Most reporters would trade places with Arnett

February 25, 1991|By Robert A. Erlandson

"Propaganda Pete." Thus, Lester Kinsolving, perhaps Baltimore's most acerbic radio talk show host, characterizes CNN correspondent Peter Arnett's reports on the gulf war from Baghdad.

During one of his frequent appearances on "Square Off," the weekly shouting match on WJZ-TV, the red-jacketed Kinsolving huffed the other night that Arnett is in a class with World War II's Tokyo Rose, Axis Sally and Lord Haw Haw, who took to the airwaves on behalf of Japan and Germany.

The attack on Arnett was a bit of a diversion for Kinsolving, whose favorite targets are Paul Sarbanes, Barbara Mikulski and the "sodomy lobby," not necessarily in that order.

Peter Arnett needs no defense from me. His credentials speak for themselves. But to paraphrase Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, I know Peter Arnett, I've worked with Peter Arnett and, Lester, you couldn't carry his typewriter.

The comments about Arnett's work by Kinsolving, Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., and others show that they possess little understanding of what is happening.

Things were different a half-century ago. Of course, reporters couldn't report from behind enemy lines, but that doesn't mean they didn't want to. Circumstances simply made it impossible.

In the 1990s, television satellite capability and videotape have created an immediacy of reporting that didn't exist during World War II or Korea and was in its infancy during Vietnam.

In the Vietnam War, TV crews shot film which had to be carried back to Saigon for processing or shipment to processing centers and transmission back to the U.S. for delayed broadcast.

Now, when an American missile blasts into a communications center/bomb shelter or an Iraqi Scud lands in Tel Aviv, the pictures and report can be on the air in minutes.

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein understands propaganda, and clearly he is using the Western media in his bid for sympathy and to provoke anti-American feelings among Arabs. The question is whether anyone is buying it. I doubt that many are.

A tenet of reporting is to present at least something of both sides. Technological advances - plus Saddam's decision to maintain an electronic window on the world through Arnett - have given that reporter a unique opportunity.

Both sides are using the press, just as they do in any conflict, be it a zoning dispute or a war.

Do Kinsolving, Simpson and their supporters think reporters clustered at briefing centers in Washington and Riyadh are receiving objective reports? They are relaying the coalition's perspective on the war, just as Peter Arnett is reporting the Iraqi perspective.

I'm sure Arnett, a tough, sardonic New Zealander who won his Pulitzer Prize as an Associated Press reporter in Vietnam during the time I was there, is well aware of the controversy his presence in Baghdad has generated. I'm just as sure that he doesn't care - and that most reporters and even talk show hosts would change places with him tomorrow if given the opportunity.

Robert A. Erlandson reported on the Vietnam War for The Baltimore Sun from 1966 to 1968.

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