Fifty years ago, Peter Arnett became the first, and only, New Zealander to win the Pulitzer Prize, for his coverage of the Vietnam War. Ben Stanley met Arnett at his Los Angeles home – and learned about the silent season of our greatest newsman.
First published March 22, 2016.
Let me tell you a story about a young man and a river. He is stripped down to his pants. His arms are going double-time against the current. The river is the Mekong. On one side is Laos, a nation in the midst of a political coup. On the other is Thailand.
The bridges over the river are shut, and there are no boats on which to cross. Between the young man’s teeth are a Kiwi passport, a typed Associated Press story, and 20 $10 bills. The young man is 26, and a journalist. He keeps swimming. He reaches a sand bar, and a motor sampan collects him.
The young man hitches a ride on a timber truck at the road. Two girls with bare thighs caked with mud giggle at him as the truck rumbles along. It stops in Udorn Thani, and the story is sent collect at the town’s telegraph office. The young man gives the operator a hundred dollars to speed its passage, heads to the river and swims back to Laos.
The next day is August 11, 1960. People across the world open their newspapers at breakfast tables, in subway cars or at office desks. They learn the story of Kong Le’s Laotian coup. Some of the stories even had a byline.
By Peter Arnett
Vientianne, Laos (AP)
He makes the same swim the next day, with more of a load this time. Around his neck are more stories – some written by him and some by other reporters – and several rolls of film.
The locals don’t know why he swims the river, but the young man believes in the importance of getting the stories through. They need to published. The world needs to know:
Army rebels headed by a young paratroop captain established a politically mixed government wednesday after consolidating their control of vientianne.
Let me tell you another story. It’s about the same young man in that river, except he’s not young anymore. He’s an old man, now.
He lives in a 60s-style bungalow in Fountain Valley in Los Angeles. It sort of looks like the Brady Bunch house; one you would guess an old man and his wife might live in.
There is a pool out the back for the year-long Californian summer, and a complicated coffee machine in the kitchen he struggles to get working.
The old man is short, bald and wears short-sleeved shirts. He is 81 years old. He reads the LA Times front to back every morning. He has to wear big dark glasses because his eyes hurt in bright sunlight. He has a flat nose, a flat face and loose skin around his neck. He jokes with his wife Nina about how people from his home country, New Zealand, are born risk-takers. Not even LA freeways can stop a Kiwi, he says.
He likes to laugh. His laugh starts off raspy, but comes on deep and rich. He laughs a lot. When he stands, he stands upright. When he walks, he hums to himself. The old man has a funny accent. It has the broad vowel-heavy tones of his homeland, but has been strangely shaped by decades spent away. When he talks about the thing he loves the most – how to get, and tell, a great yarn– his left foot starts tapping.
The young man’s an old man now, you see, but Peter Arnett’s still a goddamn journalist.
He is talking about a time back in the 60s when President Lyndon Johnson, so infuriated with his coverage for the AP of the Vietnam War, sent a government spook on a mission around the States to dig up dirt on him. Arnett knew the spook, and saw him again in Saigon a year after his trip.
“We were having a beer, and this guy says, ‘I spent two goddamn months this year flying around the US, trying to find people who knew you,’ he says. ‘LBJ is using us and the FBI to get the dirt on you. He hates your guts. I didn’t find many people and those who did extolled your virtues. ‘I said to him ‘why didn’t you go to New Zealand?’ He said ‘if I’d gone down there, they would have thrown me out of the fucking country.”
The old man laughs. His foot is tapping.
He is back in that bar in Saigon for an instant, remembering how he’d hacked off an American president. He’d do that a few more times in his lifetime.
How does someone go from young man in the Mekong with a printed story and two hundred bucks between his teeth, to an old man sitting on a couch in Los Angeles, laughing about an American president who despised him?
How does someone from Bluff become the greatest war correspondent ever – and probably the best journalist this country has produced?
What things occur between the river and the couch? There are some big things, of course; the ones everyone knows about.
A Pulitzer Prize, won in 1966 for international reporting for the AP on the Vietnam War; the first, and only, awarded to a New Zealander. His recording of one of the greatest quotes in journalism history – “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it” – in Ben Tre during the war’s Tet Offensive.
Another Pulitzer nomination in 1980.
That famous live CNN feed from the Al-Rashid Hotel in 1991, as the first Gulf War erupted and Arnett stayed on alone in Baghdad to report as bombs rained down around him.
Famed interviews with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Those “anti-American” comments to Iraqi state television during the second Gulf War that would eventually end an illustrious career.
Those things were a long way ahead of Arnett when he walked into the Southland Times newsroom in Invercargill for the first time. It was January 7, 1951. He was 17, had just left high school, and needed a job.
Born in Riverton but raised in Bluff, Arnett was a short, stocky, trouble-making teenager. Ngai Tahu and early whaler’s blood coursed through veins that would never pump well enough to make him great at rugby or cricket, but would eventually pulse at something else: journalism.
