and some Republicans are sharing anonymously today with the Washington Post. But politicians are supposed to be slightly dense and extremely opportunistic. Journalists are supposed to be smart and see the bigger picture.

That Arnett took his star turn on Iraqi state television and spoke seriously to a uniformed member of the Iraqi military indicates that he possesses the credulousness of a child, not the judgment of a seasoned reporter. And his opening statement to his interviewer must be reprinted in full in order to illustrate his willingness to please. He sounds for all the world like somebody being given the key to the city of Bedford Falls:

Well, I'd like to say from the beginning that the 12 years I've been coming here, I've met unfailing courtesy and cooperation. 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.

One imagines Arnett lifting a similar toast to, say, Joseph Goebbels and the fine folks from the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda while appearing on Lord Haw-Haw's radio program during the Battle of the Bulge. Never mind the missing Western correspondents. Never mind the systemic lies perpetrated by the Iraqi Ministry of Information and the ways they've censored him. Just give the handlers a big shout-out.

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What was Arnett thinking? Or, maybe the question should be, can he think? In his 1994 memoir, Live From the Battlefield: From Vietnam to Baghdad, he conceded that he's more a war reporter than a foreign correspondent, better at wading into the live-fire range of no man's land than assessing the truth value of a statement from the ministry of propaganda.

The shallowness of Arnett's reporting, no matter the bravery behind it, should be the issue. Last week, the conservative Media Research Center documented Arnett's remarkable willingness to parrot the propagandists. On the morning of March 26, he reported on NBC's Today program Iraqi Information Minister Said El Sahaf's claim that "the U.S. has started using cluster bombs in the Baghdad area" and repeated the claim an hour later.

That same morning, NBC Pentagon reporter Jim Miklaszewski dispelled that possiblity: "If you look at pictures, so far, outside of Baghdad, a cluster bomb would create a Swiss-cheese effect—thousands and thousands of holes in the target—and we don't see that quite yet."

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