"The best reporter in the world." 1

From the Vietnam War to the Gulf War to the War on Terrorism there has been one constant, news correspondent Peter Arnett. For the past 40 years if there has been war and atrocity, more likely than not, Peter Arnett has been reporting on it.

Born in 1937, the Riverton, New Zealand native never went to college. Instead, Arnett went to work for a local newspaper straight out of high school, the Southland Times, covering city councils and local sports. But wanderlust was in his blood and soon he set off for Indo-China, working in Laos, Thailand, and eventually Vietnam.

The 13 years he spent in Vietnam, working alongside American journalists who would become famous for their war reports, gave shape to his work:

"I was a young reporter, enthusiastic, headstrong, poorly trained because Commonwealth journalism was not particularly strong on adequate analysis, on having a very deep factual base for your stories. Australian journalism, in particular -- in Sydney, it was hit and run to some degree -- headline-happy newspapers. In Saigon in 1962, where I was assigned by the Associated Press, Malcolm Browne was my bureau chief. Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam also covered Vietnam in those days. From them I learned of the principles of American journalism -- freedom of expression, the need to delve into stories, to question decisions made by government, you know, to present the obverse side of the story. And the intellectual courage of all three men, in addition to their physical courage, impressed me and made an imprint on me that has lasted to this day."
Arnett has followed these principles on battlefields across the globe. He has stayed behind in places where other journalists have left, often with his own life at risk, putting his stories out past government censors -- and received criticism from governments, politicians, readers, and viewers.

But Arnett has been willing to pay the price for the truth, and his journalistic peers have recognized his efforts. His unimpeachable reputation has won him more than 50 prestigious journalism awards in both print and television, including the Pulitzer Prize, three Sigma Delta Chi awards, Columbia University's DuPont Award, the Peabody, the Emmy and several Ace Awards.

In 1981 Arnett made the transition from print to broadcast media - going to work for Ted Turner's fledgling all news network CNN. And it was with CNN that he would become a recognizable face throughout the world. Assigned to Jerusalem during the prelude to the Gulf War, Arnett headed for Baghdad while other journalists fled Iraq. Even his camera crew left - leaving him literally the only western reporter in the country. Undaunted, Arnett phoned in his reports.

Eventually Arnett was joined by other personnel from CNN. Few can forget watching him, Bernard Shaw, and John Holliman crawling around their hotel room pointing cameras out windows, bringing the world live images of missiles and anti-aircraft fire exploding around the city.

In 1964 Arnett married a Vietnamese woman, Nina Nguyen. They had two children, Elsa and Andrew. Nina and Peter separated after twenty years of marriage.

Peter has written a memoir, Live From the Battlefield: From Vietnam to Baghdad, 35 Years in the World's War Zones, published by Simon & Schuster in 1994.

1David Halberstam referring to Peter Arnett in The Best and the Brightest



In 1998, Arnett was fired from CNN after reporting in a documentary that the US commandos had used sarin gas on American troops who had defected to Laos during the Vietnam war. His producers were also fired and he disavowed the story.

In 2003, during the second Gulf War, he was fired by NBC and National Geographic after he gave an interview to state-run Iraqi television in which he voice his personal opinions. His opinions were generally thought to be anti-American. He said, "Now America is reappraising the battlefield, delaying the war, maybe a week and rewriting the war plan" and "The first plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance. Now they are trying to write another plan." Official government sources insist neither of these statements reflected the true conditions. He also commented that there was a "growing challenge to President Bush about the conduct of the war and also opposition to the war." If poll numbers at the time are any guide, this would also be considered at least an overstatement.

NBC and National Geographic issued a statement on March 31, 2003 in which they said, "Peter Arnett will no longer be reporting for NBC News and MSNBC." They also said, "It was wrong for Mr. Arnett to grant an interview with state-controlled Iraqi TV, especially at a time of war and it was wrong for him to discuss his personal observations and opinions."

Arnett apologized, but defended his actions by saying he had given many interviews in the past and that his opinions were not "out of line with what experts think." Interviewed on the Today show, he responded to a question about his future by saying, "There's a small island, inhabited in the South Pacific that I will try to swim to."

Arnett soon got a job with the Mirror tabloid in London. After the collapse of Baghdad, he had what was possibly the most humiliating and ironic experience of his life: he was carried on the shoulders of jubilant Iraqi citizens (who apparently didn't know who he was, just that he was a westerner) who were shouting, "Thank You Bush!"

"I've met unfailing courtesy and cooperation. Courtesy from your people, and cooperation from the Ministry of Information, which has allowed me and many other reporters to cover 12 whole years since the Gulf War with a degree of freedom which we appreciate. And that is continuing today."

During the War on Iraq 2003, the Iraqi government had two outlets of ludicrous propaganda stationed in Baghdad. One was Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, or "Comical Ali", and the other was Peter Arnett. It's probably true that the Ministry of Information and Iraqi regime have been very kind to Arnett ever since he covered the Gulf War in 1991 - he has unfailingly acted as a mouthpiece for the regime and accepted their explanations as fact. Does anyone remember Eason Jordan's recent editorial in The New York Times admitting he had covered up torture over twelve years to stay in favour with the Iraqi regime so CNN could continue to receive information? Arnett played a similar game.

