What does Maryland Public Television have in common with Linda Tripp, a promoter of questionable cancer cures and the owner of a South Baltimore factory where Legionnaires' disease broke out?
All of the above have hired the same "media crisis manager" in recent years.
That would be Levi Rabinowitz, an ingratiating and sometimes infuriating spin doctor who, despite being picked for the job by an MPT board packed with Democratic supporters of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, has rarely found a Republican he didn't like.
An Orthodox Jew himself, Rabinowitz was hired as a consultant to help reach out to Orthodox Jewish voters during the 1984 Reagan-Bush re-election campaign.
(A year later, President Reagan attended a service in Germany honoring those buried at a military cemetery - including SS troops. Pretty much an epic public relations nightmare. But by that time, Rabinowitz wasn't around to help out.)
So, not too many days ago, I went to meet the image consultant (his first name rhymes with "heavy") at an Inner Harbor seafood restaurant.
Rabinowitz, 54, began by waxing philosophic about cultivating blossoming friendships, building bridges, taking stock. He talked of a time when reporters drank heavily and wore fedoras and were, apparently, portrayed by Brad Pitt in the movies. I wasn't exactly sure when that was. But I did take notes.
Rabinowitz, in his genial way, encouraged me not to take notes, saying he was there simply to make friends and, by the way, why didn't I just close my notebook. The lunch involved a number of these little exchanges, but I continued to take notes, including during one lighter moment, when he cried out: "If you've got an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease, I'm your man!"
I had come with a simple question on my mind: What was the crisis at MPT? What had happened to make Maryland Public Television pay a "crisis manager" to tame the savage media beast?
Rabinowitz said he wasn't really hired to manage any crisis. He'd been hired to help MPT launch its new version of Wall Street Week, and extend its brand nationally through its partner, Fortune magazine. "It's a good time to think through strategically who we are," he said. The show would be an asset for Baltimore, he promised: "If properly explained and properly presented, it will be no different than the Preakness over a period of time."
Later, after the lunch, I got a slightly different answer: Louis Rukeyser.
Ten weeks ago the renowned and headstrong financial analyst poked MPT in the eye, on its own airwaves, after the state system decided to force him from his studio chair. Yet the press portrayed Rukeyser as a victim, while MPT officials became the bad guys.
"They didn't anticipate the firestorm," said Constance R. Caplan, chairwoman of the Maryland Public Broadcasting Commission, which oversees MPT. "I felt that [MPT] treated him" - Rukeyser - "very professionally. I didn't feel that he treated them very professionally. Perhaps there was a bit of naivete on the part of the staff."
She added, "I felt that our side of the story was not adequately told."
Rabinowitz, Kaplan said, could help do that.
Perhaps. Around The Sun newsroom, Rabinowitz is best known for writing overwrought press releases and solicitous e-mails, while trying to glean tidbits of intelligence for clients.
At one point, he spoke to two editorial writers about the troubles of CareFirst, the state's Blue Cross/Blue Shield insurer, which has been buffeted by bad press as it seeks to convert to a for-profit company. The firm's president, William Jews, came back in and parroted some of the writers' observations when he next met with the editorial board.
Some of Rabinowitz's former clients offer glowing reviews for him and his firm, 911 Media Relations. (Think emergency, not terrorism.)
"He had a means and a method of helping us separate the wheat from the chaff in media requests," said Anthony Zaccagnini, the lawyer for Tripp during the Clinton impeachment process. "Why go on Larry King instead of 60 Minutes - that sort of thing."
Robert J. Shuman, MPT's president and CEO, said he thinks Rabinowitz will ably aid his own efforts to express clearly his vision for the state broadcaster.
"We went through a couple of weeks of bad press and I felt the need to articulate our message out in the local market."
Paul Mark Sandler, the head of the Maryland Public Broadcasting Foundation, a private nonprofit association affiliated with MPT, recommended Rabinowitz along with several other people to Shuman to fill that role.
(The terms of Rabinowitz's contract - paid with private donations from the foundation, not state dollars - were not disclosed, though Shuman called him "a bargain.")