War Media Watch by Richard Linnett


Peter Arnett Scores Victory as National Geographic Brand Icon

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Much the same as for the troops on the ground, the war in Iraq does not appear to
Photo: MSNBC
CNN is gone but Peter Arnett remains in Baghdad.
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be going exactly as planned for news giant CNN.

AOL Time Warner's all-news network was supposed to gain an upper hand in its competitive race against arch-rival Fox News with the onset of war, but instead it is once again running second to the News Corp. channel. According to Nielsen Media Research, Fox has racked up 5.8 million viewers on average during the first six days of war coverage, while CNN clocked in with 5 million.

Arnett in Baghdad
Another slap in the face: CNN was booted out of Baghdad while Peter Arnett, who used to work for CNN before being ignominiously fired during the Tailwind scandal, is still in town. Except now he's filing reports for NBC and MSNBC, which has attracted 2.6 million viewers and is up in viewership 503% in the first quarter over previous quarters, while CNN is up 325% and Fox 233%.

Mr. Arnett works for National Geographic Explorer, a documentary series that airs on MSNBC and is perhaps the biggest winner so far. Wherever Mr. Arnett and his footage appears, so too does the "Nat Geo" brand, as some people refer to it, raising a relatively obscure program to world prominence.

The irony of all this is not lost on Mr. Arnett, 67, who spoke to a pool of reporters today in a conference call from his room at the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad.

'Perverse pleasure'
"I do get a perverse pleasure out of it," Mr. Arnett said. "After all, CNN did dump me four years ago, I thought unfairly. ... I felt that CNN could have hung on to me instead of getting rid of me."

Mr. Arnett was fired from CNN in 1999 after the network retracted a story that the U.S. military used nerve gas in a secret mission dubbed Tailwind to kill American defectors in Laos during the Vietnam War. The story was found to be untrue. Mr. Arnett was the lead correspondent on the piece. At the time, he defended himself claiming that he was just the on-camera narrator, not the actual reporter behind the story. Tailwind was, according to the press, Mr. Arnett's Waterloo.

"Someone in the daily news wrote that I was radioactive after Tailwind," Mr. Arnett said during the Baghdad conference call. "And I've known all my life that you can't make a serious mistake in credibility in journalism. You're dead."

Mr. Arnett said that since then, he has been trying to dig himself out of his grave.

'A complete irony'
"The fact that I am doing it here in Baghdad is a complete irony," said Mr. Arnett. "I thought I would be doing it by doing some other kind of journalism, or just doing some writing."

Mr. Arnett and CNN rose to prominence during the Gulf War of 1991, when he was one of the few Western broadcast reporters in Baghdad, filing dramatic eyewitness accounts of the bombing during Desert Storm.

"I never envisioned myself being in action again like this," Mr. Arnett said. "Here we go again."

Mr. Arnett said that once the war is over he does not plan to join the news staff at NBC or MSNBC but will continue to work with National Geographic. "I'm a loyal guy. I spent 20 years with the Associated Press. I love the AP. I spent 18 with CNN. I don't love CNN, but I did while I was with them."

Happy at Nat Geo
Mr. Arnett said he is happy working for National Geographic because it allows him to do longer-form documentaries as well as news updates for MSNBC and NBC. Before Iraq, the series was in Afghanistan, filing documentaries about the people and the war in that country. They hired Mr. Arnett in 2002.

"Last year, when things were heating up in Iraq we looked at our body of work and said let's focus on Iraq," a spokeswoman at National Geographic said. "And we thought who better to cover it than Peter Arnett?"

Mr. Arnett, who won a Pulitzer Prize for frontline reporting during the Vietnam War, says he is impressed with the reporting from journalists embedded in U.S. troops, but he prefers covering the story from inside the city.

No Republican Guard 'embeds'
"We do not get anywhere near the military," Mr. Arnett said. "There is no 'embedding' of reporters in the Iraqi Republican Guard units, and I would not be the first to volunteer for that position."

Although he and his four-man camera crew are faring well at the moment, he acknowledges: "The worst is yet to come. ... The bombing we can handle, but the prospect of street fighting and government change makes it very dangerous, but also makes it an incredible story."

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