Peter Arnett struck out on March 31st. NBC News, after waffling overnight, dismissed him as their Baghdad correspondent because of an embarrassing interview he gave to Iraq’s state-run television. A review of his record shows that NBC should not have hired him. He won a Pulitzer Prize for the “general excellence” of his reporting from Vietnam in 1966. One of the stories cited was about our use of non-lethal tear-gas in Vietnam, associating it with poison gases. This set off an international furor that apparently impressed the Pulitzer judges.
His anti-American bias came through even more strongly in his coverage of the Tet Offensive two years later. His reporting for the AP helped create the false impression that this was a defeat for our side. With that background, it was no great surprise when as a CNN correspondent, he remained in Baghdad through the Gulf War, specializing in stories about collateral damage and civilian casualties caused by our bombing. In his last broadcast from Baghdad, he admitted that Iraqi officials used him to broadcast information about civilian casualties, figuring that “maybe it would affect international perceptions.”
He said, “CNN was fortunate to be able to be here to talk about the consequences of what the world was doing. And the pope was watching the broadcasts apparently, leaders all over the world, the average person in Tunisia and Jordan and certainly the United States….And there were criticisms about what we were doing. But I felt from the beginning, why can’t we be an eyewitness to what our decisions lead to? Why can’t I be here and talk about where the bombs are really falling?”
He couldn’t talk about where the bombs were really falling because they were hitting military targets with record accuracy. He was confined to reporting civilian damage and casualties. That gave the false impression that we were laying waste to Baghdad. Nevertheless, Arnett said, “I like to think the record will show that we as journalists here…were able to reflect pretty much accurately on aspects that the world wanted to know.” Some other journalists actually did that. After leaving Iraq, Tom Aspell of NBC News and Lee Hockstader of the Washington Post said that the impression that Baghdad was being reduced to rubble was false and that collateral damage was the exception, not the rule.
Arnett’s reports inflamed anti-American feelings around the world. Interviewed by Larry King, he said, “I was not in Baghdad for the American government nor even for the United States.” He explained that he wanted to give the Iraqis a “fair shake, to allow them to get a viewpoint out through my eyes.”
Giving the U.S. a fair shake was of no interest to Baghdad Pete Arnett. In 1998, he was involved in a CNN documentary called Operation Tailwind. It falsely claimed that our Special Forces had used deadly sarin gas to kill American defectors and Vietcong in Laos. CNN was forced to retract that charge. The producers were fired and Arnett’s contract was not renewed. We will have more on Baghdad Pete in our next commentary.