back to the Black Table

Don't point out the obvious. It can get you fired.

Over the weekend, Peter Arnett, reporter for both NBC and National Geographic Explorer, told Iraqi television that America's first war plan, dubbed the "shock and awe" campaign, had failed. But as is all too clear, the massive air strikes and limited ground assaults have neither broken Saddam Hussein's grip on power, nor caused his troops to surrender en masse.

And now Arnett's out of a job.

  Whenever the history of the current war in Iraq is written, Peter Arnett's firing will be little noted nor long remembered. But in the current heat of the moment, the decision by NBC and National Geographic to can perhaps the greatest war correspondent since World War II deserves plenty of attention. It is a shortsighted, disingenuous and timid act of a media conglomerate too scared to hew to anything but the story as presented by the United States government.

That Arnett dared to say things that nobody wants to hear in a forum that nobody wants to pay attention to was too much for the Peacock. That he drew


his conclusions from nearly 40 years of covering conflict -- and for the most part, covering them damn well -- made no difference. Neither did the fact he was one of a handful of journalists in Baghdad and able to report freely without government intervention. In fact, that independence helped lead to his ouster.

He veered from the Pentagon's message that, "Yes, by golly, things are proceeding according to plan." NBC didn't think that employing a reporter espousing such a blatantly negative assessment would play well with its audience. On that point, the network probably is right, but it is hardly much of a statement for the media, which in nearly every parallel instance would defend the right of journalists to say whatever they wanted based on the First Amendment.

Such freedoms are, after all, one of the things the United States supposedly is fighting for in Iraq.

To be sure, NBC was stuck with a public relations nightmare. If it backed Arnett -- which it did on Sunday when word first surfaced of Arnett's interview with Iraqi television -- the network would be labeled as unpatriotic. But by dumping Arnett, NBC loses a huge competitive advantage.

Arnett's resurfacing was a bizarre story to begin with. He had an ugly break with CNN after a disputed 1998 report that said American troops used sarin gas on a Laotian village in 1970. Up until recently, he'd been under the radar, before finally finagling a deal with National Geographic to weasel his way into Iraq just before the start of this war.

He subsequently provided the best of those rare reports from Baghdad. Fox and CNN were booted out of the capital and Arnett provided often-exclusive reporting for NBC, MSNBC and CNBC. His detailed knowledge of Baghdad and experience from the first Persian Gulf War led to unparalleled, on-the-spot commentary. Even after this weekend's comments, you'd be hard pressed to find somebody who thought Arnett didn't know what he was talking about.

With unimpeded access to battle scenes and bombing sights greatly limited, Arnett was turning in a solid swan song to his career. Think Vince Lombardi coaching the Washington Redskins. Think Jerry Tarkanian turning up with Fresno State. One last chance for the old guy.

Now, his career as an American journalist is over, most likely. (Arnett has since moved on to the British tabloid, the London Mirror.) NBC hid behind the reasoning that Arnett floated personal observations in an unauthorized interview. All media companies should hold themselves to such high and mighty standards. Given the number of gas bags in the media world, nearly every journalist in the country would be fired.

Arnett was fired simply for saying something that was unpopular. One of the major advantages of a free press is being able to have an open discourse of conflicting and sometimes controversial opinions. But TV networks are in such a ratings hunt -- especially covering this war -- that any hint of anti-Americanism could scare off viewers and advertisers.

Just look at Fox News Channel. They might as well whip out the pom-poms and short skirts and start leading cheers from their spot on the sideline. CNN and the broadcast networks have been slightly more balanced and suspicious in their coverage, but they're guilty of blind jingoism too, especially when you compare it to the international coverage of America's failures when it comes to war strategy.

At least CBS's Dan Rather said flat out that we need to be skeptical of a lot of what we hear from both governments. This is, after all, a propaganda war also. And for such grievances, Rather and CNN have gotten poor marks from an increasingly conservative audience and media watch groups.

NBC, which mostly has done a very impressive job covering this war with aggressive reporting and larger time commitments than rivals ABC and CBS, was scared it next would be lumped into the too-liberal category. So it sacked one of the only reliable, independent voices in this conflict.

That doesn't say much for our freedom of the press, does it?