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:
August 16, 2018
Bruce E. Levine
“Don’t Be Stupid, Be a Smarty”: Why Anti-Authoritarian Doctors Are So Rare
W. T. Whitney
New Facebook Alliance Endangers Access to News about Latin America
Sam Husseini
The Trump-Media Logrolling
Ramzy Baroud
Mission Accomplished: Why Solidarity Boats to Gaza Succeed Despite Failing to Break the Siege
Larry Atkins
Why Parkland Students, Not Trump, Deserve the Nobel Peace Prize
William Hartung
Donald Trump, Gunrunner for Hire
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Morality Tales in US Public Life?
Yves Engler
Will Trudeau Stand Up to Mohammad bin Salman?
Vijay Prashad
Samir Amin: Death of a Marxist
Binoy Kampmark
Boris Johnson and the Exploding Burka
Eric Toussaint
Nicaragua: The Evolution of the Government of President Daniel Ortega Since 2007 
Adolf Alzuphar
Days of Sagebrush, Nights of Jasmine in LA
Robert J. Burrowes
A Last Ditch Strategy to Fight for Human Survival
August 15, 2018
Jason Hirthler
Russiagate and the Men with Glass Eyes
Paul Street
Omarosa’s Book Tour vs. Forty More Murdered Yemeni Children
Charles Pierson
Is Bankruptcy in Your Future?
George Ochenski
The Absolute Futility of ‘Global Dominance’ in the 21st Century
Gary Olson
Are We Governed by Secondary Psychopaths
Fred Guerin
On News, Fake News and Donald Trump
Arshad Khan
A Rip Van Winkle President Sleeps as Proof of Man’s Hand in Climate Change Multiplies and Disasters Strike
P. Sainath
The Unsung Heroism of Hausabai
Georgina Downs
Landmark Glyphosate Cancer Ruling Sets a Precedent for All Those Affected by Crop Poisons
Rev. William Alberts
United We Kneel, Divided We Stand
Chris Gilbert
How to Reactivate Chavismo
Kim C. Domenico
A Coffeehouse Hallucination: The Anti-American Dream Dream
August 14, 2018
Daniel Falcone
On Taking on the Mobilized Capitalist Class in Elections: an Interview With Noam Chomsky
Karl Grossman
Turning Space Into a War Zone
Jonah Raskin
“Fuck Wine Grapes, Fuck Wines”: the Coming Napafication of the World
Manuel García, Jr.
Climate Change Bites Big Business
Alberto Zuppi - Cesar Chelala
Argentina at a Crossroads
Chris Wright
On “Bullshit Jobs”
Rosita A. Sweetman
Dear Jorge: On the Pope’s Visit to Ireland
Binoy Kampmark
Authoritarian Revocations: Australia, Terrorism and Citizenship
Sara Johnson
The Incredible Benefits of Sagebrush and Juniper in the West
Martin Billheimer
White & Red Aunts, Capital Gains and Anarchy
Walter Clemens
Enough Already! Donald J. Trump Resignation Speech
August 13, 2018
Michael Colby
Migrant Injustice: Ben & Jerry’s Farmworker Exploitation
John Davis
California: Waging War on Wildfire
Alex Strauss
Chasing Shadows: Socialism Won’t Go Away Because It is Capitalism’s Antithesis 
Kathy Kelly
U.S. is Complicit in Child Slaughter in Yemen
Fran Shor
The Distemper of White Spite
Chad Hanson
We Know How to Protect Homes From Wildfires. Logging Isn’t the Way to Do It
Faisal Khan
Nawaz Sharif: Has Pakistan’s Houdini Finally Met his End?
Binoy Kampmark
Trump Versus Journalism: the Travails of Fourth Estate
Wim Laven
Honestly Looking at Family Values
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail