IT WAS EARLY IN THE GULF WAR THAT ARTHUR KENT walked onto a rooftop in Dhahran,–and into a real-life drama whose latest episode was played out in a New York lawyer’s office in the middle of last month. As Scud missiles fell on the city and air raid sirens shrieked, Kent, gas mask in hand, told enthralled NBC viewers: “This is not a drill! Let’s go! Let’s go!”
Within days, the 37-year-old Canadian reporter with the charming manners and serious good looks had been dubbed the Scud Stud-the man who made the distant war seem just that much more exciting and romantic. Admirers in San Francisco formed an Arthur Kent Fan Club and its membership was soon in the thousands. One of Kent’s biggest fans was NBC itself the network quickly offered him a contract as a correspondent for Dateline NBC, its new current-affairs magazine show.
Dateline is most famous, or infamous, for rigging the explosion in the gas tank of a General Motors truck in November 1992. But because of his time at Dateline, Kent himself has developed considerable notoriety. Almost from when he started there in the summer of 1991, he fought with the show’s producers over story ideas. The fight culminated in his staging a one-man picket outside of NBC headquarters in New York on August 17, 1992. Four days later, NBC fired him. In response, Kent launched a $25-million lawsuit for breach of contract, fraud, and defamation-a case that was finally settled out of court on March 16 for an undisclosed amount of money.
While Kent waited for the opportunity to prove that NBC management was made up of “white-collar sellouts,” the onetime media superstar was back in Canada. Since last fall he’s been the host of Man Alive, the earnest CBC documentary show that never provokes lawsuits or angry pickets. On the show he’~ calm, confident, and compassionate-the antithesis of the rugged foreign correspondent. In fact, while the lawyers talked, the only time Kent seemed to project the passion and verve that characterized his earlier career was when he was talking about NBC, the Great Evil. In Kent’s view, NBC’s management was “corrupt and incompetent,” it was “limp, tepid, cringing, and defensive.” This was Arthur Kent’s jihad: “I was in a position where I and my work were assaulted and compromised by executives who were placing goals and objectives which I considered unhealthy above the principles of our craft. So I spoke out about it.”
The day of the settlement, however, Kent’s rhetoric was positively diplomatic. He repeatedly referred to NBC as one of “the world’s greatest news organizations,” and said, “I believe that injustice has been rectified.” Had he won his war but lost the moral high ground?
“HE WAS ONE OF THE BEST,” RECALLS GEORGE FRA]KOR, A broadcast instructor at Carleton who taught Kent in 1973. Even then, Kent had a very strong personal vision, and he would get impatient with those who didn’t share it. “When he’s got an idea that he thinks is a damn good idea, he sees no reason why people should get in his way,” Frajkor says. But for Frajkor, Kent’s obvious talent outweighed this flaw and after only two days in the classroom with Kent, Frajkor phoned Max Keeping, the news director of Ottawa CTV affiliate CJOH, and urged him to hire Kent..
Keeping, who took on Kent on apart-time basis that year, recalls that he was “a determined and feisty” reporter with a “natural visual sense.” He helped Kent with his final-year thesis, a documentary about western alienation, by arranging for him to use staff from CTV stations in both Calgary and Edmonton. Soon after Kent graduated, Keeping hired him full time as a reporter. Kent, he says admiringly, has “got the right genes.”
And it is true Arthur comes from a family that has a high profile in the journalism field. Kent’s late father, Parker, was an associate editor of the Calgary Herald for many years. (Arthur worked for a summer at the Herald during university.) Older brother Peter first rose to prominence with his freelance TV reports from Vietnam in 1966. He later went on to the CBC, and was a foreign correspondent for NBC before returning to Canada to anchor Global’s 11 p.m. news, The World Tonight. Norma Kent, also Arthur’s elder, has worked on Marketplace, and is currently a respected anchor at CBC Newsworld. Their sister, Susan Kent-Davison, while not working in journalism directly, is a writer and editor. Another sister, Adele Kent, is a federal judge in Alberta. Given his connections, it’s not surprising that Arthur says the decision to enter journalism was “obvious.”
