To put it midly, Philip Merrill -- the brash, preppie 45-year-old publisher of The Washingtonian magazine, Baltimore magazine and five Maryland newspapers -- has been raising a few hackles in the media business lately by aiming some heavy artillery at public television's seemingly innocent new nonprofit magazine, The Dial.
To put it bluntly, Merrill would like to blow The Dial off the face of the earth.
To put it in a nutshell, he'd like to do this because, "no matter how you cut it, the government should not be in the publishing business and should not go in competition with small entrepreneurs."
Merrill claims that the new magazine can unfairly compete with The Washingtonian and other local magazines because it can solicit subscribers by mail at nonprofit postal rates, advertise itself on noncommerical television and pay for some of its publishing cost with government funding. He has filed lawsuits and already gotten the Post Office to force The Dial to mail its October editions at commercial third-class rates rather than the cheaper nonprofits second-class rates.
Indeed, if nothing esle, Merrill is one tough cookie. He flatly refused to discuss with The Washington Post anything other than his fight with The Dial because, in his words, "I'd have nothing to gain and everything to lose. I don't want to focus attention on me. I want to put it on this fight."
"I'd have to say he's putting on a full court press," says Ward Chamberlin, the president of Washington's WETA, one of the four public TV stations jointly publishing the new magazine. "One of the things we're wondering is how long he can keep this up."
Probably for a VERY LONG TIME.
Consider a problem that Philip Merrill faced in the cold, cold winter of 1972. Involved in a protracted battle for control of the daily Annapolis Evening Capital and four smaller Maryland weeklies, he desperately needed a power of attorney statement from Sam Lewis, a minor stockholder who happened to be stationed in Kabul.
No problem, Merrill thought. He would rendezvous in the departure lounge of the Frankfurt airport with his pal Sam Lewis -- now U.S. ambassador to Israel, a friend from their days together in the State Department under Chester Bowles.
Merrill showed up. Lewis didn't, as the ambassador recalls nowadays, because he had been stranded by a fierce Afghani snowstorm.
Merrill attempted to fly into Kabul. The plane could only get to Kandahar, far to the south, just north of the Pakistani border.
So there he was, stranded on a desert landing strip, three or four days out of Kabul, a tricky legal maneuver about to slip between his fingers.
He had a Rotary pin on his jacket and, lo and behold, some native Sunni came up and gave him the secret Rotary handshake and high sign.
Merrill was dumbfounded, largely because he wasn't even a Rotarian. As luck would have it, he just happened to be wearing the thing. But why not hook a gift horse and the fates? The man offered to procure a pilot and small plane for the esteemed visiting American Rotarian.
And before Philip Merrill could say Kabul, he was winging his way in a chartered Cessna over the mountains. He found Lewis, obtained one warm power of attorney statement and flew home to a successful court battle and eventual control of the five Capital Gazette newspapers.
This was not unlike the fateful college summer he had spent out West working on a ranch that went bust. Penniless, Merrill decided to hitchhike to Yosemite in search of gainful employment and, in a midnight moment of fatigued depression, leapt through the window of an old factory in search of rest.
"Only Philip Merrill," says his wife of 20 years, Ellie Pocius, "would drop through the blackness and land on the floor of a well-filled mattress warehouse."
Not everything in his life has been so cushy.
There are, for instance, people in his hometown Annapolis who consider him slightly meshuga.
"You'd be working on a story," recalls Karen Hosler, who spent six years in Merrill's employ, "and people in the community would say, 'We know you don't want to write the kinds of articles you do. You're a nice person. Phil Merrill makes you write those awful things.' It was actually never the case. He never seemed to meddle with the news pages. Editorials were different. If his mail didn't get delivered, you'd see and editorial blasting the Post Office."
What Philip Merrill seemed to realize early on -- even as a kid in college -- was that publishing meant power. He was ever prepared to entrench himself for long court battles, because he was convinced that control of magazines and newspapers could lead to great gain.
"I always felt that one of his primary objectives in the publishing game was to become socially accepted," says Frank DeFilippo, a former press secretary and chief of staff for Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel. "I'm basing all of this on my observations of him when I was in Annapolis. But social acceptance and power are two different things. He tried to use the newspapers to gain the other. He always used to invite the governor to his barbecues, and I don't think the governor ever went once.He was a climber, and he didn't know when to stop trying to wield his authority. He was aggressive and acquistive and a lot of people didn't like him."
