Beyond Peter Arnett

Apr 7, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Peter Arnett made a mistake by appearing on Iraqi television, but he should not have been fired. His mistake was making a crucial decision while working under the most stressful conditions imaginable.
Arnett was filing 10 to 20 stories a day, awakened at all hours of the day and night by bombs exploding nearby, pestered by producers and assignment editors and getting very little sleep. It’s the kind of work that produces a numbing, paralyzing fatigue that clouds the mind and distorts logic. Arnett deserved to be reprimanded by his bosses and perhaps suspended for a time, but NBC owed him more than a summary dismissal.
Arnett’s only mistake was that he didn’t stop to think about how his comments might be used by Iraqi television after the initial interview. Everything he said could have been (and may have been) manipulated, taken out of context and converted into pro-Iraqi propaganda.
The fact that NBC initially came to Arnett’s defense, then fired him the next day, raises a larger issue and a serious problem for all journalists covering this war. Polls show that public sentiment is running solidly in favor of the war. Many Americans are expressing that sentiment with an outpouring of national patriotism and with anger over anti-war sentiments. “My country right or wrong” has been the prevailing mantra for a majority of Americans since the war began. So when journalists raise questions about the war and challenge what may be flaws in the conduct and strategy of the war, they are often considered unpatriotic.
Compounding this dilemma for journalists is the role of the Fox News Channel. Of all the television news organizations, Fox is considered the least critical and most supportive of the war. It is also the highest-rated news network. And therein lies the rub. There is a nagging fear among many journalists that Fox’s ratings are tempting other networks to increase their ratings by reducing their traditional role of providing checks and balances to government activities.
Last week a prominent television consulting firm recommended to television news organizations that they ease up on their critical reporting because it is turning off viewers. I shudder to think what might have happened if there had been television consultants in the 1960s when the television networks were covering civil rights marches and rallies.
NBC received hundreds of phone calls from viewers every night warning us they would switch to another channel if we continued to show those memorable and repugnant scenes of civil rights advocates being beaten by police, attacked by police dogs and knocked over by powerful streams of water from fire hoses. The consultants would no doubt have suggested that we should have sanitized and played down our coverage because it was making people uncomfortable. Sometimes the public needs to be reminded that it is not the job of journalists to make people comfortable. Our job is to seek the truth, no matter how unpleasant that may be.
Peter Arnett is a victim in this unfolding and troublesome television news drama. NBC obviously felt that keeping Arnett would give the impression that the NBC networks were somehow unpatriotic. The fact that Arnett said nothing in the Iraqi television interview that hadn’t been said by dozens of columnists and reporters in the American press is irrelevant. In the minds of many Americans, Arnett was aiding and abetting the enemy. So NBC played it safe and took him off the air.
Whatever else Operation Iraqi Freedom may do to this country, there is a growing fear among news reporters that the war is threatening the basic, fundamental responsibility of journalism to challenge authority. The preamble of the Society of Professional Journalists says, “Public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.” If television journalists hold back on asking tough questions because of a fear they may lose television viewers, that creed becomes meaningless. The consequences of that mind-set could be Saddam Hussein’s most damaging legacy.
Joseph Angotti is chair of the Broadcast Program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He is a former VP and executive producer of NBC News.