I Told the Truth and Got Sacked for it: Peter Arnett

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Peter Arnett says he was sacked from American television for telling the "truth as I saw it" about the war in Iraq.

The veteran journalist, who was raised in Bluff, New Zealand, was fired by documentary maker National Geographic on Monday after saying during an interview on Iraqi television that the United States' war plan had failed.

US television network NBC and affiliate MSNBC also severed their ties with Arnett, with a senior manager saying his comments were "inappropriate and arguably unpatriotic."

Arnett spoke Thursday to The Southland Times of New Zealand in his first interview since losing his television jobs. He began his career at the newspaper in 1951.

Speaking from his hotel room in the besieged city of Baghdad, Arnett said he was vilified for observations made in the United States countless times before.

"What else did they expect? I am here as a documentary maker, not a journalist. I called it as I saw it -- it was analysis, not clinically objective commentary -- and I made those observations on Iraqi TV just as I would have anywhere else," he said.

"I'm still stunned, but it seems to me I'm now the first casualty of a war about information, a war about propaganda, a war that is as much about words and minds as it is bullets and blood," Arnett affirmed.

The journalist said he went to Baghdad to make a series of documentaries about the "most important conflict of our times," but ended up "doing a favor" for networks that had already evacuated their people from Baghdad.

Neither he nor his film crew had any formal relationship with either NBC or MSNBC, other than a voluntary undertaking to "film the war and to say what I see happening right here in Iraq."

He operated under the same premise when he appeared on Iraqi TV, and the war he described was the same described outside Iraq.

"When I said the Americans expected a short, bloodless war, I was simply saying what the President and the Pentagon said," Arnett said.

"When I said they expected cities to fall much more quickly than they did, I was echoing sentiments already expressed," he said.

"And when I said a longer war would give anti-war groups something to use, I was simply expressing what the media outside Iraq carried every day," Arnett noted.

"I was honest just as I would be with anyone else. And now, honesty means I'm probably not welcome in my adoptive country," he said.

Arnett was disappointed National Geographic "took fright" when NBC distanced itself from the "volunteer reporter," but even more disappointed he was fired on air by a ratings-hungry network "that didn't even own me."

He said the public humiliation that followed made him "something like public enemy No. 1" -- an anti-war, almost anti-American figure that said the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Likening himself to the new Jane Fonda, the new icon of the free press around the world, Arnett said, "But I haven't trashed America, I haven't trashed our servicemen, and I have apologized for the storm it created."

"I'm 68 years of age, and this controversy, this imposed role change, is not something I ever wanted," he lamented.

Arnett, who as a CNN reporter in 1991 was one of the few Western journalists reporting from Baghdad during the first Gulf War, plans to stay throughout the conflict to finish his documentaries, and to provide observations for The Southland Times, and Britain's Daily Mirror newspaper.

The man who won a Pulitzer prize for his coverage of the Vietnam War would not speculate whether his second sacking from American media in five years would end his television career.

Reporting, he said, was like flying close to the sun -- the closer you got, the more likely you were to get burned.

"If the heat puts you off, you're not getting close enough to the story," the veteran journalist said.



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