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Dr. Nancy, Making the Television Rounds

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 29, 2009 9:43 AM

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."

Pitney vs. Milbank

A debate on my program yesterday between HuffPost's Nico Pitney and WashPost's Dana Milbank (as well as Amanda Carpenter) over whether Pitney's question to President Obama had been prearranged is getting big play in the blogosphere and on such sites as the Daily Beast and Politico. You can watch it here and decide for yourself.

Time's Michael Scherer says both journalists "acted like petulant politicians, abandoning any pretense to reasonable discussion so they could launch specious attacks on each other's integrity. No doubt supporters of both the Washington Post's Dana Milbank and Huffington Post's Nico Pitney will now declare some sort of moral victory, congratulating themselves on their adherence to truth-telling in the face of phoniness. But all their heroes did was ignore an interesting debate to score cheap television points."

John Dickerson's take on the broader flap in Slate: "In a better world, reporters would not rely on the White House for access to the president. But we do. The administration decides who gets called on and who gets sit-down interviews and who gets all-day access complete with a trip to a hamburger joint with the president. So there's nothing new about a reporter getting a choice piece of access because there's something in it for the White House.

"In the Bush years, the mere notion that reporters would engage in any kind of arranging at all was a cause for criticism. The argument was that reporters were captive because they relied on the White House to allow them even in the door to do their jobs. I remember being on a panel with Arianna Huffington, who argued persuasively that because the White House press corps relied on access, the transaction between it and the White House was inherently tainted.

"But access does not guarantee softness. Pitney got his shot and asked a good question, proof of which is that the president fled from it . . .

"Now Arianna Huffington and her defenders are on the other side of this intramural spat. They are arguing a version of what the mainstream media used to argue: It's not the access; it's what you do with it. That's a healthy evolution."

More MJ

During the wall-to-wall Michael Jackson coverage on Friday, I wondered on Twitter whether a reporter would ask President Obama about his death during a press avail with Angela Merkel. No one did, though it would have made worldwide news, and Obama never issued a statement, instead having Robert Gibbs say that the president felt he was "a spectacular performer" but that parts of his life were "sad and tragic." (He has since sent a condolence note to the family.) That hasn't stopped journalists such as Matt Cooper from trying to make a link:

"It would be wrong to read too much political meaning into the career of Michael Jackson and that of Barack Obama. (No one is thinking tonite that Hillary Clinton owes a debt of gratitude to Farrah Fawcett.) But it would be myopic to say that Jackson had a huge cultural impact and no political impact, either.

"After all, as much as the oft mentioned Huxtables of "The Cosby Show" fame or any number of crossover African-American politicians, Jackson broke down walls between races with music that sent suburban whites and inner-city blacks to say, "I want my MTV!", the fledgling cry of the music cable network when it was still trying to get pickup.

"In his androgyny and overall weirdness, Jackson was never really a role model in the sense that you could try and be like him. His talents were too otherworldly and so were his oddities. But he was entertaining and by bringing people together, especially in the 80s when race relations seemed more strained . . . Barack Obama lived a life of accomplishment, an upward trajectory from Punahou to Harvard, Springfield to the White House that seems incredibly void of demons whereas Jackson was all demons."

At Politics Daily, Emily Miller says pols need not get involved:

"If you happened to have watched C-SPAN Friday, you might have seen the U.S. House of Representatives do an OFFICIAL tribute to Michael Jackson. Members of Congress held a moment of silence in honor of the pop singer, 50, who died Thursday of a heart attack . . .

"Jackson was an accused child molester and admitted to sleeping in the same bed as young boys. He is, to say the least, not someone to be held up in high regard, and he's definitely not worthy of being mentioned on the floor of the U.S. Congress, no matter how great a performer he was in his day."

An examination of the online role in the King of Pop's death, from Jeff Jarvis:

"Have we come to a next step stage in social media's impact on news? Maybe.

