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CPTV Insiders: Ethics In Decline

August 8, 2005
By MIKE SWIFT, Courant Staff Writer

Alison Mead was thrilled when she landed work late last year as associate producer of a series on women's health for Connecticut Public Television. She even dared to think that the series might save somebody's life.

Mead and the lead producer, Mary Ollie Newman, started work on the first show, on heart disease, by finding a woman being treated at Hartford Hospital for heart problems. They shot interviews in January with Dr. Paul Thompson and Dr. William Bowden, the director of cardiology at Hartford.

And then the trouble began.

Soon afterward, the producers got a call from Jay Whitsett, vice president of programming for CPTV. Whitsett told them that Jerry Franklin, the president and CEO of Connecticut Public Broadcasting Inc., was demanding that the producers shoot interviews with doctors from St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center instead.

St. Francis was a key financial sponsor of the women's health series.

"Jerry just called and read me the riot act. He told me jobs are at stake here [meaning me]," Whitsett wrote in a Jan. 13 e-mail to the producers. "All [I] can say is that Jerry wants ST Francis people in show #1 and I will be hung out to dry if it doesn't happen. I'm sorry for this but I'm getting hammered."

Facing a situation that they felt was forcing them to breach a basic rule of journalism ethics - that content decisions are kept inviolate from the desires of advertisers or sponsors - Newman and Mead quit the project in January. In March, former Fox 61 reporter Carolee Salerno also withdrew for similar reasons.

"To just point-blank say, 'You're supposed to interview our doctors ...' There certainly may be a doctor at Hartford Hospital or some physician at Yale who's better qualified, so how can they dictate that?" said Newman, who won two Emmy awards during 25 years of work as a television producer and reporter. "That's our business, to find out the best and try to do the best story."

The demand by top management that journalists subjugate journalistic decisions to the financial needs of a sponsor was not isolated to the women's health series, current and former producers at CPTV said. They said it was just one example of a pattern in which the CPTV chief has ceded editorial control to sponsors, potentially undermining the credibility of the station's programming with viewers.

"I think these guys are for sale," said one angry CPTV producer, who asked for anonymity, saying he was afraid of retribution from Franklin. "It's a slippery slope. They haven't gotten to the point of where they are saying, 'Tell us what you want and we'll do it,' but they are headed that way."

And the autocratic management style described in Whitsett's e-mail was recognizable to many current and former CPTV employees. In contrast with the 57-year-old Franklin's charm and his smooth on-screen manner during CPTV fundraising programs, they complained of a boss who bullies subordinates and has contributed largely to an exodus of staff over the years.

In particular, critics said, Franklin has forced out executives whom he views as potential rivals or threats. One chief financial officer who questioned what appeared to be personal expenses Franklin charged to CPBI several years ago found himself out of work shortly afterward.

Bob Douglas, who covered Connecticut politics and legislature as a reporter for CPTV in the 1980s and 1990s, said Franklin is "kind of a mean-spirited guy."

Even then, "there was a sense that Jerry took care of Jerry first, and then dealt with the institution," said Douglas, who left public broadcasting a decade ago. "In my days there, if there was an election for CEO, Jerry would have been impeached."

"Dynamic" Personality

Franklin, who has led CPBI since 1984, said he "totally" disagrees with criticism of his management style. He said he never threatened anyone's job in the St. Francis matter.

"No, absolutely not," Franklin said when asked if he had threatened Whitsett's job. "Jay was just engaging in some hyperbole. His job was not at risk. Maybe he was just loose with language."

And Franklin disputed those who said he appears threatened by strong staff members below him. "I like to hire department heads who can be the next president and CEO," he said. "I thrive on hiring people like that."

Franklin, who earned a salary of $222,640 last year, has solid support from the Connecticut Public Broadcasting Board of Trustees.

"We consider him an exceptional president and CEO," said Gayle Capozzalo, the new chairwoman of the board. "He's very involved nationally in public broadcasting as well as locally. He has created a very viable organization here in Connecticut that continues to grow."

Outgoing board Chairman David D'Eramo, the former president of St. Francis, had similar praise. "He's a dynamic personality. I doubt very much we could do as well without a dynamic personality."

And Franklin has backers among outside donors and on the staff, including the CPTV executive who helped launch some of the station's most successful ventures.

"He supported everything I was trying to do," said Larry Rifkin, a senior vice president for national programming who helped attract nationwide attention to CPTV through the station's University of Connecticut basketball broadcasts and by taking "Barney & Friends" to a national stage. "Jerry has given me tremendous independence my entire career here, and I appreciate that."

Steve Futernick, a former senior vice president at CPBI, was also complimentary of Franklin. "Jerry is very entrepreneurial," The deal that allowed public broadcasting to sell its old building on New Britain Avenue for $10 million and move to an updated building on Asylum Avenue this summer with new digital technology "was a great move," Futernick said.

When CPBI recently completed a survey of donors to gauge support for a new capital campaign, Franklin's leadership emerged as one reason why the consultant forecast success for the campaign.

