Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
DOUBLE YOUR DONATION!
We don’t run corporate ads. We don’t shake our readers down for money every month or every quarter like some other sites out there. We provide our site for free to all, but the bandwidth we pay to do so doesn’t come cheap. A generous donor is matching all donations of $100 or more! So please donate now to double your punch!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Peter Arnett Paid a High Price for Being Truly Neutral

Peter Arnett has an overblown sense of his own importance and lousy political judgment. That’s been true ever since he became a television "personality," and he’s hardly the only one with those traits.

But Arnett’s pomposity and hubris are not what got him fired by NBC and National Geographic this week after giving a short interview to Iraqi state television. When the controversy first emerged, NBC issued a statement of support, which evaporated as soon as the political heat was turned up and questions about Arnett’s patriotism got tossed around. In short: Arnett was canned because he took seriously the notion that, even in war, journalists should be neutral.

The assertion of neutrality is central to the credibility of U.S. journalists, who say, "Trust us, we don’t take sides." Whether one believes journalists live up to that standard – or that it’s possible at all – it is the bedrock on which reporters build their claim to special status.

Except, it seems, in time of war. In those situations, many U.S. journalists do not hesitate to say they are on the American side. They are quick to say that patriotism won’t stop them for reporting critically about the United States and its war effort, and the degree to which they make good on that varies widely.

But the point remains: One can’t be neutral and aligned with one side at the same time.

Taking journalistic neutrality seriously doesn’t mean a simplistic he said/she said balancing of claims. It means subjecting the claims of all sides to the same critical scrutiny. Arnett, more than most journalists covering this war for American media, has a history of doing that. His willingness to stay in Baghdad for CNN throughout the 1991 Gulf War, despite enormous political flak, was courageous and added to the range and quality of information that Americans received.

By going on Iraqi state television, which clearly is a propaganda vehicle for the regime, Arnett opened himself up to being used. That was a miscalculation. But it’s easy to understand why a journalist might want to speak to the people of that nation, who have access to so little independent information. If it were possible to guarantee that an appearance wouldn’t become propaganda, trying to reach the Iraqi people, even in some limited way, could justify being interviewed.

But instead of reflexive denunciations of Arnett’s patriotism, we might look at some of his comments and ask what we can learn not only about his mistakes but about American journalism more generally.

A problem arises immediately, when Arnett cites the "unfailing courtesy and cooperation" of the Iraqi people and the Ministry of Information. It may be that Iraqis in the ministry are courteous, but certainly Arnett knows that no foreign reporter can travel in the country without an Iraqi government minder, hardly a mark of cooperation. Arnett likely was just being obliging. But his sin is one of degree; obsequiousness is common for reporters currying favor with sources.

If such criticism of Arnett is appropriate, we should also ask whether American journalists are overly deferential to U.S. officials. Consider George W. Bush’s March 6 news conference, when journalists played along in a scripted television event and asked such softball questions as "How is your faith guiding you?" Journalists that night were about as critical as Arnett was with the Iraqis.

Such performances leave the rest of the world with the impression that American journalists – especially those on television – are sycophants, and Arnett’s firing only reinforces that impression. That’s why before the end of the day he had a new job with the British tabloid The Mirror, which described him as "the reporter sacked by American TV for telling the truth about the war."

Arnett certainly hasn’t cornered the market on truth, and many U.S. reporters and photographers are doing fine work under dangerous conditions.

But many other American journalists have abandoned any pretense of neutrality and become de facto war boosters. All over the world, viewers are seeing images of the effects of the war on the Iraqi population that are largely absent from U.S. television. We shouldn’t mistake the limited critique of strategy and tactics – should the United States have unleashed a harsher attack from the beginning, and should the invasion have waited until more troops were in place? – for a serious challenge to the Bush administration’s spin on the war.

Arnett has long been a whipping boy for pro-war forces in the United States who want to send the message that journalists attempting independent reporting will pay a price. Arnett’s judgment was poor in this incident, but that shouldn’t overshadow his contributions in the past. And the controversy shouldn’t be used to obscure the failures of U.S. journalism in the present.



