Bob Arnot, the medical doctor turned foreign correspondent for MSNBC and NBC News-the onetime chief medical correspondent “Dr. Bob” on NBC News, who has been filing prickly, Geraldo-like dispatches from Iraq-has been conspicuously absent from TV lately. Dr. Arnot’s contract was up at NBC in December 2003 and, according to the network, won’t be renewed in the foreseeable future.
Dr. Arnot did not leave willingly.
Although personal, his departure has also exposed the divides over TV coverage of the war in Iraq.
In a 1,300-word e-mail to NBC News president Neal Shapiro, written in December 2003 and obtained by NYTV, Dr. Arnot called NBC News’ coverage of Iraq biased. He argued that keeping him in Iraq and on NBC could go far in rectifying that. Dr. Arnot told Mr. Shapiro that NBC had alienated the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad since it shot and then aired footage of correspondent Jim Miklaszewski at the scene of the November bombing of the Al Rashid Hotel, in which a C.P.A. staffer was shown injured. That incident, he wrote, “earned the undying enmity of the C.P.A.”
“We’ve been at a significant disadvantage given NBC’s reputation in Iraq,” Dr. Arnot wrote Mr. Shapiro. He argued that due to his excellent relationships with military and C.P.A. personnel, NBC News could repair its standing with government authorities by airing more of his material.
“I’m uniquely positioned to report the story,” he wrote. ” NBC Nightly News routinely takes the stories that I shoot and uses the footage, even to lead the broadcast,” but “refuses to allow the story to be told by the reporter on the scene.”
In other words, he suggested, NBC News did not like putting him on the air.
Dr. Arnot included excerpts from an e-mail from Jim Keelor, president of Liberty Broadcasting, which owns eight NBC stations throughout the South. Mr. Keelor had written NBC, stating that “the networks are pretty much ignoring” the good-news stories in Iraq. “The definition of news would incorporate some of these stories,” he wrote. “Hence the Fox News surge.”
Reached for comment, Mr. Keelor said that he was “not lambasting anyone” and that NBC News “indicated they were sensitive to the issues.” But he added, “Of course it’s political. Journalism and news is what unusual [events] happened that day. And if the schools are operating, they can say that’s usual. My response to that is, ‘The hell it is.’ My concern there is that almost everything that has occurred in a Iraq since the war started is unexpected.”
That pretty much summed up Dr. Arnot’s attitude as well. In his letter to Mr. Shapiro, he wondered why the network wasn’t reporting stories of progress in Iraq, a frequently heard complaint of the Bush administration. “As you know, I have regularly pitched most of these stories contained in the note to Nightly , Today and directly to you,” he wrote. “Every single story has been rejected.”
Reached at home in Vermont, Dr. Arnot said Mr. Shapiro was no longer interested in his kind of coverage. “On the MSNBC side, they’ve been very generous and they want me back,” he said. “But from the NBC vantage point, Neal neglected to put any money into the pot, and that’s the reason I’m not back in Baghdad.”
Did Mr. Shapiro respond to his e-mail? “That particular e-mail, I didn’t get any response,” he said. “There was an earlier e-mail, and the response said, ‘We’re just too strapped. We don’t have the money to be able to afford the editorial oversight.'”
Dr. Arnot said he knew for “a fact” that Mr. Shapiro’s problem with his reporting was that “it was just very positive.”
Mr. Shapiro responded by e-mail, saying that NBC News had re-evaluated its coverage for 2004, determined that “we were in the post-war period in Iraq” and shifted its resources to political coverage.
“Given that we were well covered in Iraq with regular correspondents, we explored other options with Bob, which to this point have not resulted in a new agreement …. Any implication that NBC News has been reluctant to cover the rebuilding story in Iraq is absolutely ridiculous,” Mr. Shapiro wrote, citing pieces on “the reopening of schools” and on how the 101st Airborne “reorganized the north and has very good relations there.” Mr. Shapiro added that the Center for Media and Public Affairs found NBC News to be the most balanced among the networks. “I am proud of our coverage, and feel absolutely comfortable with the way Bob Arnot’s reporting was utilized by the network.”
