NBC News and National Geographic fired Baghdad correspondent Peter Arnett earlier this month for giving a controversial interview to Iraqi state TV. During the interview, Arnett falsely claimed the U.S. war plan in Iraq had failed and that stateside opposition to the conflict was growing. Liberal pundits were quick to brand his termination an assault on free speech pushed by right-wing conservatives. In reality, neither is true.
Less than 24 hours after releasing him, NBC allowed Arnett an extended interview to defend his actions on one of their most-valuable piece of TV real estate, the “Today” show. While not defending his actions, co-anchors Matt Lauer and Katie Couric went out of their way to defend his character. That is, if you consider knowing Katie Couric for “many, many years” a positive character trait.
If there truly was some kind of conspiracy against Arnett, then why did NBC and National Geographic give him a second chance in mainstream, TV journalism? Arnett had already displayed his troubled relationship with the truth when he falsely reported that the U.S. had used sarin nerve gas on enemy forces in Laos in 1970. That story led to his first high-profile firing, from CNN, in 1998. Less than a week ago, Arnett was on TV taunting his former cable news employer’s lack of political savvy after Saddam’s regime expelled CNN’s Baghdad correspondents. And if that wasn’t enough, NBC News President Neil Shapiro initially defended Arnett after his Iraqi state TV interview and spent most of Sunday tracking him down. It was only after an extended phone conversation with Arnett about his motives in granting the interview that Shapiro decided to let him go.
Free speech entitles one to express their opinions without fear of retribution from the government. However, it does not require employers to ignore contractual obligations and the basic ethics of journalism to support said opinions. As MSNBC President Erik Sorenson put it: “When you give an interview to a guy in an army uniform who works for a dictator whose government we’re at war with, it raises some real questions about your judgment. It’s just unbelievable … he has these clearly pro-Iraqi or anti-American viewpoints.”
Arnett’s real mistake was in putting himself ahead of the story he was supposed to be covering. There’s nothing wrong with presenting both sides to a story. In fact, that’s exactly what reporters are supposed to do. But what Arnett expressed were not only opinions, but also observations he knew state controlled Iraqi TV would manipulate for use as propaganda. Worst of all, if Arnett’s opinions are generated into Iraqi propaganda that falsely inspires wavering enemy soldiers on their chances for victory, it could have contributed to an extended conflict and greater loss of life. To quote Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, “If ever there was a poster boy for bias, it is now Peter Arnett.”
Now, Saddam’s agents do have a reputation for coercion unparalleled since the days of Stalin. Was Arnett forced into his remarks? As Sorenson said, if “there was a guy with an AK-47 behind the curtain” no one would have questioned his actions. But it appears the only motive behind Arnett’s decision was the gust of ego propelling him forward.
During his three-minute, post-firing “Today” show interview, Arnett interjected the words “I” or “me” into the segment 61 times. In his debut column for the UK Mirror, published Tuesday, Arnett referred to himself 44 times.
In an attempt to respond to his critics, he briefly set down his wet blanket, allowing a short recess for modesty to intrude: “I’m not here to be a superstar. I have been there in 1991 and could never be bigger than that.” Certainly not now, with two ethical strikes against him in a field that doesn’t usually make allowance for a full count.
There is a fair debate to be had about where a reporter’s ultimate loyalties should lie: To their country or to the story? But that level of thought should not be wasted on one reporter’s troubled relationship with the truth. Even National Public Radio pundits didn’t waste much time defending his actions. The London Daily Telegraph’s Marcus Warren, on the NPR airwaves 3/31: “It does appear to have been a lapse of judgment. Perhaps he’d been in Baghdad for too long.”
The firing of Peter Arnett was not a blow against free speech. It is just more evidence that reporters should never try to become bigger than their stories. Those kinds of voices are better suited for the platform of cable television punditry and London tabloids than the front lines of the battle for Iraqi freedom.