"Certainly the Jackson news spread quickly via Twitter. TMZ.com got the news first and it spread from tweet to retweet and then it spread beyond the web as each of those Twitterers acted as a node in a real-life network. An AP reporter told me she was riding on a bus when someone came on and announced the news to all the passengers -- that person was a node, the bus the network -- and then everyone on the bus, she said, took out their smart phones and spread the news farther. The live, ubquitous, mobile web is an incredible distribution channel for news . . .

"I think this also means that we are less captive to cable news. Since its birth, cable was the only way to stay constantly connected to a story as it happened, or allegedly so. But in the Jackson story, there really is no news. He's still dead. All that follows is discussion and wouldn't we really rather discuss it with our friends than Al Sharpton? . . .

"If the Iraq war was the birth of CNN, could Iran and Jackson mark the start of their decline in influence? Too soon to say."

John Edwards's Close-Up

"Former Edwards aide Andrew Young says the ex-senator and his former mistress, Rielle Hunter, once made a sex tape, according to someone who has seen Young's book proposal. . . . This one is said to have shown him taking positions that weren't on his official platform," Rush & Molloy report in the Daily News.

Women Are Underrepresented

With the list of male philanderers growing all the time, Politico wonders if the phenomenon is that one-sided:

"After two of the same dramas within two weeks, it's fair to ask: Does the casting ever change? Are female politicians really that much more faithful -- or are they just not getting caught? . . .

"One female politician who confessed to an affair: Former Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho), who admitted in 1998 that she had a six-year relationship with her former business partner before she took office.

"There are several explanations that could account for this discrepancy between male and female politicians. First, of course, is the matter of numbers. Men far outnumber women in elected office, and statistical probability dictates that if a random politician is caught in a sex scandal, it is overwhelmingly likely that the politician would be male . . .

"Others say the complicated relationship between sex and power is apt to play a role. 'I guess men in power are terribly attractive to some women, but I don't think that women in power are attractive to some men,' said former Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), who was co-chairwoman of Gary Hart's scandal-plagued presidential campaign in 1988."

My favorite line:

"As Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) points out, 'Who has the time?' "

In other scandal news: Sanford's paramour, Maria Belen Chapur, denies that it was an ex-boyfriend from Brazil who hacked into her e-mail account, and says in a statement to an Argentine television station:

"I won't speak about my private life as it just belongs to me. It has already been made too public during these last days, bringing to me even more pain."

Meanwhile, "South Carolina's biggest paper, The State, owes beleaguered Governor Mark Sanford a big 'thank you.' Traffic to its Web site is surging. Page views recently soared by 447 percent year-over-year while unique visits skyrocketed by 1,080 percent over the same period in 2008 . . .

"But a juicy story can't protect the newspaper from the industry's harsh economic realities including employee layoffs. According to Mark Lett, the paper's executive editor, about a half dozen staffers in news and other departments were told Monday that they would lose their jobs."

Missing the Story

As the NYT makes a big deal of the 40th anniversary of the gay-bashing police raid on the Stonewall Inn, Frank Rich notes that the Times "covered the riots in tiny, bowdlerized articles, one of them but three paragraphs long, buried successively on pages 33, 22 and 19."

Froomkin's Exit

Liberal bloggers have been lambasting The Post for dropping Dan Froomkin and his White House Watch column. Washington City Paper Editor Erik Wemple reports that the main issue was Froomkin's $100,000 contract and his declining traffic:

"All the conjecture amounts to fantasy. It would be wonderful, that is, if the Post's move had really been motivated by partisan politics. Or, better yet, by a fear that this iconoclast was just too dangerous for the paper. What a Washington story that'd be.

"Too bad that Froomkin's firing is a far less spectacular story, one that hinges on money and resources, with a side of standard newsroom conflict. Everything, in other words, except for ideology . . .

"Yet just because the Post's decision wasn't tainted by neocon ideology and the cowardly calculations of an 'establishment media' operation doesn't mean it wasn't dumb, short-sighted, and self-destructive. It was all of those things."

I'm sorry to see Dan go. And I'm sorry to have watched a couple hundred other talented reporters and editors take buyouts as the money-losing Post has downsized in the past couple of years.

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

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