The job of the journalist is to provide objective information and let the viewer decide. Many embedded journalists expressed surprise and sometimes even anger when they saw what the armchair pundits had made of their reports back home, but NBC needed to add little spin to Arnett's wires. Already known as "Baghdad Pete" for his coverage of the first Gulf War (and we'll go back a little further in a minute), Arnett had been sacked or not had his contract renewed at The New York Times and CNN already. Now he's working for London's The Mirror.

On March 30, Peter Arnett gave an interview to Iraqi state television. He said that the American war plan had failed (within a few days troops were within 20 miles of Baghdad), and that

"Our reports about civilian casualties here, about the resistance of the Iraqi forces, are going back to the United States. It helps those who oppose the war when you challenge the policy to develop their arguments."

Anyone boasting about how American propaganda (reported by himself) had weakened the resolve of the enemy forces would be charged with malpractice for lack of objectivity. He went on to praise the Ministry of Information for allowing him to report what he wanted (at this time three journalists were in prison cells been interrogated) and he praised Iraqi treatment of American and British POWs on NBC's "Today" programme. Of course, anyone who saw the pictures from Al-Jazeera on the Drudge Report knows just how well they had been treated! Arnett's display on Iraqi television, in which he repeated so closely the official state line, was damaging precisely because it came from a Western journalist: he could well have encouraged Iraqis to fight hopelessly. Whatever your opinion on the war, this is not good journalism.

Going back a little further, to 1998, Arnett gave a report for his former employer CNN (who aired it in a joint venture with TIME called NewsStand) about the so-called "Operation Tailwind". U.S. forces, he said, had hunted down and killed American "defectors" in Laos using sarin nerve gas. The main problem with the report was the complete and utter absence of fact. Accuracy in Media (AIM) tracked down seven Tailwind veterans, including the four whose transcript had been used by CNN. Six of them identified the gas used as CS tear gas, which tallies with the official military record which CNN failed to report. The other, Michael Hagen, had recently developed serious health problems which his doctor informed him were a result of exposure to organo-phosphates, of which sarin is a type. CNN failed to mention this fact, which surely detracts hugely from the credibility of Hagen's testimony. Even former Arnett supporters such as Professor E. W. Pfeiffer (author of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam) said the piece was a "total hoax" and that they couldn't understand his association with it. Arnett later tried to distance himself from it by saying he had contributed not "one comma", but his contract was not renewed by CNN.

On January 23, 1991, Arnett reported from Baghdad -

"Yesterday military information ministry officials took me on a two-hour visit to a powdered milk factory that actually makes infant formula. This was on the Western outskirts of Baghdad. They said American bombing destroyed it. CNN had visited the plant last August for a story on how Iraq was trying to beat the international economic embargo by producing more essential foods at home to make up for the loss."

One problem. All U.S. sources say the factory was producing biological weapons (back then, there was no skepticism of Hussein's WMD production capabilities), pointing out (correctly) that it was well-guarded, had a high security fence, and was camoflagued. Last August CNN had indeed visited it, to find workers with "Iraq Baby Milk Plant" written on their clothes in English, and at the time the correspondent had voiced doubts over the authenticity of what he was seeing. Arnett didn't feel the need to voice any concern whatsoever over the authenticity of what he was been told, instead parotting the Ministry of Information's report that it produced 20 tonnes of "baby milk" a day. They brought powdered milk from Nestle for the plant, apparently - but Nestle can't seem to recall ever selling any to it. With this sort of reporting, it's no wonder Hussein was so glad to have Arnett in the city reporting what he wanted.

During the Vietnam War, an essential part of the Vietnamese strategy was the demoralisation of the American public to the point where it would no longer be politically palattable to continue the war, which is essentially what happened. Arnett helped facilitate this. During the Tet Offensive of 1968, a total military victory for the U.S., Arnett mistakenly reported that the Saigon embassy had been seized by Viet Cong. William Westmoreland, who inspected the embassy afterwards and found no evidence of an enemy incursion, called a news conference to say that no enemy had got into the embassy building. They had been repulsed. Arnett then went on to report that after the levelling of Ben Tre, an American officer stated "We had to destroy it in order to save it." This became a big favourite among anti-war activists, but sadly it turned out to be false. Firstly, 75% of Ben Tre was untouched. Secondly, although Arnett declined to say which Major had made the comment, when tracked down he seemed to remember saying "It was a shame the town was destroyed." Later research conducted by B. G. Burkett and Mona Charen revealed that it was in fact the Viet Cong who had caused the damage to the town!

Whilst Senator Jim Bunning's charge that Arnett is guilty of "treason" might be over the top (the prosecution would need to prove he willfully endangered the lives of U.S. troops), he was certainly guilty of journalistic malpractice. What does Arnett's firing tell us about journalism today? It tells us something good. During the Great Famine in the Ukraine in 1932-33, Walter Duranty received the Pulitzer Prize for his whitewash of Stalin. During the Vietnam War, Peter Arnett won the Pulitzer Prize "for general excellence". Through the 1990s, his career was fraught. And now, after "Baghdad Pete"'s latest escapades, he's working for The Mirror. This seems to be a positive trend.

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