Prairie Boy

Surviving the Network News Wars
By Arthur Kent
Viking; 308 pp.

For all that they deal in media exposure, most journalists never become famous. Either they toil behind the scenes as editors and producers, or their bylines go unnoticed except by their colleagues.

But then there are the stars – the high-priced anchors, the bigfoot correspondents, the names and personalities who draw the customers into the tent.

Some journalists seem born to this kind of fame. Others have it thrust upon them. Arthur Kent had both. And how.

If there is such a thing as a swashbuckling journalist, it is Arthur Kent. His father was A. Parker Kent, columnist for the Calgary Herald. His older brother, Peter, covered Vietnam for CBC-TV and is now the chief anchor for Global.

Arthur got his start here in Ottawa 20 years ago, when Max Keeping of CJOH gave him his first job, and the two have been friends ever since. In short order, Kent was Alberta reporter for CBC’s The National. By 1980, bankrolled by some friends, he was in Afghanistan with a camera. He covered the Soviet war against the Mujahideen from both sides, filing stories to CBC, the London Observer and NBC.

A frontline correspondent in a war zone is forced to take risks. As Kent describes it, the trick is to get close enough to where the bombs are going off to get telling footage, but not so close that the camera might take a shrapnel hit. From time to time, he got far too close for comfort.

His freelance work for NBC was such that the network eventually put him on staff. He covered the earthquake in Soviet Armenia. He was in the line of fire at Tiananmen Square. He was there at the fall of Communism. He sprinted across sniper traps during the last days of Nicolae Ceausescu. And then came the Gulf War.

Risk and Redemption, his account of his adventures in and out of network news, cleaves into two halves. The first is a page-turning diary of his work in the field leading up to the Gulf, when he became suddenly, incandescently famous. The second is an equally compelling chronicle of the legal battle that ensued when his employers tried to use his fame for their own purposes, and then tried to use it against him when he balked.

He’s not embarrassed by his fame, just by how it came about. During Desert Shield, he was bottled up by the U.S. military in Dhahran, 320 kilometres from where the danger was. It was entirely coincidental that when the shooting started, danger came to him. Scuds and Patriots started lighting up the sky over his shoulder.

And women stateside started sending him underwear in the mail.

What followed is eerily close to Paddy Chayevsky’s Network, except that this time there’s a happy ending. With his leather jacket and sit-com good looks, Kent was a ratings godsend. Network honchos pressured him into joining a new show, Dateline, promising a serious program to which he would contribute dispatches from Europe’s hot spots.

As it turned out, Dateline was an exercise in junk journalism and all NBC was interested in was Arthur Kent’s mug. To his credit, however, Kent is an old-school journalist (and he’s very gracious in crediting his old school, Carleton). Shortly after he was terminated for refusing to play along, Dateline was caught rigging GM vehicles to explode.

NBC not only fired him but tried to smear his reputation. The network let it be known he had refused a hazardous assignment to the former Yugoslavia. He was just teeth and hair, a prima donna, possibly a coward.

Kent is none of those things. and so he sued `em blind. It wasn’t easy, not by a long shot. But the spotlight his legal team trained on the management of NBC was so damning that the network retracted everything and paid him an undisclosed sum in the millions, rather than go to trial.

Risk and Redemption may not be the most artful memoir on record, but neither does it try to be. It’s a straightforward story told by a straightforward guy. But it’s a great story, and the good guy

  • Ottawa Citizen November 3, 1996