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Still Liberal, Still Biased

How Big Media Helped the Left and Hurt the Right in 2003

March

Peter Arnett Comforts a Dying Dictatorship: As a CNN reporter during the first Gulf War back in 1991, Peter Arnett transmitted Saddam Hussein’s lies to an international audience. Before this year’s Gulf War, MSNBC and NBC chose to give Arnett, technically a correspondent for National Geographic Explorer, a starring role in their war coverage. As he had a dozen years before, Arnett’s war stories often parroted the propagandistic claims of Iraqi officials without a trace of professional skepticism.

On the Today show on March 26, for example, he told Matt Lauer a horrifying — and false — story about the U.S. using cluster bombs on civilian targets in Baghdad: “We traveled down a wide road, and we got to the scene, and shops on both sides of this highway had been destroyed, Matt, and there was smoldering, 20 or so smoldering vehicles in the street. Residents said that 11 o’clock this morning, local time, two missiles came in, exploded, and the first journalists there earlier said they counted 15 corpses. It was smoldering on the road. We saw body parts being handed around by people and it was, later the Information Minister, Mr. al-Sahaf, complained that the U.S. has started using cluster bombs in the Baghdad area.”

An hour later, Arnett dutifully repeated the Information Minister’s claim about “cluster bombs,” again without any skepticism or doubt. NBC finally summoned its Pentagon correspondent, Jim Miklaszewski, who told Today’s audience the claim was highly dubious, that cluster bombs are normally used against troops in the field, not urban areas. Miklaszewksi explained: “It would be very unusual if, in fact, cluster bombs were used inside Baghdad. And if you look at pictures...a cluster bomb would create a Swiss-cheese effect, thousands and thousands of holes in the target, and we don’t see that.”

march_textboxPeter Arnett’s worst treachery came March 30 when he appeared on Iraqi state television and praised the “determination” of Iraq’s army, declared the U.S. war plan a “failure” and arrogantly proclaimed that he had warned the Bush administration that Iraq wouldn’t be a pushover. Even though three U.S. journalists were missing in Iraq and feared kidnaped by the Hussein regime, Arnett mindlessly gushed: “I’ve met unfailing courtesy and cooperation, courtesy from your people and cooperation from the Ministry of Information.” Arnett then bucked up Iraqi morale, opining that their “resistance” had caused the initial U.S. war plan to “fail” (see box).

For that, NBC and MSNBC correctly decided to cease using Arnett’s reports, and National Geographic Explorer fired him. But in ending his contract, NBC said nothing about the substance of what he said and only cited how it “was wrong” to do the interview with Iraqi TV and “was wrong for him to discuss his personal observations and opinions in that interview.”

After a farewell interview on Today, co-host Matt Lauer told Arnett, “Peter, at the risk of getting myself in trouble, I want to say I respect the work you've done over the last several weeks and I respect the honesty with which you’ve handled this situation. So good luck to you.”

Within a day, Arnett had begun writing for Britain’s far-left, virulently anti-American Daily Mirror newspaper. In an essay about himself, Arnett claimed that he had lost his job because the U.S. government and “right-wing media” feared his “truth” telling.

Arnett asserted in his story in the April 1 edition of the tabloid: “They don’t want credible news organizations reporting from here because it presents them with enormous problems.” And why, Arnett not so humbly wondered, was “my successful NBC reporting career...turned to ashes?” His answer: “Because I stated the obvious to Iraqi television; that the U.S. war timetable has fallen by the wayside.” Arnett elaborated on the conspiracy against him: “The right-wing media and politicians are looking for any opportunity to be critical of the reporters who are here.”

Reporters Worry They Are Too Pro-Bush? As the “rush to war” approached an end after eight months, some reporters grew frustrated that the media was not stopping it. After a March 6 White House press conference failed to shake public confidence in President Bush, ABC reporter Terry Moran made waves by telling the New York Observer newspaper that Bush left his colleagues in the press corps “looking like zombies.” Observer columnist Matt Taibbi suggested reporters were routed, like Texans at the Alamo: “The entire White House press corps should be herded into a cargo plane, flown to an altitude of 30,000 feet, and pushed out, kicking and screaming, over the North Atlantic.”

By October, Bill Moyers told the left-wing web site Buzzflash.com that “Matt Taibbi wrote in The New York Press at the time that it was like a mini-Alamo for American journalism. I’d say it was more a collective Jonestown-like suicide. At least the defenders of the Alamo put up a fight.”

In reality, reporters had challenged the President with tough questions. CNN’s John King cited Ted Kennedy’s belief that “your fixation with Saddam Hussein is making the world a more dangerous place.” Ed Chen of the Los Angeles Times demanded to know that if Bush “trusted the people” with their tax cuts, why not trust them enough to give them an estimate of the war costs? Bob Deans of Cox Newspapers even suggested that the Vietnam War was unjustified since Vietnam hasn’t directly threatened American security in 30 years.

moran030703For his part, Moran lectured the President that he had “generated opposition from the governments of France, Russia, China, Germany, Turkey, the Arab League, and many other countries, opened a rift at NATO and at the UN; and drawn millions of ordinary citizens around the world into the streets and anti-war protests. May I ask what went wrong that so many governments and peoples around the world now not only disagree with you very strongly, but see the U.S. under your leadership as an arrogant power?” Afterward, Peter Jennings praised it as “a fairly straightforward question.” (With Real Video)

On the evening news shows preceding the prime-time event, Jennings asked Secretary of State Colin Powell: “So many people don’t understand why you shouldn’t let the inspections continue if they are accomplishing anything....Most people think they’re doing a reasonably effective job at the moment.” Over on NBC, Ron Allen was reporting from Iraq that “Tonight, word of America’s new deadline and threat of war fazed no one at this Baghdad café.” Allen then cited an Iraqi man: “America is a terrorist country, he says.”

That morning, as the White House press corps prepared to pepper Bush with questions about his “arrogant...obsession” with Saddam Hussein, ABC’s Good Morning America was marveling at Saddam’s popularity. Diane Sawyer revealed: “I read this morning that he’s also said the love that the Iraqis have for him is so much greater than anything Americans feel for their President because he’s been loved for 35 years, he says, the whole 35 years.” From Baghdad, reporter Dan Harris seconded Sawyer: “He is one to point out quite frequently that he is part of a historical trend in this country of restoring Iraq to its greatness, its historical greatness. He points out frequently that he was elected with a hundred percent margin recently.”

If the press were to be accused of acting like “zombies,” it was more plausible to argue they were zombies for Saddam than they were zombies for President Bush.