The White House calls him a conduit for disinformation. Rival networks mutter darkly about shady deals with the Iraqi government. In the pages of The Washington Post he is labeled ''the voice of Baghdad.'' Is CNN's Peter Arnett being used by the Iraqi government? Of course. Is he under the Iraqis' thumb? Certainly. Is his reporting on what is happening inside Baghdad better than that of the rest of the world's media? You better believe it.
Unlike most reporters now "covering" this war, Arnett is witnessing events firsthand. True, he can see only what the Iraqis want him to see and say only what they want him to say. But are his counterparts reporting from Saudi Arabia, Israel and Washington that much better off? Arnett, at least, has a front-row seat at the action.
''Any reports coming out of Baghdad are, in effect, coming from the Iraqi government,'' complains White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. But can't the same be said of reporting from the allied side? And besides, don't we want to know what Baghdad is saying? Early in its war with Iran, Baghdad also imposed censorship. But those of us covering the conflict found ways of outwitting our Iraqi ''minders.'' Believe me, the Information Ministry flunkies there are not exactly Middle Eastern Michael Deavers. Arnett has covered countless such conflicts. He is no stranger to government restrictions or evading them. ''We heard heavy bombing outside the city,'' he noted in one dispatch last week. Later he reported seeing ''no civilian damage.'' Those two lines tell us more in a few seconds than days of satellite-fed speculation from Amman. If Arnett were not in Baghdad, we would have only the administration's word that Iraq's claims of massive civilian casualties are untrue.
What Arnett has not reported is as significant as what he has told us. The fact that he has not been taken on the obligatory tours of hospitals jammed with civilian casualties and has seen only limited civilian damage speaks volumes about the accuracy of allied raids. And while his visit to an alleged ''baby formula'' factory that Washington claims was a biological warfare plant provoked outrage at the White House, Arnett's careful choice of words left judgment on the truth to others.
Reporters are supposed to report what they see and hear. Critics complain when they draw conclusions. Vietnam taught us that when things turn bad, military briefers tend to forget some of the negative news. At present, Arnett is our one shot at making sure that not all the reporting comes from one side.
Larry Pintak, a writer and media consultant, has covered the Mideast for CBS News.