I UNDERSTAND WHY EVERYONE is criticizing CNN's now-repudiated report that the U.S. military used nerve gas to kill American defectors in Laos during the Vietnam War.
But why blame Peter Arnett? As he said, he was only "the face."I am not a journalist, but I play one on TV. And in my two long years of reporting from the field for Comedy Central, I've learned one thing. When covering sensitive, weighty stories for television, a producer can do only so much, after which the contribution of a seasoned correspondent is critical.
Yet detractors unfairly label correspondents as mere narrators and attack us for our lack of involvement in the journalistic process.
What the naysayers don't see is the private agony we endure after the camera has been turned off. There are things that keep me awake at night: Was my shirt the right color? Did my rolled-up sleeves convey my hands-on commitment to the story? Should I have worn a shirt at all?
A seasoned "narrator" must remember the first rule of news magazine journalism: Never get too close to the story. I never want to hear from my superiors, "Back off, Unger, you're in too deep." Keeping a safe distance from producers, their "facts" and their sources allows me to sidestep any culpability. Thus, with a clear conscience, I can accept an Emmy having in no way contributed to inaccuracies or ethical breaches.
This is not to say that I do not contribute to my reports. I do. At any given time, I'm juggling one or one-and-a-half stories, traveling a lot. Five, sometimes 10 minutes before I go on the air, I read the script for the first time in my dressing room. I quickly act to prevent damaging factual mistakes and contextual inaccuracies: I add a comma, where it's needed. I make passive sentences active. I delete the extraneous use of the word "that" and make sure my name is spelled correctly.
But I alone cannot take the credit. I am part of a team. Researchers find me stories. Producers carry my luggage, then they check the facts. I like being part of a team.
I must admit that some criticisms of television correspondents are warranted. We often hype stories for big ratings. And we pressure producers to overlook inconvenient facts that would discount a story. But let me be very clear on my responsibility: The producers hand me a list. I ask the questions. The producers take the tape, and I am gone to the Hamptons. I am the face.