Cronkite fights ‘masquerade’ that trades on his reputation
Originally published in Current, Feb. 23, 2004
By Jon Kalish
In November 2002 Jeff Cronin got the first of several telephone solicitations from WJMK Inc., a television production company in Boca Raton, Fla. Boy, did they call the wrong guy.
The pitch to Cronin started a sequence of events that revealed the questionable practices behind a supposed public TV program in a New York Times expose, embarrassed some of the most revered names in TV news, and sparked a pair of multimillion-dollar lawsuits.
Cronin, director of communications for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., said the pitches had “the same the aggression as a boiler-room telemarketing fraud.”
The first caller said he was a producer working on a PBS series with Morley Safer, the CBS correspondent. CSPI, the nonprofit where Cronin works, had been selected to be featured on American Medical Review, the caller told him, and Cronin could put the program on the air by paying an underwriting fee.
“I felt like I was on the receiving end of a scam,” Cronin told Current. “I recognized it as totally bogus. . . . At one point, when I raised concerns about paying for the privilege [of being featured in a broadcast] and whether this would be appropriate for public TV, the producer said, ‘I can assure you that Morley Safer wouldn’t lend his name to anything that wasn’t above board.’”
To Cronin, the pitch may have sounded like telemarketing, but WJMK tried to hide the sound of other producers calling pros-pects, a former employee told Current, by running a white-noise generator in the room.
Cronin started researching WJMK on the Web and soon concluded that the company presenting itself as a journalistic enterprise was really dishing out paid advertisements, including advertorials for pharmaceutical companies.
“One of our concerns,” Cronin says, “is that — to the extent these things end up on the air — consumers would be clueless that the medical information they were being exposed to was being bought and paid for by a drug company with zero disclosure,” Cronin says.
Cronin relayed his suspicions to New York Times reporter Melody Peterson, who wrote an expose of the company’s practices published in May. Walter Cronkite, hired by WJMK a few months earlier to replace Safer as host of the short filler programs, denounced the company and severed ties with it.
WJMK sued Cronkite in September for quitting as host, and Cronkite countersued for $25 million in November, charging the company used him “as a lure to solicit customers to fund advertorials and infomercials that masquerade as objective news stories.” Cronkite asked the court to permanently enjoin WJMK from using his name or likeness “in any video or otherwise.” [Disclosure: Walter Cronkite is a member of the board of Thirteen/WNET, New York, which administers Current.]
Judging from evidence turned up by Cronkite’s lawyers, the business model of WJMK Inc. closely resembles that of another Boca Raton company. In 2002, Current and public radio’s On the Media reported on Multi Media Productions USA Inc., producer of another advertorial module for public TV, World Business Review, hosted by another famous retiree, Alexander Haig.
The two production companies in Boca Raton didn’t spring up independently. Thomas Clynes, head of Multi Media, had known WJMK Chief Executive Mark Kielar in college and worked for him before starting his own company, according to a former employee who declined to be named. Bryant College in Smithfield, R.I., confirmed that both men graduated with bachelor’s degrees in business administration — Kielar in 1981 and Clynes in 1982.
In its Sept. 17 breach-of-contract suit against Cronkite, WJMK declared that the Times article and Cronkite’s public pronouncements severely damaged its “business reputation, relationships and financial well-being” and caused the “destruction of WJMK’s relationship with PBS.” (PBS said it has had no contractual agreement with WJMK and stressed that the production company is “not affiliated with PBS programming.”) The company said in court papers that the bad press caused the cancellation of contracts by 13 of WJMK’s clients, including Genzyme Genetics, Abbott Laboratories and Overeaters Anonymous.
Cronkite’s legal team expects to begin depositions of WJMK executives within a month. In late January, U.S. District Judge Gerald Lynch denied three motions by WJMK and Kielar, including motions to dismiss Cronkite’s countersuit and to drop Kielar as an individual defendant in Cronkite’s suit.
WJMK accuses Cronkite of “misrepresenting the type of programming that WJMK was planning on producing.” The company insists its programs complied with PBS standards. In a November 2002 letter soliciting Cronkite’s participation, WJMK assured the former news anchor that Barry Chase, a former associate general counsel and v.p. for programming at PBS, was brought in to ensure that WJMK’s television series “met the strictest public television standards and practices.” Chase, now an attorney in private practice in South Florida, confirmed for Current that he once did consulting for WJMK but would not comment on any matters concerning his former client.
