Thursday, February 17, 2005

Peter Arnett Speaks


As you probably could have guessed from reading my post from yesterday, I went to hear Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Peter Arnett speak. Previously, I was informed that Arnett is a native of New Zealand, which downplays his controversial interview with Iraqi TV in March 2003. I found out more tonight, so pay attention: Peter Arnett is an American citizen. As a matter of fact, he has homes in Virginia and New York. Refer back to my last post, then come back here, because I have some good things to say about him, as well as some bizarre statements of his to talk about.

Dr. George Esper introduced him by telling the crowd about his part in the "Boys of Vietnam" who held the US government accountable during that war. When Arnett and Esper reported from the fall of Saigon, Esper said, "He deserved a second Pulitzer Prize." In a touch of true class, Arnett deferred credit to Esper and helped him get nominated for his first Pulitzer (which Esper didn't win and still hasn't won). Arnett helped make CNN a household name during the first Gulf War, and even though he was fired for his comments about the war to Iraqi TV, he still writes magazine articles and has a book about Saddam Hussein and his sons that is due out soon. Curiously, when Esper talked about Arnett's fatal interview, he repeated his previous statement with unusual gusto: "He was more honest with the American public than its own government was." You had to be there; it was almost as though Esper wanted to shout that sentence.

Peter Arnett then took the podium over. He seemed to tear up at first as he said that he had been "struck by the generosity of the local community." He then segued into one of his most partisan statements of the evening, which by itself does not signify bias, but does give insight into the mind of a veteran journalist. He said this as he talked about the Bush adminstration's war on terrorism (or as he perceived it, globalization):
If we could export West Virginian hospitality to the Iraqs of the world...then maybe I'd get behind President Bush's grand design and vote Republican.

There was scattered laughter at this statement, but the obvious connotations of a "grand design" spoke volumes about his opinion of the administration. More on that later.

Peter Arnett has an article on some of the documents he has from the remnants of Saddam's regime due out in the April issue of Playboy. In reference to his job as a reporter, he said, "I'd do it all over again if I had the chance." When he talked about his time at CNN, he was light-hearted ("The smartest thing [Ted Turner] did was marry Jane Fonda") and serious ("The best thing that happened to the US was CNN [because the world could see America from the inside]"). And then, of course, it was time for him to discuss his infamous interview.

"I apologize for upsetting so many people," Arnett said. He was reporting for NBC and CNN at the time (NBC was not paying him, but he was in the area), and he was basically a convenient person for Iraqi TV to interview. He also said earlier, "The last thing I want to do is hurt the US government." Here's the killer, though: Arnett said that he "knew NBC was moving me out because of a concerted effort by conservative groups." While that may be true for all I know, I highly doubt they were the only reason. Just look at the transcript , and you'll understand the whole brouhaha over his remarks. He did have an interesting paranoia involving conservatives that crossed over into the Eason Jordan scandal (as he said, "I know [soldiers] aren't targeting journalists"), among other things to be discussed in a moment. He added that his remarks made him a hero everywhere else, as the London Daily Mirror moved to have him write for them. It's probably not a good thing to get that kind of praise, and I think he recognized that, as he promptly changed the subject.

Arnett spoke of life in Baghdad, saying, "There is a persistent belief...that life will get better because it can't get any worse." 3 out of 4 Iraqi vehicles are taxis, which are his primary form of transportation because they're nondescript. He also has body armor of his own, including a Kevlar helmet. He kept wondering to himself, "What had [Saddam] been doing all these years?!?" He found out much of what Saddam had been doing; although most of it will be revealed in the April Playboy, he divulged, "You won't believe it...he wrote a romantic historical novel in his last year in power!" I almost fell out of my chair laughing at that bit of information. The novel will be published in Jordan soon; I believe it will be within the year.

One anecdote even funnier than those was Arnett's story about being hoisted onto Iraqi shoulders when the regime was toppled. As they shouted, "Hooray for Bush!", CNN captured footage of him that they showed until someone realized an ex-employee was being broadcast, at which point they pulled the video. Now that must have been priceless.

Peter Arnett's most peculiar statements came in response to questions about liberal bias in the media. He segued into the discussion by mentioning the set-up question about body armor that was posed to Donald Rumsfeld last year, saying that he thought it was great and produced results, because now the troops have much more armor. As if that wasn't wild enough, what he said next about whether the media has a liberal bias completely surprised me:
Oh, it was! But it's being well-balanced now.

I wish you could have seen my face. As I attempted to pick my jaw up off the ground, he referred to all the different forms of media there are today and how much more diverse it had become. He then changed the subject to the blogosphere, which he actually has a very high opinion of. The only thing that seems to bother him about bloggers is when they come together and attack those that they don't like, particularly former co-worker Eason Jordan. Notice he didn't say a word about the whole Gannon thing that's been big on the left lately; I doubt he ever worked with the guy, so why defend him?

And then the big question was asked. The first person in the audience to be called upon said roughly, "Why do you think we went into Iraq?" Arnett attempted to choose his words carefully, saying that the bloggers were going to have a field day with his response. Great foresight, Mr. Arnett; you hit the jackpot! I quote the next portion as closely as possible. He said the following:
I think historians will look at the WMD scare as Bush's Gulf of Tonkin...I think he took [the assassination attempt on his dad by Saddam] personally, and the neo-conservatives around him all thought it would be easy [to go and get Saddam]. It was natural to go to war in response to the attacks...the world was behind us going into Afghanistan, but not for Iraq. It was the passion of the moment...but I think the jig is up. You lost some of your civil liberties this time...let's hope it doesn't happen again.

He also went on to reiterate his belief that the MSM is neutral, but I almost burst out laughing when he asked, "If you can discredit the New York Times, what the hell do you have?" Well, for one, you have balance. He said some other interesting things, but this is the majority of the meat. I'm glad he has respect for the blogosphere; he said he Googled himself this week and found about 30,000 more results than he did last week, mostly from bloggers. Ladies and gentlemen, let's light up Google some more. This was crazy in a good way, and while I think he can probably be a fair journalist (and my opinion of him improved somewhat), I think everyone should see this.


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