The Southland Times job came thanks to his brother John’s experience as a reporter there, and a phone call from his old man to the editor. Arnett walked into the paper’s newsroom that summer day in Invercargill, and was hooked. In this room, you knew the news first, and then told it.
He’d start as a copy boy, writing a few headlines and doing some subbing, but he was itching for his first story. An editor gave it to him. “Peter, it’s a great spring day,” the editor said. “Go out and write me a paragraph on how beautiful it is out there.”
Arnett visited the park and the Oreti River, before coming back to craft five poetic lines. He opened the paper the next day, and saw a dispatch nothing like his. He uncovered his original copy in the newsroom; re-written in pen over his pencil. An important lesson was learnt: write it hard, and tight. Forget the fluff.
That lesson would serve Arnett as a wire reporter for the AP, where he arrived a decade after his three years at the Southland Times, a brief stint in Sydney, and a dream of cracking Fleet Street – but being seduced by the Orient – brought him to Southeast Asia.
Arnett’s conflict reportage would make him what celebrated New York Times journalist David Halberstam – a close friend during the early Vietnam days – called “the best reporter of the [Vietnam] war”.
Former Times editor Bill Keller called Arnett “maybe the quintessential war correspondent of our half-century,” while Mike McRoberts, who met Arnett during the second Gulf War, described his reportage from Baghdad in 1991 as changing conflict journalism forever.
“Once Peter and CNN had done it, that was it. The door was open,” McRoberts says. “That became the new go-to position in a war.”
From Saigon to Baghdad and all points between, Arnett was The War Correspondent; thumping a typewriter or laptop – or preparing for broadcast freshly back from the battle field and wiping sweat from his forehead, artillery booming somewhere in the distance – but making deadline.
Making front pages across America. Making the world understand what war really was really about.
“With the mixed heritage I had, I felt culturally unanchored,” he says. “I had my Maori heritage, and my English heritage. It was disorientating – what am I? Journalism became my culture that I fully embraced, and gave me an identifiable persona that shaped me: to be the journalist.”
Arnett is sitting in front of his favourite French cafe in Fountain Valley, and explaining why telling the news became so important to him. The café is reasonably busy for a Thursday afternoon, but no one has really paid much attention to the old man sitting outside in the sun.
Los Angeles hasn’t been Arnett’s home for long. He and Nina, who reconciled in 2006 after being separated since the early 1980s, relocated here from McLean, Virginia – a suburb of Washington DC – in 2010.
Arnett – who has had dual American-New Zealand citizenship since the 1980s – officially retired from the news game in 2006, with the dust from the second Gulf War never really settling. Though he would, and could, always find a home for his reportage, it was time to pull stumps.
He accepted a journalism teaching position at China’s Shantou University in 2007; a role that he left late last year. Ten months every year were spent in China, but, as Arnett and his wife got older, they decided the climate, and relaxed lifestyle, of California was a more suitable home for them. “It’s the apex of pleasure,” Arnett says.
Nina, whom Arnett married in Saigon in 1964, misses New York’s Upper East side, where the pair lived for decades and raised their two children, Andrew and Elsa, following the Vietnam War.
Both Arnett’s children share their father’s thirst for telling stories. Andrew is a film-maker based in New York, while Elsa, a former Boston Globe reporter, lives in San Francisco with her husband John Yoo, a former high profile lawyer for George W. Bush’s White House.
Arnett still frequently travels around the States as a highly prized university guest lecturer and last year published Saigon Has Fallen, a Vietnam war remembrance with the AP. But he and his wife mostly enjoy a quiet life in L.A.
They often picnic together on the nearby Manhattan and San Clemente beaches, while Arnett will walk around Fountain Valley’s Square Mile Park several times a week to keep trim.
He no longer receives the public attention that he did after the first Gulf War; a time when Hollywood actors, senators and people on the street would fawn over him.
‘After the Gulf War, when I was so controversial, the reception was mind-boggling,” he says. “These days, I might go to the Costa Mesa mall, which is close to here, and occasionally a middle-aged guy will stop me and say ‘you’re Peter Arnett.’ The other day, I went with my daughter to Costco, and a few people my age said something. They remember the Gulf War. So, yes, occasionally it happens and it’s flattering, but it’s not important to me. I’d just rather get the groceries.”
What does a lifetime in news, and on the front lines of war, cost a journalist? More than you can imagine. That is always the case, in life, when you pursue your passion to its zenith. The middle word in life, after all, is sacrifice, and any person only has a certain amount of energy. You follow one thing for a long time, and other things will suffer.
Arnett’s first sacrifice was his homeland. To reach his potential as a journalist, he had to leave New Zealand. The world is certainly a better place for that decision, but to leave one’s culture for good will always create a hole that national accolades – his 2012 Order of Merit is one of his most prized possessions – can’t fill.
