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
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.
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
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..
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."
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."
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
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
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."
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."
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
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
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."
that should be truth and bullshit.