Md. First Lady's TV Talk Show Won't Be Seen in Classrooms
Sunday, March 19, 2006
Maryland first lady Kendel Ehrlich pitched the state schools superintendent a plan to air her television talk show about drug and alcohol prevention in public school classrooms, but the department eventually turned her down.
The State Education Department declined her offer after an expert on drug and alcohol prevention reviewed it and determined that it was not suitable for children. One episode, filmed on the beach and at a nightclub in Ocean City, includes sexually explicit language and brief nudity as it explores the pitfalls of drinking.
The department instead offered to distribute the videos to parents and PTAs.
Comcast Cable Communications Inc. paid Ehrlich $55,000 to host 16 episodes of "Live Right: Straight Talk on Substance Abuse," which to date has been available only in the cable provider's on-demand library.
Democrats in Annapolis said they considered the proposal the latest attempt by the Republican governor and first lady to use their clout to gain widespread television exposure and statewide name recognition.
In response to a series of taxpayer-financed tourism commercials and public service announcements that featured the governor and first lady, the legislature has included language in the budget this year that would ban the practice during the upcoming campaign season.
A spokesman for the first lady said she would not comment. State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said she believes Kendel Ehrlich's goals in seeing the show distributed were in no way political but instead aimed at spreading the word about teenage drug and alcohol abuse, an issue the first lady has championed for years.
"I don't think it's politicizing the classroom," Grasmick said. "Each first lady, even Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, they all have a piece they carve out that is a personal interest. . . . For this first lady, this is a real issue."
Grasmick said she never viewed the show and was not aware that one episode include scenes inappropriate for schoolchildren.
Most episodes feature Kendel Ehrlich interviewing authors and scientists who study alcohol abuse, and "straight talk" discussions with recovering addicts. But in one episode, a camera crew follows a group of teenagers to the beach and films them as they become drunk. They smoke cigarettes, curse and talk about such topics as pot, herpes and lesbians. A teenage girl jiggles her hips, and the camera pans to her lower torso.
The first lady appears as the host of every episode and is introduced in each show as the governor's wife. The two are shown in a photograph, hands clasped over their heads, celebrating his inauguration.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) raised concerns not about the show's content but about the politics of disseminating it through the schools.
"All of us like to go into classrooms and read to kids," Busch said. "What you don't do is infringe your will on the state school system. You don't try to make yourself part of the mandated curriculum."
Grasmick said the first lady raised the prospect of distributing the show in schools at the conclusion of a November PTA conference. She said "Live Right's" producer, Kris Morrissey, had subsequent talks with education department officials about broadcasting the program.
Morrissey heads a company called Chesapeake Productions and is married to a law school classmate of the first lady's. During the 2002 gubernatorial campaign, Morrissey produced a documentary filming the two major candidates in candid moments as they moved around the state.
In November, the governor appointed her husband, John Morrissey, then a Bowie lawyer, to the Prince George's District Court. Kris Morrissey declined to comment.
Her proposal never broached the subject of compensation, said JoAnne Carter, assistant state superintendent for student and school services.
Grasmick said the idea started to fall apart earlier this year when the department sent episodes out to an expert on drug and alcohol issues for his evaluation. That expert was Michael Gimbel, director of substance abuse education for the Sheppard Pratt Health System in Baltimore.
Gimbel hosts his own show on the topic, "Straight Talk," which has been airing for 17 years in Baltimore on a Fox affiliate. He did not want to give a lengthy review of the first lady's effort and did not wish to discuss the most racy episode.
"I gave them my opinion," he said. "The bottom line is, they're not going to hurt anybody. But when you do shows that are just interview shows, they can become pretty boring for people watching."
Gimbel also said he was surprised Ehrlich had been paid to produce and host the show, and not just because he had been doing the same work for free for 17 years.
"I thought this was part of her role as first lady because she had taken on the issue of drug abuse," he said, adding, "I immediately called my Fox 45 friends, and I asked for a raise."
Staff writer Libby Copeland contributed to this report.