Steve Sachs Duke


Thursday, April 03, 2003


The wrong angle on Arnett. Oxblog has gone back and forth (and back and forth) on whether NBC was right to sack Peter Arnett after he gave an interview to a uniformed questioner on Iraqi state TV.

I'm not going to try to settle this debate--I don't have a ready answer to the question of whether his views, as expressed in the interview, create a reason to fire him. (If Arnett thinks that the U.S. war plan has been inadequate, and that the Iraqi resistance has been stronger than expected, well, that's a reporter's analysis. On the other hand, providing propaganda for Iraqi state TV in the middle of a war isn't exactly a neutral position.)

But regardless of Arnett's assessment of the war, NBC still had more than adequate cause to fire him after he said this:

ARNETT: 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.

Of course, Arnett doesn't mention that foreign reporters are under near-constant surveillance by Iraqi "minders"; that individual Iraqis are punished for speaking too freely to the press; that CNN (along with several other major news media) has been forced out of Baghdad for unfavorable coverage; or that several other journalists were thrown in an Iraqi prison a week ago (they were still missing when Arnett gave his interview). Arnett was silent about their fate even after the Committee to Protect Journalists, on whose board of directors he serves, had interceded on their behalf. These journalists, now released, have a somewhat different take on press freedoms in Iraq:

"I asked him if he was held by people from Iraq's Ministry of Information and he just said 'That's a nice name for them.'"

There are two possibilities here. One is that Arnett was simply unaware of the actual conditions under which journalists in Iraq are allowed to operate. He had no idea that the minders were watching his steps, that his man-on-the-street interviews might be less than truthful, or that he was seeing only what Saddam’s regime wanted him to see. In that case, NBC would have a right and a duty to fire him, because he would be misleading his viewers and presenting his reporting as more accurate than it is. (Given that he goes by the title of "journalist," NBC in this case would also have a right to fire him for being singularly unobservant.)

The second possibility, which I feel may be more likely, is that Arnett knew perfectly well what conditions he faced and was merely shilling for the regime. CNN was booted out because it was unpopular with Saddam's government; Arnett wanted to stay on, and the price may have been some friendly quotes. Consider the statement he gave to TV Guide (recently quoted by Ha'aretz):

In the April 5 issue of TV Guide magazine, Arnett said he felt he had found redemption reporting on the current war.

"I was furious with [CNN founder] Ted Turner and [then-CNN chairman] Tom Johnson when they threw me to the wolves after I made them billions risking my life to cover the first Gulf War," Arnett told TV Guide.

"Now [Turner and Johnson] are gone, the Iraqis have thrown the CNN crew out of Baghdad, and I'm still here," he said. "Any satisfaction in that? Ha, ha, ha, ha."

He said the Iraqis allowed him to stay in Baghdad because they respect him.

"The Iraqis have let me stay because they see me as a fellow warrior," Arnett said. "They know I might not agree with them, but I've got their respect."

Does Arnett really think that Iraq's government decides which reporters to allow in and which to kick out based on respect?

I'm not really sure why this angle has been underplayed--of the stories I saw, only the WSJ's Joe Flint got the story right, with a headline of "Arnett, on Iraq TV, Praises Treatment of Reporters." But no matter what the explanation, whether he's a fool or a liar, Arnett is unfit to continue reporting from Baghdad.

Since then, Arnett has been scooped up by the Daily Mirror, in the best traditions of the British press.

POSTSCRIPT: Reading the transcript again, I'm still shocked by Arnett's contention that "clearly this is a city [Baghdad] that is disciplined, the population is responsive to the government's requirements of discipline." Why might Iraqis be so "responsive to the government's requirements"? Maybe, say, because they fear being tortured to death?

Again, I don't know whether that statement is enough to cost Arnett his job. But there is no doubt that it is morally repugnant.




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