Viewers who tuned in to WTTG-TV's 10 o'clock evening news on a recent Tuesday night could have seen Meryl Comer, a former news anchor for the station, reporting from Morocco with an exclusive interview of Morocco's King Hassan II.
As Comer listened, the king advised the United States not to worry about his country's recent treaty with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. The sentiment was reinforced in a standup conclusion Comer did outside the palace:
"The political fallout from the treaty may not yet be over, but any harsh reaction from the West must be tempered with the acknowledgment that Morocco is strategically important to the United States, and that in this part of the world, strong pro-American leaders are hard to find.
"This is Meryl Comer reporting from the palace in Marrakech."
What viewers weren't told by either WTTG/Channel 5 or Cable News Network -- both of which used the spot -- was that the news report from Morocco was actually an electronic press release produced by Gray and Co., a leading Washington public relations firm that has a contract with the Moroccan government specifying a minimum budget of $360,000 a year to generate publicity for Morocco in the United States.
Nor were viewers informed that Comer, who also appears on television in two business shows produced by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is a salaried vice president at Gray.
"I feel used," said WTTG-TV news director Betty Endicott when she was asked about the Comer-Gray-Morocco connection. WTTG-TV picked up the spot from Cable News Network, which had used it without identifying it as a Gray production. "I had no knowledge of the fact that Meryl Comer worked for Gray and Company. I knew Meryl as a news person in Washington. How would you know?"
Cable News Network executive vice president Ed Turner, who made the decision to use the Morocco report on CNN's news broadcasts, said he, too, was unaware the work was being done for Gray.
Gray and Co. executives insist that all parties were notified that Comer was working in Morocco for the company, that no deception was intended and that her report was used at the discretion of the stations involved.
Comer says any confusion was inadvertent, and that she believed everyone knew of her affiliation with Gray and Co. Her report, she believes, was balanced. "I felt very good about the legitimacy of the piece," she says. "I felt it was sound journalism."
The situation illustrates the potential for trouble in the topsy-turvy world of high-tech public relations, where executives call themselves journalists, electronic press releases are "news" and any high-powered public relations firm worth its retainer is using satellite technology to get its clients' messages across.
Public relations executives consider the electronic press release, or "informercial," to be a high-tech version of the old-fashioned print release.
"No different," said Stephen M. Johnson, a Gray and Co. vice president. "The purpose is to alert the newsroom that something is going on."
Different or not, hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of the spots will be produced by public relations firms this year. Each will be beamed, by microwave, to a transponder, or channel, on one of the approximately 20 commercial communications satellites that hover 23,000 miles over the Pacific Ocean.
Many of the releases, particularly those intended for news broadcasts rather than entertainment shows, mimic news reports. They often feature what appears to be a reporter -- frequently a former journalist or a free lancer whose face may be familiar to viewers -- who may conduct interviews and narrate footage illustrating the product, organization or point of view being peddled.
Gray and Co. uses former WTTG news anchor Jackson Bain (now a Gray and Co. vice president) as well as Comer in its broadcasting work. The Washington office of Hill & Knowlton, another leading public relations firm, has used a free-lance journalist, Mary Jean Jacobson, to do electronic press releases. Jacobson also does bona fide news stories for WJLA-TV/Channel 7, according to the station and the PR firm.
According to several Washington television journalists, as well as competing public relations companies, Gray and Co. has been particularly shrewd in its choice of on-air hires.
"They've been very smart in how they've done it," said one local TV news director who asked not to be identified. "They get people who are respected, whose phone calls get returned."
The journalism-public relations connection is not new, of course. The public relations industry long has been a career stop or destination for some journalists. Public relations executives point out that some newspapers, particularly smaller ones, use press releases verbatim in news columns. They argue that the use of a former television reporter in an electronic press release is no different.
Some television news directors, however, say the use of former or free-lance journalists is troubling because it trades on the trust and objectivity a former journalist may have established while working on the air as a reporter.
And how does the viewer know this is news and not public relations? "That's up to the news editor," said one Washington public relations executive.
Those in the business of making electronic press releases say the releases are always clearly labeled and that account executives identify themselves when alerting television news directors that a release is on the way.
"Identification is the iron rule," said Gray's Johnson. "My view is that if it's labeled, it's up to the news director to decide whether to use it and whether to identify it."
Until about five years ago, public relations companies had to spend hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars sending tapes to television stations by surface mail.
With satellites, however, a public relations company or anyone else can reserve a half-hour on a particular satellite's transponder for as little as a few hundred dollars. The video is then available to any television station that has been told, by letter or telex, on which transponder to find it and at what time. PR executives say this makes it unlikely that a station could tune in a video without knowing where it came from.
The service is free, of course, and business is booming, especially with smaller stations that may have limited budgets or less access to network or syndicated feeds.
"There's a lot of information floating around up there," said one news director.
(Gray and Co. also distributes a program called "Washington Spotlight" to radio stations around the country. The program consists of interviews with Gray clients.)
If the public relations industry regards the press release as a harmless opportunity for "business to tell its story, a democratization of the airwaves," in the words of one Washington PR executive, news directors in Washington tend to view the releases as "handouts" or "propaganda" and something to avoid.
"We have a policy about that kind of stuff," said WRC-TV news director Jim Van Messel. "We don't even look at it. PR firms are hired guns and they are trying to convince you that something is good, bad or benign."
Van Messel and others, including WTTG-TV's Endicott, said the exception to that rule may be a day when Lockheed is in the news and a public relations firm is beaming video of a Lockheed jet in flight. Or, Van Messel said, "if Lee Iacocca quit and the only way that we could hear from him was in a handout, sure we'd take it, but we'd identify it."