"The opinion that we heard was that Jerry is very much an asset, a strong asset," said Eleanor Drury, the New Hampshire consultant who did the survey. The consultant interviewed 50 public broadcasting supporters chosen by the organization.

But what some have seen as entrepreneurship and strong leadership, others have seen as Franklin creating a domineering fiefdom run by his word and for his benefit.

One was Les Meyer, a certified public accountant who as public broadcasting's chief financial officer in 1995 confronted Franklin about charges to CPBI that included travel to and from a farm he owns in Georgia and telephone calls made by a family member.

"I brought this to his attention: 'These seem to be expenses that are yours,'" Meyer said. "He said, 'That's OK, just pay it.' That didn't sit right with me."

Soon afterward, Meyer said, Franklin told him that CPBI was eliminating the chief financial officer's job. Franklin explained it was a financial decision, Meyer said.

Franklin said CPBI never eliminated the chief financial officer position. "We collectively agreed that this wasn't the best position for Les," Franklin said. "Les is a terrific human being, a good friend, and we wished him the best, but it didn't seem that [the chief financial officer job] was the best fit."

Meyer's concerns about Franklin's expenses were echoed a few years later by a second employee familiar with the CEO's spending. That employee, who now works elsewhere, spoke on condition of anonymity because of concerns about developing a reputation as a whistle-blower.

The second employee also questioned some of Franklin's travel expenses, as well as gifts worth several hundred dollars to people who were not CPTV members. When confronted about the expenses, the ex-employee said, Franklin said they were authorized.

"The explanation that I got was that all executives have certain benefits afforded to them, and the board approves of these expenses," the employee said. The employee resigned because of Franklin's behavior: "I just didn't agree with his ethics. And I just decided that it was time to move on."

The objections to Franklin's use of CPBI money expressed by Meyer and the second employee are widely shared within the ranks at CPBI. One substantial perk Franklin receives is that CPBI pays for his travel to his lucrative second job as a member of the board of directors of Bridgeport-based People's Bank. At times, that has included CPBI paying Franklin's airfare between his farm in Georgia and Connecticut so he could attend a People's Bank meeting.

Meg Sakellarides, public broadcasting's current chief financial officer, estimated the travel costs totaled less than $3,000 since 1998; she refused to allow The Courant to review Franklin's expenses. She said the CPBI board has approved paying Franklin's expenses, viewing his membership on the People's board as "vital to Jerry's statewide networking efforts."

That membership serves Franklin's financial interests as well: In the past four years alone, Franklin has been eligible to earn more than $500,000 in cash and stock for his services to People's Bank, according to the bank's proxy statements. Franklin declined to discuss his actual earnings, but said they were "considerably less" than $500,000.

Assets Or Rivals?

Several critics said that when Franklin has had strong managers under him, he has viewed them as rivals rather than assets.

Don Russell, who ran CPBI's Stamford operation during the late 1990s, said he often heard Franklin berate other public broadcasting executives at meetings. Russell took the job of running the Stamford operation at a salary of about $40,000, he said, because he valued the mission of public broadcasting. Russell raised money to install a new digital radio studio in Stamford and began building a local news staff.

Russell said he got little support from Franklin, even though Russell was sure Fairfield County was a potential source of donor support for CPBI. When Franklin became verbally abusive to him, Russell said, he quit.

"The problem with Hartford is they had to give up control," said Russell, a Stamford native who is now a columnist with the Stamford Advocate. "They don't really know the territory down here, but they don't want to give up control of it."

Franklin said that his clashes with Russell and another executive in Fairfield County, Lynn Laitman, were due to philosophical disagreements about the presence public television and radio should have in Fairfield County and whether it should have a news operation and television studios in Stamford.

"I'm sure they were not pleased when we made the decision to close Stamford," Franklin said. "But we saw the writing on the wall years ago, when we first heard people talking about digital [television]. And we said there's no way we're going to have the resources to have two state of the art facilities."

Concerns about management style at CPBI were reiterated in a 2004 consultant's study that criticized senior management for creating a "silo culture" that fostered competition instead of teamwork, "a formula for disaster" when applied to CPTV's fundraising.

The report, by the Willis Consulting Group of Medford, Mass., said that when the staff put together successful sponsorship packages by using a multimedia platform of radio, television, Internet and print, Franklin and other senior managers didn't deserve the credit. "This success has occurred as a result of personal sacrifice rather than through enthusiastic support from senior management," the Willis report said.

Undermining Credibility?

CPTV and Franklin attracted national attention in public broadcasting circles over the past five years for being aggressive in building partnerships with nonprofit funders, arrangements in which CPTV may "co-produce" programming with nonprofit sponsors.

Now, though, critics of that policy said the money CPTV might earn through those partnerships comes at the expense of something invaluable - the trust of its viewers.

Franklin's demand that producers promote or highlight the role of a sponsor in their documentary was not isolated to the women's health series, other producers said. They said it was just one example of a pattern in which financially pressed CPTV has ceded editorial control to sponsors.

