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TV AND THE GULF WAR : Now Actors Try to Steal Gulf Scene

February 12, 1991|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

The Persian Gulf War just gets worse and worse. First came the arms buildup, now comes something even more chilling:

The actor buildup.

One of the nation's hammiest scene stealers--conservative Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) himself--weighed in last week by accusing CNN's Peter Arnett of being a "sympathizer" with Iraq. Simpson is one of those superpatriots who believes Arnett's reports from Baghdad and other parts of Iraq are giving aid and comfort to the enemy, even though CNN and Arnett clearly label them as censored, also noting that his movements are controlled.

Arnett is "what we used to call a sympathizer," said Simpson, who went on to link Arnett with the Viet Cong, based on the alleged activities of some relatives of his Vietnamese former wife. Simpson charged that it was Arnett's "anti-government material" that earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for his coverage of the Vietnam War while with the Associated Press.

Based on his anti-Arnett smear tactics, Simpson is what we used to call a McCarthyite.

But Simpson has co-stars. One is Charlton Heston, who has taken his own anti-Arnett crusade to the airwaves, depicting CNN's outstanding war correspondent as something approaching a turncoat.

Another is actor Kurt Russell, who gave CNN his own view of Arnett recently, saying the veteran reporter was either "a double spy, a double agent, or . . . amazingly unaware of the fact that he's being used to prolong the war."

Yes, that's it. Arnett is not merely disloyal, he's actually extending the war.

In a letter shown on CNN recently, a viewer critical of Heston's comments termed actors "simple brainwashed morons." In this case, you're tempted to agree.

Not unlike Congress, Arnett has made some mistakes while pursuing his assignment in an environment that must be horrific. Moreover, CNN has invited some of the anti-Arnett criticism with its questionable handling of some of his stories. There was, for example, his extended interview with an American peace activist in Baghdad that was such a rambling political treatise that it cried out for severe editing, if it was to be run at all. Instead, CNN carried it live.

However, neither this nor any of Arnett's work even remotely indicates support for Iraq.

Arnett was in Baghdad when the U.S.-led coalition began its air bombardment, and he is the only American reporter who has been allowed to remain in the country since the start of the war, even though another CNN reporter was let in briefly.

However, the anti-Arnett crowd doesn't have only him to kick around anymore.

Journalists from England's ITN and BBC and other European nations are now being allowed to report from Iraq. And a crew of four from ABC News, led by correspondent Bill Blakemore, arrived in Baghdad on Monday. Blakemore's reports not only have been identified as "cleared by Iraqi censors," but a story of his on "Good Morning America" Monday showed him alongside an Iraqi assigned to monitor the transmission.

Later, on "World News Tonight," the Arabic-speaking Blakemore provided a measured description of civilian casualties and bomb damage in Iraq, including the bombed-out plant that Iraq claims produced baby milk and that the United States contends manufactured biological weapons.

CBS and NBC also have been seeking entry to Iraq, and ABC could not say how long its own crew would remain in Baghdad.

It was Simpson himself who said in an April conversation with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad: "I believe your problem lies with the Western media, not with the U.S. government."

Whether dabbling demagogues like Simpson or professional thespians like Heston and Russell, actors have as much right as anyone else to speak publicly on any issue they desire. Unlike most other Americans, however, their celebrity grants them instant access to the media, letting them share their ignorance (in this case) with the widest possible audience.

One could argue that, in publicizing their own dimwittedness, these are the Americans giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Meanwhile, you know what they say in show business:

Break a lip.

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