Joe Bob’s America: Free Geraldo!

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NEW YORK, April 2 (UPI) — Nobody else seems to be volunteering for the job, so I’ll do it. I’m the only person on the entire planet who thinks Geraldo Rivera was framed.

I happened to be watching Fox News when Rivera did his little map in the sand. That was the only chance to see it, because when it was replayed later on rival networks, they blacked out the sandbox and eliminated the audio.


Let me first say this: His explanation of the movements of the 101st Airborne was the equivalent of third-graders playing with plastic army men in the dirt. I’ve been in touch football huddles where the diagramming was more precise. His attempt to draw a map of Iraq looked like a schizophrenic’s finger-painting of a wounded water buffalo with no head.

He basically had three locations on the map: Here’s the 101st Airborne, here’s Baghdad, and here’s the road to Baghdad. As I write this, I’m looking at The New York Times, which prints large, detailed, colored maps every day showing the positions of troops and the sites of engagements. They have the 101st Airborne precisely pinpointed, and they have a big red arrow showing THE DIRECTION THEY’RE TRAVELING. The road Geraldo was talking about is THE SAME ROAD EVERYONE ELSE HAS BEEN TAKING.

In other words, military value of the Geraldo Map: equal to a drunk watching CNN at Velma’s Roadhouse in East Pisgah, Ky., and scrawling his opinions on a napkin with a crayon.

So what was this about, really?

It was about somebody at CNN or MSNBC watching Geraldo that morning, saying, “Hey, he can’t do that!” — and then calling their correspondent in the field and forcing them to go to the military command and demand to know how Geraldo got away with “revealing troop movements.” Geraldo overreacted when he called it “a pack of lies” by “snakes” at the companies he used to work for — NBC and MSNBC — because it wasn’t really lies. It was just manipulating a public affairs officer into making a decision about something that, if left alone, would have gone unnoticed. But Geraldo was right that it was petty bickering by people who don’t like him.

Geraldo did NOT get fired, as some outlets reported. Fox stepped in and suggested he be repositioned in Kuwait while the tempest blew over — and the Pentagon was happy to be rid of it.

Its main effect was to dilute the impact of the REAL story that day, which was the firing of Peter Arnett as a correspondent for NBC, MSNBC and “National Geographic Explorer.”

Arnett’s sin was that he gave a brief interview to Iraqi national TV in which he expressed some opinions about the resilience of the Iraqi fighters and the influence of civilian casualties on the anti-war movement. Once again, this interview was blacked out in the United States. Fortunately, you can download it on the Internet.

It’s not very original stuff. I’ve heard it over and over again. Most of the things said by Arnett have been said by retired generals on American networks. Nevertheless, when NBC News President Neal Shapiro fired Arnett, he said it was for two reasons: first, that he granted the interview at all; second, that he discussed his “personal observations and opinions.”

My, my, my — personal observations and opinions from a reporter in the field. Check my attentiveness here, but has there been a single TV reporter ON ANY NETWORK in the past two weeks who hasn’t given us a constant stream of personal observations and opinions? Some of them get so personal that they get all choked up on the air.

What Shapiro should have said is that he hated Arnett’s opinions, not that there’s some company policy against having opinions and expressing them on the air — on networks that are available in Baghdad! Normally when a news executive fires a reporter because he disagrees with his opinions, the Fourth Estate rises up in indignation. Not a peep this time.

But the more pertinent reason was probably Shapiro’s first charge in the Arnett indictment — giving an interview to Iraqi TV. Shapiro is saying that an interview on Iraqi TV, because it’s state-operated, is fundamentally different from giving the same interview on an American network, even if the American network is watched by Iraqis.

This goes to the very heart of the question: Who does the American media work for? My own view is that they shouldn’t work for anyone; therefore they should be able to give interviews to anyone. Prior to the Geneva Protocol of 1977, reporters traveling with armies were regarded as members of the military information office, and many of them wore uniforms and carried weapons. After that protocol, all journalists were declared to be civilians, forbidden from wearing uniforms, and forbidden from carrying firearms. The clear message seemed to be: They don’t work for any government.

The reason this protocol was changed is because journalists themselves WANTED it changed. Yet there were intimations this week that Arnett was giving “aid and comfort” to the enemy, which is a federal crime. There’s not supposed to BE an “enemy” for a journalist. Does this mean that an American journalist would be prohibited from, say, taking a job with al-Jazeera? I hope not.

The truth is that the American media’s objectivity stops at the border. We’re not mature enough to have a truly internationalist point of view. And that means that, even if you don’t work directly for the war ministry, you’ll be held to its standards.

I don’t have much sympathy for Peter Arnett — not because he gave the interview, but because he apologized for giving the interview. One thing you can say for Geraldo: he never apologizes.

Both men landed on their feet. I expect Geraldo to be creeping back into Iraq any day now. Arnett got a job the same day with the Daily Mirror in London, which announced his coming with the headline “Fired By America For Telling the Truth.”

One other point. The reason Rivera and Arnett make everyone nervous is that they’re among the reporters who are NOT embedded. Arnett roams around Baghdad. Rivera roams around anywhere they’ll have him. As it turns out, it’s Neal Shapiro, in New York, who’s embedded.

”’Joe Bob Briggs writes a number of columns for UPI and may be contacted at:”’ ”’or through his Web site at:”’ ”’Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.”’

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.