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.

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