It’s easy to romanticize the foreign correspondent who stays behind in a dangerous war zone as all the sensible news outlets withdraw theirs so they aren’t killed or captured. It’s especially easy for people who reach for the airsickness bag at the mere suggestion of Pax Americana to find a hero in that brave soul who will be an eyewitness to history as the American war machine rumbles into town, someone who’s no embedded stooge for the triumphalist neoconservative cabal, a voice for “independent” journalism who will tell the truth.
That is not Peter Arnett. NBC fired Arnett Monday for appearing on Iraqi television. Even liberal media analysts like Tom Rosenstiel were shocked that Arnett was such a clumsy partisan that he appeared on Saddam-controlled Iraqi TV, where he fulsomely praised his minders and claimed that the American war plan has failed against Iraq. Liberals weren’t so much upset about his message as his medium.
“I’d like to say from the beginning that the 12 years I’ve been coming here,” Arnett proclaimed, “I’ve met unfailing courtesy and cooperation, courtesy from your people and cooperation from the Ministry of Information.” Arnett told the Iraqi TV interviewer, who was dressed in an Iraqi Army uniform, that President Bush is facing a “growing challenge” about the “conduct of the war” within the United States. “The first war plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance. Now they are trying to write another war plan. Clearly, the American war planners misjudged the determination of the Iraqi forces.”
The New Zealander also talked about his political usefulness to the “peace” movement in America: “Our reports about civilian casualties here, about the resistance of the Iraqi forces, are going back to the United States,’’ he said. ‘’It helps those who oppose the war when you challenge the policy to develop their arguments.’’
This man is not a journalist of integrity. His interview revealed a man who would curtsy to his Iraqi minders and lob journalistic grenades of distortion at U.S. forces. America would have been better off if the aging protester had held a die-in, rather than a report-in.
In 1991, he appeared to a hero’s welcome at the National Press Club, where he discussed the infamous “baby milk factory” story by admitting: “I didn’t see any evidence of biological testing, but then I don’t know what biological testing would look like.” Arnett referred to the U.S. bombing of a “shelter, which I called civilian for a while, but which we just call shelter now, because we don’t really know what it was.” How could this man be described as a heroically independent journalist, when he seemed so cavalierly dismissive of what the actual truth was in these stories he reported?
In recent days, Arnett had resumed his role from Gulf War I, carrying the water for Iraqi propaganda ministers. On the March 19 Today Show on NBC, Arnett told Matt Lauer from Baghdad: “”The government here maintaining a very strong pugilistic position, you might say. In fact the National Assembly met this morning in special session and criticizing the U.S. One other aspect, Matt, the Foreign Minister Naji Sabri has called the U.N.’s act of completely leaving Iraq, all its aid workers, he called that, ‘shameful’ and he suggested it would leave ten million Iraqis possibly starving in a few weeks if the war does continue.”
The imbalance of media criticism right now is leveled at the embedded correspondents, caricatured by reporter-activists like Time veteran Eugene Linden as government stooges, men and women who have “jumped into this leash like golden retrievers eager to be walked.” But the American people are much more concerned about stooge-reporters in Baghdad who’d rather have the dateline in the Iraqi capital than tell the truth. Arnett’s firing is correcting this imbalance.
The Stalin-style regime of Saddam Hussein is not interested in “independent” journalism that tells the truth. They kicked out willing helpers like those from Arnett’s last home, CNN, who arrived in Jordan still stressing moral equivalence — producer Ingrid Formanek told viewers “all sides want to control the media as much as possible and that goes for the Iraqis, as well as the Americans.”
Would it be fair to assume that the only brave souls left behind are correspondents who the desperate Iraqi thugs feel are “on message”? It was certainly fair in Arnett’s case.
Not every reporter has Arnett’s zest for propaganda, but all three broadcast networks should have learned their lesson in 1991. ABC’s Bill Blakemore, CBS’s Betsy Aaron, and NBC’s Jeremy Levin (borrowed from the BBC) all reported from Baghdad. In 45 stories from February 1 to February 27, 1991, not one of their reports suggested that Saddam Hussein was the slightest bit unpopular. Aaron reported, “The average citizen…thinks the Iraqi government has made every concession that it can make for a peace with honor.” Bowen reported, “The people we met blamed the Americans for continuing the war.”
But as soon as these reporters came out of Baghdad, they renounced their own presentations. “The one thing people have to know is that this man, privately, Saddam Hussein, is a hated man,” Betsy Aaron told Dan Rather on March 7. On NBC News at Sunrise the next morning, Jeremy Bowen conceded: “The message that came from them very strongly in Baghdad was that they’re pretty sick of Saddam Hussein. They don’t like the man, they don’t like what he’s done to their country, and they’d like to be rid of him.”
ABC’s Cokie Roberts was widely scorned a few years ago by appearing in a coat in front of a green screen and pretending to be on Capitol Hill when she was across town. That’s not a high moment for American journalism, but at this time, the American people would be better served by reporters standing in front of fake Baghdad backdrops with truthful reporting than they are by reporters with a true Baghdad backdrop and completely fake reporting.
— Tim Graham is director of media analysis at the Media Research Center.