A number of high-ranking military officials contacted by NYTV complimented Dr. Arnot’s superior reporting skills, especially in light of what they perceived as the chronically negative war reporting on TV in the United States. Larry DiRita, the Pentagon spokesman for Donald Rumsfeld, said that Dr. Arnot captured Iraq as he experienced it when he visited there himself. “It was complex and nuanced and uneven then, and you had to get around to see it that way-and he does,” Mr. DiRita said. “I think his coverage provided an aspect of daily Iraqi life that is being missed by a heck of a lot of coverage.”
Maj. Clark Taylor e-mailed NYTV from Baghdad to state that Dr. Arnot “highlighted what is really happening over here …. He generally reported positive things because, generally, that is what is happening. Of course there are occasional bad things … and he reported those as well. The fact was, he reported what he saw-which generally was positive.”
“As you probably know, he is quite a renaissance man (doctor, athlete, TV journalist, etc.),” wrote Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus in an e-mail, “and the ‘Screaming Eagles’ (the nickname for the 101st’s soldiers) really took to him. Our soldiers and leaders were particularly pleased that he demonstrated so much interest in the nation-building endeavors that were carried out by our troopers and our many superb Iraqi partners.”
Another military official, Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling, said he and his colleagues had recently done an assessment of the 37 reporters they’d worked with, determining which ones they liked and which ones they didn’t. “Thirty-seven different reporters we talked about, and we decided who we would really like to go to war with in the future, or who we would like to drink a beer with later on,” General Hertling told NYTV. “I won’t tell you that number,” he added, laughing, but he did say Dr. Arnot was at the top of the list.
In his e-mail to Mr. Shapiro, Dr. Arnot argued that his relationships with the authorities earned him access to stories that other reporters couldn’t get.
“I was the only reporter to be shown the actual list of terrorists found in Saddam’s briefcase,” he wrote. “The military even let me witness the capture of one of the leaders of the insurgency … a major general in the Baathist military wing.”
And Mr. Shapiro had a number of complimentary things to say about Dr. Arnot, calling him an “intrepid live reporter.”
But in the halls of NBC News, a number of insiders at the network said, Dr. Arnot was seen as a cheerleader for the military and the C.P.A. Some questioned his accuracy as a reporter.
In 1998, Mr. Arnot’s best-selling book, The Breast Cancer Prevention Diet , came under intense scrutiny from medical watchdogs for its broad claims-so much so that both the American Cancer Society and Memorial–Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City complained of inaccuracies and misstatements in Dr. Arnot’s book. “In the end, there were no technical faults with the book,” said Dr. Arnot.
In 2001, Dr. Arnot-then chief medical correspondent for NBC’s Today show and for Dateline NBC -gave up his stethoscope and donned a flak jacket for some foreign adventures.
Dr. Arnot’s friendship with MSNBC president Erik Sorenson, a colleague from his days at CBS, helped transform him into a special foreign correspondent after Sept. 11, 2001. He made his way to dangerous hot spots like Sudan and Somalia, writing about his adventures for Men’s Journal ; in 2003, he went to Baghdad and embedded with the First Marine Expeditionary Force.
“There was a lot of pressure to make sure that Fox didn’t win the war,” said an NBC insider familiar with Dr. Arnot’s work. But, the insider said, NBC “didn’t have correspondents who wanted to fight that war.” Dr. Arnot was willing and able. He said he had risked his life many times for MSNBC and NBC News. And he was very friendly with the military.
In his e-mail, Dr. Arnot revealed the kind of thing he would offer NBC if he was allowed to stay: “At the end of the war I scrubbed in on an operation to save a young girl hit by a grenade. As a female surgeon closed her abdomen at the end of the operation, I asked if the child would survive. She said, ‘Yes she will, she is the future of Iraq.’ She also survived because a US Army sergeant took the ticking grenade from her hand and turned away from her. The girl survived because of his heroism. At my request, the Army sent a Blackhawk helicopter to evacuate a four and a half year old girl with 55 percent burns … under fire … and protected by two Apache gunships. These stories never made air on NBC.
“What happens if NBC is wrong[?]” he wrote. “What happens if this is a historical mission that does succeed … that transforms the Middle East … that brings peace and security to America. What if NBC’s role was like that of much of the media in general … allowing the terrorists to fight their war on the American television screen, where their stories of death and destruction dominate rather than that of American heroes?”
