by Jay Johansen | Apr 8, 2003
I saw a number of news stories on Mr Arnett's episode, from NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and others. This statement -- the first sentence from a CBS story - was typical of the lead-ins: "NBC fired journalist Peter Arnett on Monday, saying it was wrong for him to give an interview with state-run Iraqi TV saying that the American-led coalition's first war plan had failed because of Iraq's resistance."
That is, as they understood it, there were two objections to Mr Arnett's actions: 1. He gave an interview with the state-run media of a hostile nation; and 2. He said that America's war plan had failed.
When I read the first such story, I just didn't get it. An American gave an interview to a foreign news organization. So what? He didn't give away any military secrets, he was just ... talking to foreigners. Americans do that all the time. He said that he thought the military's war plans were proving unsuccessful. That was a rather premature conclusion, when at the time the war had been going on for less than two weeks. (If someone had tried to judge the success of American war plans on December 21, 1941, they would no doubt have come to some unduly pessimistic conclusions.) But again, so what? Lots of Americans question all aspects of government policy all the time.
Did NBC think that these things were what upset Americans?
But buried down inside some of the stories they finally got around to the real problem: In the interview, Mr Arnett said, "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."
In other words, Mr Arnett proudly boasted that he was helping to spread Iraqi government propaganda back in the United States, and that these efforts were undermining the U.S. war effort.
Of all the news stories I saw on the incident, only the one from NBC highlighted this part of the interview. Even Fox included it only as a minor footnote at the end. Yet surely this was the key problem with Mr Arnett's actions. I don't mind an American criticizing government policy: that's what democracy is all about. I certainly don't object to an American talking to foreigners. But I have a big problem with an American boasting about how he is spreading enemy propaganda and sabotaging American interests, perhaps even endangering American lives.
But the media apparently didn't see this as a problem. Perhaps because spreading propaganda is standard operating procedure for them. One can almost see their minds working: "Hmm, spreading lies, working to harm his own country. No; no problem there. It must be, umm, something about his shoes ..."
A footnote: Several of the news stories mentioned a little tidbit from Mr Arnett's reporting on the Gulf War in 1991. The U.S. military bombed a factory that they believed produced biological weapons. The Iraqi government told Mr Arnett that it was a baby milk factory. They "proved" this by producing a group of people whom they said were workers from the plant, all wearing uniforms with the words "Baby Milk Factory" printed on them. In English. (Ever seen a uniform with a generic phrase like that printed on it, rather than, say, the name of the company? And in a foreign language?) All the news stories described this incident in exactly the same words (I presume they came from a wire story): "He [Arnett] was denounced for his reporting about an allied bombing of a baby milk factory in Baghdad that the military said was a biological weapons plant." Note the wording: Not, "his reporting about the bombing of a biological weapons plant that the Iraqi government claimed was a baby milk factory". All the news organizations just took it for granted that the Iraqi government was telling the truth and the U.S. military was lying, and that the U.S. military would deliberately bomb a baby milk factory.
© 2003 by Jay Johansen