The sum of Arnett's life: getting the story

February 22, 1994|By Gary A. Warner | Gary A. Warner,Orange County Register

Other than the helmet-hair talking heads on the nightly news, it's hard to think of a newsman more fastened in the public mind than Peter Arnett.

From the fall of Saigon in 1975 to the bombing of Baghdad in 1991, Mr. Arnett has been the first, last or best reporter at the hot spot du jour.

He finally has a chance to hash out his controversy-laden career with his new autobiography, "Live From the Battlefield."

But while the book is chock-full of fascinating inside scoops about what it is like to be in the front lines of history, the book also is strangely hollow. Anyone hoping for mea culpas or even explanations about his reporting from Vietnam and Iraq will go away disappointed.

For more than 30 years, Mr. Arnett has often been our key to the breaking events around the globe. He's the one with the quizzical smile frozen on his face, New Zealander's twang and balding dome. You'll usually find him decked in a safari jacket and combat boots reporting from some place that the week before was a footnote in a world atlas.

While his name may be revered in the journalism community, Mr. Arnett's career has been marked by controversy outside the world of the ink-stained, camera-flashing, light-tanned media fraternity.

He won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Vietnam for the Associated Press and numerous prizes for his solo reports for CNN from Baghdad during Operation Desert Storm.

But he began a tense relationship with conservatives who saw his reporting as undercutting the U.S. effort in two wars.

Mr. Arnett was there at the beginning and the end of the Vietnam War. He covered the final pullout of U.S. troops in 1973 and the fall of South Vietnam in 1975.

His meticulous reports of battlefield defeats and death clashed with the upbeat official Pentagon pronouncements churned out by his AP colleagues at the Pentagon.

President Lyndon Johnson once buttonholed an AP executive, demanding, "Hasn't that Australian Pete Arnett been in Vietnam too long?"

The acrimony was resurrected when Mr. Arnett, now a correspondent for CNN, was one of a handful of reporters in Baghdad during the Persian Gulf war. He bravely stayed behind when others left, often using a hand-held satellite system to send dispatches around the world.

Mr. Arnett's critics were particularly incensed by a report in which he seemed to support Iraqi contentions that Americans had bombed an Iraqi baby-formula plant that the Pentagon said was actually a weapons factory.

Right-wing media mavens such as Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., dredged up Mr. Arnett's Vietnam reporting and alleged his wife had ties to a Viet Cong sympathizer -- a charge found to be baseless.

Mr. Arnett does not use his book as a pulpit to speak his mind on world events or even his role in covering them.

Perhaps because he is trying so hard not to be egomaniacal about what is obviously an amazing career, the book is strangely bereft of introspection about his own motives or his take on the why of so many cataclysmic events he has covered.

On the major controversies of his career, Mr. Arnett merely states his motto: "to write what I saw myself." At the Baghdad factory, he saw bottles and formula. No weapons.

Perhaps the terseness on his role is simply a desire to stand back and let readers draw their own conclusions. This strategy is particularly devastating in his accounts of the often ludicrous military decisions in Vietnam, which make up the largest portion of the book.

It was his story during the 1968 Tet offensive, quoting an unidentified Army major commenting on the destruction of a village, that carried one of the most repeated double-speak quotes of the war: "It became necessary to destroy the town to save it."

What Mr. Arnett does best in the book is spin spellbinding stories. His first story as a reporter was an ax murder in New Zealand. He was scooped by a reporter at another paper who made up a confession by the alleged killer.

In 1960, covering the fall of the Laotian government, and with communications cut, Mr. Arnett decided to swim the Mekong River into Thailand, his story clenched tightly in his teeth. He was nearly killed by a U.S. bomb in 1967.

In the end, Mr. Arnett's story is of a reporter who has aggressively pursued the same mantra for more than three decades: Get the story. Get it first. Get it right.

When a CNN colleague questioned why they were staying in Iraq when everyone else was leaving, Mr. Arnett had a simple answer.

"We just can't walk out on the news."

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Live From the Battlefield"

Author: Peter Arnett

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Length, price: 463 pages, $23

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