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Jewish World Review April 7, 2003 / 5 Nisan, 5763

Jonathan Turley

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NBC's sacking of Peter Arnett over a critical analysis plays well in Baghdad | NBC News has shown the world that it can take out a target in Baghdad with the same precision as a B-2 bomber. Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Peter Arnett woke up Monday to a flaming pink slip from NBC News President Neal Shapiro. This was followed by a bunker buster from his other employer, National Geographic, terminating him immediately.

What sin by Arnett warranted such swift retribution? Only the same thing that every major American journalist has been doing for weeks: giving analysis of the progress of the war in Iraq. The difference was that Arnett gave a decidedly critical view, and he gave it to Iraqi television. The termination of Arnett fuels the view of many Arabs that the Western media present a tailored account of events; feigning objectivity while maintaining the pro-U.S. company line.

Last week, the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq barred reporters from the Al Jazeera satellite TV network from their facilities. The NYSE cited security concerns, and Nasdaq said the ban was because the Qatar-based network had aired images of killed and captured American soldiers. Though Arnett has many fans for his coverage in Vietnam and the first Gulf War, I have never been one of them. I have always viewed him as too eager to criticize the U.S., particularly when he reported on CNN the alleged use of sarin gas by U.S. forces in Laos, a story that proved to be false; Arnett later left the network. But his interview on Iraqi TV was rather unremarkable and understated compared with analyses by others. Consider his specific statements:

  • Arnett observed that the U.S. appeared to be "rewriting the war plan" and that Iraqi resistance had caused the initial "failure" of the original projections. This statement is virtually identical to views expressed in forums worldwide, including coalition press conferences in Qatar.

  • Arnett stated that "the American war plans misjudged the determination of the Iraqi forces." This has been said not only by various journalists and experts but also by American and British commanders.

  • Arnett observed that pictures of the civilian wounded in Baghdad were being used by those opposed to the war in an effort to change war policies. This is demonstrably true.

NBC's official statements supported Arnett, insisting that his remarks "were analytical in nature and were not intended to be anything more." The network further said the interview on Iraqi television was nothing more than "professional courtesy."

By Monday, however, management was faced with a rising public backlash, fueled by its competitor, Fox News. NBC was forced to either shoot a reporter or surrender more market share to Fox. That was a no-brainer for management; Arnett was toast.

Arnett is guilty of terrible judgment in giving an interview to a state-run propaganda outlet, a mistake for which he has apologized. But his comments are within the scope of observations made by other reporters "embedded" with the American military or in Baghdad.

In the last decade, particularly after the rise of cable news outlets like those of NBC, CNBC and MSNBC, it has become common for reporters to be asked for their analysis of the news. To the extent that Arnett's comments were critical of U.S. policy, they were no more critical than other coverage has been distinctly noncritical.

NBC management, however, is consumed by the outcome of a different war that is going badly: the ratings war against Fox News and other competitors. NBC would dress Tom Brokaw as a bald eagle if it would secure a better Nielsen share.

The U.S. image abroad would be enhanced, not reduced, by showing a willingness to tolerate opposing views. NBC has now handed a priceless propaganda victory to the Iraqi government, which will point to Arnett as an example of U.S. censorship. This will only make it more difficult for our military, which is trying to win not just hamlets and miles in Iraq but the hearts and minds of Iraqis.

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JWR contributor Jonathan Turley is a professor of public interest law at George, Washington University. He worked for NBC as a legal commentator, during the Clinton impeachment controversy. . Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Jonathan Turley