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“Friendly Fire?” – the Peter Arnett Affair

When NBC and National Geographic fired Baghdad correspondent Peter Arnett for his comments to Iraqi state television, it seemed like the journalistic equivalent of 'friendly fire." As Tim Goodman pointed out in the San Francisco Chronicle, the affair raises several issues for debate among journalists. TBS reproduces an article from NBC's website reporting on the firing, Arnett's response in The Daily Mirror (which immediately hired him), and Tim Goodman's article. Later, Arnett was signed up by Al Arabiya to continue his satellite coverage from Baghdad.

NBC, MSNBC fire Peter Arnett 
NBC, MSNBC And News Services


March 31 — NBC, MSNBC and National Geographic said Monday that they had terminated their relationship with Peter Arnett after the journalist told state-run Iraqi TV that the U.S.-led coalition's initial war plan had failed and that reports from Baghdad about civilian casualties had helped antiwar protesters undermine the Bush administration's strategy.

"IT WAS wrong for Mr. Arnett to grant an interview to state-controlled Iraqi TV - especially at a time of war - and it was wrong for him to discuss his personal observations and opinions in that interview," NBC News President Neal Shapiro said in a statement issued a day after a network spokeswoman initially defended the correspondent. "Therefore, Peter Arnett will no longer be reporting for NBC News and MSNBC."

National Geographic, for whom Arnett first traveled to Baghdad, said it, too, had "terminated the service of Peter Arnett."

"The Society did not authorize or have any prior knowledge of Arnett's television interview with Iraqi television," it said in a statement, "and had we been consulted, would not have allowed it. His decision to grant an interview and express his personal views on state-controlled Iraqi television, especially during a time of war, was a serious error in judgment and wrong."

Arnett, who won a Pulitzer Prize reporting in Vietnam for The Associated Press, appeared on NBC's "Today" show Monday to apologize for his statements. (MSNBC.com is an NBC News-Microsoft joint venture.)


However, in The Daily Mirror, a British tabloid newspaper that announced later Monday that it had hired him, Arnett declared that "I report the truth of what is happening here in Baghdad and will not apologize for it."

"I am still in shock and awe at being fired," Arnett said.

"Fired by America for telling the truth," said the headline on the article announcing the hiring of Arnett, whom the newspaper called "the legendary war reporter."

The Daily Mirror is vehemently opposed to the war and has led a vigorous editorial campaign against President Bush. On Thursday, its front page was devoted to a photo of a crying Iraqi civilian above a photo of a grinning Bush, with the headline, "Dead British troops paraded on Iraqi TV, 14 civilians killed in Baghdad market and Bush whoops it up. War? HE LOVES IT."

A week ago, the newspaper's only front-page headline declared: "Still anti-war? Yes, bloody right we are."


In the Iraqi TV interview that led to his dismissal, Arnett said his Iraqi friends had told him that there was a growing sense of nationalism and resistance to what the United States and Britain were doing.

He said the United States was reappraising the battlefield and delaying the war, maybe for a week, "and rewriting the war plan. The first war plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance. Now they are trying to write another war plan."

"Clearly, the American war plans misjudged the determination of the Iraqi forces," Arnett said in the interview, which was broadcast by Iraq's satellite television station and monitored by the AP in Egypt.

Arnett said it was clear that there was growing opposition to the war within the United States and a growing challenge to Bush.

"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."

The interview was broadcast in English and translated by a green military uniform-wearing Iraqi anchor. NBC said Arnett gave the interview when asked shortly after he attended an Iraqi government briefing.

The interview quickly made Arnett a target of the war's supporters. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said on Fox News Channel that she found the interview "nauseating" and accused Arnett of "kowtowing to what clearly is the enemy in this way."

NBC backed Arnett's interview Sunday before changing its mind Monday. "His impromptu interview with Iraqi TV was done as a professional courtesy and was similar to other interviews he has done with media outlets from around the world," NBC News spokeswoman Allison Gollust said in a statement Sunday. "His remarks were analytical in nature and were not intended to be anything more. His outstanding reporting on the war speaks for itself."


Arnett garnered much of his prominence from covering the 1991 Gulf War for CNN. The first Bush administration was unhappy with his reporting, suggesting that he had become a conveyor of propaganda.

At one point, he was denounced for his reporting about an allied bombing of a baby milk factory in Baghdad that the military said was a biological weapons plant. The U.S. military responded vigorously to the suggestion it had targeted a civilian facility, but Arnett stood by his reporting that the plant's sole purpose was to make baby formula.

Arnett was also the on-air reporter of a 1998 CNN report that accused U.S. forces of using sarin gas on a Laotian village in 1970 to kill U.S. defectors. Two CNN employees were fired and Arnett was reprimanded over the report, which the station retracted. Arnett later left the network.

He went to Iraq this year not as an NBC News reporter but as an employee of "National Geographic Explorer," which airs on MSNBC. When NBC reporters left Baghdad for safety reasons, the network began airing his reports.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

The Daily Mirror 


Apr 1 2003 — By Peter Arnett

I am still in shock and awe at being fired. There is enormous sensitivity within the US government to reports coming out from Baghdad.