Dr. Arnot became popular with military leaders in Iraq and with the C.P.A. in Baghdad. A high-ranking C.P.A. official said Dr. Arnot “was visible, he was active, he told a compete story,” adding that NBC News had effectively stopped reporting on Iraq, leaving a single Pentagon reporter, Mr. Miklaszewski, in Baghdad. “NBC doesn’t really cover the Iraq story,” the official said. “They don’t have serious resources on the ground. If they did, they would cover the release of the Zarqawi memo with a reporter on the ground,” referring to a document that the U.S. military said demonstrates an Iraqi insurrection orchestrated by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a terrorist that the White House has linked to Al Qaeda.
“It’s been over six months since Brokaw has been here,” the official added. “There are over 120,000 troops on the ground and there’s no real NBC presence.”
Dr. Arnot told NYTV: “I’ve been attacked many times-once with guns, once with swords. Once was at the al-Aike Hotel when it was blown up. There have been no journalists who have been purposely attacked. And the bomb was right under my window. We were attacked with swords down in Najaf. It was a 10 seconds’ difference between being hacked down …. And just before Christmas, I was basically ambushed with assault weapons in Abu Ghraib in the middle of the night. That was a bad situation. It’s a very dangerous thing. My mother is saying, ‘I don’t think it’s the smart thing for you to be out there.'”
Dr. Arnot’s e-mail to Mr. Shapiro claimed that the Sept. 25, 2003, bombing of the al-Aike Hotel in Baghdad-where NBC employees were stationed at the time-was aimed directly at him. “I’ve been targeted on several occasions,” he wrote, recalling “a bomb placed directly under my window at the IKE [ sic ] hotel resulting in several shrapnel wounds.”
Dr. Arnot’s enthusiasm occasionally got the best of him, said NBC News staffers, such as when Dr. Arnot-who claimed he knew how to speak Arabic-tried his chops on some Iraqi barber-shop customers, asking them what they thought of a speech by President Bush. “He’s … telling them what Bush is saying in Arabic and then translating their responses live on the air,” said one co-worker, who said that NBC translators “said he was talking gibberish.”
“I was asking these guys yes-or-no questions, and this guy went on and on and on,” said Dr. Arnot. “There are many kinds of Arabic … and am I good at understanding the Iraqi accent? No, I’m terrible.”
NBC sources said that when the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in Baghdad, Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw declined to put Dr. Arnot on the air, even though he was the sole NBC reporter on the scene. Instead, Mr. Brokaw aired a British reporter from a news agency called ITN. “They used ITN, their British affiliate … rather than someone on the NBC payroll,” said the NBC staffer. “They don’t use his reporting because they don’t trust his reporting.”
In November, Dr. Arnot reported a series for MSNBC’s Hardball , “Iraq: The Real Story,” an effort to find the so-called “good news” stories that Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III and the C.P.A. had found lacking in the media. The C.P.A. was so distressed by network coverage that its senior media advisor, Dorrance Smith, created a separate government feed-an attempt to provide the kind of stories they wanted to local affiliates in the U.S.
Mr. Smith told NYTV that he had prompted MSNBC to do the Hardball series.
Dr. Arnot was not the first NBC employee to complain about coverage in Iraq. In fact, Noah Oppenheim, the producer of the Hardball series, a self-identified neoconservative and onetime producer for Scarborough Country , wrote an article for The Weekly Standard upon his return from his three weeks in Iraq, asserting that reporters rarely got out of the so-called Green Zone in Baghdad, and that they cribbed wire reports. Mr. Oppenheim left MSNBC when Nightly News executive producer Steve Capus and anchor Tom Brokaw complained openly that the article was unseemly coming from a NBC-affiliated news producer.
While Dr. Arnot’s fitness as a reporter may be under scrutiny, his criticism of NBC News does go to the heart of an ongoing issue in this election season, the media perception of the war in Iraq. On Sunday, Feb. 8, when Tim Russert asked President Bush on NBC’s Meet the Press if the administration had miscalculated “how we would be treated and received in Iraq,” Mr. Bush’s responded that he disagreed with the premise of the question: “Well, I think we are welcomed in Iraq. I’m not exactly sure, given the tone of your questions, we’re not.”
The exchange showed the distance between the White House and the media on how the war had been presented to Americans. They were two men watching different TV shows-Mr. Bush had his sources, and Mr. Russert saw what he saw.
And so did Dr. Arnot.