June 26, 1998
Nerve-Gas Story Clouds Arnett's Career
Reporter known for war dispatches
By Jennifer Harper
The Washington Times
CNN, the cable news network, describes Peter Arnett as "one of the
leading war correspondents."
After 36 years on the beat, he's been called other things, however:
wunderkind, propagandist, celebrity, even traitor.
The diminutive New Zealander has irked generals, annoyed presidents
fascinated international audiences with his earthy take on hair-raising
"I was willing to take any kind of risk for a good story," Mr. Arnett
in his memoirs three years ago.
Whether that includes risking his credibility remains to be seen.
Arnett's work has come into question again after his June 7 CNN story that
the U.S. Army used deadly nerve gas on civilians and American deserters
during the Vietnam war.
The story provoked Perry Smith, CNN's military analyst and a former
Force general, to resign in protest. A military investigation is under way
and CNN has hired a lawyer to sort out their claims.
Peter Arnett had the insider's edge for any story about Vietnam.
He was sent
to Saigon by the Associated Press in 1962 and went for drama from the start.
Then 27, he filed his first story by swimming the Mekong River, copy
clenched in his teeth, with the Laotian Army in pursuit.
By 1966, Mr. Arnett won the Pulitzer Prize for stories that portrayed
battlefield gumption overcoming the incompetence of senior officers. Lyndon
Johnson complained about him; Richard Nixon said Mr. Arnett had been "bad
for eight years."
Sixteen years after the Vietnam conflict ended, Mr. Arnett was in
territory again, reporting on the Persian Gulf war for CNN from Beirut and
even Baghdad-- one of the few Western journalists allowed to remain in Iraq
after the shooting started.
"He was the ultimate transnational correspondent," says Rich Noyes
Media Studies Center. "Not really rooted in any country, with a disconnected
style aimed at a world audience. But that style could ruffle Americans."
Mr. Arnett appeared on camera in a gas mask. He didn't flinch under
But after reporting from Baghdad in 1991 that Americans had bombed a
"baby-milk factory" there, he caught flak here.
His report was denounced by the White House, the Joint Chiefs of
allied commander Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf, who said the plant actually
produced biological weapons. Alan Simpson, then a Republican senator from
Wyoming, and 34 other lawmakers wrote CNN that Mr. Arnett was peddling Iraqi
Perry Smith, who had just begun work at CNN, was uneasy with the reporter.
"I think Arnett tries to be totally non-national, and I don't think
very good model," he said at the time. "I kind of like the Edward R. Murrow
model, where the reporter knows the good guys from the bad guys and is
willing to differentiate."
Mr. Arnett followed up with a 90-minute interview with Saddam himself,
later defended himself on "Crossfire."
"I'm not a spy," he told conservative host Pat Buchanan.
After the Gulf war, Mr. Arnett reported from other hot spots, including
Central America, Afghanistan and Bosnia-Herzegovina. He was roughed up by
KGB thugs in Moscow.
These days, Peter Arnett is not alone. The huge demand for content
accelerated news cycle have spawned a large population of "international
reporters." On returning to Iraq in February, he found it had become media
savvy, with an extensive information center.
"It s like the White House lawn up there," he said at the time. "Floodlit,
everyone lined up putting powder on their faces, doing their live shots."
Veteran correspondent or not, Mr. Arnett's credibility is on the
his story about the nerve-gas story. Several of his sources have said they
were misquoted, and others appear not to be who he said they were.
"He has the same credibility problems as anyone else," said the Media
Studies Center's Mr. Noyes. "If he's right, he's right. If he's wrong, he
has some explaining to do, and must face the consequences."