How Much Does Credibility Cost?

Boca Raton video producer Mark Kielar signed Cronkite, Brown, and Safer to host thinly veiled advertisements -- until the deal fell apart

Having weathered accusations of sexual harassment, Kielar is usually reluctant to talk to reporters. But the recent bad publicity makes it hard for him to keep mum, he says.

Kielar contends that the contract Cronkite signed was different from previous ones with, for example, Charlton Heston or Stossel. The provisions were vetted by a former attorney for the Public Broadcasting System to ensure that they were "public-television compliant," Kielar says. Cronkite's segments were to have been created from raw footage the company had collected while shooting promotional videos for various companies for a fee. "We create independent stories that are public-television compliant about technology or information," he says. "They don't mention companies by name. It's not an endorsement in any way. That is what Mr. Cronkite was associated with." Funding for the series comes from underwriters independent of the subject, he maintains. For example, a cruise line might underwrite a segment on heart surgery.

However, recent New York Times stories, citing contracts between WJMK and video sponsors, said the companies were allowed to re-edit scripts and give final approval of finished segments.

Among some of his former WJMK employees, the handsome, athletic-looking Kielar can allegedly show a far less pious image than the Bible-loving company president likes to display in public. For example, Laura Bailey, Miss University of Miami in 1984, filed suit in 1991 (two or three years after Kielar was born again) contending that Kielar and top managers showed an X-rated Christmas-party video in which Kielar and other managers dressed up as women employees and simulated sex, according to the Palm Beach Post. In one scene Kielar, dressed in leather and depicting Bailey, allegedly pretended to masturbate. He then portrayed Bailey, who was working for WJMK as a marketer, giving oral sex to a man in a blond wig, the Post reported. During the party, Kielar and others encouraged a manager to drop his pants in front of the sales staff. The manager did so, exposing "his entire genitalia," the Post wrote.

Bailey dropped her suit in December 1992 after signing a confidential settlement with the company.

More recently, two former employees charged that Kielar's religious fervor went too far in the workplace. Rozanne Sonneborn asserted in a lawsuit filed in January that after the company discontinued direct deposit, it began giving employees paychecks in envelopes along with quotations from the Bible. Sonneborn, who is Jewish, objected. She was terminated a couple of months later. She was told that it was part of an economy-driven downsizing, but she contends it sprang from her objections.

Michelle Subwick filed a similar civil complaint in April, claiming she was fired after refusing to attend in-office Bible studies, where she had witnessed another employee being accused of having allowed Satan to "infiltrate" her life. Kielar fired Subwick in 2001, telling her that she was a victim of "spiritual warfare" and that "getting fired was a blessing and was God's will."

Kielar declined to comment about the two lawsuits. But he is philosophical about his loss of Cronkite as a spokesman. "You can't blame Walter Cronkite," he says. "For 65 years, he's never endorsed a single product. We knew that and understood it, and we made sure we weren't in that ballpark."

Even if WJMK eventually produces the series, the company, given its record, faces a skeptical reception. Steven Weisberg, program director for WLRN-TV (Channel 17), South Florida's public television station, says that WJMK's past offerings have been discussed among PBS decision-makers. He has declined to run them on WLRN. "It just seemed to be the consensus that the material was suspect of being free from commercial influence," he says. "It's like the definition of pornography: You know it when you see it."

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