NBC WAS SHOCKED. TODAY show host Matt Lauer was awed. But in the end, not even a Pulitzer Prize, 40 years' experience, and the fawning admiration of media liberals could save Peter Arnett.
Mr. Arnett, the outspokenly anti-war correspondent stationed in Baghdad, was fired by both NBC and National Geographic after he gave an interview to government-controlled Iraqi TV, Saddam Hussein's main propaganda outlet. In the interview, Mr. Arnett seemed to praise the "determination of the Iraqi forces," which had American officials "rewriting the war plan. The first war plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance."
He went on to boast that his reports from Baghdad were helping to stem the tide of pro-war sentiment back home. "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."
NBC, which retained Mr. Arnett after its own correspondents were forced to leave Baghdad, at first defended his interview as a "professional courtesy" to his Iraqi hosts. But 24 hours later, NBC had changed its view, belatedly deciding that Mr. Arnett was wrong to talk to state-controlled Iraqi TV and "to discuss his personal observations and opinions in that interview," according to a network spokesman.
In a farewell interview on March 31, Mr. Lauer voiced the feelings of many media liberals over the firing: "Peter, at the risk of getting myself in trouble, I want to say I respect the work you've done over the last several weeks and I respect the honesty with which you've handled this situation. So good luck to you."
He needn't have worried. Within hours, Mr. Arnett was snapped up as a correspondent for London's Daily Mirror newspaper. Editor Piers Morgan welcomed his newest reporter with a slap at U.S. journalistic standards: "I look forward to him writing free of the appalling censorship he has suffered in the States."
Despite their reverence for his views, however, even some members of the mainstream media thought Mr. Arnett had gone too far this time. Left-leaning Slate magazine accused him of "advanced stupidity and gullibility," and veteran newsman Walter Cronkite called Mr. Arnett "grossly irresponsible"; moreover, said Mr. Cronkite, Mr. Arnett was perilously open to a charge of treason and, if so, he would hang "by a rope of his own weaving."
The question is, should anyone have been surprised by his gullibility and irresponsibility, given Mr. Arnett's long record of one-sided reporting?
In Vietnam, where he won his Pulitzer, he popularized a soldier's quote that seemed to perfectly illustrate the insanity of America's strategy: "We had to destroy the village in order to save it." But later investigators discovered that Ben Tre, the village in question, was destroyed by the Viet Cong, not the Americans.
The Media Research Center, a Washington-based press watchdog, has documented more than a decade of shoddy reporting by Mr. Arnett:
Reporting for CNN during the first Gulf War, Mr. Arnett not only consistently toed the official line of the Iraqi Information Ministry, but he frequently added his own verification of that line. When the United States bombed a plant that it said was used for making chemical weapons, Mr. Arnett repeated the Iraqi claim that the only thing being made in the plant was baby formula. It all "looked innocent enough, from what I could see," he added, despite the high-tech intelligence gathering that had been done on the target.
When his Iraqi handlers took him to a bombed-out civilian neighborhood, Mr. Arnett reported live on the despair of "a distraught woman [who] shouted insults at the press and vented anger at the West." In beautiful English, she cried for the cameras: "Mea culpa! Mea culpa! All of you are responsible, all of you! Bombing the people for the sake of oil! Hunted as if we are Iranian! We are human beings! Who made this area like this? The flames in the area, it's the West! Mea culpa, the blood, she is on your head." The woman turned out to be an assistant to Iraq's Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs. When reporters from a Paris network showed up, she repeated her performance in French.
On a prime-time newsmagazine in 1998, Mr. Arnett narrated a story charging that the United States had used nerve gas to kill defectors fleeing to Laos during the Vietnam War. When the story turned out to be entirely fabricated, Mr. Arnett claimed, rather incredibly, that he was simply the pretty face reading on-camera a story that had been researched by others. He had contributed nothing more than a comma, he said. Two producers were fired in the ensuing scandal, and Mr. Arnett's contract with CNN was not renewed.
Small wonder he was available as a freelance correspondent when war broke out in Iraq five years later. Big wonder that NBC would hire him.