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Journalist Peter Arnett photographed in his home in Fountain Valley, California October 2, 2015.
Journalist Peter Arnett photographed in his home in Fountain Valley, California October 2, 2015.

MediaNovember 20, 2015

“I Understood the Terrain of Crisis” – An Interview with Kiwi War Reporting Legend Peter Arnett

Journalist Peter Arnett photographed in his home in Fountain Valley, California October 2, 2015.
Journalist Peter Arnett photographed in his home in Fountain Valley, California October 2, 2015.

Ben Stanley meets with Pulitzer Prize winning Southlander Peter Arnett – arguably the finest war correspondent ever – to talk about journalism and where it’s headed. This Q&A is taken from interviews associated with the cover story of Barkers’ 1972 magazine – the latest issue is in stores now.

Journalist Peter Arnett photographed in his home in Fountain Valley, California.
Journalist Peter Arnett at his home in Fountain Valley, California, photographed by Kendrick Brinson.

Despite the changing face of media, it is undeniable that the war correspondent still occupies a position of prime mystique in journalism.

How could it not? To cover war, one must roll the dice – and keep them hot. Be just smart enough, just dumb enough, just gutsy enough and just noble enough. Do it right, and it’s just possible that you could save lives. Foreign policy might change, troops could be withdrawn and aid sent in. Do it wrong, and you’re dead.

I’ve always found it incredible that a bloke from New Zealand – safe in its little corner of the world – became arguably the finest war correspondent ever.

I first learnt about Peter Arnett, when reading about the Vietnam War as a teenager. Vietnam was the first real media war, where censorship was largely absent – and reporters had the opportunity to present the conflict the way it really unfolded.

Arnett – all the way from Bluff – stood tall alongside such iconic journalists as David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan and Malcolm Browne as they revealed the war for what it really was: the biggest political mistake in American history.

Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his work in Vietnam, Arnett remained The War Correspondent for 40 years; filing sharp, important dispatches as the bullets flew around him.

To say I was feeling a touch intimidated as I drove to Peter’s place in Fountain Valley in Los Angeles two months ago is an understatement. For a young journalist who idolised those who covered Vietnam, it was like driving into the shadow of Everest.

I mean: how do you “interview” a guy who once asked Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden the big questions?

Peter Arnett with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, 1997.
Peter Arnett with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, 1997.

The shadow was gone not long after I first shook Peter’s hand. What I found instead was a humble, friendly old bugger with an easy laugh, and a sharp memory of how he got his best stories. “Great play,” he would say, laughing about the ones that got used well.

His Southland roots were still fresh and important to him despite his years away, as were the memory of his old reporter friends from the early days of Vietnam. He knows he’s one of the last ones standing, now.

While I was fascinated to hear his stories of filing from hot combat zones, our main subject of discussion was journalism, and where it was headed. Yes, Peter had far more runs on the board than me, and our predominant media climates couldn’t be more different, but I never felt like he was talking down to me.

Instead, we were trying to figure out what was happening to a thing we both loved so much, and how to get it healthy again.

We didn’t find the answer, that afternoon in Fountain Valley, but it didn’t matter. It was one of the best days I’ve spent on the job.

Despite your Kiwi roots, you became an American citizen in the 1980s. How important was this decision, in regards to your journalism career?

“I was perfectly happy to be a New Zealander, and it wasn’t an issue in my work. The Associated Press and CNN were more interested in the journalism than the nationality. Give us the stories, they’d say.

“[That said], there was a lot of comments during the Gulf War. You know – ‘send the bastard back to New Zealand.’

“But the point was, I was an American [then]. If I hadn’t been, it would have been a way to further discredit my journalism.

“Being an American solidified my credentials to challenge American policy.”

You have interviewed some of the most infamous political leaders of the last century. What is it like interviewing people like Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden?

“I’m often asked, where you ever scared when you talked to people like Saddam Hussein, or bin Laden or Ratko Mladic?

“The truth is that when these individuals agree to an interview, they’re on the line.

“If you’ve got a camera, their message is going to go out, so they have to be super careful about how they present themselves. So you have the catbird seat – you’re the one who will determine the quality, to some degree, of what’s going on.”

What are your thoughts on the rise of Vice News to cover international conflict, and the decreasing influence of network television reportage?

“[Vice News] can exist because the market is so open now for material. Vice can produce stuff that there was no outlet for five years ago. It is a child of the current technological environment.

“There is a market for their material. They’re the social media version of what CNN was.

“There was an opening for the kind of stuff they’re doing, because the networks and CNN really aren’t doing it anymore. They apparently have the finances. I’m glad that it exists.

“CNN never caught on with the general public. Its audience is 800,000 to a million on a good day. The Gulf War was their biggest event, but if they can pull a million viewers, that’s a lot. There’s 300 million people out here in America.”

“The quality of network news has gone down. They’ve been writing off the network news organisations for years, but the anchors are some of the major figures in American television now – and they have big audiences.

“The truth is: how much are Americans concerned about what is happening in the world? Vice will get the attention of the news junkies [and], as a news professional, I admire an attempt to get a story out.

