How Much Does Credibility Cost?
In the journalism world, hawking goods is a sin approaching that of plagiarism. So when the New York Times reported in May that a Boca Raton video-production firm had hired three of the most recognizable newsmen in America as pitchmen, the upshot was malodorous publicity all around.
It all started early this year when WJMK Inc., which produces short "educational" videos for public television, signed former CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite and CNN's Aaron Brown to introduce segments of its medical-themed series American Medical Review. They were replacing 60 Minutes' Morley Safer, who had worked for the company for four years, appearing in hundreds of videos.
This was just the latest of the 17-year-old company's big, ambitious projects, according to WJMK publicity. "With cutting edge content, award-winning producers, and network-quality production," says the company's website, "WJMK features issues that have impact both nationally and internationally, and features interviews with some of the most prestigious names in the industry."
In a photo posted on the website, there's Cronkite himself, radiating authority in a black jacket and crimson tie. The acronym AMR, for American Medical Review, is posted on the wall behind him, and a television screen beside him flashes the name of the health-related series, for which Cronkite is touted as the "host." An accompanying bio trumpets the 86-year-old former CBS news anchor as the "Most Trusted Man in America."
But last month, the deal started to unravel. On May 7, the New York Times reported that the American Medical Review series appeared to be thinly veiled ads for corporate sponsors. According to the Times, the sponsors of the videos, often pharmaceutical companies, have broad discretion in editing the tapes, providing the raw information, and having final-cut rights before broadcast. In effect, the pharmaceutical companies were paying for the credibility of major news figures, in at least one case shelling out a six-figure fee to Safer for a single appearance, the New York Times said.
The report sent Brown and Cronkite scurrying for cover. Both have now sought to distance themselves from WJMK, which is owned by Mark Kielar, a controversial South Florida businessman and born-again Christian who has a long, litigious history, including complaints of sexual and religious harassment from female employees. Cronkite and Brown have both formally terminated any relationship with the company, with Cronkite demanding that the company remove any reference to him on its website.
For Cronkite, Brown, and Safer, as well as for ABC's John Stossel, who appeared in earlier WJMK-produced videos, it was the kind of situation that could undermine careers. "In order for journalists to maintain their objectivity, they have to remain free of commercial interests," explains Jill Geisler, a former TV news director now on faculty with the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg. "Clearly, you do not see Peter Jennings endorsing products. You don't see Dan Rather with the Nike swoosh on his blazer." The WJMK controversy, of course, revolves around a more subtle form of advertising, she says, but it underscores an Achilles' heel in television reporting. "In broadcast journalism," Geisler says, "we sometimes use the producer approach in which a recognizable journalist may not have done any of the research himself."
A spokeswoman for Cronkite says the revelations about corporate involvement in the project have removed any contractual obligation on Cronkite's part. "The contract, as far as we are concerned, has been breached," she said. Brown and his bosses at CNN said the same, asserting that "WJMK is not sufficiently independent to satisfy the editorial standards of CNN or Aaron Brown." And a CBS spokesman reportedly said that Safer had determined that working for WJMK was not consistent with CBS News standards.
According to critics, the company's aura of public service, its use of well-known spokesmen, even the company's name have allowed WJMK to assume a mantle of credibility that disguises a more mercenary agenda. "I think what they're doing is very clever," one local television program director says. "Do I think it's deceitful? I mean, to name your company four letters that don't make a word, beginning with a W, well... " The company charges about $15,000 to produce two- to five-minute shorts, which have medical experts talking on television news sets about health issues, according to the New York Times.
The brains behind WJMK is the Massachusetts-born Kielar, 43, a 1981 graduate of Bryant College in Smithfield, Rhode Island, where he majored in marketing. Once describing himself as "socially aggressive" in his younger years, he is now a high-energy Christian proselytizer. Kielar recently named Jesus as his hero and declared that if his house were burning, the first item he'd get out after his family would be his Bible.
Kielar responds irately to the article in the Times, from which he has demanded a retraction. "It's just a smear job, basically," he sniffs.
In 1983, Kielar moved to Fort Lauderdale, where he worked as an investment broker, and in 1986, he founded WJMK, one of the first television-production companies to form after federal deregulation of the broadcasting industry in 1985. Lately, he, his wife, and their five children have been spending a lot of time spearfishing. In 1998, as described in a New Times story, Kielar and Bob Coy, pastor of Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale, launched Cross TV, a Christian cable station. It's still a Kielar property, though he and Coy have ended their partnership because of "doctrinal" differences.
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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