Kent’s next job after CJOH was with CBC- TV in Toronto, where he started as a local reporter in 1976; he transferred to Edmonton in 1977 to work as a national reporter. But as he told Globe and Mail television critic Liam Lacey last year, “There were too many good people ahead of me.” By 1979, he was in Afghanistan doing independent reporting and documentary making. He was one of the first western reporters to spend time with the Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet invasion. It was his war, in the same way that Vietnam was his brother’s. Kent also maintained his profile by freelancing for the CBC, BBC, and others. He continued to freelance out of Europe and Asia during the eighties and at one point, according to Keeping, he was able to stay in London, despite the immigration laws, by calling himself CJOH’s “European correspondent.” Then, in 1989, after he covered a variety of events for NBC, including the slaughter in Tiananmen Square and the attempts at liberalization in the former Soviet Union, the network offered him a full-time correspondent job. Despite Peter’s warning that “NBC were jerks,” he took it. He worked on major stories like the fall of communism in Eastern Europe; it made sense, then, that Kent would be part of the crew the network sent to cover the Gulf War. The problem was that soon he would become a star player rather than just a member of the team. “Everything changed when he waved that gas mask in the Gulf War,” says Antonia Zerbisias, media writer for The Toronto Star. “The Americans recognize a potential money-maker, and they saw one in Arthur.”
He may have been a money-maker, but he soon developed a reputation with management as a troublemaker. By the following spring, he was frankly telling an audience at the Canadian Association of Journalists’ annual meeting in Edmonton about his reservations regarding NBC in general and Dateline in particular. The speech he gave reflected his increasing worries about the decline in television journalism and foreshadowed the fullblown editorial dispute that would soon be his undoing. “What we’re seeing is a cheap and easy alternative,” Kent said. “I would like to offer more hope. But it’s going to be a battle. You’re up against great corporate and political interests that are very much concerned with breaking down [newsgathering], and continuing the old politics of fear and hatred for short-term expediency.”
It was more a diatribe than a keynote address. When he finished-“with that weighty thought, I could stop talking”- there were a couple of moments of flummoxed silence. Writer Undalee Tracey, a former girlfriend, was in the audience. “His speech was like a personal rant against his employers and the U.S. media establishment,” she says. “It was more angry than informed.”
What made Kent angry about Dateline was its entertainment as-news quality and lack of balance. He says his stories were watered down and even spiked in some cases. As an example, he cites the time he was doing an item on economic rebuilding in Eastern Europe; he saw it as a serious piece, while his producers wanted to focus on the economics of prostitution and the sex trade. Not long after his speech in Edmonton, he asked to be reassigned to nightly news in Rome, an option he says his contract contained.
Instead, he was put in the European general-assignment pool in Rome. In August, he rushed a letter to NBC in New York, protesting that the network was in breach of contract and indicating he would refuse war-zone coverage until the contract situation was resolved. Only days later, he was assigned to Zagreb. The noncompliant Kent flew back to New York and, on August 17, picketed NBC headquarters at the Rockefeller Plaza, handing out leaflets to co-workers denouncing the actions of the network. NBC executives, who had earlier refused to talk to him, simply decided to fire him.
“It was a setup,” Kent told Reuters the day after his firing. “They’re trying to trap me.” Last November, he elaborated on this theory in almost robotic me-versus-the-big-interests terms: “The harsh management regime there really militated against people speaking up and resisting. And when I resisted there was a kind of retaliation people had never seen before-fraud and defamation were kind of unusual to see in the TV wars.”
Both sides claimed a contract dispute, but Kent also said the network had been preventing him from doing tough foreign news pieces. In addition, he accused NBC of placing him in a position where his refusal to go to Zagreb would seem like cowardice on his part. NBC responded by saying he was an egomaniac and difficult to deal with.
Comments made by NBC employees at the time of Kent’s firing suggest some of them shared the network’s view. A September 1992 People magazine article about Kent’s fight includes quotes from anonymous colleagues to the effect that Kent was “out of control” and “not a team player.” One said, “Frankly, before he became the Scud Stud, he was serious and intense, but not difficult like this.” Today, one of Kent’s former NBC colleagues says Kent didn’t deliver on his own stories and disputed his assignments. He also contends Kent was a loner, and that he crawled over a lot of his co-workers at NBC to get ahead of them. During the Gulf War, he says, Kent made certain he would be the one NBC reporter on the rooftop when the Scuds came down. Kent angrily declines to comment on these remarks.
