Arnett Lost in the Spin Cycle
As I write these words, Peter Arnett is presumably packing his bags and hailing a taxi to drive him over the Jordanian border and his future life on a pension.
As in Gulf War One, Arnett was the last American TV journalist broadcasting out of Baghdad. In 1991, he was denounced as a traitor for showing civilian life and death under American bombing, but CNN kept him on the air. Now, after just 11 days of wartime footage on the ground for NBC, not only is his loyalty suspect, he's out of a job too.
In these days of lies and propaganda swallowed whole and dissenters chewed up and spit out similarly, what's amazing is that the old war dog lasted through almost one whole spin cycle before getting the boot. But then, his traitorous crime was committed on a weekend, when only the right-wing watchdogs who never sleep were holding the perimeter.
A brief review of the chain of events before this episode gets flushed away by the next media industry profile in courage is in order.
Arnett gave an interview to Iraqi television in which he said what reporters have been reporting in the U.S. and all over the world for days: "The first war plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance. Now they are trying to write another war plan."
This was not news to the Iraqis. It's also not an opinion, having been reported worldwide for days.
To take one example, Newsweek quoted Lt. Gen. William Wallace, the Army's ground commander in Iraq that, "The enemy we're fighting is different from the one we war-gamed against." Newsweek added that, "Because of the fierceness of the resistance and overextended supply lines, the war is going to take longer than predicted, Wallace told reporters." Arnett went on to state that footage of civilian casualties in Baghdad possibly gave ammunition to American war protesters. Not news either.
He then apparently tacitly praised or thanked the Iraqi information ministry for letting him and other reporters continue to cover Baghdad during the 12 years since the Gulf War. That's certainly a notion many would dispute, given that journalists are disappearing from the streets of Baghdad, but not terribly atypical journalistic pandering either.
Arnett's Interview with the Enemy gave the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz an easy Monday morning story with which to scandalize the capital.
Kurtz, ever fair-minded and eager to get "both sides" for his stories, solicited an opinion from National Review editor Rich Lowry who called Arnett an "agenda-driven reporter." Howie also downloaded some quotes from the ravers on Fox to complete his balanced roundup of reax. The White House weighed in that Arnett was "ignorant" of war plans. Howie printed that assertion without noting that no one in the White House has spent a fraction of the time in that war Arnett, the veteran war correspondent, has.
The Wall Street Journal's reporter -- probably also scanning Fox -- picked up the story too, focusing almost exclusively on Arnett's seeming praise of the Iraqi info ministry. Sunday night, while Kurtz and the Journal reporter were typing away, Arnett still had a job -- a nasty one certainly, under nightly bombing, but someone ought to do it.
When he went to sleep, NBC was still behind him all the way, pointing out that he and his crew "have risked their lives to bring the American people up-to-date, straightforward information on what is happening in and around Baghdad" and calling his remarks "analytical."
Oh, how efficiently does a single spin cycle wash away the stain of a Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent during this wartime! By Monday morning, in the wake of the two stories in key establishment newspapers -- and the right-wing howl always inching toward "booooycooottt!" -- NBC and National Geographic had ditched their courageous reporter faster than you can say Tokyo Rose.
"It was wrong for him to discuss his personal opinions" on Iraqi state TV, said NBC President Neil Shapiro. National Geo simply said the Society had not been consulted and had it been, Arnett would have been told not to talk to the Iraqis.
Arnett's mistake -- a big and foolish one -- was to behave like a reporter first, and a Pentagon spokesman second. Having been called a traitor on the floor of Congress 12 years ago, he ought to have learned by now.
The irony of all this is that if we really want to "liberate" Iraq, giving them a taste of the First Amendment in action, with an American reporter free to speak his mind anywhere and anytime, might have brought us a step closer to that stated goal of "winning hearts and minds."
But then, as everybody in the world knows -- and the Iraqis are the last people to need Arnett to tell them -- that Big Ole' Compassionate war plan has been sacked, just like Pete.
Nina Burleigh is researching a book on the scientists who accompanied Napoleon into Egypt. Her book about James Smithson will be published in September by William Morrow.