Peter Arnett takes on critics of war coverage

March 20, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Washington -- Peter Arnett came home from Baghdad yesterday in the same style that made him the most colorful and controversial correspondent covering the Gulf war.

Speaking at the National Press Club, Arnett took on one of his most vocal critics, Sen. Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming, who had called the CNN correspondent an Iraqi "sympathizer" because Arnett was allowed to stay in Baghdad after all other U.S. journalists were expelled and broadcast censored reports.

Arnett said CNN had videotape, taken one year ago, which showed Simpson upbraiding Mideast correspondents for being too hard on Saddam Hussein.

"Why were we upbraided?" Arnett asked rhetorically. "Because we were 'misrepresenting . . . this great friend of America.' "

The CNN correspondent told tales of enterprise and intrigue. The jacket he wore on the air, he said, "looked a little greasy," but it had $100,000 in cash sewn into the lining. Arnett used the money to keep his Iraqi censors in liquor, among other things.

He admitted that his reporting was less than perfect and that he wondered if what he was doing was more "theater" than journalism.

And, almost always, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist spoke in the clipped, hard-edged burst of television sound bites that mark his on-air style. "Was I afraid?" he said. "What is fear when you are going live to the whole world?"

In remarks after the speech, Arnett said he was "amused" by Simpson's criticisms of him "because in April of last year, I was one of a handful of journalists in Jerusalem who were called to the U.S. Consulate to be upbraided by Senator Simpson and others . . .

"At that point, of course, [Hussein] was threatening to incinerate half of Israel. And Israel was feeling very negative toward Saddam Hussein. But we were upbraided for reporting this. We were told that . . . [Hussein] was this great American friend and that we did not understand Saddam Hussein. . . ."

A spokesman for Simpson denied the allegations yesterday.

A CNN spokesman said the network has no plans to air the videotape of Simpson, "because it is not considered newsworthy at this time."

The veteran war correspondent defended himself several times yesterday against charges that he was used by the Iraqis for propagandapurposes. He said he could have been wrong when he identified a factory hit by Allied bombers as a bottling plant for baby formula, but wasn't certain. The Pentagon said the facility was a biological warfare center. Arnett also said he still wasn't sure whether the bomb shelter destroyed by Allied planes near the end of the war was for civilians only, as the Iraqis claimed .

At one point, Arnett held up a copy of the German magazine Stern, which carried a picture of Arnett embracing one of his censors.

"Maybe I incriminate myself with this," he said, reading the headline that referred to him as "Baghdad Pete."

"In the end, I think the question-and-answer format saved my reputation," Arnett said, explaining that live exchanges between himself and CNN anchormen in Washington and Atlanta gave him the chance to get information on the air before the censors could react. Arnett said he believes most CNN viewers appreciated his work: "I was told that the mail was initially negative, but that it became positive later."

Arnett expressed surprise over all the celebrity and controversy surrounding his work. Some members of the Press Club audience wore buttons bearing Arnett's name. When handed one, the New Zealand-born correspondent said, "I guess this is the American dream: having a button made about you."

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