After his firing, Kent’s biggest project was filming A View of Bosnia, a documentary he shot in the spring of 1993. “It’s all about how human beings respond to seemingly unbearable pressure,” he says. The 16-minute film, which won best short documentary and best cinematography at the 1993 Houston Film Festival, goes behind Serb and Muslim lines to detail the horrifying effects of the war on both soldiers and civilians. But the film also allowed him to prove he was still a good journalist. “I wanted to demonstrate to myself that I was srill very much capable of doing that kind of special reporting and doing it well.”
Then in July 1993, Man Alive executive producer Louise Lore called Kent to see whether he would consider becoming the show’s new host. She was, she says, looking for certain qualities that set the show apart from other documentary shows. “The Man Alive host has to have a certain amount of moral integrity. He has to represent a certain kind of character. He should be passionate, have integrity and moral authority. It seems to me it’s obvious that the host must appear to speak from certain commitment to those values.” Kent, she says, was ideal-although she had already talked to at least one other prospective host before Kent.
Of course, Kent has nothing but good things to say about Man Alive. “This is a bit like reaching an oasis,” he says. “I’ve been very fortunate to be at one of the best documentary shows on television anywhere. It’s really terrific for me. I came from a program that represents the diametric opposite of Man Alive.”
In Peter Kent’s view, Man Alive’s appeal for Arthur was that it was relatively undemanding: “Arthur’s main preoccupation is resolving the lawsuit with NBC,” he said in late fall. “Man Alive is good for him. Toronto is halfway between London and New York. It gives him time to do other things.” Those included battling NBC and spending rime with his girlfriend of four years, Deborah Rayner, a television producer. She visits Kent frequently, accompanying him to New York and even doing some production work at Man Alive. Kent also sees her in London, part of a frequent-flier lifestyle that he has gotten used to-he has residences in London and Toronto.
Working in Toronto may have suited Kent professionally and personally while he waited for his case to be resolved, but Antonia Zerbisias believes Kent is squandering his skills on Man Alive. “He can phone his performance in,” is how she describes his role on the show. However, she guesses that he likes having a Canadian home base. But does he even have the option of working in the U.S.? Bob McKeown, a former fifth estate reporter now with CBS in New York, thinks Kent does. “There’s a short institutional memory at these networks. It’s a seller’s market down here for experienced journalists.” The press release detailing the settlement suggested that NBC itself might be suffering from amnesia. In the release, Andrew Lack, president of NBC News since April 1993, said Kent is “an accomplished international news correspondent,” and “always welcome to return.”
Newsday described the press conference at which the settlement was announced as “lovey-dovey.” A reporter who covered it says he got the clear impression that Kent would soon be rejoining NBC, possibly with a newsmagazine program currently scheduled to be launched in the fall. And in the March 1 7 Lo.1 Angeles Times, Kent himself seemed to confirm this: he was quoted as saying he wanted to return to NBC and continue hosting Man Alive. But the same day, Kent’s sister Norma said it was too early to speculate on Arthur’s future. “Don’t believe what the papers say. The last thing Arthur knows is where he’s going to work.”
Wherever he choses to work, Lindalee Tracey thinks fame may have isolated Kent. “It was like he was suddenly famous and didn’t know what to do,” she says of his Gulf War notoriety. “I get the feeling this guy is all by himself.” Other friends and colleagues of Kent’s say that his character really hasn’t changed that much and that he’s always been a bit of a crusader or, at the very least, opinionated. Len Grant, now a CBC documentary reporter in Calgary who met Kent in Edmonton in the seventies when they worked together, is a close friend of Kent’s. He thinks Arthur has a substantial ego, but, he says, “You have to have a healthy regard for yourself to do what Arthur’s done. Wander alone into war zones? I mean, come on!” Louise Lore’s theory is that the Scud Stud image is a protective measure: “Arthur’s public persona is someone who is an international journalist-a kind of romantic war-correspondent hunk. He’s been under enormous pressure and I think that is the way he deals with things.” Broadcaster Ann Medina says of Kent’s tactics during the NBC dispute, “Anyone who stands outside of NBC with a placard, well, you can say they don’t believe in subtlety.” She also believes Kent became the story, and when that situation arises, many journalists feel uncomfortable. “Journalists hate to make themselves the story. The question is whether your journalistic integrity is still intact.”
