"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.