WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT BACK IN JANUARY 1991 that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would still have his job today while foreign correspondent Arthur Kent, the Persian Gulf's ultra-telegenic Scud Stud, would be—to borrow an old vaudeville phrase—at liberty? Yet on Aug. 21, NBC fired Kent over what the network termed "a dispute over contract obligations." "I feel good that I'm free to wake up and work for anyone I want," says Kent, 38, charging that the real issue between him and the network was that NBC News was stifling his attempts to do tough foreign news stories. "This is about having a say in my own pieces," he insists. "It's about integrity."
Kent had exercised his right to freedom of speech by picketing NBC's New York City headquarters after being suspended four days earlier—allegedly for refusing an assignment in Zagreb, Croatia. In a snit of indignation, he handed colleagues entering the building a rambling memo charging NBC's top brass with "brute stupidity" and "unworthiness to command." But the network, which termed his behavior "bizarre," wasted little time in flexing its muscle and playing censor. On the day of Kent's dismissal, NBC, piqued that he had discussed a possible lawsuit against the network on local radio, refused to allow The Tonight Show to bring him on as a guest.
Kent was already in his Los Angeles hotel and in the midst of being preinterviewed for his appearance when Tonight's executive producer, Helen Gorman Kushnick, received a letter from NBC's legal department formally canceling him. "I thought having Arthur as a guest would lead to a fun, interesting conversation," says Kushnick. Instead, it was his absence that was made interesting. Announcer Edd Hall, reading the names of the evening's guests, concluded by saying, "—and thanks to the NBC legal department, no Arthur Kent." Later Jay Leno himself read a spoof of the NBC letter and at a commercial break yelled, "Sony, Arthur!"
Naturally, Kent applauded Leno's response. "They are great people...responsible broadcasters," he says. "I don't hold it against them." He is less generous toward the network. "What this whole sad incident depicts," he says, "is just how dumb NBC was."
But there are at least two sides to the story. "NBC was never good at dealing with Arthur," explains a network source. "This was coming to a head for a long time because he was out of control." Adds an NBC correspondent: "I wish I had his looks but not his ego. Frankly, before he became the Scud Stud, he was serious and intense, but not difficult like this."
In fact Kent's career, which soared during the Persian Gulf crisis when he was recognized for his dashing looks and dramatic reporting from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, has plunged into a surprising free-fall in the past 18 months. First he proved disappointingly dull when he sat in for Today cohost Bryant Gumbel for a week in August 1991. Then, as a correspondent for the new weekly newsmagazine Dateline NBC, he found himself at odds with the senior producers. In 14 shows, only three of his pieces aired. "They stopped a story I was doing about the Eastern European flesh trade," he says. "They wanted it to be salacious; I wanted it to be about the economic collapse. They're doing lousy, sensational programs."
NBC insiders counter that Kent was just not a team player. "He was a real pain in the ass on Dateline," says one network executive. "He's a gonzo journalist and objected to any changes in his stories." Adds another: "Arthur Kent was an accident. Even in the Gulf War, he should have been condemned instead of congratulated. You didn't see Sam Donaldson ducking to dodge missiles. Journalists are supposed to be calm and in control."
Kent's future seems as uncertain as his temperament. "The best thing to say about Arthur right now," observes Richard Kaplan, executive producer of ABC's Prime Time Live, "is that trading in his stock is suspended. It was painful to watch him last week. At times we all want to choke our bosses, but you have to be prudent. You're supposed to point the gun at someone else, not at yourself."
Yet Kent seems to be feeling no pain. Currently visiting his mother, Aileen, back home in Calgary, Alta., he plans to reside in London, where he will write for The Observer. "I will continue to pursue this until I get an apology from NBC News," he says, then adds with an odd note of self-satisfaction, "My state of mind is even calmer than it was a week ago. I'm at peace. Those guys really needed a lesson. I'm charting my way back to the field. It's going to be the greatest season ever."
TOBY KAHN in New York City, JOYCE WAGNER in Los Angeles
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