Both Kielar and WJMK’s counsel, Joe Curley, declined to be interviewed for this story, but the company did send e-mail responses to questions from Current. WJMK said the Times “falsely reported the essential facts surrounding the television series being produced for public television by WJMK” and asserted that the Cronkite-hosted segments were never broadcast.
The company said that Cronkite’s attorneys engaged in “bullying tactics” and were “attempting to intimidate anyone and everyone who is trying to simply do the right thing and complete the series.”
Attorneys for the 86-year-old television legend have demanded that WJMK stop using his name and picture to promote the company, but as of last week its website featured a photo of Cronkite captioned “our current host.” Pictures of Safer and Cronkite appeared with the headline, “Producing shows with journalistic integrity hosted by award-winning journalists.”
Gerald Singleton, a Cronkite attorney, said if WJMK’s suit fails and the judge rules the company doesn’t have a right to use Cronkite’s name and likeness, WJMK is risking “substantial damages” by continuing to keep Cronkite’s name on the website.
Trading on public TV’s name, too
The website says WJMK produces noncommercial, educational “news breaks” from footage acquired from the corporate videos it produces. The interstitial modules, designed to plug holes in the broadcast day, carry several series titles: American Architectural Review, American Business Review, American Environmental Review and American Medical Review.
WJMK has told potential clients that the short-form TV segments it produced and then offered to public TV stations around the country could reach tens of millions of American homes. In a draft agreement sent to a prospect and obtained by Current, WJMK said its American Medical Review newsbreaks are “reaching 30+ million households and typically airing during peak and primetime programming.”
But in a handout titled “Common Questions About the American Review Series Projects,” the company concedes the actual extent of carriage is impossible to verify. “Because the stories are utilized as interstitial programming, exact air dates and times cannot and will not be provided by any station or network in reference to any story,” the handout explained.
That point is echoed by PubTV Online, a data company that collects information on program carriage for public television. The short modules don’t register in its station carriage data, according to PubTV Online. Cronkite’s counterclaim asserts that “WJMK knows ... that few, if any, of its programs ever air on PBS or public television stations.”
Hosting the modules was quick work that paid well enough to attract several network stars. According to news reports and a copy of Cronkite’s contract filed with legal papers, WJMK paid the retired news anchor $50,000 for two four-hour days of work last spring. He taped 15- to 30-second generic intros, segues and closes in New York City.
Before Cronkite took the hosting gig, CBS newsman Safer appeared in hundreds of the company’s videos produced over four years. Safer decided to cut his ties with the company because its work wasn’t up to CBS News standards, according to Kevin Tedesco, a spokesman for CBS’s 60 Minutes. WJMK also signed ABC News correspondent John Stossel as a host in 1998, but Stossel asked to be released from his contract the following year.
The company later hired CNN’s Aaron Brown to appear in videos resembling newscasts. CNN okayed the deal, but Brown backed out after the Times published its expose.
Was it appropriate for journalists to take these hosting jobs? Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research institute affiliated with Columbia University’s journalism school, said: “I would have a lot more problem with them if they were defending doing it, but once they found out what was going on they stopped working for them. It appears as if this company [WJMK] misrepresented what it was doing.”
Cronkite’s contract stipulates that his work not be used for any commercial purposes, something the veteran newsman has insisted on throughout his career.
Bought and paid for
Cronkite’s suit, in which he seeks both compensatory and punitive damages, argues that WJMK violated both PBS standards and FCC regulations by failing to disclose that it had received money from third parties whose products or services are featured in its reports.
In April the company agreed to receive a $15,900 “pre-production/scheduling fee” from Abbott Laboratories for a module about the pharmaceutical company, according to a copy of a “production authorization” agreement obtained by Cronkite’s attorneys and submitted in court for his suit. The agreement gave the drug company the right to review and edit scripts as well as review the “final edited video prior to release.” Under the contract, WJMK Inc. would produce a 2- to 5-minute TV story, as well as a 6- to 8-minute demo tape for the Abbott website.
Jon Kalish has reported for NPR, Reuters and all five of
New York’s daily newspapers.
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