NBC and MSNBC dumped correspondent Peter Arnett yesterday for criticizing the United States on Saddam Hussein's television station, while Fox News star Geraldo Rivera is being withdrawn from Iraq amid Pentagon charges that he revealed sensitive information.
Arnett apologized for his conduct, but NBC News President Neal Shapiro dismissed him during an anguished middle-of-the-night conversation. "When you give an interview to a guy in an army uniform who works for a dictator whose government we're at war with, it raises some real questions about your judgment," said Erik Sorenson, MSNBC's president. "It's just unbelievable."
Sources familiar with the Rivera situation said Fox News will pull the flamboyant reporter from the country today in response to complaints from a ground commander that he broke Pentagon rules by reporting on future military plans. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said yesterday morning that Rivera was being expelled.
But after Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes called a Pentagon official, Whitman said the situation was still under review -- part of an apparent agreement under which Rivera will be voluntarily recalled instead of officially evicted.
Rivera, for his part, took to the airwaves, surrounded by members of the 101st Airborne, to deny the earlier reports on CNN and MSNBC that he was being expelled. "It sounds to me like some rats at my former network, NBC, are spreading lies about me . . . trying to stab me in the back. . . . MSNBC is so pathetic a cable news network they have to do anything they can to attract attention."
The contretemps was triggered by a Fox report shortly after midnight yesterday in which Rivera got down on one knee, sketched the location of various coalition forces in the sand and described a plan by one unit to "join in the surrounding of An Najaf."
Whitman said Rivera was "compromising tactical information. . . . I can't imagine that anyone who saw that report would not think it was a gross lack of judgment. He gave real-time information about a unit's location, their mission and their pending activity, which would clearly aid the enemy." Whitman said Fox was taking the matter "very seriously."
"He's a very enthusiastic guy and he goes with his gut," Fox News Vice President John Moody said. "It's part of what makes him Geraldo."
He noted that Rivera went to Iraq as an "untrained" journalist who is not part of the Pentagon's embedding program. Like the Christian Science Monitor's Phil Smucker, who was expelled last week for a similar violation, Rivera arrived in Iraq without being assigned to a military unit.
Richard Hanley, an assistant professor of communications at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut who has been monitoring the war coverage, accused Rivera of "giving away operational information that could lead to the death of American servicemen. He's a cowboy. He wants to be part of the gang. He wants to get in the dirt and draw. . . . Fox should do the right thing and fire him, much as NBC fired Arnett."
Arnett, meanwhile, was contrite in an interview on NBC's "Today," saying: "I want to apologize to the American people for clearly making a misjudgment. . . . I created a firestorm in the United States, and for that I am truly sorry."
Arnett said he had offered "some personal observations, some analytical observations, which I don't think are out of line with what experts think. . . . Maybe people think I'm insane, but I'm not anti-military."
In a statement, NBC's Shapiro said: "It was wrong for Mr. Arnett to grant an interview to state-controlled Iraqi TV -- especially at a time of war -- and it was wrong for him to discuss his personal observations and opinions in that interview."
After an NBC spokeswoman defended Arnett on Sunday, Shapiro stayed up all night in an effort to reach him, finally connecting at 5 a.m. Shapiro said he initially "felt compelled to give him the benefit of the doubt" but changed his mind during the lengthy call.
Sources familiar with the situation say that Shapiro pressed Arnett on whether he felt pressured to do the Iraqi TV interview, during which the correspondent said that "there is growing challenge to President Bush about the conduct of the war" and that the U.S. effort "has failed because of Iraqi resistance."
Arnett said he did the interview voluntarily. When Shapiro asked if he understood why talking to a state-controlled station might be a problem, Arnett said he gives plenty of interviews and considers himself a reporter-analyst. At that point, Shapiro told Arnett he could not continue reporting for NBC and its cable network.
MSNBC's Sorenson said he had hoped to learn that "there was a guy with an AK-47 behind the curtain" while Arnett was being interviewed. He said the network had been counting on Arnett "to give us an objective view of the war," and that this would be impossible because "he has these clearly pro-Iraqi or anti-American viewpoints."
Arnett was also reporting in Baghdad for "National Geographic Explorer," which severed ties with him yesterday. He was quickly picked up by the London tabloid the Daily Mirror.
The Pulitzer Prize winner was especially vulnerable to charges that he sympathizes with Iraq, since the first Bush administration charged during the 1991 Gulf War that he was conveying propaganda with his CNN reports from Baghdad. Some of his reporting in Vietnam was equally controversial.
"If ever there was a poster boy for bias, it is now Peter Arnett," said Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. Referring to the Arnett and Rivera incidents, he said: "The public has been satisfied by the way the war has been reported, but these are two journalistic stories that will quickly turn their mood sour."