The never-ending adventures of a travel writer in Vietnam, Cambodia, New Zealand and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Controversial War Journalist Peter Arnett as the Keynote Speaker at the Historic Saigon Caravelle Hotel's 50th Anniversary

The historic Caravelle Hotel in Ho Chi Minh’s city’s downtown district 1 celebrates its 50th anniversary this week. The hotel invited controversial former CNN correspondent and journalist Peter Arnett to be their keynote speaker for the festivities. I was fortunate to be invited to the associated press conference, as a Vietnam-based guidebook writer.

The Caravelle Hotel sits across from the opera house and around the corner from other noteworthy buildings like the Continental Hotel and the now Rex Hotel (location for the daily US military press briefings known as “The 5’oclock follies”). When the hotel opened on Christmas Eve of 1959, it was the tallest building in Saigon, at 10 stories. The hotel was lauded at the time for its bullet-proof glass and air-conditioning. Caravelle became a favorite base for journalists and diplomats. News agencies like the Associated Press, New York Times and Washington post all set up bureaus there, and Australia and New Zealand even established their embassies in the Hotel. Guests of the hotel during the war included aviation pioneer Charles Lindberg, novelist John Steinbeck, and Jack Lawrence of CBS. Peter Arnett himself was a frequent guest.

Today the Caravelle is one of the country’s top luxury hotels. Historically the hotel has primarily appealed to businessmen, journalists and diplomats. However, General Manager John Gardner stated during the hotel press conference that due largely to the current world economic crisis, their customer base has shifted from 75% to 50% business-related. The other half of their customer base is now made up of international tourists.

Peter Arnett, a native New Zealander, now age 74, worked primarily for the Associate Press during the Vietnam War. His legendary reports were famous for their gritty and straightforward manner of covering stories of average soldiers and dangerous daily events.

Arnett's stories were often perceived as negative. President Lyndon B. Johnson and General William Westmoreland tried to convince the AP to have Arnett removed from his assignment. Likewise he sometimes angered Vietnamese officials. In July 1963, Arnett was punched in the nose by South Vietnamese police while reporting on Buddhist protests.

Arnett's most famous report from the Vietnam War included a quote, on February 7, 1968, of an unnamed United States officer stating of the village of Ben Tre that "it became necessary to destroy the town to save it". Some of Arnett's critics suggested that he fabricated the controversial quote.

Arnett was one of the last journalists left in Saigon after the invasion of the NVA. He subsequently met with NVA soldiers who showed him how they took over the city.

In his speech to the local Saigon press, Peter recounted his years in Saigon covering the war, and talked about his Vietnamese ex-wife and their two Vietnamese-American children, who are both bilingual and strongly identify with each country.

When asked during the conference about government criticism of his own work, Arnett stated that Vice President Cheney once referred to the Iraq press corps as “agents of the enemy.” Arnett said he brushes government criticism off as a regular part of the job, implying that he feels at times is borders or ridiculous.

Arnett went on to criticize media coverage of the Iraq War, implying that it was neither as transparent nor as honest as press coverage of the Vietnam War. He explained that under the rules of embedded journalism, a US military officer must be present for all interviews, and that anonymous quotes are forbidden. As such, only the official government-approved story can be reported. He recalled that none of this was the case during his time covering the war in Vietnam.

Arnett softened his tone however when he exclaimed, “Thank God that the American government only talks with news agencies and publishers” when it criticizes journalists and media reports. He said that “unlike other countries like Russia,” where reporters who fall out of favor with the government may “meet with Accidents or be brought up on charges,” that in America government criticism goes no further than that—just criticism.

Arnett’s work was highly controversial in 2003 when he covered the Iraq war for National Geographic and NBC. At the time, he granted an impromptu interview to state-run Iraqi television in which he made an infamous statement which cost him his job and challenged his renowned reputation.

“Now America is reappraising the battlefield, delaying the war against Iraq, maybe a week and rewriting the war plan,” stated Arnett. “The first plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance. Now they are trying to write another plan… So our reports about civilian casualties here, about the resistance of the Iraqi forces, are going back to the United States. It helps those who oppose the war when you challenge the policy to develop their arguments.”

Peter Arnett now works as guest professor in Shantou University in southern China. He proudly states that his lectures are uncensored and unregulated. His book, “Live from the Battlefield” about his years covering the wars in Vietnam and Iraq is now available in uncensored Vietnamese, and sold in major book stores throughout Vietnam.

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