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Saving Private Arnett

Ex–CNN star Peter Arnett is heading to Iraq this week as a freelancer in hopes of one-upping CNN. But in the age of digitized battle, is there still such a thing as a war correspondent?


Reporting for Duty: Arnett is gearing up for the Gulf.  

I was talking about war and reporting over lunch the other day at the most sedate of midtown clubs with Kevin Buckley, who now holds a salubrious position at Playboy but who for many years covered the world's wars and misadventures. Kevin said he was starting to feel about the U.S. what he had felt about many of the hapless countries where he'd found himself in his career -- dread that we are on the verge of sliding over a precipice. That elemental logic has been lost. That events are spinning way out of control.

It threatened to become a glum lunch. But then, as we stood up, Kevin got a mischievous look and was suddenly beckoning me through a back door and I was following him down a woody, book-lined hall. From a corner shelf, he pulled out a two-volume book on American journalism during the Vietnam years, Reporting Vietnam. He quickly flipped through a set of black-and-white pictures of very young faces -- Gloria Emerson, Malcolm Browne, Sydney Schanberg, Bernie Weinraub, Sy Hersh, Frankie FitzGerald, Michael Herr, Peter Kann -- and then found himself. Kevin Buckley, now 61, was revealed as a 27-year-old Newsweek reporter, in fatigues, a full head of hair, and with a Nikon slung around his neck, sitting on top of an oil drum.

Wars, it occurred to me, are fought by young people, and I realized -- with some sudden regret -- that war reporters are, logically, young too.

Modern war reporting isn't so much about the war reporter as about the war reporter's producer. War reporting is too important to be left to mere war reporters.

It further occurred to me that this is not remotely so intuitive anymore: Wars are now reported by well-known people. Famous people, or people trying to get famous, are the faces -- or the talking heads -- of war.

Coincidentally, I had lunch the next day with Peter Arnett, possibly the most famous living war reporter, whose transcendentally young picture was also in the Vietnam book. At 67, Arnett is getting ready to go back to Baghdad -- and to war.

Arnett is an equivocal, or transitional, figure in the history of war reporting. He is the real thing, an actual slogging-in-the-mud combat reporter, an anonymous wire-service guy who, by a media fluke (the advent of CNN and 24-hour news coverage), became, from the Hotel al-Rashid in Baghdad in 1991, a famous person. (Edward R. Murrow also got famous by a media fluke -- but Murrow has always seemed sui generis.) Overnight, Arnett was the larger-than-life face of the war -- harm's way's big enchilada. What every next-generation war reporter now aspires to be.

Of course, there isn't really a next, post-Arnett generation -- or perhaps there is, but youth isn't the point. Positioning is.

There's the stylized ridiculousness of, say, Ashleigh Banfield and Geraldo Rivera, or the careful hauteur of Christiane Amanpour, or the equally composed big-foot gravitas of the anchors themselves (who are obviously the opposite of young) rushing "in-country" for an interview and background shot. And with them there is Arnett, whose positioning is as the last war correspondent trying to do what he did one last time.

As it happens, he is oddly able to do this, and all the other glamour-pusses are able to position themselves in the war picture, too, because nobody really does now what war reporters used to do.

Nobody is covering combat -- nobody is in combat. Armies, after all, don't invite reporters along to battle anymore; and the point about digitized combat is that there is nothing but an explosion (recorded by gun cams) to cover; and, what's more, highly paid famous people are not, as a rule, able to endure great discomfort.

Just as Arnett is getting ready to go back to Baghdad, and as the U.S. gets set for another war, HBO (a corporate sister of CNN) is getting ready to air, next month, a new HBO original movie called Live From Baghdad, which is about when Arnett and his colleagues Bernie Shaw and John Holliman became the last American correspondents to broadcast from the besieged city.

This is not really, though, the story of Arnett and Shaw and Holliman, but about their producer, Robert Wiener. It is based on his book and is from his point of view. It tells his revved-up, self-dramatizing story ("Wiener makes the characters in Broadcast News look they're on sedatives," says a Wiener colleague I know).

And in fact, his story is probably the central one: Modern war reporting may not be so much about the war reporter as about the war reporter's producer.

It's management (it's war with someone throwing a hissy-fit in the background) and staging. It involves both wag-the-dog and more specialized spreadsheet skills (even in the movie, most of Wiener's time is spent on logistical arrangements).

War reporting is too important to be left to mere war reporters.

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