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Arnett is needed now more than ever

March 5, 2004

    The firing of Peter Arnett is a classic case of shooting the messenger who bears bad news, however truthful that news might be.

    This embarrassing incident reminds us first of all of the extraordinary courage of one of the greatest journalists of all time. Sadly, it further reminds us of just where the loyalties lie in the corporate world that now controls American television news.

    I got to know Peter Arnett during the Vietnam War, where I arrived in Saigon as a UPI correspondent the night the Tet Offensive began in 1968. To describe Arnett as “unique” doesn’t even begin to tell you about the man’s enthusiasm for life, his utter, absolute, unqualified, undying devotion to the highest standards of journalism in a lifelong pursuit of the truth in the most dangerous settings in the world for more than 40 years. As our colleague Michael Herr wrote of him in his book, Dispatches, Arnett was among the very few in Vietnam who gave American journalism a better name than it ever deserved. Most of us stayed in Vietnam a year or so, at the most, and then got the hell out. Peter was there for more than 13 years. His reportage won him a Pulitzer Prize, but more important it told the world about the inconsistencies in what the American government was saying and what was actually happening in Vietnam.

    Unlike others in the trade, Arnett didn’t have time for petty jealousies. He was every bit as unpretentious as the TV correspondents were vain and superficial. As an AP man, he was a fierce competitor to my UPI reportage, but he was incredibly generous and helpful to this naïve young reporter from the time I first arrived in Vietnam. And I have admired and loved the man ever since.

     At a reunion of Vietnam war correspondents at the Newseum in Arlington, Va., in 1995, Arnett began his tribute to the dead and missing by reading from my book, “Two of the Missing.” He signed my copy of his book, “Live from the Battlefield,” with these words: “To Perry Deane Young, in admiration of your reporting and writing skills—and in appreciation of your friendship and support over the years.”

    At that same gathering , Arnett told me about Sen. Alan Simpson, who had denounced Arnett as a traitor on the floor of the Senate after he stayed behind in Baghdad during the first Gulf War. The two met at a party after Arnett returned home to Washington. Simpson greeted him warmly and said, “Well, Peter, I learned one thing: You have more friends than I do.”

     And, now, I firmly believe the great Peter Arnett will survive this latest controversy. It took only a matter of minutes before his reporting talents were picked up by the London Daily Mirror which announced its coup under the headline “Fired by America for Telling the Truth.” Arnett said, “The right-wing media and politicians are looking for any opportunity to be critical of the reporters who are here…I made the misjudgment which gave them the opportunity to do so.”

    His misjudgment was giving an interview to Iraqi television in which he said, “the first war plan has just failed because of Iraqi resistance. Clearly the American war planners misjudged the determination of the Iraqi forces.” Maybe he should not have been interviewed by the Iraqis, but this is the kind of trade-off any journalist must go through to gain access to hostile figures in the news. Don’t think for one second Dan rather didn’t have conditions placed on the interviews he got with Saddam Hussein.

    The crime here is that this is precisely the kind of analysis Arnett should have been giving on MSNBC. He later apologized for the firestorm his words caused, but not for the words themselves. With typical wit, he said he was in “shock and awe” over being fired.

    Clearly MSNBC did not understand or appreciate what it had in Peter Arnett. He has more knowledge of the subject, more personal integrity, than any 20 of the good looking air-heads the network has “embedded” with the troops. That very word contradicts everything that is good and decent in the profession of journalism. A dedicated journalist has no business being “embedded” with anybody. The American journalists in Iraq, especially the TV people, have become cheerleaders for a very questionable cause, apologists and propagandists for a government action many of us feel is immoral, illegal and just plain wrong. If the Vietnam coverage had been left to these gutless, mindless wonders covering Iraq, the senseless slaughter in Vietnam would still be going on. Our democracy, our humanity, suffers when the free press becomes embedded with the subject it’s supposed to be reporting on objectively.

    Thanks to a small number of reporters like Peter Arnett, the truth about Vietnam did come out and our government was finally forced to stop the senseless slaughter and devastation in that impoverished country that, like Iraq, posed no threat to us.

    Even as he denounced what Peter had done, Walter Cronkite wrote in the New York Times this week: “Mr. Arnett’s firing is more than a personal setback. With him gone from the airwaves, Americans have lost an eye on Baghdad that had proved a valuable addition to our knowledge of a mysterious enemy.”

    It is a saying as old as war itself, and I’ve heard it attributed to everybody from Aeschylus to Mark Twain: “In war, truth is the first casualty.” That has never been more true than now as our government repeats the mistakes of Vietnam all over again—and lies about them all over again. We need Peter Arnett now more than ever.