But Kent rejects this concern. “It’s time for more people to speak out,” he says.” As for me, I don’t see any reason to be quiet about it.” And Peter Kent defends his brother. “He’s never taken journalistic shortcuts, as NBC has and continues to do,” he says. “If that makes him a flake, so be it. What’s wrong with fighting back?” The problem is Kent can come off as arrogant, smug, dismissive, even a little condescending. And while “flake” may not be completely accurate, he certainly was focussed on NBC. Almost any question became a chance for him to launch into another diatribe. Ask him about his fan club-still going strong with around 4,000 members-and listen to him lash out against NBC. “They watch the news and want to express their views on how the news is being brought to them. I don’t think [NBC president] Bob Wright has a fan club anywhere. I don’t think there are many Americans who applaud the use of naked power and destructive, defamatory, libellous publicity against individuals.” Ask him about his relatively modest CBC salary compared to the estimated $250,000 (U.S.) he was making at NBC, and he responds: “That question for me is overshadowed by the excellence and skill of the people around me.”
The day after he and NBC settled, after four months of meetings between Kent and Lack, Kent seemed to have rethought his attitude towards the network. More than once he called NBC “the company I love” and said he was “deeply moved by the expression of willingness by Lack and the new management to set the record srraight.” It was a performance that one reporter who covered the news conference labeled “a joke.” Zerbisias believes the whole event was designed to “boost Kent’s profile” in preparation for his return to the network. “Why else would they go through this song and dance? I can only suspect they’re grooming him as a star.”
Peter Kent, however, says that his brother will never take a staff job at NBC again, although it’s likely he’ll freelance there. He also says that NBC offered to settle with Arthur more than a year ago but that Kent held out for a public apology. And he got it. The release was positively fulsome: “Arthur Kent is and always has been a talented and courageous journalist who is highly regarded within the NBC News Organization.”
Some of Kent’s colleagues aren’t quite so admiring. One CBC producer who he, worked with Kent calls him a “pompous asshole” who tries to tell others how to do their job. But as Liam Lacey points out, “A lot of investigative reporters, not necessarily Arthur Kent, are complete pricks. They’re successful because they don’t see the world like everyone else. They’re good at what they do because they’re not team players.” His sister Norma says he’s always been independent. “He’s a little pit bull. That’s something I admire in him.”
And Kent is good. If he’s a flake, then he’s a flake who won’t compromise the craft he clearly loves. If you were watching Man Alive, you’d see work like this: a segment on the fallout from the Giant Mine disaster in Yellowknife in which a dead miner’s best friend talks, over a glass of beer, about the betrayals of the whole affair, how it took innocent victims and destroyed the best friendship he ever had. “It’s very hard to understand friendships like that unless you’ve had one,” he says. Out of the corner of the screen comes Kent’s hand, clutching his glass of beer. “Cheers,” he says and they clink glasses. It’s a very effective moment.
It’s also uncompromising television. Kent feels that journalists should be more aware of serving their consciences and protecting their profession. “I see compromise every time I turn on the TV set, and it makes me sick to my stomach to see our discipline being defiled.” His consistently critical and passionate comments on his craft sometimes makes him sound more like a disciple of Noam Chomsky than a conventional journalist.
Now that he’s won the suit, unlike conventional journalists, he has the money to bankroll a variety of career options. As Antonia Zerbisias put it before the settlement: “You can make a lot of documentaries with $10 million.” Perhaps Kent could use that kind of money to finance a small dream of his: to make his own movie. “I would, at some point in the near future, like to do a motion picture that is based upon, and helps explain-through the dramatic process-the issues and events that I’ve seen and witnessed, about the abuses of power by governments and corporations in regard to freedom of expression. In other words, about how ordinary people can overcome censorship.” It wouldn’t be his first movie: in 1981 he produced a $4-million teen sex-and-violence feature called The Class of 1984 that for a time was a popular high-school video rental.
For now, Kent is on a one-year contract at Man Alive, and in mid-March, Lousie Lore said he had “indicated his intention to stay on.” Meanwhile, his mission continues to be informing people of the unholy trends he is witnessing and how Arthur Kent would correct them. “It’s time for the big rich companies to say, hey, let’s devote 10 per cent of our broadcasting reserves to public interest broadcasting.”
In another interview, he reflects on how NBC epitomizes the state of contemporary TV journalism: “In a larger sense, it’s issues of accuracy and fairness and journalistic integrity. It really comes down to truth versus bullshit.”
Perhaps that should be truth and bullshit.