Phil Kent didn’t really want to talk to me. When I asked him for an interview September 12, he flatly declined. He said he thought I was “biased.” He said I was a “gotcha” reporter.
I was a day or two late to the Phil Kent story. He’d already talked to two reporters at WXIA, who had asked him about his appointment to the newly created Immigration Enforcement Review board. But I wanted to ask him specifically about his views on multiculturalism, which he says “wars” with the traditional Judeo-Christian values that make America great.
Kent’s views are easy to find, and he frames some of his opinions with reference to race and the “whiteness” of American culture. But Kent became wary of me after seeing an interview I’d done with Gov. Nathan Deal’s spokesman Brian Robinson. The subject was Kent’s appointment, and I’d asked Robinson if Gov. Deal agreed with Kent’s views on “race.” Robinson wouldn’t answer.
Although Kent’s views were, shall we say, eye-opening (but “mainstream,” he says, among Georgians), Kent had a reputation as an affable, good-humored dude. He was once a reporter and editorial writer at the Augusta Chronicle. He currently appears weekly on WAGA’s Georgia Gang. So after he initially slammed the door on my interview request, I wrote him back, and made a concession that I thought he’d understand and appreciate, given his background in journalism.
I said: If I’d had it to do over again, I’d have rephrased the question to Robinson. Instead of asking about “race,” I’d have used the word “multiculturalism.”
Though the rephrasing wouldn’t have substantially changed the meaning of the question, it would have replaced a volatile word with a less volatile word. I didn’t apologize for the question or say that I regretted asking it.
(Reporters don’t like to make concessions like that. It’s easier to admit to a fact error than it is a tactical miscue, which can end up in performance reviews or — much worse — court. Fact errors are usually undeniable, while tactics can be argued ad nauseum. I don’t mind admitting to my many flaws. Fortunately, I work in a humane newsroom that encourages transparency in newsgathering. Admitting to a less-than-ideal choice of words during a spontaneous Q&A is rare, though it shouldn’t be.)
It took a week, but Kent finally agreed to talk to me. We chatted for about 25 minutes. I asked some questions he didn’t like, and he let me know it. Sometimes, he challenged my motives (“ratings”). Sometimes he implied I was poorly prepared (“do your research”) or just idiotic (“you might have fallen asleep in journalism 101″).
Yet he was never ugly or genuinely hostile. It was almost like a game to him, undoubtedly honed during his years on the Georgia Gang. I asked him questions that might have made him defensive. He adhered to the old football adage “the best defense is a good offense.” So he clobbered me frequently.
Call me a masochist, but I found it refreshingly honest.
We aired the story. I also put together nearly 18 minutes of very lightly edited Q&A. But I thought viewers deserved to see Kent’s style. So I re-edited the Q&A to include highlights of Kent’s aggression. We aired it in my Suspicious Package segment Sunday morning.
Reporters and editors usually get the last word following controversial encounters. This struck me as a way to let Phil Kent have his due. The audience could use its own judgment on who, if anybody, was out of line.
Or simply be amused, as I was.