NEW YORK — Veteran war correspondent Peter Arnett stuck it to former employer CNN on a conference call from Baghdad. Arnett last week broke the news that the war had begun — just as he did in the 1991 Gulf War — and helped lead the Peacock’s war coverage to the top of the ratings.
He was fortuitously placed as a correspondent for National Geographic Explorer, which has linked with NBC’s sister cable net MSNBC. He’s been drafted temporarily into the larger NBC News family and files frequently, including reports on “The Today Show” and “Nightly News With Tom Brokaw.”
“I do get a perverse pleasure out of it. CNN did dump me, I thought unfairly,” Arnett told reporters on the call, which was set up by MSNBC.
He was booted in 1999 after the ill-fated “Tailwind” report he narrated on U.S. commandos in Vietnam was criticized for shoddy research.
“Tailwind was almost the death blow to my career,” he said. “It was something I had to dig myself out of, and I have been thinking for four years how to do it. The irony is I’m doing it here.”
Arnett and CNN vaulted to international stardom during the first Gulf War more than a decade ago, when he was the only TV reporter broadcasting live as bombs fell in Baghdad.
“I’m aware that I have the opportunity because the NBC guys aren’t here,” he said.
U.S. broadcast nets have yanked correspondents from the city, where casualties are expected once U.S. ground forces arrive.
CNN’s Nic Robertson and his crew left Baghdad last weekend.
Arnett painted a surreal picture of reporters awaiting a massive invasion by coalition forces, passing time in comfortable hotel rooms, breakfasting in the restaurant downstairs and “sneaking out for some decent kabob.”
In the first Gulf War, water, telephone lines and electricity were cut off immediately. The press is prepared this time, he said, but its thousands of bottles of water “and all sorts of crackers and cheese” are so far untouched.
He said Iraqi authorities are ejecting journalists who won’t attend a daily morning press conference at the Information Ministry, said to be a key target of U.S. air strikes.
“If you do not attend those briefings, they don’t see why you should be here. They say, ‘You are here to show our side of the story,’ ” Arnett said, adding, “It’s one of the reasons some of these journalists have had to go.”
Despite daily rumors, he does not think the U.S. government will target the building, particularly “when there are a hundred journalists milling around.”
A middle-of-the-night strike is possible, he acknowledged.
Reports Tuesday indicated the Ministry is on the Pentagon’s hit list.
Arnett said he’s awed by graphic coverage from reporters embedded with U.S. troops. “It’s unique and it’s miles ahead of the Gulf War.”
But at age 68, “I don’t want to compete with (MSNBC’s) David Bloom in the next Humvee to his. I’m beyond embedding.”
“I can handle Baghdad because this is as much of a mind game as anything.”
He said videophones have been mostly confiscated by Iraqi authorities and satellite phones restricted to use in the Information Ministry or, by special permit, in a reporter’s hotel room. Live on-camera transmissions must originate at the ministry.
“We do not get anywhere near the military. There is no embedding reporters in Republican Guard units — and I would not be the first to volunteer for that,” he joked.
He said that soon, as the battle evolves, reporters and Iraqi officials must address “what facilities we will get, what resources, what access to our communications equipment.”
Many Iraqis in Baghdad, he believes, have little sense of the massing U.S. forces.
On local TV, “They see patriotic dirges and patriotic statements about their country and their president, press conferences replayed” and the video of America POWs. “They can’t get it into their heads that Americans will come to this city and be sitting on tanks at intersections and that an American four-star general will be sitting in the presidential palace.”