Peter Arnett Airing the news from enemy turf creates some flak

February 01, 1991|By Dick Polman | Dick Polman,Knight-Ridder

TEN DAYS AGO, he reported that allied POWs were praising the "peaceful people of Iraq." A week ago, he reported that allied bombs had destroyed a baby formula factory. And two days ago, he was summoned to an interview with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who took the opportunity to tell the world that God was on his side in the mother of all battles.

With each dispatch, carried live on Cable News Network to 101 nations, Peter Arnett reinforces his role as the most controversial journalist assigned to cover the first war of the wired world. As the sole Westerner working for a U.S. network to report from the enemy capital, his work raises a critical question: Is he the ultimate First Amendment champ -- or the ultimate chump?

Arnett won a Pulitzer Prize in Vietnam 25 years ago as an Associated Press reporter, but today, among some members of the media, he's called "the voice of Baghdad." At the White House, he's accused of peddling "disinformation." A senior editor at the New Republic, a magazine that has editorialized in favor of the war, has accused him of reporting "pure propaganda."

Even a defender, former Washington Post reporter Peter Braestrup, a colleague in Vietnam, said that "on a day-to-day basis, he's like a journalistic POW."

Arnett's role, as a journalist on enemy turf, is complicated immensely by the satellite technology that has made this war an instantaneous experience. His reports are beamed not only to the United States -- where Saddam's messages probably are dismissed by most viewers -- but to millions of Arabs who may welcome any evidence that Saddam is hanging tough.

Saddam may have used Arnett to peddle propaganda, but, in such circumstances, "propaganda is the same as news," said Daniel Hallin, a communications professor at the University of California at San Diego, who has written a study of the press in wartime. "When any political leader makes a speech, that's propaganda. But it's covered as news because it's something people need to see."

Cold War rhetoric is absent from this conflict, but Arnett's most controversial report appeared to imply that allied airmen were waging war on baby formula. On audio, Arnett described the damage; meanwhile, the footage showed factory workers clad in uniforms bearing the words "Baby Milk Plant" -- in English. And in his censored report, Arnett also added an observation of his own: the site "looked innocent enough, from what I could see."

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