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Arnett fired; Rivera denies expulsion

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2003

NBC News fired longtime war correspondent Peter Arnett on Monday over an interview he gave to state-run Iraqi TV, in which the reporter said the U.S. war plan had "failed due to Iraqi resistance."

Meanwhile, Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera denied reports Monday the U.S. military was removing him from the war zone in Iraq for revealing troop movements, blaming the story on his former NBC colleagues, whom he referred to as "rats."

The events sparked a flurry of comment, particularly on cable news outlets, centered on the idea that both correspondents' troubles may have stemmed from the same journalistic sin: making themselves the story.

Arnett -- a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who entered Baghdad working for MSNBC's National Geographic Explorer show and then was signed by NBC News and MSNBC as the war progressed -- was fired from all three jobs Monday for the interview, which was replayed several times on Iraqi TV.

"I said . . . essentially what we all know about the war," said Arnett on NBC's Today show Monday. "But clearly, by giving that interview to Iraqi television, I created a firestorm in the United States, and for that I am truly sorry."

Initially, officials at NBC News and National Geographic stood behind Arnett, saying the interview was a courtesy. But after talking to the correspondent by telephone Monday morning, all three outlets moved to fire him, both for appearing on a state-controlled TV outlet during a time of war and for expressing his personal opinions on the conflict.

"That's a violation of our policy," MSNBC president Erik Sorenson told the St. Petersburg Times via e-mail Monday, noting that the cable newschannel had received hundreds of viewer complaints but no pressure from the government to oust him. "It was wrong to grant (the interview), and his comments were out of line, too."

Arnett, a native of New Zealand, won his Pulitzer Prize for covering the Vietnam War for the Associated Press and later found fame as one of the CNN reporters in Baghdad during the start of the first Persian Gulf War in 1991.

Government officials criticized him then for journalism that they said conveyed Iraqi propaganda, including a report that the U.S. bombed a baby formula factory that the military said was a biological weapons plant.

He later left CNN under the cloud of a retracted documentary that claimed a U.S. military operation used the deadly nerve gas sarin in a 1970 mission to hunt down American defectors during the Vietnam War.

In his interview with Iraqi TV, Arnett said there was growing resistance to the U.S.-led coalition, noting, "Clearly, the American war plans misjudged the determination of the Iraqi forces."

Cable news outlets in particular had a field day reporting the Arnett/Rivera incidents, noting that both journalists wound up briefly overshadowing the war they were supposed to be covering.

Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson, commenting on NPR's Marketplace, likened the Arnett/Rivera caper to an episode of Survivor: Iraq, cracking that both had been invited to leave the island.

So there was a certain irony in Fox's own correspondent facing expulsion.

Rivera blamed the story of his removal from Iraq on "rats" at NBC News (where he worked before heading to Fox) while talking with Fox News anchor David Asman by videophone just before noon Monday.

"MSNBC is so pathetic a cable news network that they have to do everything they can to attract attention," said Rivera, standing among soldiers from a unit of the 101st Airborne Division. "You can rest assured anything they're saying is a pack of lies."

CNN, Reuters news service and MSNBC reported early Monday that Rivera was asked to leave by military officials; he had traced the movements of troops in the sand during one report.

Later, a Defense Department spokesman told Reuters that Fox News had agreed to remove Rivera -- who is not officially part of the military's "embedded" journalist program, where reporters travel with troops -- after the military commander where he was reporting felt he had "compromised operational security."

"We've been in contact with the Pentagon, and we are looking into it," Fox News spokesman Rob Zimmerman told the St. Petersburg Times late Monday, referring all other questions to the Defense Department, which did not return a call by press time.

"(MSNBC) can't compete against me fair and square on the battlefield, so they're trying to stab me in the back," said Rivera, who drew criticism in 2001 for mistakenly reporting he was standing at the scene of a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan that actually occurred hundreds of miles away. "I'm further in the country (Iraq) than I have ever been."

Richard Hanley, a professor of communications at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, said both Arnett and Rivera should lose their jobs for violating different ethical codes.

"NBC rightly dismissed Arnett because his reports would have been used for propaganda and thus his credibility would no longer exist," said Hanley, noting NBC also may have been trying to avoid a backlash among conservative viewers.

"(Rivera) gave information . . . that could be directly used to kill American and British soldiers," the professor added. "He gets caught up in the moment . . . which is part of his style."

-- Information from Times wire services was used in this report.

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