Saving Private Arnett

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

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.

Indeed, Saddam is certainly trying to control what we see, making him a producer – surely he’s learned a thing or two about the media. And obviously, the Pentagon exercises great L.B. Mayer–size production controls. And then there are the news networks: The media, which used to be linked to one side or another (American reporters were side-by-side with American G.I.’s), now has its own overriding interests to protect (and each media corporation has its own interests – there’s not only the war between U.S. and Iraq but also that between CNN and Fox) and conducts its own complex negotiations and diplomatic lobbying efforts.

Perception is a big battlefield – maybe the main one. (A proposition for the conspiracy-minded: It’s not about oil; it’s about pictures.)

Which brings us to what each of the parties is looking for: the bounce.

The last time around, the bounce went to Arnett, Shaw, and Holliman, and briefly to Bush Sr., and most significantly to CNN. But since then, in ensuing wars, the bounce has been more elusive.

For one thing, the bounce has become a much more self-conscious enterprise. Arnett, Shaw, and Holliman were actually in harm’s way. But Banfield and Rivera, for instance, have more clearly put themselves, or their producers have put them, into something like a Fear Factor episode. Likewise, George Bush is trying to repeat what his father did – and the sequel may not get near the ratings of the original.

The bounce has gotten much more competitive, too. CNN was a novel idea – and a marginal player – when Gulf War I began. Now, in addition to at least two governments vying to control the pictures, there are three 24-hour U.S. news channels, plus the BBC’s 24-7 news operation, and now Al Jazeera and the South Asian news broadcasters as well as independent uplinks galore. It is likely that in this war, more than at any time in any other past war, we’re going to be seeing a lot of the other side’s version of it. The big bounce, many people believe, will go to Al Jazeera – we’ll have correspondents on bad phone lines, and Al Jazeera will have clear and bloody pictures (just whose blood is, of course, the rub). Al Jazeera will likely be supplying pictures (arguably the other side’s pictures) to our side.

Arnett, with his squeezed pugilist’s face, is an odd and lonely figure – he’s from another age (from another war).

Indeed, it’s doubtful that fame, or the bounce, was what he was after in 1991. CNN was then still in its Ted Turner “the news is the star” incarnation. Many news people speculate that the change that happened at CNN (in part because of Arnett in Baghdad), when the paradigm shifted and the star became the news, is what led Arnett to get on the wrong side of the Tailwind scandal (wherein CNN, with Arnett as newsreader, maintained that the U.S. had used gas on suspected American defectors in Laos). Arnett was negligent or ambivalent in his star duties (not tending his brand), fronting for a weak story that would prove to be embarrassingly wrong – and took the fall.

After 9/11, Arnett hooked up with an indie news-production group, CameraPlanet – which does for-hire stuff and documentaries, and runs a rump Internet video-news outlet – and went to Afghanistan (at the initial meet with CameraPlanet, when it became clear that he was being sought only as a stay-at-home adviser, Arnett abruptly ended the meeting). And now Arnett, with a small CameraPlanet crew, leaves this week to go back to Baghdad to do a National Geographic Channel documentary, On the Brink.

His ulterior motive is to once again be in Baghdad when the shooting starts – as he, and everyone else, expects it to start – this winter.

It is poignant to find Arnett, as a freelancer (a 67-year-old freelancer at that) in a corporate world. It is painful, too, to think of him having to compete with his awful spawn, Banfield and Rivera, and, inevitably, their spawn.

And yet it seems right, too. If not Arnett, then who?

Now, Arnett is not only a vastly experienced war reporter but also a vastly experienced media-war reporter (both the once-anonymous wire-service reporter and the once-famous CNN correspondent – who can match that experience?), which gives an added element of fatalism to his view.

“You have to accept that this is artificial coverage,” he says, describing the artifice with great war-reporting detail (the G.I.’s, he says, have gone from sympathetic young guys to frighteningly attired robotic figures).

It’s about getting the gets. How many Aziz interviews can you do? That’s the measure. Saddam, of course, will be the really big get. (Hitler would have been doing Berchtesgarden exclusives.)

It’s a technology game, maybe most of all. Who’s on the air is about who has the pictures, which is about who has the uplink. Or it’s about what kind of stuff the Pentagon itself, from its superior gun-cam vantages, is handing out at the downlink points. This war may be as much an R&D battle of picture delivery as about payload delivery. (Why not equip G.I.’s with infantry cams and let them narrate their own tape roll on the Today show – scripted, of course, by Pentagon flacks?)

And then there’s the competition. In the first moments of the Afghanistan war, Roger Ailes poached CNN’s man in Afghanistan – did the deal over a satellite phone. Kept upping the price. It is possible, of course, that Arnett could be bought – which is sort of the point.

His expectation is that, out of fear and practicality and Pentagon pressure, the U.S. news networks will flee Baghdad – reporters will relocate to U.S. press camps (last week, CNN was being threatened with expulsion from Iraq) – leaving Arnett’s as one of the few recognizable American voices and him as one of the few talking heads who can walk the walk. “One reason I can do this,” he told me, “is that I’ve done it enough to make a reasonable assessment of survivability.” Then CameraPlanet will retail Arnett out to domestic and international news outlets.

Or it will happen in an entirely different way. Nothing like anyone expects – except for some new, idiotic, blithering news-channel heads. You don’t really get the sense from Arnett that he thinks war and media will fall into his hands so perfectly again.

Still, he obviously has to go back. He’s not only the last war reporter but inexorably linked to Iraq – just the way the Bushes are. It’s ritual.

Wolff on War
The Bush Doctrine
War Games
Apocalypse Now

Saving Private Arnett