The battle over Peter Arnett and his reporting from Saddam Hussein's capital of Baghdad will not go away.
Turn on any local talk show these days and you will hear outraged citizens accusing Arnett and CNN of being naive dupes for the enemy line of propaganda. Some think Arnett has sold his soul for a journalistic scoop.
There are repeated demands that CNN be ordered to stop showing film footage that makes it look as though the United States fliers have been dropping bombs on civilian targets.
The same reaction comes from military spokespersons, who keep insisting that Arnett is wrong and that the thousands of sorties over enemy targets have all been examples of pinpoint accuracy.
One briefing officer went to ludicrous heights, however, when he explained that the damage to civilian homes and business establishments might actually be caused by Iraqi antiaircraft fire as it fell back down to the ground.
This is not the first time that this set of circumstances has arisen during wartime.
During the Vietnam War, Harrison Salisbury, a New York Times foreign correspondent, obtained a visa to view the war from Hanoi, North Vietnam, the enemy capital.
At the time, U.S. airplanes were dropping tons of bombs on that city in a concerted drive to punish the North Vietnamese into surrendering.
Then as now, our generals claimed that only military targets were being hit.
But after arriving in Hanoi and looking around, Salisbury wrote the following dispatch about what he saw on December 13, 1966:
"Contrary to the impression given by United States communiques, on-the-spot inspection indicates that American bombing has been inflicting considerable civilian casualties in Hanoi and its environs for some time past. . . . It is fair to say that, based on the evidence of their own eyes, Hanoi residents do not find much credibility in United States communiques." Two days later, Salisbury filed another story from Mam Dinh:
"Whatever the explanation, one can see that United States planes are dropping an enormous weight of explosives on purely civilian targets. Whatever else there may be or might have been in Mam Dinh, it is the civilians who have taken the punishment.
"The cathedral tower looks out on block after block of utter desolation: The city's population of 90,000 has been reduced to less than 20,000 because of the evacuation; 13 percent of the city's housing, including the homes of 12,464 people have been destroyed; 89 people have been killed and 405 wounded." Secretary of State Dean Rusk promptly complained directly to the editors of the New York Times.
A cover-up began. The captive press corps in Washington, D.C., began parroting the administration line on all fronts.
The Washington Post ran a story which was an ostensible cover-up for the American military.
The story said in part:
"Officials are particularly bitter that the attention to civilian casualties in the North have obscured the murder, kidnaping, arson and other acts of terrorism continually directed against civilians in South Vietnam by the Communists." The people at the Pentagon were able to reach inside the New York Times to prompt another Times reporter, Hanson Baldwin, to write a story contradicting Salisbury's dispatches from the scene.
Baldwin's story concluded that Salisbury's civilian casualty figures were "grossly exaggerated." In the same article, however, Baldwin was forced to admit that the U.S. Air Force was using 500,000 tons of bombs a year on North and South Vietnam.
This, according to James Aronson in his book The Press and the Cold War, was more than the tonnage used in the entire Pacific area during the four years of the war against Japan.
The attack upon Salisbury's reputation as a reporter continued unabated.
The Washington Post ran an editorial which concluded by accusing Salisbury of allowing himself to become "the chosen instrument" of Ho Chi Minh in his strategy to force a halt to the American bombing of his country.
William Randolph Hearst Jr. compared Salisbury's reporting to the treasonable broadcasts during World War II of Lord Haw Haw in Germany and Tokyo Rose in Japan.
Joseph Alsop, the Patrick Buchanan of his day, wrote of Salisbury in his column:
"Salisbury was invited to Hanoi to make propaganda for a proposal long pressed by the Soviets. Whether a United States reporter ought to go to an enemy capital to give the authority of his byline to enemy propaganda is an interesting question." Another Washington journalist, Crosby Noyes of the Washington Star, found it ominous that any reporter was permitted by Washington to visit Hanoi in the first place.
One of the few Washington journalists to defend Salisbury was the iconoclastic I.F. Stone.
"This feat of free journalism," Stone wrote, "is to be measured not by the exposure of civilian deaths in the past but by the possible saving of civilian lives in the future. The myth that we have been bombing the North with surgical precision is dead." Stone also mentioned the fact that in a supposedly "limited war," we were dropping a half-million tons of bombs a year on North Vietnam.
"The sheer tonnage we drop may make other countries with guerrilla problems decide America is worse than the disease. It looks as if the U.S. Air Force remedy for an aching head is to shoot it off.
"This was freedom of the press in the best Jeffersonian tradition. But the Salisbury exploit, instead of being greeted by applause, has evoked as mean, petty and unworthy a reaction as I have ever seen in the press corps." Salisbury was eventually vindicated, in a way, by the New York Times, which submitted his dispatches from North Vietnam for a Pulitzer Prize.
There are two levels of judges for the prize. The first consists of working newspaper editors, and they voted to give the prize to Salisbury.
However, the nomination was then sent up the line to the trustees of the Pulitzer committee, which reversed the decision and gave Salisbury's foreign reporting prize to another foreign correspondent.
It wasn't until much later that Salisbury learned that the one member on the board of trustees who could have saved the prize for him was his own managing editor. Instead of voting to keep the prize for Salisbury, he elected not to vote, thus handing it to a reporter from a rival newspaper.
Salisbury was a distinguished reporter at the Times for years and remained so. But his dispatches from Hanoi were to short-circuit his career. At the time he filed them, Salisbury was on track to become managing editor. The furor over Hanoi closed out any chance he had of advancing.
Was Salisbury wrong in filing what he saw in Hanoi as massive U.S. bombing of a civilian population?
Is Arnett now wrong for doing the same thing from Baghdad? How will it affect his career?
On the night this so-called War in the Gulf began, it was Arnett and two other CNN correspondents who were the only ones who could tell us what it was like in Baghdad. Their work was praised to the skies.
Times have changed so quickly. We want the war to be over with, and we want it done by air if at all possible.
So we would like no fuss about the niceties of bombing civilian populations. We grow uneasy and restive at the daily sight of Arnett visiting the bombed-out homes of civilians. The whole scene of destruction in Baghdad grows less palatable by the day.
Like Salisbury, Arnett will learn that in wartime the United States military does not take kindly to reporters who are not ready to toe the company line.
Some think Arnett has sold his soul for a journalistic scoop.
We want the war to be over with. So we would like no fuss about the niceties of bombing civilian populations.