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 AJR  The Beat

From AJR,   June 1999  issue

Recasting Arnett   

By Lori Robertson & Sinéad OBrien
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.       Sinéad O'Brien is a former AJR editorial assistant.     

"A SLOW DIVORCE FROM CNN and a quick marriage to foreignTV. com"--that's the way Peter Arnett describes his journey from cable to Webcasting.
On April 19, CNN announced that, after 18 years together, the network and the seasoned war correspondent were parting ways. Less than a month later, Arnett signed up with the new Internet foreign news site to interview world leaders and help the organization establish bureaus around the world.
ForeignTV.com is all video. Arnett will do at least one interview a month, as well as provide commentary on the interview. "I'll try to make them unique, very detailed," he says. "They'll be long as hell."
The site, with offices in Manhattan, is in its infancy. The president and a founding partner, Albert T. Primo, was the father of the Eyewitness News format in the late '60s. Primo envisions a similar format of "people talking to people" for foreignTV.com, which hosted mostly Reuters video reports in mid-May. The site will highlight fashion, music and travel as well as news and will be fully operational in October. Interviews from Arnett will be posted before then, as they are available.
Arnett says he was not interested in jumping to another television network, since CNN is the only one he'd want to work for. One of the attractions of the Internet, for him, is its worldwide reach. "My old mother, who's 96 in New Zealand, will be able to call me up and see me," he says.
His departure from CNN comes after a long span in which Arnett's face virtually vanished from the all-news network--a span that followed the Tailwind debacle last summer. The lone Arnett sighting since July was a December report filed from Algeria.
The Operation Tailwind piece, the much-touted premier of the network's prime-time newsmagazine "NewsStand: CNN & Time," aired June 7, and its print version ran the next day in Time magazine. The controversial story claimed the U.S. military used deadly nerve gas on deserters during the Vietnam War. It ignited a firestorm of bitter criticism. Within weeks, CNN retracted and apologized for the piece, and three producers associated with the story lost their jobs. (See "An Ill Tailwind", September.)
Though Arnett was the story's on-air correspondent, he survived by maintaining he merely provided a face and voice and should not be held responsible for the reporting. He was, however, reprimanded.
"After Tailwind," he says, "I was told to avoid interviews...and go sit out the summer." He was also told CNN didn't want him covering any "big, controversial stories for a few months."
When the conflict in Kosovo intensified, Arnett, the consummate battlefield reporter, volunteered for duty. CNN said no thanks. The network ultimately informed his agent it would exercise a July exit clause in his five-year contract, with two-and-a-half years remaining. But in April, Arnett's agent, Richard Leibner, reached a settlement agreement with CNN. "We are grateful for Peter's contributions to CNN, and we wish him the very best in the future," Tom Johnson, chairman, president and CEO, CNN News Group, said in a statement. CNN would not comment further.
Arnett says he doesn't have "any deep bitterness" about his split from what he considered "the family."
"I felt, in a sense, like a lover who can't believe they're being betrayed by their partner," he says.
Arnett doesn't believe Tailwind was the primary reason CNN let him go. "CNN is trying to shape a news organization for the millennium...and they didn't envision me as being a part of it." But, he says there's no question that "Tailwind accelerated my departure" and adds that broadcasting is a "cruel" business that often drops anchors and correspondents before they're quite ready to let go of the mike.
Besides, Arnett's a fate kind of guy. "It was all serendipitous," he says of his new career moves. In addition to his online adventures, he's contemplating writing a book on the media and doing some TV production work. Plus, he'll be playing himself in an upcoming Robert DeNiro film, "Fifteen Minutes," something CNN would never have let him do.
Arnett, a New Zealand native, worked at papers in his homeland, Australia and Thailand before joining the Associated Press in 1962. He covered the Vietnam War for 13 years, earning a Pulitzer Prize in 1966. In 1981, he left the wire and brought his distinctive bellow to CNN. He filed from, among other places, El Salvador, Ethiopia and Baghdad, where he covered the Persian Gulf War live for 57 days.
Genuinely excited about his new gig, Arnett draws an analogy between this venture and his early CNN days. "When I joined CNN, there were a lot of...colleagues who ridiculed it," he says. "It took a while, but I really felt there was something there that was going to be great.... And I get a similar feeling about this Internet operation that's a pioneering endeavor."
At 64, Arnett has covered 17 wars. Perhaps sometime in the future, he says, he'll become the first Internet war correspondent. "I'd love to do that," he says.