His Own Worst Enemy

Veteran newsman Peter ARnett gave one interview too many. His appearance Sunday on Iraqi TV cost him his job.

Television Wars

War In Iraq

April 01, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Less than 12 hours after issuing a statement of support, NBC abruptly fired Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Peter Arnett yesterday as the result of an interview he gave to state-controlled Iraqi TV.

And, despite the fact that Arnett just nine days ago was being showcased by NBC and widely praised in the press for his reports on the bombing of Baghdad, there was general consensus within the journalistic community that the action taken by NBC News President Neal Shapiro was the proper thing to do.

"It was wrong for Mr. Arnett to grant an interview to state-controlled Iraqi TV - especially at a time of war - and it was wrong for him to discuss his personal observations and opinions. Therefore, Peter Arnett will no longer be reporting for NBC News and MSNBC," Shapiro said in a statement yesterday.

The National Geographic Society, Arnett's original employer for this turn in Baghdad, also fired him yesterday, saying it "did not authorize or have any prior knowledge of Arnett's interview with Iraqi Television."

And while Arnett issued a statement yesterday saying he planned to leave Baghdad, CNN reported last night that the Daily Mirror of London had hired Arnett yesterday to stay on and cover the war.

Arnett, 68, appeared on NBC's Today show and apologized for the interview that was shown in part Sunday night on the Fox News Channel and CNN, cable competitors of MSNBC, the sister channel of NBC News.

"My stupid misjudgment was to spend 15 minutes in an impromptu interview with Iraqi Television that has been received with anger, surprise and, you know, clearly unhappily in the United States. And for that I'm sorry. I'm an American, been an American for 25 years, and I apologize again," Arnett, a native of New Zealand, said on the broadcast.

"His decision to do the interview with Iraqi state-controlled television was very poor judgment, and what he had to say was unprofessional and ethically unresponsible," said Robert M. Steel, director of ethics programs at the Poynter Institute For Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"For Arnett to do an interview with Iraqi TV in the midst of this military conflict makes no sense at all. He should have known they would and could use what he had to say in some propagandistic way. For any journalist to leave himself vulnerable to that is truly unwise. But for a veteran journalist like Arnett to do it just boggles mind."

Phil Seib, Nieman professor of journalism at Marquette University, agreed that Arnett's fundamental mistake was in going on Iraqi TV in the first place.

"I like the idea of journalists being able to speak their mind, but I would have fired him, too," said Seib, author of The Global Journalist: News and Conscience in a World of Conflict.

"The reason I would fire him is not because he was expressing an independent opinion, but because he showed the incredibly bad judgment to let himself be used by an arm of Saddam Hussein's government. Iraqi television is not like NBC, and it's not even like Al-Jazeera (a channel with wide viewership in the Arab world). It is simply a part of the Iraqi government.

"And Arnett must have known or should have known that anything he said would be used for propaganda. And, if I was an executive at NBC, I wouldn't want someone who showed such terrible judgment in doing that interview making news judgments as he gathered information."

Lori Robertson, managing editor of American Journalism Review, a trade journal, said she wasn't surprised by Arnett's abrupt firing either. The problem as she saw it: Based on what he said in the interview, viewers might have a hard time thinking of him as an objective observer.

"We all know how difficult it is to get objective information from a place like Baghdad during a time of war. But we at least want to think what we're getting is objective from someone situated in such a key vantage point. But, after what he said, that might be hard for some people to believe," she said.

As reported in yesterday's Sun, Arnett's interview on Iraqi TV included praise for the Iraqi Ministry of Information, while calling the coalition's war plan a "failure." He also credited his reports of civilian casualties in Baghdad with contributing to a growing anti-war movement in America.

Correspondents from CNN and Fox News and other U.S. news organizations, have been expelled from Baghdad by the Ministry of Information.

NBC issued a statement Sunday in response to the Iraqi TV interview saying: "Peter Arnett and his crew have risked their lives to bring the American people ... up-to-date, straightforward information about what is happening in and around Baghdad. [This] impromptu interview was done as a professional courtesy. His remarks were analytical in nature and were not intended to be anything more."

But, if that sounded like support, it was gone by the time Shapiro got to work yesterday morning and told Arnett he was fired.

This is not the first time Arnett has been under fire - and fired.

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