Telling truth is reporter's job


A FRIEND who fought in the jungles of New Guinea, and whose son serves on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, asks: "What are we going to do about Peter Arnett?"

As he sees it, CNN and its reporter in Baghdad are enemy-propagandists.

Whether to suspend democratic freedoms, including the press' right to double-check, in time of war is a debate that goes back at least to the Alien and Sedition Acts. Like everything about the gulf, it's given new immediacy and passion by satellite television. The political and propaganda battles of this war are fought in the world's living rooms, with human faces ranging from George Bush to Pentagon briefer Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, from Saddam Hussein to Arnett.

This all-consuming soap opera injects a bitter, personal quality into what used to be a more abstract argument. Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) called Arnett a "sympathizer," falsely citing his ex-wife as someone with Viet Cong connections.

It was a vicious, irrelevant charge, unfair to an old pro who risked his life so regularly and long to get eye-witness pieces out of Vietnam that other reporters pleaded with him to pack it in before his luck ran out.

Most Americans are all for muzzling once battle is joined. Reporters who remind us children are dying under our bombs are viewed as an enemy. Sure, the allies are in the propaganda business too. Pentagon spin-doctors seldom show pictures of bomb misses. Kuwait spends millions promoting Iraqi atrocities. Limits on press access to soldiers and the battlefield are the tightest in U.S. history. C'est le guerre, hard cheese and so what?

Who cares if truth is the first casualty of war? We can resume the luxury of democratic freedoms after cleansing the other guy's clock. Truth in war is like that village in Vietnam. We have to destroy it in order to save it.

No sane journalist argues for the right to publish security details that might endanger soldiers. A voluntary code on that was universally respected in Vietnam. The record was equally good in Korea and World War II.

The Pentagon clamped a lid on field reporting this time not because of past security violations but out of conviction Vietnam battlefield reporting -- which it now admits was more accurate than the official version -- fueled anti-war sentiment.

That's undeniable but re-raises the question of who was right. Would we have been better off continuing that war, especially given the way Johnson and Nixon chose to fight it?

"The truth shall make you free," is the text on which democracy rests. Without truth, or as close as can be dug out, a people has no monitor on those who commit its sons and daughters to battle.

Having to deal with a meddlesome press limits what democratic leaders can do. Small wonder they envy the latitude of the Saddams. But it's a safeguard against not just hubris and abuse of power but even bad judgment. The trade-off for some hobbling at the top is the staying power and common sense of an informed people underneath.

The press' role is to defend those assets fang and claw and to hell with being liked. A popular journalist usually isn't doing his job. If we didn't have Arnett and those other guys in Baghdad, painstakingly trying to fill in some of the pieces of the puzzle, we'd need to invent them.

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