Four Syllables, Starts With M, Ends With Uh-Oh

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 12, 2007

William M. Arkin, a military analyst who writes a blog for The Washington Post's Web site, says he knew that his criticism of American troops would be "highly inflammatory."

He got that part right.

Arkin, invoking an NBC report on soldiers expressing disappointment with dwindling public support for the Iraq war, wrote late last month that it was "an ugly reminder of the price we pay for a mercenary -- oops sorry, volunteer -- force that thinks it is doing the dirty work."

It was a land mine of a word and sparked an explosion of criticism, much of it on the right. Bill O'Reilly, who had a Fox News producer ambush Arkin in a parking lot, called his remarks "disgraceful" and said that The Post and NBC News, where Arkin works as an analyst, will be "forever tainted" by the incident.

Arkin, who apologized on the blog for his "blasphemy," says in an interview: " 'Mercenary' is a very strong term. If all this has been precipitated by one word, there's not a question in my mind I could have avoided this by not using that word." He says he was trying to be "sarcastic" and "iconoclastic" and to make the point that a professional fighting force cannot dismiss public sentiment on how wars should be fought.

Jim Brady, executive editor of, says the use of the word "mercenary" "was a mistake. It made it through the editing process, which is unfortunate. We certainly apologize for using it on the site. . . . I know it offended a lot of people, but I don't think it's something he should be fired for."

NBC does "not condone" Arkin's online comments and welcomes his apology, network spokeswoman Allison Gollust says. NBC's parent company, General Electric, says it "strongly condemns" the Arkin remarks as "grossly unfair."

This is an entirely self-inflicted wound. The word "mercenary" is clearly insulting to the young men and women who risk their lives in war zones. Whatever larger point Arkin was trying to make was obliterated by his own rhetorical ammunition.

Arkin also wrote in the Jan. 30 posting: "So, we pay the soldiers a decent wage, take care of their families, provide them with housing and medical care and vast social support systems and ship obscene amenities into the war zone for them, we support them in every possible way, and their attitude is that we should in addition roll over and play dead, defer to the military and the generals and let them fight their war, and give up our rights and responsibilities to speak up because they are above society?"

Arkin is now trying to shift the debate to his detractors in what he calls a "polarized and hate-filled America." Arkin says he has received thousands of e-mail protests from people who have not read his words but were reacting to critics who "said I spat on the troops. . . . The number of death threats and over-the-top vile crap is a little bit daunting."

Arkin, who has consulted for the military, is a controversial figure who was long associated with the liberal group Human Rights Watch. He has drawn fire more than once for disclosing classified information. Arkin now teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

On the "O'Reilly Factor" last week, Fox producer Jesse Watters was seen confronting Arkin as he tried to load gear into his car. "How could you say what you said?" Watters demanded. "I mean, don't you think it was really hurtful and harmful to the military families, to the soldiers serving in Iraq?"

Arkin calls the program's conduct "despicable." Watters was "stalking" him over the course of a 90-minute car ride, Arkin says, and peppered him with questions while his children were nearby.

David Tabacoff, O'Reilly's executive producer, dismisses the notion of stalking, saying Arkin had turned down a telephone request for an interview and that Fox obscured his children's faces. Watters did not know the car chase would last that long, Tabacoff says, but "we were trying to be more polite than banging on his door or creating a ruckus at his house."

Getting the Spirit

As Katie Couric approaches the six-month mark as a network anchor, she is still tinkering with "CBS Evening News." Last week, after promoting the newscast during CBS's Super Bowl coverage, she launched a series grandly titled "The American Spirit" -- and now it's turning into a weekly feature.

The focus is familiar for network television -- people who are successfully tackling problems -- but with an angle. "I've always wanted to do something solution-oriented," Couric says. "We're not trying to say, 'Here's Joe or Jane Smith feeding the homeless in their community.' These are local solutions that have potential national implications."

Couric reported the first three pieces herself. The first involved a Kalamazoo, Mich., program, funded by anonymous donors, that guarantees a free college education to every Kalamazoo public school student who maintains at least a C average. The others focused on a doctor crusading for safer hospitals and an investor raising money to provide more math teachers for New York City schools.

While it's doubtful that free college tuition could work everywhere, executive producer Rome Hartman disputes the notion that this is feel-good television. "This isn't Pollyanna, this is prescriptions," he says.

Couric hopes to motivate some people to get "off their duffs." Besides, she says, "it's just a nice break from some of the dreadful news we have to report every night."

Close to Home

Brian Williams's 89-year-old father makes his television debut tonight.

The "NBC Nightly News" anchor will kick off a personalized series on caring for children and aging parents with a piece about Gordon Williams, who is recovering from hip-replacement surgery in an assisted-living facility. Ordinarily, says Williams, "I avoid first-person reporting religiously. I will go to great lengths to avoid the word 'I' in my broadcast." But, he says, "so many of us are dealing with the topic. I think it's going to touch a nerve."

Tim Russert and Ann Curry will also file reports on their fathers. And since NBC stars aren't exactly hurting for money, Tom Brokaw will profile a typical family struggling with youngsters and oldsters.

One Toke Over the Line?

Ryan Grim, a reporter for the Politico, the new Capitol Hill newspaper and Web site, called the White House drug policy office for comment last week.

Tom Riley, a spokesman for the office, recognized the name. Grim, he says, had called the office long ago, saying he was a reporter, but was using an e-mail address from the Marijuana Policy Project, where he worked. The group's goal is to legalize the drug.

Riley did not return Grim's call. Instead, as the Politico disclosed, Riley called Martin Tolchin, the paper's senior publisher, to point out that the reporter was hardly unbiased.

"He then threatened to complain to Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz about a conflict of interest," the Politico said.

That was not necessary (although such calls are always welcome here on the media beat). I contacted Riley the day the story appeared.

"The idea of someone who had been an activist on this now being a staff writer purporting to write about it objectively . . . is ludicrous," Riley says.

"It'd be like a lobbyist for Philip Morris going to write about smoking issues for The Post."

Politico Executive Editor John Harris says that Grim, who was hired from Washington's City Paper, has a "reliable record" as a reporter. "There are lot of people at publications who have gone from advocacy jobs in a previous career to non-advocacy roles," Harris says. "The story was motivated by journalistic interest, not his particular views on the subject."

Grim's story said President Bush is seeking a 31 percent funding hike for an anti-drug advertising campaign "that government-funded research shows is at best useless and at worst has increased drug use among some teens." Riley calls the piece "totally slanted," saying it fails to note that marijuana use among teenagers has declined over the last five years.

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