"Jerry has been very clear in sharing his philosophy that nonprofit underwriters can appear in and participate in content development in programs they fund. And the issue of funder participation has arisen in a number of shows in the past couple of years," said Maura Martin, a veteran producer who protested that policy to Whitsett before she left the station recently.

Both current and former employees said they also are concerned about the station's choice of documentary subjects. Some worry that documentaries are being made primarily because they can attract sponsors, not because they reflect Connecticut's most important stories. They worry about a pattern in which many of the companies and institutions that are sponsoring upcoming programs also have a business interest in the content of those programs.

St. Francis is a major funder of the women's health series. St. Paul Travelers, an insurance company, is funding a series on the safety of teenage drivers that aired this spring.

The state's community college system, which trains nursing students at community colleges across the state, is hoping to sponsor a program on the state's nursing shortage.

PBS national standards forbid for-profit or nonprofit organizations from sponsoring public television "when there exists a clear and direct connection between the interests or products or services of a proposed funder and the subject matter of the program."

Those standards, for example, say a nonprofit organization whose mission was to eradicate heart disease could not sponsor an educational program about heart attacks or stroke. Otherwise, PBS says, viewers might conclude the program was intended solely to promote the interests of the funder, and the network's credibility would be wounded.

National Standards

National production standards for public television also dictate that sponsors have no control over program content.

But increasingly, CPTV's top executives, led by Franklin, have been granting sponsors access to producers as they work on programs, suggesting they interview people connected to the sponsor or even alter content to appease a sponsor.

Jennifer Boyd, one of the producers of a recent series on clean energy-producing businesses, said she was "strongly encouraged" to interview Arthur H. Diedrick, who headed two quasi-public state economic development agencies that had sponsored CPTV programming. At the time, Diedrick was also a member of the CPBI board.

Diedrick was chairman of the Connecticut Development Authority, which has paid $375,000 since 2000 to sponsor another CPTV series, "Positively Connecticut." He was also chairman of the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, which provided $400,000 to CPTV through 2004, sponsoring the energy series and other programming.

Ken Simon, an independent producer who has created more than 20 programs that have been broadcast on CPTV, said Franklin pushed him to consider making changes in one of his documentaries after a sponsor saw the program before it went on the air and did not like the way it was portrayed.

"Sponsors usually have agendas that in some way connect to the programs they are underwriting. I think that you can say that with CPTV programs as well as all public television programs. That is OK," Simon said. "It's essential, however, to maintain high ethical standards in program funding and creation."

Other producers, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear that they could lose their livelihood in the small world of public broadcasting in Connecticut, said they fear Franklin is willing to sacrifice CPTV's credibility to appease sponsors.

"We're in a situation where we're doing fee-for-service programming," one said. "It's not just an ethical issue. You're going to kill your reputation."

Franklin said that what makes the plan acceptable is that CPTV would only partner with nonprofit organizations such as St. Francis, not for-profit companies.

"We make a distinction between news and non-news," he said. "It is unthinkable that we instruct our news journalists how to cover a story, and which story to cover. We do not do that. When it comes to community service programming, that is different. We put on a different hat."

Franklin said local public television outlets are only obligated to adhere to PBS standards if they are producing programming specifically for national distribution. Franklin said the producers were never told they could interview only St. Francis doctors. "We never said that this had to be exclusive to St. Francis," he said.

Franklin said there is a higher purpose than money in CPTV's partnering with nonprofit groups.

"Time will tell if our current strategy is correct, but to me it's a joy when I discover a new partner and they agree to work with us. If it's the inner-city kids suffering with asthma, well, those agencies working with those inner-city kids, they need our help. They need the communications vehicle. So to me it's a joy that we do this. I don't see it as a negative. It's a gift."

But with CPTV having killed its last news program, the local magazine show "Main Street," Franklin's delineation between "news" and "non-news" may not have much relevance. Newman and Mead said they don't see a different set of ethical rules for profit and nonprofit sponsors. Ethical experts who follow public broadcasting generally agree.

"I am not sure there are many public broadcasters who would use the legal status of a funder as a distinction of when you exercise editorial discretion," said Raul Ramirez, the news director for KQED public radio in San Francisco.

It would be wrong to prohibit a producer from interviewing funders, if that producer believes the person is a worthy source of information, Ramirez said. But he said that compelling journalists to interview sources identified with a funder affects the quality of content.

Jeffrey Dvorkin, the ombudsman for National Public Radio, said NPR's standards dictate that there is no contact between underwriters and editorial staff.

"The credibility of the organization is really the only currency that is valid," Dvorkin said. "We can't debase that coinage."

Mead said she quit the women's health series with great regret, exchanging work in a profession that she had hoped would lead to a television career for a job waiting tables. But one of the things that bothered most was the way Franklin treated others.

"It bothers me that people think they can bully and threaten people into doing things they know are wrong," she said.

Mead is planning to attend graduate school in a few months. She is no longer planning a career in journalism.


Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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