"He was not exactly beloved by some of his colleagues on the Cornell Daily Sun," recalls Gordon White, now a Washington correspondent for the Salt Lake City Desert News, then photo editor -- under managing editor Merrill -- of the student newspaper. "He had and still has what a lot of people would consider faults -- for instance, a terrific temper. He'd sit in the Ivy Room at 10 a.m. and drink coffee and mark up the morning paper with a red pencil and most of the time the thing was completely red when he was through.
"But he had a great sense of humor.There was a tremendous rivalry between Cornell and Syracuse and one day we published a phony copy of the Syracuse Orange and drove over there and replaced all the copies on campus with our phony ones."
After graduating with a degree in government, Merrill was surprised that his much-loved New York Times did not want to hire him on the spot. So he got in his car and drove south, stopping at every newspaper in every dinky New Jersey town until a benevolent editor at The Plainfield Courier News gave him a job. He went on to work at the Newark News and for Mike Wallace's Night Beat and for J. Walker Thompson. In 1961 he took a job at State under Chester Bowles, who at 78 still has fond memories of working with Merrill and characterizes his former subordinate as "very conscientious and an incredibly hard worker."
In 1968 Merrill bought a majority of the Annapolis Evening Capital, and has been involved in publishing ever since. In September 1977 he purchased Baltimore magazine, whose circulation he took dramatically from 5,000 to 50,000.
By March of last year, Philip Merrill had made enough money in the publishing game to plunk down $3.6 million for The Washingtonian. In the 18 months he has owned the monthly he has hired three additional editors, including the magazine's first photo editor, and has increased the editorial budget by about 33 percent.Circulation of the magazine has increased from 97,000 to 104,000. Many of the readers fall into the same upscale economic bracket as the 90,000 Washingtonians who receive The Dial.
Merrill's publishing career has been punctuated by many legal battles: virtually all of them successful, some of them Pyrrhic. They have marked Merrill in certain circles as a man with a tough, brash, insensitive character, his eye only on the bottom line of the balance sheet.
"There are people who would consider him a litigious personality," says his lawyer Will Sirota. "That's not quite the mark. He has a tendency to explode, but he'll eventually calm down. Untimately he believes in fairness. And he doesn't mind allowing the courts to decide what's fair."
So it was that Merrill seemed singlehandedly to take on The Dial, although he has the written support of many publishers of small regional magazines that also consider themselves financially threatened by the PBS-associated monthly.
Public TV officials counter that they are not using any portion of their federal funding to underwrite the magazine and are not advertising the magazine on the air -- although WETA president Ward Chamberlin admits that the station does promote The Dial as a benefit of supporting Channel 26 with a $20 membership pledge.
"Mr. Merrill is upset," says Dial publisher Morton Bailey Jr., "because we can sell local ads to the same demographic [age and economic] market as The Washingtonian at a much cheaper rate."
"Of course they can," says Philip Merrill, "and I'm upset because they have unfair major competitive advantages. But beyond that, should a government or quasi-government agency be in the publishing business? Maybe you can make a case for Smithsonian, because the institution's charter calls for the diffusion of knowledge. I thought public television existed to offer alternatives to the three networks."
Some people think Philip Merrill's entire life now revolves around his fight with The Dial.
In fact he still gets up in the norning and drinks coffee and reads The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun and The Wall Street Journal. He still drives his 1975 Cadillac from his ultra-contemporary house on the Severn River to his office in Annapolis or Baltimore or Washington. He still loses his temper with his staffs and sometimes tears up the papers and magazines after they come out, and then drives home and spends a lot of time with his wife and three children. He doesn't smoke and rarely drinks anything other than an icky concoction made from chocolate diet soda. He reads five books at a time.
"He's an old-boy conservative Republican who buys new Top Siders every year and has the teeth checked on his Izod alligators to make sure they look just right," says Barbara Mikulski, a friend and Democratic congresswoman from Maryland. "We can be miles apart politically, but ultimately he's a real populist. A preppie populist, but a fair man."
Outside his house are docked two vessels: a 35-foot sailboat named Merilly and a power cruiser named Working Capital.
And there are tales and tales about Philip Merrill the sailor.
"Let's just say this," says Sam Lewis. "I don't know how many times I was out on boats with Merrill and the thing is about to sink and you can't believe you'll ever make it to port and, son-of-a-bitch, he always gets it in. Once we had barely limped into shore in a storm and he still wasn't satisfied. Had to get it back to the dock. Said, 'I didn't come this far to ground the damn thing.'
"He is absolutely the most tenacious person I've ever known."