Arnett wasn't wrong, just on the wrong TV station

April 04, 2003|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Peter Arnett had the right story, at least in part, but entirely the wrong audience.

NBC and MSNBC fired the Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Monday from his job as their Baghdad correspondent after he criticized the U.S. war effort in an interview with state-controlled Iraqi TV.

Mr. Arnett was back at work later in the day, this time for Britain's Daily Mirror, a tabloid that openly opposes the war in a country where dailies don't often bother to keep their political slant out of their coverage.

Maybe that's where he belongs. Mr. Arnett was on to the right story, at least in part, but he should have saved it for NBC, so the Iraqis could hear it at the same time Americans would.

I say he was "on to" the right story because he didn't quite get it. In fact, part of what Mr. Arnett said sounded downright goofy. "It is clear that within the United States there is growing challenge to President Bush about the conduct of the war and also opposition to the war," he said in the interview, which aired Sunday.

Oh? Clear to whom? While Peter's been dodging bombs in Baghdad, public approval of the war back here has remained predictably high and steady.

But the rest of Mr. Arnett's controversial quotes were hardly extraordinary to anyone who follows the reports and opinions of reporters and commentators back here in the states.

"The first war plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance," he said. "Now they are trying to write another war plan."

Yup, no state secrets revealed there. While Mr. Arnett was jawboning with the Iraqis, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was making the rounds of Sunday TV talk shows defending his war plan against charges that he had grossly underestimated Iraqi resistance.

Mr. Arnett made the mistake of blurring the role of reporter with that of commentator. That is not uncommon in today's 24-hour TV news cycles. But reporters usually couch their observations with fudge phrases such as, "It has been said," "Some have noted," or the ubiquitous, "Military experts say."

NBC and MSNBC undoubtedly were feeling pressured by the high ratings of Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel.

Fox stands alone among the networks and cable news channels for embracing the language of the Bush administration in its newscasts. It calls suicide bombers "homicide bombers" and refers to the war to unseat Mr. Hussein as America's war to "liberate Iraq."

Among the joys of a free press are the many choices it offers news consumers. But if you really care about "objective" news, the consoling observation to be made about Fox's ratings is that most viewers are still watching something else.

Some people see a conflict between free speech and "supporting our troops." I don't. Back when I was a "troop" during the final years of the Vietnam War, I thought the best way to "support our troops" was to avoid sending them into hazardous situations unless it was absolutely necessary.

Like many Americans, I opposed getting into war against Mr. Hussein as long as alternatives held some hope. Now that the war has begun, I want us to win it as quickly as possible and bring our troops home.

But troops in the field depend on the civilians back home not only to wave flags and sing our tearful anthems, but also to watch their backs.

If there are serious problems with our troops getting enough support from the higher-ups in Washington, the rest of us need to know. In that case, we need reporters, not cheerleaders.

And so do the troops. They're not allowed to criticize their leaders. That's our job. It's up to us civilians to hold their commanders accountable, all the way up to the commander in chief.

If Mr. Hussein and his people mistake self-criticism in our free society for a lack of resolve, that's their fault. There's a lot about us that they don't understand, just as there's a lot about Iraqis that most Americans don't understand. But they are learning about us, just as we are learning about them.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at cpage@tribune.com.

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