Follow war, even for the shortest amount of time, and you’ll see death. Most bodies will belong to people you never knew, but some will. Fellow AP staffers Henri Huet, Huynh Thanh My and Bernie Kolenberg were all killed while working in Vietnam. Australian journalist John Cantwell – Arnett’s best man when he married Nina – was killed in a Viet Cong ambush in 1968.
Though not a result of the pursuit of journalism, time has claimed more of Arnett’s most admired colleagues.
Halberstam was killed in a car accident in San Francisco in 2007, while long-time Saigon AP bureau chief Mal Browne, author of a how-to memo on conflict reportage that Arnett still credits as crucial to his career, died three years ago. AP photojournalists Horst Faas – “a very, very gutsy guy” – and Eddie Adams, two of the Vietnam War’s most famed photographers and close friends of Arnett, have gone too. “I’m getting lonely now,” he says.
Beyond it all though, a war reporter’s pursuit of conflict will eventually hurt those he loves the most. Due to constant trips to war zones, Arnett’s marriage to Nina initially broke down more than 30 years ago.
They are back together now, and for that, Arnett is incredibly grateful. He recognises the pressure his compulsion to report in the world’s most dangerous places put on her.
“I’m lucky that Nina watches over me and tends to my diet and keeps my meds handy,” Arnett says. “I daren’t ask if she has forgiven me, but she does seem to accept that the man she married 50 years ago was launched on a career that neither of us had foreseen at the time – and that both of us have survived to enjoy what lies ahead.”
The discipline that Arnett gave so much for is enduring its biggest transitional period ever these days. The 24 hour news cycle, which was pioneered by CNN – and had a fire lit under it by Arnett’s Gulf War coverage – now dominates the news landscape across all mediums.
That information tidal wave has exhausted newsrooms; making inaccurate, untidy reporting frequent, while eroding public trust in the Fourth Estate. Arnett has watched the game change from Morse code and telegraph dispatches to smartphone news alerts and Twitter live feeds. He’s open about his admiration for the likes of Vice News and ProPublica (a New York-based non-profit investigative website) and his handle on the problems of revenue streams for online news is impressive, but he disagrees with rhetoric that journalism is entering a ‘bold new era.’
“It’s not a great new era of journalism – it’s a great new era for information,” Arnett says, still under the sun at the French cafe. “I don’t think it’s a very good era for journalists at all. What I think would change it all… would be the kind of story so big that it demands disciplined, superb journalism. Unfortunately that category is a big war, a major depression, [or] a cataclysm – Christchurch on a larger scale – that rivets public attention on good journalism.”
Are these the silent roars of a media dinosaur? Of an old journalist pining for news to be reported the way it was in the ‘good old days’?
They may not be as well-defined as they were during Arnett’s time as a reporter, but the big stories are still there. Think WikiLeaks. Think the unresolved War on Terror and its ripple-like ramifications on everyday society. Think the rise of the Islamic State, and its use of social media to sell its disturbing messages.
The way these stories are being reported – and the way audiences engage with them – is vastly different now than when Arnett, a tireless worker who led more than 3000 stories for the AP, was at his best as a journalist. Vastly different than when he left the industry in 2006, even. Any game gets too quick for even its greatest players. The best athletes lose their legs. The best politicians lose their vigour on the stump. The best journalists still want to file for deadlines that have long since passed.
Perhaps it was no coincidence Arnett’s two biggest controversies as a journalist came in his last decade reporting.
In a 1998 report for CNN, Arnett accused American forces of using sarin gas in Laos in 1972 in a military operation dubbed Operation Tailwind. His report, which hinted at war crimes being committed, launched a Pentagon investigation that found the accusations to be false.
CNN retracted the story, two producers lost their jobs – and Arnett faced a reprimand that would eventually end his time with the network.
His career ‘coup de grace’ came eight years later when reporting on the second Gulf War for the NBC. Arnett gave an ill-advised interview with Iraqi state television in which he stated that American military plans had failed in the conflict.
The comments were termed ‘anti-American’, and led his network dismissal the following day. Arnett is frank about his errors. “I was labouring, very much, in the public view,” Arnett says.
“You might say Arnett screwed up at the end of his career. I didn’t screw up – I was lucky I had lasted so long without suffering a career body blow.”
Let me tell you a story about an old man, and a river. The river is a long way behind him now, and so too is the young man who once jumped into it. The river was news and Arnett negotiated its current as well as anyone who ever lived. Where that river would go on to flow would be his gift to the world; a world that knows more about itself because of his presence in it.
The river’s nature has changed now though, and it is moving too fast for him. He is too old to take off his shirt, clench a story between his teeth and swim across it. He sits back in a place a long way from his first home, and remembers the old days. He laughs a lot. He feels pride. He thinks of the people he has loved, and the ones that he has lost. He is an old man looking back on a life well lived. What didn’t change in the young man, and the old one? What didn’t change in the river, or since? The urge to get into it, and to get the story out.
Peter Arnett was born for the news. Born to sniff it out, and tell it: sharp, clean – and first. A born journalist; destined to tell the stories that matter.
Whatever the cost.