There’s been a little confusion lately in both journalism and politics over the burning question: Who the hell IS Karen Ryan? So we asked her.

As the New York Times first reported Monday, Ryan appears in a number of video news releases made on behalf of the Health and Human Services Department, which tout the controversial new Medicare law and its supposed benefits. The videos — which end with the voice of a woman signing off, “In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting.” — ran as news on various local TV stations. (To read the full transcript of one of the “news segments” that ran on WBRZ Baton Rouge, go here.)

HHS spokesman Bill Pierce originally described Ryan to us as a “freelance journalist.” Pierce at first wouldn’t let us speak to Ryan, saying that she was feeling “used and abused” by media accounts calling her an actress. (Perhaps Pierce was referring to an editorial in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, headed “Karen Ryan, You’re a Phony,” which called her not just an actress but a “hired propagandist”.)

But Ryan herself wanted to set the record straight, and she disregarded her handlers’ advice by speaking freely to Campaign Desk.

She’s not some sort of fraud, she told us, she’s a public relations professional who runs a p.r. company called Karen Ryan Group Communications — and these days she feels as if her world has collapsed around her. “I do feel I was singled out in this whole political mess, and I was used,” she said. “All the good things I did in my life, and now I’ve become this horrible person. I made sure that I played by all the rules.

“If you have a problem with the Bush administration, if you want to have a debate over the use of video news releases, that’s one thing,” she said. “But what seemed to be picked up was ‘Karen Ryan.’”

Was it fair to call her an actress? “No. To me, an actress would have a SAG [Screen Actors Guild] card. An actress is someone that’s playing someone they’re not.”

Does she have any qualms about the fact that her video press releases frequently run as “news”? No. The news stations, she said, bear the responsibility for how they use the footage she provides.

Does she choose the work she does on the basis of any political sympathy, or out of an interest in the product or service being promoted? Not at all, she told us. It’s just a way of earning a buck. (Although, she allowed, if she were ever asked to work on an issue that was really beyond the pale, she might hesitate.)

Ryan worries that the Medicare furor will make it harder for her to find work (the Plain Dealer piece warned readers: “If you see her, don’t believe her”). As she sees it, she’s the smallest fish in the pond, someone who has become a scapegoat, when in fact she is only a cog in a vast p.r. machine. “I’m the lowest person down on the bottom,” she told us. (And in a way, she’s right; in the case of the controversial Medicare plugs, HHS hired Ketchum Advertising, which in turn hired Home Front Communications, which in turn hired Ryan.)

While Ryan has previously worked as a journalist, as the Washington Post reported Tuesday, she currently heads her own p.r. firm. In addition to providing her corporate, government, and non-profit clients with communications advice and services, she often produces video news releases packaged as complete news segments, touting her clients’ product or issue — as she did for HHS recently. And she herself generally does the voiceover, which closes with the now legendary, “In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting.”

Ryan is clearly good at her job. Over the last few years, literally hundreds of stations have run — as news — items “reported” by Ryan, pushing everything from Excedrin to “a new ear infection treatment called Ciprodex.” Here’s an excerpt from her work, which ran as news in July of last year on WBRZ Baton Rouge:

Ryan: Now, low dose hormone therapy is available with 28 percent less estrogen and 40 percent less progestin. And with low dose hormone therapy now available by prescription, health experts recommend consulting your doctor to find out what’s right for you. Women who want symptom relief with less hormones now have new options. In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting.

And here are excerpts from a “report” that ran in September of last year, also on WBRZ:

Ryan: Experts say many children don’t like to get vaccinated, but this year there’s a new needle-free option called Flumist.

Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.