They don't want credible news organisations reporting from here because it presents them with enormous problems. I reported on the original bombing for NBC and we were half a mile away from those massive explosions. Now I am really shocked that I am no longer reporting this story for the US and awed by the fact that it actually happened. That overnight my successful NBC reporting career was turned to ashes. And why?

"Tariq Aziz told me the US will have to brainwash 25M Iraqis, because these people think exactly the same as Saddam"

Because I stated the obvious to Iraqi television; that the US war timetable has fallen by the wayside.

I have made those comments to television stations around the world and now I'm making them again in the Daily Mirror.

I'm not angry. I'm not crying. But I'm also awed by this media phenomenon.

The right-wing media and politicians are looking for any opportunity to be critical of the reporters who are here, whatever their nationality. I made the misjudgment which gave them the opportunity to do so.

I gave an impromptu interview to Iraqi television feeling that after four months of interviewing hundreds of them it was only professional courtesy to give them a few comments.

That was my Waterloo - bang!I

have not yet decided what to do, whether to pack my bags and leave Baghdad or stay on.

I'll decide what to do today, right now I'm chewing on what has happened to me.

"American Marines at our checkpoints are suspicious of every man, woman and child because of the suicide bomb"

But whatever happens I will never stop reporting on the truth of this war whether I am in Baghdad or somewhere else in the Middle East - or even back in Washington.

I was here in 1991 and the bombing is very similar to that conflict but the reality is very different.

The US and British want to come here, take over the city, upturn the government and take us through to a new era. The troops are in the country and fighting there way up here. It creates a very different atmosphere.

The Ba'ath party, currently led by Saddam Hussein, has been in power for 34 years. Tariq Aziz told me the US will have to brainwash 25 million Iraqis because these people think exactly the same as Saddam does.

Maybe he is wrong, maybe not.

For months, Iraqis have said officially and privately: "We will fight the Americans, we will use guerrilla tactics, we will surprise them.

"But the Iraqi opposition has said: "This will be a pushover, everyone wants to rebel against Saddam.

"Now the reality is being played out on the battlefield. We have to watch the reality now and some Iraqis are fighting and the government does seem very determined. For me to see that and to be criticised for saying the obvious is unfair.

"As the battle for Baghdad grows, so the potential for civilian casualties grows. This is the spectre rising for the coalition as this war continues"

But it has made me a target for my critics in the States who accuse me of giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

I don't want to give aid and comfort to the enemy - I just want to be able to tell the truth.

I came to Baghdad with my crew because the Iraqi side needs to be heard too.

It is clear the original timetable that America would be in Baghdad by the end of March has fallen by the wayside. There is clearly debate in the US about this, reinforcements are being sent in and there are delays.

This doesn't mean it is going badly. Every casualty is a loss but they have been in limited numbers so far.

Every night and every day I hear the B-52s and the missiles hammering the defences Baghdad.

Just like in Afghanistan and Vietnam, the US is bringing enormous firepower to bear which it believes will grind the Iraqis down. I have seen it before and it has been enormously effective. The US optimism is justified. On the other hand, at what cost to civilians?

During the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, I entered a US-held town which had been totally destroyed.

The Viet Cong had taken over and were threatening the commander's building so he called down an artillery strike which killed many of his own men.

The Major with us asked: "How could this happen?" A soldier replied: "Sir, we had to destroy the town to save it. "The Bush and Blair administration does not want that label stuck on this war, it is a liberation for them. But the problem is US Marines at checkpoints are suspicious of every man, woman and child because of the suicide bomb.

Already there is suspicion growing.

And in the south, there have not been popular rebellions and uprisings.

As the battle for Baghdad grows, the potential for civilian casualties grows.

"Optimists in the Pentagon talk about an internal coup. BNut who would have had believed Umm Qasr would hold out for six days?"

This is the spectre rising as this war continues. The US and Britain have to figure this out.

I don't think you can tell how it will end, there are many scenarios. A siege of Baghdad... a special operations strike on Saddam. Optimists in the Pentagon talk about an internal coup.

Who would have had believed Umm Qasr would hold out for six days or US Marines directing traffic would be killed by a suicide bomber? This is more like the West Bank and Gaza and it could become like that in some areas.

The US and Britain must avoid that scenario. Forces come in, communities resist, then suicide bombing and resistance from guerrillas.

Except the Iraqis will be putting up a stiffer fight than the Palestinians because they are better armed. We know the world, including many Americans, is ambivalent about this war and I think it is essential to be here.

I'm not here to be a superstar. I have been there in 1991 and could never be bigger than that.

Some reporters make judgements but that is not my style. I present both sides and report what I see with my own eyes.I don't blame NBC for their decision because they came under great commercial pressure from the outside. And I certainly don't believe the White House was responsible for my sacking.

But I want to tell the story as best as I can, which makes it so disappointing to be fired.


Arnett rattles hornets' nest with Iraqi TV comments

San Francisco Chronicle http://www.sfgate.com

Monday, March 31, 2003

Tim Goodman

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."

E-mail Tim Goodman at tgoodman@sfchronicle.com

About Peter Arnett

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