How, then, did WTTG-TV, which begins its night newscast by reminding viewers of its 1984 Emmy award, wind up dishing out public relations and calling it news?
Part of the answer lies in the nature of life in official Washington, where the public sector, private business and the fourth estate collide. Comer, at 41, is one of a legion of well-connected Washingtonians who seem to crop up every so often wearing a different hat, with new allegiances and new agendas to match.
She joined Gray and Co. in 1979 after years in television news -- as an anchor and cohost of the "Panorama" talk show at WTTG and similar talk shows in Baltimore and Boston. "I dropped out of the news business in 1979, then I found I could be recycled . . . because of my expertise," Comer said. She also served, in 1981, as network media coordinator for the Reagan-Bush Presidential Inaugural Committee.
The same year, according to Comer, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce approached her to moderate its syndicated weekly talk show, "It's Your Business," (which airs weekly on WJLA-TV/Channel 7) and coanchor its daily "BizNet News Today," which appears on cable and commercial stations. Gray and Co. arranged a deal by which the Chamber would pay Gray and Co. for Comer's services. In exchange, Comer would continue to do occasional work for Gray and Co. on the side.
"Meryl wanted to do it," said Frank Mankiewicz, who is an executive vice president at Gray. "It put her on the air, it kept her with Gray and Company."
"I'm very proud of my relationship with the Chamber and with Gray," Comer said. "I wanted this arrangement because I thought it would allow me to maintain my independence from both organizations."
Comer said she believed most people in Washington's small television journalism community knew she worked for Gray and Co., but several journalists and news directors at local stations said they were aware only of her work for the Chamber of Commerce's "It's Your Business" and "BizNet News."
The report from Morocco was not the first time a Comer report on a Gray client has appeared on CNN and WTTG.
In December, just before President Reagan's visit with Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone in Los Angeles, Comer traveled to Tokyo for an interview with the foreign leader. The trip was paid for by a Gray client, a Japanese public relations company.
Comer said a Gray and Co. colleague called her at the Chamber to propose the trip, but she went to Japan "wearing my Chamber hat." Although the Chamber declined to pay for the trip, Comer said, it was interested in whatever she could report on U.S.-Japanese trade matters. Portions of the Tokyo interviews -- talks with Nakasone as well as the Japanese foreign minister and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Mike Mansfield -- were used on "It's Your Business" and "BizNet" broadcasts.
But Comer said she also offered a package of her interviews to Cable News Network's Turner, a former WTTG-TV news director who had hired Comer at Channel 5 years back. Cable News Network included part of the report in its news broadcast, and as with the Morocco report, WTTG-TV picked up the piece from the CNN broadcast unaware, according to news director Endicott, of the Gray connection.
None of the broadcasts credited Gray and Co., noted Comer's relationship to Gray or explained that the trip had been paid for by a Gray client.
Two months later, when Gray and Co. asked Comer to go to Morocco for an interview with King Hassan II, she took a brief vacation from the Chamber of Commerce to work strictly for Gray.
In Marrakech, she managed to get an interview with Hassan while reporters from news organizations who had been promised interviews could not get through the royal door.
Comer defended her work in Japan and Morocco. "No one could say we bent over backwards for Japan," Comer said of her reports from Tokyo. "What I did there was a legitimate news story, of interest to the Chamber."
Of Morocco she said: "If I were doing a PR piece I never would have mentioned Morocco's relationship with Libya . . . The point is that they took these pieces for the legitimacy of the news. After that it is their decision as to what is disclosed. Nothing was hidden."
Cable News Network's Turner said he assumed Comer was in Japan and Morocco for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and did not realize Gray clients were involved.
Although a Chamber official says "It's Your Business" and "BizNet" make every effort to be "credible," the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a registered lobbyist for business causes. Why news directors at WTTG-TV or CNN would deem a Chamber of Commerce report any more legitimate news than a Gray and Co. production is another question, which CNN's Turner answers this way:
"I knew Meryl as a coanchor and producer of 'BizNet,' which I regard as a pretty straight program. It did not occur to me that there might be a client relationship."
Gray and Co. executives said they did everything possible to inform WTTG of its plans. Gray Vice President Stephen Johnson said he contacted WTTG-TV news director Endicott by telephone and sent a letter on Gray and Co. stationery in the weeks before the Morocco broadcast to advise her that a Gray and Co. feed would be available:
"Meryl Comer has been in Morocco for the last week . . . ," the letter read. " . . . Meryl would like to do a feed for WTTG from Morocco or London on March 4. One of us will be calling you on Wednesday morning to set up the meeting."
Endicott said she doesn't remember the letter, didn't return the phone calls and had forgotten all about Gray and Co. by the time the Comer report came in via Cable News Network. CNN allowed Comer to transmit her story on its satellite time. Thus the story appeared in the WTTG newsroom as a CNN feed, according to WTTG.
CNN's Turner said the free transmission was provided as a courtesy to Comer and that they were unaware of a Gray connection. Gray's Johnson disputes this, saying he informed not only WTTG but CNN of the transmission and its source.
Comer said she regrets the confusion and intends to set matters straight by choosing between Gray and Co. and the Chamber of Commerce.
"No one was misled intentionally," she said. "And it will not be a source of confusion again."
She added: "Cable and, in its own way, the whole satellite technology, is a Pandora's box . . . The situation is not necessarily unique to me. There are many shows floating around up there . . . a lot of 'old' anchors kicking around on cable. The situation is ripe for confusion."