Today’s Features

William S. Lind
The Pitfalls of War Planning

Jorge Mariscal
Latinos on the Frontlines, Again

Paul de Rooij
Arrogant Propaganda

Jo Wilding
From Baghdad: "I Am His Mother"

Tarif Abboushi
Operation Embedded Folly

Lee Sustar
Labor’s War at Home

Akiva Eldar
Israeli Dreams of Iraqi Oil

Bernard Weiner
The Vietnam Connection

Robert Fisk
The Graveyard at Baghdad’s North Gate

Steve Perry
War Web Log 04/01

Keep CounterPunch Alive:
Make a Tax-Deductible Donation Today Online!

home / subscribe / about us / books / archives / search / links /

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
October 19, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jason Hirthler
The Pieties of the Liberal Class
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Day in My Life at CounterPunch
Paul Street
“Male Energy,” Authoritarian Whiteness and Creeping Fascism in the Age of Trump
Nick Pemberton
Reflections on Chomsky’s Voting Strategy: Why The Democratic Party Can’t Be Saved
John Davis
The Last History of the United States
Yigal Bronner
The Road to Khan al-Akhmar
Robert Hunziker
The Negan Syndrome
Andrew Levine
Democrats Ahead: Progressives Beware
Rannie Amiri
There is No “Proxy War” in Yemen
David Rosen
America’s Lost Souls: the 21st Century Lumpen-Proletariat?
Joseph Natoli
The Age of Misrepresentations
Ron Jacobs
History Is Not Kind
John Laforge
White House Radiation: Weakened Regulations Would Save Industry Billions
Ramzy Baroud
The UN ‘Sheriff’: Nikki Haley Elevated Israel, Damaged US Standing
Robert Fantina
Trump, Human Rights and the Middle East
Anthony Pahnke – Jim Goodman
NAFTA 2.0 Will Help Corporations More Than Farmers
Jill Richardson
Identity Crisis: Elizabeth Warren’s Claims Cherokee Heritage
Sam Husseini
The Most Strategic Midterm Race: Elder Challenges Hoyer
Maria Foscarinis – John Tharp
The Criminalization of Homelessness
Robert Fisk
The Story of the Armenian Legion: a Dark Tale of Anger and Revenge
Jacques R. Pauwels
Dinner With Marx in the House of the Swan
Dave Lindorff
US ‘Outrage’ over Slaying of US Residents Depends on the Nation Responsible
Ricardo Vaz
How Many Yemenis is a DC Pundit Worth?
Elliot Sperber
Build More Gardens, Phase out Cars
Chris Gilbert
In the Wake of Nepal’s Incomplete Revolution: Dispatch by a Far-Flung Bolivarian 
Muhammad Othman
Let Us Bray
Gerry Brown
Are Chinese Municipal $6 Trillion (40 Trillion Yuan) Hidden Debts Posing Titanic Risks?
Rev. William Alberts
Judge Kavanaugh’s Defenders Doth Protest Too Much
Ralph Nader
Unmasking Phony Values Campaigns by the Corporatists
Victor Grossman
A Big Rally and a Bavarian Vote
James Bovard
Groped at the Airport: Congress Must End TSA’s Sexual Assaults on Women
Jeff Roby
Florida After Hurricane Michael: the Sad State of the Unheeded Planner
Wim Laven
Intentional or Incompetence—Voter Suppression Where We Live
Bradley Kaye
The Policy of Policing
Wim Laven
The Catholic Church Fails Sexual Abuse Victims
Kevin Cashman
One Year After Hurricane Maria: Employment in Puerto Rico is Down by 26,000
Dr. Hakim Young
Nonviolent Afghans Bring a Breath of Fresh Air
Karl Grossman
Irving Like vs. Big Nuke
Dan Corjescu
The New Politics of Climate Change
John Carter
The Plight of the Pyrenees: the Abandoned Guard Dogs of the West
Ted Rall
Brett Kavanaugh and the Politics of Emotion-Shaming
Graham Peebles
Sharing is Key to a New Economic and Democratic Order
Ed Rampell
The Advocates
Louis Proyect
The Education Business
David Yearsley
Shock-and-Awe Inside Oracle Arena
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail