It’s one of the bloodiest battles of the war so far. And it doesn’t even involve any American soldiers. It’s the battle between MSNBC and FOX over Peter Arnett and Geraldo Rivera.

For the most part, coverage of the war in Iraq has been excellent, on all channels. It’s a triple news bonanza. From the Pentagon’s daily briefing, the broad overview of the war. From Central Command in Qatar, the daily battle plans and progress reports. And from “embedded” reporters, live, unedited action from the front lines – bringing news from the battleground to our TV screens before it even moves up the chain of command to the Pentagon.

But there are always exceptions. And their names are Peter Arnett and Geraldo Rivera. Two men who broke the rules, with very different results. One got what he deserved. The other got a free pass.

Arnett was the first to get himself in hot water, and not for the first time. He’s a gifted, fearless reporter, probably the best war correspondent of our day – with, no doubt, the best sources inside Baghdad. But he got in trouble during Desert Storm by reporting for CNN on coalition bombing of a “baby’s milk” factory. And CNN later dropped him for narrating the network’s shocking, but phony, documentary on the American military’s use of nerve gas on American deserters during the Vietnam War.

Back in the Iraqi capital, this time around, for National Geographic Explorer, Arnett also began filing reports for both NBC and MSNBC. He appeared often with me and Pat on “Buchanan and Press.” Once again, he was the only American reporter in Baghdad when bombs started dropping and dramatically described the scene to Tom Brokaw.

Then, just when it looked like he’d bounced back, Arnett stepped in it again, giving an interview on Iraqi television in which he declared that the original American war plan had failed and the Pentagon was scurrying to write a new one. True, he didn’t report anything we hadn’t already read in the Sunday papers. But to say so on Saddam’s state-controlled television was a big mistake – and a firable offense.

Arnett gave his interview Sunday afternoon. By Monday morning, he’d been fired by NBC, MSNBC and National Geographic.

Now executives at MSNBC are asking: Why hasn’t the same thing happened to Geraldo Rivera? What he did is far worse than Peter Arnett. Why hasn’t he been fired?

Unlike Arnett, Fox News correspondent Rivera is no award-winning journalist. He’s a clown masquerading as a journalist. His whole career is an embarrassing string of self-serving promotion stunts: from blasting open Al Capone’s vault (and finding nothing) to toting an assault rifle around Afghanistan and bragging about assassinating Osama bin Laden.

In one embarrassing episode, he lied about standing on “hallowed ground” where American soldiers had been killed – when, as revealed by the Baltimore Sun, he was actually hundreds of miles away.

That’s nothing compared to his latest stunt. Reporting on Fox News from his position with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq, Rivera bent over and drew lines in the sand to show the location of his unit and then talked about where they’d be advancing next, just two hours later. In both cases, he not only broke Pentagon rules for embedded journalists, he gave secrets away to the enemy.

The outraged field commander demanded that Rivera be tossed out of Iraq. An angry Pentagon at first gave Fox 24 hours to get him out of the country, or else. And then what happened? Nothing.

After a call from Fox boss Roger Ailes, the Pentagon declined to take action. Instead, Fox announced that Rivera was “voluntarily” leaving Iraq – proving, once again, the old adage that truth is the first casualty of war. And, of course, Fox refused to fire him.

Now I admit a certain bias. I work for MSNBC. But I still think this whole mess stinks.

Why didn’t the Pentagon throw Geraldo Rivera out of Iraq on his ear? Did he get special treatment because he works for Fox News, chief cheerleader for the Bush administration?

And, more importantly, why is Rivera still on the job? He broke the rules. He put American lives in danger. Fox News should fire him, as fast as NBC fired Peter Arnett.

Otherwise, “fair and balanced” means: You can break the rules and get away with it.

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