He was there in name only Analysis: CNN reporter Peter Arnett turned his back on his guiding principle -- see it, or don't say it. His job is safe, but his error raises serious questions.

July 09, 1998|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

Somewhere along the way, Peter Arnett forgot the motto that had guided him through his long and eventful career: See for yourself, and write only about what you see -- or words to that effect.

It was his insistence on keeping to that code, plus his drive and talent, that brought him just about every prize available to a journalist, in print and broadcast news, including the Pulitzer in 1966 for his reporting on the Vietnam War.

This principle was the foundation on which Arnett's reputation as arguably the best war reporter among contemporary English-speaking journalists was built. It was the reason he was so prominent during those tempestuous days in Vietnam when many in the American press corps were at odds with the U.S. military establishment, or at least with its purposes.

It was always Arnett who turned the work of journalism into something of a personal religion, who would be the one to contradict the confident assertions of the Army's briefer: "That wasn't the way it was, Major. I know. I was there."

Being there was what Arnett was known for.

In 1991, when the Gulf War erupted, he became the only Western correspondent who stayed in Baghdad, broadcasting live to all the world for 10 days from the Al Rasheed hotel as the United States unleashed its bombs upon the Iraqi capital.

This was Arnett: being there, seeing for himself.

So what did Arnett do when it came to the June 7 CNN story alleging that the U.S. military had dropped sarin nerve gas on a Laotian village in 1970, the story that CNN last week repudiated and apologized for?

What did he do? He forgot this singular principle that had kept his integrity as a journalist intact for so many decades.

CNN has fired those most responsible for the story's manufacture, two producers, and another resigned. Arnett was reprimanded, not fired, a decision that was reaffirmed yesterday during a daylong meeting between the journalist and CNN Chairman Tom Johnson.

Checking the facts

So how did Arnett get into this mess?

The 64-year-old journalist asked questions in an interview using someone else's notes. He apparently was unswayed by testimony that undercut the program's basic accusation. He even allowed his byline to go over an article in Time magazine written by somebody else, the fired producer of the flawed production, April Oliver.

When asked yesterday by the Associated Press why he didn't question the premise of the story more rigorously, he said: "I had no real reason to doubt it. I didn't do the research, I didn't know whether it was true or not."

He did not know "whether it was true or not," but went along. He was the talking head, who had not done his homework.

How unlike Peter Arnett. How strange that he had been brought to this by disregarding the cardinal principle of his professional life. Unlike many people in the world of television news, Arnett had all the best training for his craft. He went to the best school: a wire service, the Associated Press, in the 1960s. There, he met the demands that straight reporting in print journalism imposes (check the facts, check them again, then check the facts).

When he joined CNN in 1981, Arnett moved into an entirely different world. Television, particularly the competitive newsmagazines, had different rules and procedures. Some attribute Arnett's transgression to this difference.

"This highlights a system that is not brand new, but is a real problem that has come with the rise of television newsmagazines," said Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review. "It's no longer unusual to have reporting done by producers and then have the big name brought out to read it."

As Rieder sees it, television newsmagazines are competing with entertainment in their time slots, and to be successful they have to "be very splashy, very dramatic. It puts a premium on those values over careful reporting."

Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, also faults the system under which Arnett labored. The story "tells us a tale of Peter Arnett and CNN, but also of the television networks. Their system for assigning correspondents multiple stories at the same time is fallible."

Steele agreed that Arnett, of all people, should have known how to avoid it: "His experience should have alerted him to the great potential for explosion."

Arnett was a most unlikely television news star, born during the ++ Gulf War. His pug-like face, with its flattened nose (broken in a boxing match or rugby scrum, depending on your source), the large gleaming forehead that ran on forever, his slash of a mouth, this image appeared almost magically in 1991 from his hotel room in Baghdad when everybody else had either been expelled or decided to seek safety from the bombs.

Arnett was a reporter of the old school. He was on the ground; he relayed what he saw, not what he was told.

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