“But you can see what the general public is interested in – look at Donald Trump.”

You had had a hugely successful journalism career before the first Gulf War, but it was your reportage in Baghdad for CNN that gave you a big media profile back in the United States. What were those post-Gulf War days like for you?

‘After the Gulf War when I was so controversial, the reception was mind-boggling. I was doing three lectures a week, and travelling all over the world.

“I remember coming back to New York and I was walking along Madison Avenue.

“There was a bunch of construction workers sitting there having lunch, and I heard ‘hey Pete! Hey Pete! You got it, man!

“I’d be in elevators in Washington and senators would shake my hand. I’d be like ‘who the hell is that guy?”

You were awarded the Pulitzer for your reportage on the Vietnam War in 1965, but kept covering conflict for more than 40 years. What kept you going all that time?

“Two aspects of my life really affected me professionally. One was winning the Pulitzer.

“It gave me a responsibility to not diminish my reportage or the value of the Pulitzer; it set a standard for me to follow. So, part of it was to live up to what the Pulitzer represented. “The other part was many of the 70 or so journalists or so who died [in Vietnam] were close friends.

“[If they had lived] they would have been continuing to report and photograph stories that I was doing.

“To some degree, in their memory, I kept doing it – to keep covering other war stories.

“Some people might say ‘he’s a god-damn war lover.’ No. I am a lover of stories that get used.

“If I’m going to be of value as a journalist, I can be more value in the front line somewhere doing my kind of reporting than other kinds of reporting. I understood the terrain of crisis.”

You copped a lot of criticism because of your coverage of the first Gulf War for CNN. How do you reflect on that reportage now?

“My view was the coverage I’m doing from that particular part of the battlefield – the enemy headquarters – was of no danger to the collation war plan. I was simply reporting on the damage of the bombing that all the Iraqis knew about.

“I was simply telling the world what was happening to the Iraqis what they already knew. Why can’t we share that information with the rest of the world?

“[CNN boss] Ted Turner’s view was let’s still both sides of the story, and I felt like I was going along with that too.

“The criticism enlarged my persona. People were saying, the American government doesn’t want him there – but he’s still there. Looking at the bombing, look at the missiles.

“Someone told me at a party, when I got back, a Hollywood producer, ‘Peter, your coverage was like being the star of a multi-million dollar movie extravaganza that went around the world.

“It was like a movie – the television, the argument, the debates. Could it happen again? No, because there would be 500 people telling the same story.”

Peter Arnett in Kien Hoa province, Vietnam, 1964.
Peter Arnett in Kien Hoa province, Vietnam, 1964.

Your coverage of the first Gulf War helped pioneer the idea of the 24-hour news cycle; a model that now dominates news reportage but creates overwhelming pressure on journalists to deliver. Is the romance gone from being an international correspondent now?

“The poor bastards are working 24 hours around the clock.

“There’s no rest. Even at the AP, you could do your story and go and have a few drinks, knowing you were, as we would say, ‘out of pocket.’

“You’re never out of pocket now. You can’t escape, meaning the journalist’s job now is increasingly one of response to other competitive material.

“There used to be romance. Certainly there were difficulties, sure, but there used to be a time when reporters smoked dope and drank too much and let it all out – you can’t do that today.

“You can’t afford to, today. You’re can’t – you’re always on. It’s kind of like an office job, now.”

What are your thoughts on the rise of citizen journalism, and how to best use social media for news?

“People say everyone’s a reporter – what does that mean?

“We’d like to believe that reporting is a craft that you painstakingly learn. The techniques, the judgments. They can only be learned from practice.

“There’s a lot of subtlety between a really good journalist, and an average one. Those subtleties disappear in the social media environment.

“I think there will be changes. [Under] the current system, you have different websites coming up and you have different models on how to present news that are increasingly failing. Sooner or later, you will get a Huffington News that is actually significant and has real principles and can be affordable along the way – let’s hope.”

What is the biggest aspect of the modern media landscape that most annoys you?

“The media is helping destroy itself, and one of the ways was, on the internet, it encouraged readers to comment on the reporter’s story.

“The poor reporter has to leave the email address, and you get thousands of nasty, vicious things, usually from biased, ignorant people.

“They are starting to drop that – it’s an unnecessary assault on the journalist’s integrity.

“It’s not like you are getting a calculated, reasonable response. Much of it is just angry agitation, and totally biased commentary trying to demolish the judgments the reporter is running.”

[During the First Gulf War, a right-wing media protest group called ‘Accuracy in Media’, besieged CNN offices with tens of thousands of reprinted postcards, calling for Arnett’s head for his perceived ‘pro-Iraqi’ coverage of the conflict. Ted Turner supported Arnett, and encouraged to keep doing what he was doing, regardless of the postcards.]

“If Ted had got 35,000 emails [now], he would have been pushed to do something about it. Ted’s a great guy, but the pressure would have been enormous.

“I mean, if social media existed in 1991, or if it existed during the Vietnam War, I would have been out of work very quickly.”

The Summer 2016 issue of 1972 – a magazine by Barkers, assembled by The Spinoff’s Custom division, is in Barkers stores now.

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