Stepping Up  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   August/September 2007

Stepping Up   

Online Exclusive How TVs Tom Snyder taught a valuable lesson to a young newspaper reporter

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


OK, I don't regard it as one of my major strengths. But I have to admit that Tom Snyder taught me an important lesson in humility.

Snyder, once a very distinctive staple on late-night network television, died in San Francisco Sunday at 71. The cause, the Associated Press reported, was complications associated with leukemia.

I knew Snyder a little in Philadelphia in the mid-1960s, when he was a prominent local TV personality, and I was a young reporter covering the courts for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

I had been in the business all of two years. But with the arrogance of youth and print journalism, I knew that newspaper reporters were the real deal and TV people were pretty faces in the entertainment business.

Then a guy named Richard Nixon entered the picture.

The year was 1967. Nixon had just returned from a fact-finding trip to the Middle East, and for some reason he was holding a press conference in Philly to share his wisdom. For some even harder-to-fathom reason, the Inquirer city desk assigned the 22-year-old courts reporter to cover it.

Then, as now, there were many things I didn't know, and the ins and outs of Middle East politics were certainly among them. But I wasn't alone: Almost everyone assigned to the press conference was hopelessly overmatched in the face of the globetrotting big-time pol.

Except for Tom Snyder. I don't remember the specifics 40 years later, but I do know that Snyder was enough of a player that he could act like he belonged there. He wasn't intimidated, and he knew enough to ask intelligent questions. Much to the relief of the rest of the press gaggle.

Snyder went on to have great success on NBC with "The Tomorrow Show," which followed "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson from 1973 to 1982, and later on CBS with "The Late Late Show with Tom Snyder" from 1995 to 1999. His idiosyncratic, direct interviewing style and his chain smoking earned him an impression by Dan Aykroyd on "Saturday Night Live."

And as for that long-forgotten press conference, the reporters weren't the only ones who were clueless. Nixon assured us that, based on his first-hand observation, there was no imminent danger of armed conflict in the Middle East. Weeks later, the Six-Day War broke out.

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