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Published: Saturday, 4/5/2003

The Arnett affair

Veteran reporter Peter Arnett is now a commentator for a weekly British tabloid. It's the right place for the Pulitzer Prize winning correspondent to opine freely about U.S. conduct in the Iraqi conflict. The wrong place for Mr. Arnett to express his views - as even he concedes - was on Iraqi TV.

In an interview that NBC first explained away as a “professional courtesy” - before firing him - Mr. Arnett gave a critical analysis of U.S. military operations to the de facto enemy. He told the state-controlled news organization in Iraq the U.S. initial war plan had failed because of unexpected Iraqi resistance.

No question the Arnett appearance on Iraqi TV was ill-advised. But were Mr. Arnett's remarks on state television in Baghdad a capital crime of treason as insinuated by some rabid reactionaries on the Fox News Channel? Hardly.

What Mr. Arnett said about misjudgment on the part of U.S. war planners was being said on many American news outlets, comments also made by former U.S. generals hired as analysts. But Mr. Arnett was a reporter, and when a reporter blurs the line between analyzing and reporting and injects himself into the story, he sacrifices impartiality.

Mr. Arnett foolishly allowed himself to become part of the story he was covering for NBC and MSNBC, and worse, he did it in front of an audience at war with his own country. It's not the first time he has shown poor journalistic judgment and been dismissed by an employer uncomfortable with the mutual association.

But at his new job as a contributor to the Daily Mirror in London, the ousted network reporter said he was “... still in shock and awe at being fired.” Stung by a chorus of criticism and worried that its flag-waving coverage of the war might be tainted with unpatriotic skepticism, NBC did a 180-degree turn from supporting its correspondent to firing him.

Unfortunately, NBC is not alone in its largely unquestioning presentation of the war as seen through the filter of the administration and, by extension, its military choreographers. No one is as blatantly nationalistic as Fox, but no cable network has as many viewers either - which helps explain the copycat cheerleading in competing television news shows.

Interestingly, Fox chose not to fire its own controversial field correspondent for blabbing the whereabouts of a military contingent he was embedded with in Iraq. Military brass aimed to expel Geraldo Rivera from Iraq not for analysis but for not thinking. By violating military “embed” rules about broadcasting details of future military operations, Mr. Rivera compromised military security outright.

So where was the outrage at Fox over its celebrity correspondent with the loose lips? It was directed at a news rival reeling over its most acclaimed war correspondent who did what almost all its correspondents do when broadcasting their reports.

Peter Arnett is guilty of forgetting his primary function and offering his opinions to the wrong crowd.

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