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'Scud stud' slams news as entertainment.

Arthur Kent became a household name in early 1991. He was set to do a live update on the Gulf War from Dahran during a football playoff game. As fate would have it, missiles began falling just as he went on the air. His demeanor during that live update, along with his long hair, good looks and leather bomber jacket, made him an overnight sensation. By the next morning, he was the "Scud Stud."

Kent's soaring popularity, especially with women, a key advertising demographic, was not lost on NBC executives. They named him foreign correspondent for their new prime-time news magazine, "Dateline." But Kent became frustrated over producers' reluctance to air his reports. He later learned that reluctance was because executives in NBC's entertainment division deemed his reports were not promotable. In 1992, he was fired. He later sued NBC, making the influence exerted by the network's entertainment division on the news division the key basis for his suit. In 1994 he won his case, gaining new fame, this time, among journalists who saw Kent as someone fighting what he himself calls "an unholy alliance" between entertainment and news values in American television.

He is now telling his story in a book: "Risk and Redemption--Surviving the Network News Wars." During a visit to St. Louis, he spoke with SJR about the situation in television news today. He made it clear that he thinks things have only gotten worse in the six years since he was fired.

"Now it seems, everywhere in the business, we have (entertainment) executives and programmers in place who choose the type of story, and cover it in a certain way, give it the kind of spin, make it attractive, make it a honey pie, that the public has to cluster to it. And in the process, they're throwing out the basic needs and requirements of responsible news journalism. And they make it impossible for real journalists to compete on the same plane."

Kent passionately argues that this is more than just another newsroom debate. He says "zero-based, bottom line" news programming, influenced by entertainment interests, represents a real danger for news viewers, and society as a whole.

"I think the danger with bottom line oriented broadcast news programming is that there seems to be less and less care for what's in the sandwich. Where's the meat? There is none, frequently," he says.

Kent is most critical of network news magazines. (He does single out "60 Minutes" as a lone example of quality on commercial networks.) He refers to the often overpowering influence of entertainment and sales divisions as "commercial censorship." He describes, from personal experience, how non-news interests can end up dictating show content.

"The producers began to say, `why produce the kind of programs that won't get promoted? We should be producing the kind of thing that the entertainment division wants to promote.' And that way editorial policy (is) dictated by promotions policy. The sales people are dictating the story range of correspondents."

On the local level, this kind of pressure is most noticeable in the selection of the special reports stations air during ratings periods. In many cases, reporters and producers have given up suggesting traditional "hard news" stories for such reports. They know the folks in promotion will reject such ideas. Kent says such promotion-based selection of news leads to an erosion of the basic principles of what constitutes news, and how it should be gathered.

"Too much of that kind of thinking comes from all over the business, from top to middle, from local to networks. It reveals a kind of loss of ethic, (a) just straightforward, red-blooded, genuine way of news gathering and reporting, and instead replacing with profit-first motivation which is entirely wrong for the news business."

Kent points to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal as an example of just how bad things are.

"Just everyday, the specter of seeing trained correspondents standing on air recycling hearsay and gossip as sub stance for a report. It's entirely wrong. It's a signal that there is really deep dysfunction," he says.

But he adds, the opinion: polls may show that the American public is seeing through the news facade.

"Despite the coverage, the president's approval rating appears high. It would appear Americans are willing to be entertained, but don't have a great deal of confidence in what they're being told. How worrying a situation that is."

A cynic might say that Kent has the luxury to take the high road, since his settlement with NBC made him a rich man. But any journalist worth his salt should not be able to argue with Kent's admonition to others in his field.

"If you want to be in commercial news you have to accept that you have to climb two mountains at once. Not just find a direct route to the top in a financial sense, but you've also got to be able to satisfy the public's right to know, and sometimes you have to shake the public awake with information that they may not reasonably realize they need to know."

That advice may not be well received by most promotions managers, but they could be words to live by for the working journalist.

St. Louisans should be able to see Arthur Kent exercise his passion for international news coverage on a daily basis starting this summer. Kent hopes to debut a daily, international news hour called "World Watch" on July 1. It will be carried locally by KETC (Channel 9). Kent calls KETC a "driving force" behind the ambitious project. It will be produced by England's International Television Network (ITN) and anchored by Kent.

Steve Perron is a producer at KMOV (Channel 4)
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Title Annotation:NBC news correspondent Arthur Kent's suit against the network
Author:Perron, Steve
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Date:Mar 1, 1998
Previous Article:Local TV news needs three elements: content, packaging and personality.
Next Article:St Louis University professor says public journalism must progress slowly.

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