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Arnett Fuming at Loss of NBC Job

April 02, 2003|Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Peter Arnett said Tuesday he was upset with how NBC severed ties with him the day before, and sounded more defiant than apologetic over his decision to grant an interview to state-run Iraqi TV.

In an interview from Baghdad, where he hopes to stay if he can find enough work, Arnett called the controversy a "storm in a bloody teacup." He said he was irritated that he had spent 19 days helping NBC, whose own reporters left citing safety concerns, and "then I'm being trashed." Arnett's official Baghdad employer was National Geographic Explorer, which agreed to let him report for NBC. National Geographic fired Arnett on Monday.

Separately, Fox News Channel's Geraldo Rivera left Iraq on Tuesday after a Pentagon investigation into his Sunday report, in which he drew a diagram in the sand showing the location of the U.S. troops he was traveling with and their strategy, a violation of "operational security." Fox said in a statement that Rivera "volunteered" to leave and that the network believes that "Geraldo did not knowingly disregard the rules," noting that he didn't attend the Pentagon's training for journalists.

Now, instead of reporting from the front lines, Fox said, Rivera will be based in Kuwait.

In Arnett's impromptu interview with Iraqi TV on Sunday, the reporter praised Iraq's treatment of foreign journalists, said his Baghdad reports were helpful to the U.S. antiwar movement and said the Bush administration's war plan had failed and was being rewritten. NBC first backed him, but on Monday, after a growing controversy, cut ties with him, saying it was wrong to grant the interview and "wrong for him to discuss his personal observations and opinions."

Arnett said he was disappointed NBC didn't explain clearly that he was a volunteer helping the network out, not a paid NBC News employee, and thus not subject to the same rigorous guidelines as the network's journalists. Earlier in his career, Arnett won a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam War reporting and he also worked for CNN, but now, he said, he is an analyst and documentary filmmaker. "I said on Iraqi TV the same thing that every analyst [did]," he said.

Indeed, many media observers have criticized Arnett more for where he made his comments than what he said.

NBC, he said, "was just grateful for anything I could give them" and used him up to 20 hours per day. "But in the end, I was thrown out on the street, and very casually, my reputation in shreds -- for what? For helping them out."

An NBC News spokeswoman said Tuesday: "Yesterday, on the 'Today' show, Peter Arnett said that he had made 'a stupid misjudgment.' And he apologized to us and the American people. We'll leave it at that."

Asked about that sober apology, Arnett said: "What choice did I have? I followed a young woman who was crying over the loss of her husband in a suicide attack." He called the situation "bizarre," noting, "I was fired on the 'Today' show, the most popular morning program."

He said he still believes, as he said on "Today," that it was a misjudgment to do the interview, "in view of the reaction to it." But he added, "I don't think anything I said to them was so terribly criminal."

Many observers took issue with Arnett's statement praising Iraq's treatment of foreign journalists, noting that some reporters are missing and others have been expelled. Arnett, who is on the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit group based in New York that promotes global press freedom, said one reason he did the interview and made that comment was "to remind the Iraqi police and authorities that we are reasonable people, here to tell their story.

"I wanted to give a human face to the journalists ....This is a dangerous environment."

Arnett, who has found some freelance work with Britain's Daily Mirror newspaper, said he hopes to stay in Baghdad, but "it's a matter if I can get work. I think it's an important story, and I would like to have covered it beginning to end." He said he hadn't approached any other U.S. networks because "clearly not one American outlet would be interested in me anymore."

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