Sorry, Peter Arnett, but we quit listening
April 4, 2003
Here’s a good rule for journalists: Don’t become the story you’re supposed to be covering.
That’s especially true if you are a world-famous war correspondent named Peter Arnett, who earlier this week got himself fired by NBC and National Georgraphic for what he said about the U.S. war plan being a failure.
Three things wrong with this, as far as I can tell.
— Journalists are supposed to report the news, not make it.
— If you are willing to speak your mind, be prepared for the consequences.
— If you get so big for your britches that what you think is more important than what you report, then you’re no longer a journalist.
Recommended Stories For You
In the last week, two reporters were kicked out of Iraq because the U.S. military didn’t trust them. One was a guy from the Christian Science Monitor you never heard of, the other was Geraldo Rivera, who some of us wish we’d never heard of.
In both cases, the reporters gave too specific details on where they were and where the troops might be headed. They were boneheaded mistakes, and they deserved to be booted.
The point with Arnett is that he still doesn’t get it. I read his April 1 explanation in The Mirror, and I thought it was an April fool’s joke.
“I came to Baghdad with my crew because the Iraqi side needs to be heard too,” he wrote. “It is clear the original timetable that America would be in Baghdad by the end of March has fallen by the wayside.”
“Some reporters make judgments, but that is not my style. I present both sides and report what I see with my own eyes.”
Sorry, Pete. You clearly made judgments based on things you couldn’t see with your own eyes — you were in Baghdad, right? — and you made no attempt to tell both sides of the story. You were a mouthpiece of the Iraqi government.
Sure, I think Peter Arnett was perfectly within his rights to say what he said on Iraqi television.
And we’re perfectly within our rights to never listen to him again.
In general, I think the decision by the military to “embed” journalists in various fighting units was brilliant.
It had to have been a huge leap of faith for the Joint Chiefs of Staff to allow reporters to live and work among the troops. A lot of things could go wrong — and still may — such as giving away critical information, or reporters being caught in battle and killed. Imagine the public-relations nightmare that would create.
If the war were going badly, negative reports from the field would be hard to suppress. The American public, and the world, would be getting a steady stream of troubling, critical dispatches from the front that would quickly erode popular and political support for the war.
Because the war in Iraq is already being widely questioned from many parts of the globe, it must have been tempting to keep journalists at arm’s length as much as possible. We would be getting the daily briefings from the Pentagon and Central Command, with a few reporters in the field — generally far from the action — as was the case with the 1991 Gulf War.
Military leaders, I think, would have a feeling they were much more in control of the flow of information. As with all previous wars, much of the news would arrive at our homes days or weeks after the fact. That gives the armed forces a much better chance to investigate and, if they felt the need, put some kind of spin on the situation.
The biggest drawback is that the media will continue to attempt to report what’s going on, whatever the spokespeople for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines have to say. They will seek second-hand reports, use vague sources and resort to even more speculation than is going on now.
In other words, I have to think that the information coming out of the war would be much less accurate and much less specific. And where there is a vacuum, people tend to fill in the gaps with worst-case scenarios.
The advantage to having embedded reporters — the brilliance of the decision — is that the American public is becoming intimate with the terminology, tactics and the tribulations of day-to-day combat life. We are identifying very closely with the men and women who are representing us on the battle field.
Yes, we’re still getting a heavy rotation of generals and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But the images we will carry forever are young soldiers engaged in firefights, trying to sleep in raging sandstorms, goofing around with Iraqi children, going about routine tasks with professional precision.
The Military in this war is not a faceless monolith. It’s a thousand dirty, smiling, grim, tense, serious, bored, frank faces. It’s the faces of the people out there doing the job.
This new familiarity also makes each report of casualties or POWs that much harder to take. Each of these people we’re getting to know a little better today, we realize, are in grave danger of not being there tomorrow.
I think this is as it must be. Americans should never get the impression we can wage war without getting our hands dirty, so to speak.
In the comfort of our own homes, we’ll come away with a much better appreciation of the U.S. military, and a much deeper understanding of the reality of war.
Barry Smith is editor of the Nevada Appeal.