Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

A Treasonous Abandonment of Duty

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, April 1, 2003 --  

The firing of Peter Arnett is just the latest embarrassment in two weeks of embarrassing war coverage by the American press. Within hours of making impromptu comments on Iraqi television, the White House had unleashed a firestorm of criticism that led both NBC and National Geographic to turn their backs on their correspondent. Arnett's crime? He echoed the comments of almost every pundit in America, saying that the American military's first-round attack "plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance," thereby delaying the war "maybe a week."1

Nobody is denying that Arnett is right -- they are just questioning the "judgment" (read patriotism) of stating the obvious on Iraqi state television. But how can Arnett be accused of being unpatriotic when he hails from New Zealand, a country neutral in the war? It seems that neutrality is something the American press cannot allow.

Arnett's abandonment shows that his bosses at National Geographic and NBC have rejected objective reporting of the war in favor of more patriotic coverage. They have caved in to pressure from a White House that is hypersensitive to any suggestion that its mistakes cost the lives of American soldiers.

Cow towing to the Bush administration has not been a rare incident in this war. Indeed, the American press has thus far had an abysmal record of objectivity.

No respectable news organization in peacetime would ever reprint a corporate press release, complete with unedited snappy marketing lingo. But that's exactly what the major American cable news networks have done. The Bush-administration's self-written slogan for the war, "Operation Iraqi Freedom" appears almost nonstop across the bottom of the screen broadcast by MSNBC and the Fox News Channel. CNN prints a more objective "War on Iraq," but lest it be accused of lack of patriotism, it periodically flashes the administration's catchier slogan in quotes.

Perhaps we should all be thankful that Ari Fleischer, the president's press secretary, hasn't written a jingle for the war -- but this is probably just because one isn't needed. The Pentagon has pulled off a propaganda coup by embedding reporters in large numbers of military units. This policy ensures that the military's story gets out.

The embedded reporters are isolated from alternative sources of information, and rely entirely on the military to provide food, shelter and to protect their very lives. As a result, these correspondents lose all objectivity and effectively become military spokesmen, liberally sprinkling reports with the pronouns "us" and "them." The reports provide dramatic reality television, but terrible journalism. The journalists who compromised themselves with this arrangement should be ashamed.

It must be stressed that it is the press, not the Pentagon or the White House, that has done something wrong. The military, like any other interested party, wants to publicize its point of view. It is not the military's job to maintain objective reporting. That responsibility falls solely on reporters and their editors.

This responsibility has been abandoned as reporters have rallied around the flag. It is natural for countrymen to come together at a time of war to support the common interest. But what is good and proper for most citizens is not good for reporters. Reporters have a professional duty to be guardians of the truth. It is only when armed with accurate information that Americans can make the right decisions to be successful in war or any other endeavor.

Let us not forget that being patriotic does not mean being subservient to any temporary governing authority. The American soldiers fighting the war need journalists to tell the truth as a check on their superiors -- all the way up to the president -- who might otherwise be less careful with the lives under their command.

A true patriot saves his greatest loyalty for his country and countrymen, and therefore remains ever watchful of officials and government employees who are entrusted with appropriately and effectively serving the interests of the people. To help achieve these ends, reporters must remain objective. Reporting embarrassing events and asking tough questions is not a betrayal -- it is a patriotic duty.

After being fired by two American press organizations that have failed in this duty, Arnett has been hired by the British newspaper, the Daily Mirror.2 It would be a depressing if Americans had to resort to foreign sources of information to get the accurate story on the war. If this becomes necessary, it will only be because of American press' treasonous abandonment of its patriotic duty.


1. Reuters, NBC Fires Peter Arnett Over Iraqi TV Interview, March 31, 2003

2. The New York Times, Arnett Dismissed After Remarks on Iraqi TV, April 1, 2003