Saturday, May 14, 2016

Off the Shelf: Arthur Kent's Risk and Redemption (1996)

Like many television news viewers, I didn't truly become aware of journalist Arthur Kent until 1991 when he was ducking Saddam Hussein's explosive little presents over Dhahran during the first Gulf War. At that time, while decked out in his leather jacket, and his sweeping dark hair blowing in the night air, he emerged with the sexual panache of a movie star. He was America's own Mel Gibson from Peter Weir's The Year of Living Dangerously, caught in the hail of rocket fire, and barely letting it ruffle his locks. This striking image not only won him the moniker "Scud Stud" from female fans rooting for him all over North America, it also won him no end of grief when he refused to be NBC's answer to Geraldo Rivera.

The great story behind Arthur Kent's 1996 memoir, Risk and Redemption: Surviving the Network News Wars (Viking), is how a reputable correspondent, who covered some of the biggest news events in his era, was forced to take the NBC television network to court in a $25 million dollar defamation and fraud suit because the corporate climate of turning hard news into celebrity worship rendered him unable to do his job. But Arthur Kent was also caught in a profoundly ironic trap because it was becoming the "Scud Stud" that actually brought him to international prominence. Risk and Redemption is Kent's attempt to separate what makes a journalist from what makes a luminary. And although you come away from the book cheering Kent's integrity, intelligence and victory, there is still something romantically self-serving about it. He comes across as someone beyond the temptation of stardom – even though television news, the profession on he's chosen, invites it. The incongruity of how the image of the "Scud Stud" (which Kent himself created) shaped a network's perception of him as a journalist, and perhaps implicated him in their corporate plans, doesn't envelop the book as much as I hoped it would.

In the first half of Risk and Redemption, Kent lists his accomplishments, and defends his reasons for becoming a newsman. Coming from a line of journalists, including a father who was boldly ethical, Kent demonstrates how he has lived out his family legacy. This includes covering the 1979 war in Afghanistan, the violence of Tiananmen Square, the death of Communism in Berlin, and, of course, Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf and the adventures of Desert Storm. The stories are adventurous and read like a fairy tale filled with harrowing episodes, but they don't accumulate the resonant power of great prose. Since Kent's greatest strength is in bringing the presence and style of a star to hard news, his writing style lacks the body, or the eloquence, of his television pieces. Despite this flaw, Risk and Redemption gets more involving once Kent explores the shifting values of television news, and how it affected his case. He illustrates very clearly that when General Electric bought NBC in the early 1980s it started dismantling the foreign desks, and dumping seasoned journalists, under the guise of cutting costs. But the real reason, according to Kent, was to bring the news departments more in line with the entertainment world in Burbank, which controlled the air time of their flagship news show Dateline. The emphasis of news at NBC began to shift towards a journalism with a prurient fixation on celebrities.

Although the 1991 Gulf War had made him a celebrity, at a time when NBC wanted to build up a bevy of them for their news programs, Kent refused to relent. (He reports that NBC, as far back as 1986, considered having Bill Cosby and Don Johnson anchor some news specials because The Cosby Show and Miami Vice were high in the ratings.) Paradoxically, it was Kent's refusal to accept an assignment to the former Yugoslavia in 1992 (because of the network's poor preparation in sending its team to a war zone), that led to his defamation and fraud suit because NBC suspended him. Kent eventually won his suit against NBC in 1994, for an undisclosed amount, and reading his account of the legal battle, you can't help relishing in his victory. Risk and Redemption outlines how financial cuts can be employed by companies to create an air of desperation that will bring employees into line with corporate policy, rather than the stated reason of "balancing the books."

A number of years back, John MacArthur, now president of Harper's Magazine, was asked why he thought most journalists went along with government censorship during Desert Storm. He didn't blame a right-wing conspiracy, or offer up one of Noam Chomsky's pat pronouncements. He just said one word: careerism. MacArthur explained that many current affairs journalists aren't interested in risking their careers on certain news items. MacArthur said that a climate of conformity, of trying to stay on the winning side of popular trends, and the desire to be celebrities, makes it possible for government censorship to happen. (One can clearly see today how the incessant coverage of Donald Trump's current crusade remains true to that view. TV journalists are more and more patently desperate to be on the hot side of a story rather than delving into the larger and broader issues of a Presidential campaign.)

Thankfully, Kent wasn't one of them. He stood up against government and network censorship. So, despite its contradictions and shortcomings, Risk and Redemption lays out with a impassioned intelligence the continued skirmish between the marketing of information and the interpretation of it. The marketing side continues to win at the moment, but Kent's book – and his past victory over NBC – perhaps shows us that the war may not be over yet.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.                             

No comments:

Post a Comment