Thursday, April 03, 2003

On Arnett (Revisited)

Sometimes it takes nuance to flesh out the bones of a contentious issue, and the senator calling for treason charges against Arnett apparently doesn't have it. From both sides come ringing denunciations and praise, and much reflexing of muscles and knee jerk sloganeering. I will try to pick through these here and explain why Arnett was wrong...

We seemingly have two fundamental principles in opposition: proper conduct during wartime, and proper conduct and rights of reporters in regard to freedom of speech. We'll start with the latter.

Peter Arnett has every right to speak his mind on the progress of the war, regardless of whether these are widely shared by others or in other media, as an individual and as a reporter.

With that said, the controversy is not exclusively "what" Arnett said, in the sense of evaluating it in a vacuum. It's more than that. He certainly was not in a vacuum, but rather in the middle of a war, on Iraqi TV, and leaving the perception to an Iraqi audience of the effectiveness of armed resistance (ironically implying that this resistance strengthens the arguments of overwhelmingly non-violent anti-war protesters in America).

This brings us to the issue of conduct during war. The first rule is that you do not aid and abet the enemy during wartime, or you will face the charge of treason, and be in deep, deep trouble. This isn't the issue we're dealing with today, despite what the unfortunate Senator Bunning believes. Clearly, there is no "aiding" or "abetting" in Arnett's behavior, just a subjective analysis of the state of affairs. Malicious intent is clearly not evident.

There's a rule of common sense though that, during wartime, you don't do anything controversial, or that may get construed in a controversial fashion, or that may indirectly and unintentionally support the enemy, if you don't plan to face the fire, if you're not prepared for the predictable knee-jerk reaction, if you don't intend to weather the accusations that you are a big jerk, and either a nuisance or sympathizer. This is par for the course, and Arnett clearly did not think this through before acting.

He's in a gray area, and leaning to the wrong side of it. This is why he was fired. The knee-jerk network, Fox News, took his actions practically as treason, and were aggressively and cynically using that information to win their "war" against the other networks for ratings. Thus, they played the story and trumpeted the fact that Arnett worked for NBC and MSNBC nearly non-stop. NBC had no other available business choice in the matter.

For sound business reasons, and due to the severe misjudgement on his part of proper wartime conduct for reporters and Americans, along with disrespect and blatant disregard for his employers, Arnett was fired. For the latter alone his firing was justified. Arnett's excuse that he was working independently is spurious at best. The impact to those connected to him remains the same. The appearance of impropriety alone in directly speaking to the Iraqi people on their controlled media about the effectiveness of resistance and the reconsideration of our war plan is also enough reason for NBC to cut ties, and for Americans to seriously question his judgement.

I'll add though that many misapply this common-sense principle of "supporting the war effort" to meaning knee-jerk acceptance to whatever our leaders say and do, as if every citizen was in the line of command and actively engaged in combat under military rules. Thus, the ludicrous assertions from many that Americans protesting the war are unpatriotic and/or helping the enemy.

Quite to the contrary, these patriotic Americans who are protesting the war are not in uniform, are not speaking to Iraqis, or to get their attention, but to wake up their own fellow citizens, Americans, and to send a message to President Bush. They in many cases may also mistakenly believe they're helping the Iraqi people, and their own soldiers, to escape disaster and death. If you're going to criticize them, at least understand the people who you are targeting, and their positions and motivations. Instead, it always seems like demonization, and the assumption of the darkest or dumbest motives. A disservice is done to everyone by spewing hate speech at fellow Americans. And hate speech is clearly what demonization is.

Arnett is a good reporter and a courageous individual. He also showed good character by apologizing for his misstep. Regardless, he did a disservice both to his country and to Iraqis, because their continued resistance will mean their slaughter, not their liberation, or victory, and possibly greater loss of life of our own soldiers. No matter what you think of American motives or justification, Saddam Hussein is untenable and never to be thought of as a better option for a self-respecting people, and with this in mind our leadership will not back down.

The bottom line is mass surrender is the only hope for the minimizing of Iraqi casualties, both military and civilian, not to mention ours. This is the message they need to hear. This is not a "fair" fight, and regardless of the increasingly desperate tactics of the Iraqi fighters, they have no chance, and the Iraqi people deserve to know this truth, and not the specious and short-sighted talk of how their resistance is "working" and will eventually be victorious and for the Iraqi people's greater good.

Such talk is BS, irreflective of reality, and not in the Iraqi peoples' best interests - now, or in the future; on the battleground, or in the coming peace.


I reiterate that Arnett's mistake is only one of appearance, not intent, and not even of effect, for the impact of his statement must not be overstated. In all likelihood, he could not have delivered a different message in this interview, and his overall influence on the Iraqi people is surely negligible.

Also, for more on this, and contrasting opinion, go check out Polizen