When it comes to the press, Sen. Alan Simpson has the aim, skill and humanity of an Iraqi Scud rocketeer. The verbal warhead the gentleman from Wyoming flung at CNN's Peter Arnett in Baghdad exploded well short of its target, showering Simpson with its noxious fallout.
Simpson's intemperate outburst calling Arnett an Iraqi sympathizer is in itself not very important. The senator's reputation as a judge of character and of the press shrank to Smurf size after he journeyed to Baghdad last April to pay court to Saddam Hussein.
The Iraqis later leaked a transcript showing Simpson and the Iraqi dictator agreeing that journalists are the scum of the earth. Far from denying the Iraqi version, the senator responded to the transcript as Indonesia's Sukarno is said to have responded to a KGB attempt to blackmail him with compromising photographs of him and blondes during a visit to Moscow: Send dozens of copies to my people. This will really impress them.
But Simpson touched a nerve about the role of the press in war, and that is important. Reporters become pawns not only for editors and for the politicians they normally frequent in symbiotic servitude, but also for war makers dealing in life-and-death decisions that journalists affect through their presence and their coverage.
In peacetime, a newspaper or a network is manipulated every day in hundreds of little ways by publicists, governments and hidden sources with hidden agendas. In war, the manipulation is big, crude and unrelenting. How the journalists respond is certain to become an issue itself in this contentious electronic age.
Iraq has developed a deadly new wrinkle in "using" journalists. A dozen Western reporters were forced to leave Baghdad Friday after only a week there. The bureaucratic pretext was that their visas had expired. A new team of journalists was admitted, presumably for an equally brief stay.
The incoming and outgoing journalists have to travel in convoy along the heavily bombed Baghdad-Amman road. The Iraqis have been using convoys to mask travel by Scud mobile launchers, which dart out to fire and then weave back in line to hide, according to Pentagon officials.
The Iraqis media plan is a twofer: They hope that journalists traveling on the road will buy them a pause in U.S. raids, and they count on the newly arrived journalists to convey fresh horror and outrage over civilian casualties and bombed out schools.
That is where Simpson's Scudlet aimed at Arnett falls into the desert.
Throughout his lonely, dangerous stint in Baghdad, Arnett has been meticulous in conveying information, not emotion or propaganda. I watch each of his broadcasts with growing admiration, not only for his bravery but also for the way in which he brings his intelligence and experience to bear and tell us more about what is happening in Iraq than the censors standing in front of his flashlight-illuminated nose realize.
Arnett has made a point of repeatedly saying that the Iraqis are refusing to take him to see the military targets that the bombing raids are hitting. In a dozen other subtle ways he reminds us that the United States is concentrating on military targets and is not conducting a terror campaign against defenseless citizens.
Those who listened carefully to Arnett in the opening days of the bombing raids on Baghdad heard him suggest that civilian casualties in Baghdad must have been remarkably low, since the Iraqis had been able to show him so few for filming. More recently, as conditions worsen, Arnett has begun to emphasize the plight -- and anger -- of the people of Baghdad. He shows us that the pressure is getting to the Baghdadis, if not yet to Saddam.
The controls that the Iraqis have clamped on Arnett and his colleagues are not unusual for Arab regimes at war. When Israel struck Egypt in 1967, Western newsmen were arrested and interned in Cairo before they could file on the military disaster Egypt was experiencing. (Egyptian officials later complained that Western media had refused to report that the Israelis had struck first.) Those of us who covered the 1973 war from Syria spent much of our time on the roof of the Semiramis Hotel in Damascus watching dogfights and Israeli air raids in the distance.
We were not used by the Syrians, who snickered at our demands to go to the front. We were ignored. The Iraqis are more skillful. They limit foreign access to a single story -- civilian casualties. But good reporters like Arnett can get more of the story out and do.
Simpson was wrong about Saddam last April, and he is wrong about Arnett now.