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Arnett rattles hornets' nest with Iraqi TV comments

Monday, March 31, 2003


Was it the medium or the message?

Baghdad-based television reporter Peter Arnett, no stranger to controversy, fired up another one Sunday when he appeared on Iraqi television and proclaimed the United States' initial war plans a failure and said images of civilian casualties are bolstering the anti-war movement and hurting President Bush.

Arnett's comments are sure to touch off a debate about journalists covering the war, magnifying issues of bias being tossed about on both sides. And Arnett's appearance has already solidified the argument that one network, Fox News, has no qualms about waving the flag during this war. On Sunday night, Fox News took sole possession of the Arnett interview and whipped it into a media story by saying his actions were aiding Iraq.

For his part, Arnett brought this whole thing on himself. By going on television, he became part of the story -- a no-no for journalists. Critics will surely say he's being used as a pawn.

Arnett is reporting in Baghdad for National Geographic Explorer, NBC News and MSNBC. Although he won a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam War coverage, Baghdad is where Arnett gained both fame and infamy, covering the first Gulf War for CNN. Arnett's work there was censored by the Iraqi government and he caused a stir by reporting that a U.S. missile took out a baby-formula factory while the first Bush administration said it was a biological weapons plant.

Although Arnett was a lightning rod even before Sunday's TV appearance, it's easy to forget he's done good work. And this is hardly a black-and-white issue. It's not like Arnett's comments are breaking news. Much of what he said has already been mouthed in this country -- even by former military leaders commenting on cable news channels. Like him or not, Arnett knows Baghdad pretty well and he has reported that this war would be no cakewalk and the Iraqi people wouldn't just lie down. In the interview, Arnett said his warnings weren't listened to by the Bush administration.

Anyone watching television coverage of this war for any amount of time has heard similar criticism. But it's the setting and timing that will be called into question. Arnett sat across from an Iraqi TV anchor wearing a military uniform and said how much he has appreciated the cooperation of the Iraqi Ministry of Information. This after media outlets like Arnett's former channel,

CNN and Fox News, have been kicked out, plus suggestions that two journalists from Newsday are being imprisoned at this moment for their coverage.

"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 in the interview. "Our reports about civilian casualties here and about the resistance of the Iraqi forces are going back to the United States. It helps those who oppose the war and who challenge the policy to develop their arguments." And later: "The first war plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance."

The interview sent Fox News' John Gibson into an apoplectic fit of moral outrage -- also not exactly breaking news for him or the channel. "Is he on the Iraqi side?" Gibson demanded of Simon Marks, who's reporting from Jordan for Fox News. Marks, who is friends with Arnett, tried to dodge the string-'em- up tenor of Gibson's suggestions, saying, "It is at the very least a curiosity.

Certainly appearing on Iraqi television under these circumstances would be a curious choice for any journalist."

Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, said Arnett's forum perhaps obscured some salient points.

"I have a level of discomfort of him going on Iraqi television and saying what he did," Schell said. "The unfortunate part is, he chose to make news himself by going on Iraqi TV. And that may eclipse the verities of what he's saying."

Schell said Arnett "is getting intimations from Baghdad" about how the war is going, and that those observations are necessary for balanced coverage. He wondered if Iraqi television aired the interview in its entirety and cautioned that Arnett may have something to say in his defense before critics start chopping him down. Over at Fox, however, it was too late.

"His comments seem to be supporting the Iraqi regime," Gibson fumed, adding Arnett "seems to be encouraging Iraqi resistance." He ratcheted that up later with this: "Arnett seemed to cheer the Iraqi resistance." Gibson's less-than- veiled anti-American wink-wink to viewers continued as he suggested Arnett "seems to have the run of Iraq." Later: "Peter Arnett is live in Baghdad and we may now know why."

If you thought this televised indictment couldn't get any more journalistically unsound, Gibson then let former New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato unload this bomb on Arnett: "He gives aid and comfort to the enemy."

NBC issued a statement of support for Arnett, saying, "his remarks were analytical in nature and were not intended to be anything more." The statement also said "the impromptu interview with Iraqi TV was done as a professional courtesy."

But as tensions are heightened in Baghdad and the Ministry of Information is tossing out and possibly detaining journalists, Arnett's interview could be seen as his being played for a pawn in return for his continued stay in the country.

"I think he is a little embedded on the Iraq side," Schell said. "It's a different master."

While the newsiness of the Arnett interview was undoubtedly fanned by Fox News, Arnett's fame had a lot to do with it, Schell said.

"He's just the first sort of iconic figure for the media to utter such words."


©2003 Associated Press



©2003 San Francisco Chronicle






 
 



















































































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For archives, these articles are being stored on TheWE.cc website.
The purpose is to advance understandings of environmental, political,
human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues.