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'Dr. Nancy' Puts Health Issues on the Exam Table

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 29, 2009

NEW YORK -- Nancy Snyderman asks her producer how they might deal with a renewed panic over swine flu: "How do we keep the volume down?"

"You will be the voice of reason," Shannon High says. "You will be the calm, cool, collected surgeon who says what's real and what's not real."

As Snyderman slips off her heels under the desk and plants her red-painted toenails on the chair's base, a wall monitor flashes an MSNBC report on the Jon and Kate divorce. "We're not going to do this," Snyderman declares.

High isn't convinced: "We could do, 'Is divorce better than separation?' "

Finding the right tone for "Dr. Nancy," a health and medical show that debuts today on MSNBC, is a challenge for this 52-year-old physician hanging out her shingle in the noisy cable neighborhood. With the health-care debate heating up on Capitol Hill, she hopes to educate as well as entertain.

"I know what it's like to close up the cash register in my practice at the end of the day," Snyderman says. "I know how to explain complicated medical questions without being condescending."

Television doctors, such as ABC's Timothy Johnson and CBS's Jon LaPook, are in demand these days. CNN's Sanjay Gupta, who withdrew as a candidate for surgeon general in March, has been hosting the weekend program "House Call" since 2003. But Snyderman's noontime show is the first daily attempt by a network to mine the intersection between politics and health care.

"Doctors are often treated as gods, and they aren't," says MSNBC President Phil Griffin. "This will break down some of the mythology around doctors and medicine."

With former CNBC business anchor Dylan Ratigan also launching a personality-driven morning show today, MSNBC is down to just five daytime hours of straight news, which once formed a counterpoint to its liberal evening programming. The third-place channel is betting that branded hours will provide an alternative to headline hopscotching.

"There's so much information out there," Griffin says. "What people want is depth, broader conversation, different points of view. We can't win by doing it the same old way."

By tapping NBC's chief medical editor, a former pediatrician and cancer surgeon who says she "hounded" her bosses for a cable show, Griffin is getting a highly opinionated woman who delivers her views with a soothing bedside manner -- most of the time, at least.

On the "Today" show in February, Snyderman ripped into the author of a 1998 study in the Lancet that asserted a link between childhood vaccines and autism -- which the British medical journal later called "fatally flawed." Snyderman, who believes passionately in vaccines, declared: "This guy is a fraud." NBC later removed her from a planned "Dateline" examination of the subject.

"That was a really stupid thing to say," Snyderman concedes. "It crossed every line. I shouldn't have said it."

She has a view on almost every personal health question -- dark chocolate is good for you, no one needs eight glasses of water a day -- and is engrossed in the debate over President Obama's health-care plan, which will be a major focus of "Dr. Nancy." "We want the best health care in the world, we don't want to pay for it. . . . It's easy to bash doctors, until you get sick," she says.

During a rehearsal at 30 Rock -- Snyderman can't resist changing the mock script with a Sharpie -- she reads a classic television tease: "Could your pet be putting you in danger for a potentially dangerous superbug? . . . Your dog and cat could be carrying the germ." Snyderman is booked on "Today" to discuss that very subject and could not be less enthusiastic; she is exultant when the segment gets bumped.

While all too familiar with television's lighter side -- Snyderman once did a Wonderbra segment on "Good Morning America" -- she wants her show to avoid what she calls "medi-tainment."

As a girl in Fort Wayne, Ind., Snyderman never had any doubt that she would be a doctor, like her father and grandfather before her. She was interning at a local hospital when she saw her dad save a baby with an emergency tracheotomy. "It was the most extraordinary thing," she says. "That sort of sealed the deal."

As a young physician in Little Rock, she became a regular guest on the ABC affiliate, talking about head lice or heat stroke for $37.50 an appearance. A network talent scout invited her for a tryout on "GMA," and she wound up being hired for 18 segments a year, sometimes filling in as co-host. That led to a 17-year ABC career, which continued even when Snyderman and her husband and three children moved to San Francisco, then to a cattle ranch in Northern California.

In 1999, Snyderman and her husband, an investment banker, violated insider-trading rules by selling their stock soon after an initial public offering for the Web site founded by former surgeon general C. Everett Koop. Snyderman, a director of the site who had to return a $53,000 profit, says her broker mistakenly sold the stock instead of transferring it to another account, as she had asked. "It looked terrible," she recalls. "It was tough seeing that splashed on 17 front pages. It was embarrassing."

ABC sent her around the world, and the constant travel took its toll: Snyderman, after performing cancer surgery for 20 years, felt she wasn't being fair to her patients. Feeling she had hit a ceiling at the network, where Diane Sawyer had gotten the "GMA" host's job she coveted, Snyderman joined Johnson & Johnson for five years, during which she gave up her surgery practice. But she grew bored by the plodding pace of corporate life, and in 2006 NBC chief executive Jeff Zucker lured her to his network. ABC also wanted her back, and "I felt very disloyal not going home," she says.

Snyderman has discussed just about every health issue on "Today" and "Nightly News," but no subject sparked harsher criticism than her advocacy of vaccines. "I met my hate audience," she says. "I was shocked and my feelings were hurt."

As she runs through possible topics for "Dr. Nancy," it becomes clear that a health angle can be divined in almost any story. The recession? "At a time when people have less money, we're getting fatter because of stress eating." Steve Jobs's secret transplant operation: "How did he get his liver so fast?" Mark Sanford's Argentine affair? "Biologically, is monogamy normal?"

Snyderman, who still teaches medical residents once a week at the University of Pennsylvania, rushed back to New York on Thursday to analyze Michael Jackson's sudden death for "Dateline" and to make the rounds on "Today" and MSNBC Friday. After long balancing dual careers, she will get the blame if her solo clinic fails. Snyderman insists she's not worried.

"I feel the pressure to do something that's smart," she says. "You won't be watching breast implant stories."

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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