Was Arnett’s Firing Fair?
Peter Arnett was fired Monday by National Geographic, NBC, and MSNBC after appearing on Iraqi TV over the weekend. Both National Geographic and NBC said, in separate statements, that Arnett was wrong to appear on the state-controlled program and discuss his personal views. Was the firing fair? Poynter faculty members Bob Steele, Aly Colón, and Kelly McBride share their thoughts. Join the conversation and tell us what you think.
Peter Arnett is no stranger to covering the story of war. That's one of the reasons I'm saddened -- and angry -- about his very bad judgment. Arnett was professionally unwise and ethically irresponsible in saying what he said in that interview with Iraqi television. He should have known that his thoughts could and would be used as propaganda by the Iraqis. Arnett should have recognized that by expressing his point-of-view about the war in Iraq and the political landscape in the United States, he was undermining his role as an independent observer and reporter of the war from Baghdad.
Arnett is a veteran journalist who has covered a handful of major wars, including distinguishing himself when he won Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Vietnam for the Associated Press. Why he chose to cross over the footlights and climb onto the stage and be an actor in this story is beyond me. All the worse, his performance was pathetic.
It was the particular combination of what Arnett said and where he said it that proved fatal. His sentiments alone, absent the context, would have revealed his biases, although I don't think he would have been fired for making them public. The fact that he said it to Iraqi TV, a state-controlled news outlet, makes those words particularly damaging to his credibility.
Arnett was working in an environment where the line between reporter and analyst is becoming very blurry. Many, many reporters are offering their opinions or their particular theories about how the war is going. Arnett's case points out why that practice is so dangerous.
Even Peter Arnett now questions the wisdom, or lack of it, that he showed by appearing on Iraqi TV and in what he said. He failed to think through the implications of this interview. Journalists must exercise great care in how they express themselves. Not because they don't have the freedom to do so. But because their credibility hinges on the trust they have with viewers, listeners and readers of news who rely on journalists to bring them an impartial and independent report. That said, I worry about additional implications of his dismissal as a reporter who can inform the public about what's going in Baghdad. Much of what he said has been reported, said or written in some way or other by the networks and newspapers. Does the fact that he said something unpopular, on a government television broadcast automatically brand him unreliable? Could there have been an alternative to dismissing him for making a poor judgment? Will this send a message to other journalists that an analysis of the war that doesn't represent the official U.S. government perspective will raise questions about their patriotism? And ultimately, to whom does a journalist's ultimate loyalty belong? The U.S. government or the U.S. people?
"Reporters should not be staking out territory with their personal views." Bob:
You raise important questions, Aly. My sense is that Arnett's professional credibility would be damaged no matter what position he might have expressed in such an interview. The issues of war and peace are so profound and so complex that reporters should not be staking out territory with their personal views. The notion of "unpopular" view depends, of course, on who is on the receiving end of the message. Arnett's thoughts may, in fact, sit well with some Americans while angering others. As to Arnett's fate, I don't think NBC, MSNBC and National Geographic had many choices in how to handle this matter. Arnett's poor judgment seriously undermined his journalistic credibility and therefore his value to those organizations.
I respect your thinking on this Bob. But I wonder what the reaction from the public, the U.S. government and journalists would have been if Arnett had said on Iraqi TV that the U.S. military had succeeded in its battle plans and that the Iraqi resistance was having no impact on those who oppose the war in the U.S. or on the U.S. government itself. I wonder if the criticism cascading about Arnett now would have been as virulent. Would we have seen Arnett as telling the truth as he knows it on Iraqi TV and letting the Iraqi public know something that the U.S. public believes as well? As you noted, the notion of whether a view is 'unpopular' depends on who is on the receiving end of the message. So I wonder how a different message might have been received. As you also noted, I think his credibility would have been an issue either way. But as Kelly suggested earlier, the line between reporting and analysis continues to blur. And when journalists try to report with "authority" (a term some journalists use to encourage their colleagues to report facts without always having to attribute them because the journalist has done the reporting and can support it) that line may become even more blurry.
"The line between reporter and analyst is becoming very blurry." Kelly:
My hope is that journalists as well as the general public will use this conversation to really examine what it is Arnett did wrong. Because his sins, if you will, are common. He revealed his personal viewpoints. He made declarative statements that were beyond his authority to make. He crossed the line that separates reporters from opinion writers. Yet, I'm hearing people call him a traitor for giving aid and comfort to the enemy. That is hardly the case. And if we dismiss his actions as crimes against the state instead of as crimes against journalism, we are moving backwards, not forward, in our desire to see the war reported with balance and accuracy.
Peter Arnett had a unique and important vantage point for covering the war in Iraq. He was one of the few reporters remaining in Baghdad. He had the ability -- and journalistic duty -- to report on what was happening in Baghdad. He could tell meaningful stories. It's a shame that he has wasted this vantage point by stepping out of his reporter's role to express his personal views on how the war is going in Iraq and how it is playing out in the United States.
"Lines must be drawn. Roles and rules understood." Aly:
Arnett's interview on Iraqi TV reflects something not only about Arnett, but about the news organizations that used him. They wanted someone in Baghdad. So they forged a relationship with Arnett, one of the most experienced war correspondents in the business. What they apparently didn't do was make clear what his reportorial role would be. Would he only report the facts? Would he offer analysis? Should he be available to other media for reports or commentary? The uncertainty became obvious in NBC's initial response. At first, an NBC spokeswoman said that Arnett's Iraqi TV comments "were analytical in nature and were not intended to be anything more," according to a news story on MSBNC.com. "His outstanding reporting on the war speaks for itself," she added. NBC then decided otherwise.
The role that journalists play in any news coverage must be addressed within a news organization. Lines must be drawn. Roles and rules understood. And that should be clear to the public as well. Otherwise, this lack of clarity can confuse and confound viewers. If Arnett and NBC understood that, things might have turned out differently. And Arnett might have had a different role -- as a commentator.