Anchors Aweigh

It was just before 5 p.m. last week when KXAS Channel 5 anchorman Mike Snyder answered his phone, his voice hoarse from giving interviews. He'd spent the better part of the day as a news subject instead of a newsreader, talking to newspapers from across the country about that day's victory--his self-described triumph over the hypocritical "Vatican of journalistic ethics."

That's because Snyder had just settled the lawsuit he brought against the Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ), the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, and three authors of a textbook on journalistic ethics. Ironically, he said, these guardians of media ethics disregarded the values they preach in order to defame him. "They have been caught breaking the rules they profess," said Snyder, speaking quickly. "We are a profession that pretends to police itself, but we are not there yet."

In August 1994, the anchor created a national media sensation when he was spotted emceeing a Fort Worth Republican Women's Club rally featuring then-gubernatorial candidate George W. Bush, New Jersey Gov. Christine Whitman, and U.S. Representative Dick Armey. At the conservative powwow, Snyder professed his credentials as a conservative gun owner who had voted Republican. Snyder's political declaration was much appreciated by the assembled politicians, especially Bush. "If we had a few more newsmen like Mike Snyder, America would be a much better place for all of us to grow up," he said glowingly. Later, Snyder was overheard commenting to a woman whose misbehaving young son had run toward Bush's security detail, "He just wanted to get close to the next governor."

The incident was embarrassing to his station, because reporters are supposed to avoid even a hint of political bias. (It was also damned funny, of course, since most reporters are, truth be told, reflexively liberal.) The resulting controversy, triggered by a Dallas Morning News account of the event, earned Snyder a two-week unpaid suspension from Channel 5, a penalty which cost him $15,000 in anchor pay.

Snyder explained that his former Bedford city councilman invited him after another emcee had cancelled; the possibility of controversy didn't occur to him. Nevertheless, he apologized. "I showed a lack of good judgment, and the station was probably appropriate in removing me from the air," he told The Washington Post.

The strangest turn in the tale didn't occur for another five years. In early 1999, Snyder began receiving calls from journalism students who said they had read a much harsher account of the incident in their ethics textbook. Doing Ethics in Journalism, updated in 1999 and sponsored by the Indianapolis-based SPJ, painted the much harsher picture of Snyder's mishap. In a chapter on conflicts of interest, the book said Snyder served "as a master of ceremonies during rallies for Bush at several campaign stops," "often introduced Bush as 'the next Governor of Texas,'" and worked as a Bush campaign "volunteer."

To top that off, the case study claimed: "In interviews, Snyder says since he's an anchor who doesn't actively report on campaign issues, he should be allowed to do as he pleases during his time off."

The problem: None of it was true.

"They invented a story and put my name on it," Snyder says. The assertion he even introduced Bush at one event (he only introduced Armey), never mind hit the campaign trail as a volunteer or endorsed him, left him "mortified." (He denies that his comment to the mother about Bush as "the next governor" amounted to an endorsement.) "They have admitted to quoting me and putting words in my mouth," he says, "and they never interviewed me."

SPJ admitted the errors and promised a correction--but with a key caveat: They thought the vignette about Snyder was essentially valid, despite the inaccuracies. "I would call them immaterial errors," says Bruce Sanford, SPJ's lead attorney. "It still serves as a valid example of how journalists should avoid the appearance of partisanship in a political campaign."

Not good enough, says Snyder, who last April filed a lawsuit against SPJ, book authors Jay Black, Bob Steele, and Ralph Barney, and the Florida-based Poynter Institute, which pitched the book as a tome "no serious journalist should be without." His suit charging the authors and journalism organizations with damaging his reputation was settled last week for Snyder's legal costs of $17,000, allowing Snyder to claim victory. He points to a statement in which SPJ and the textbook authors express regret over "errors that have injured Mr. Snyder's reputation and caused him public embarrassment."

Snyder also sees the settlement as victory over the "high priests of journalism," whom he claims set the rules but don't follow them. "The highest of the high...shouldn't be able to get away with that," he says.

SPJ, which spent $70,000 in legal expenses, simply blames shoddy research for their errors. "There was no need for this lawsuit to be filed, since SPJ and the authors had already recognized and apologized for the errors of fact occurring in the case study," says SPJ's Sanford in a statement. "Anyone can make a mistake, and the Society and the authors have corrected their mistake."

Snyder seems to have coaxed more from SPJ than a mere mea culpa. The list of remedies fills two pages in the settlement. The terms include: A statement of apology and retraction in Quill, SPJ's magazine; a front-page link on SPJ's Web site to the statement, posted for 120 days; removal of all references to the handbook on SPJ and Poynter's Web site; a statement sent to all universities known to be using the book; and a ban on sales of the book until a new edition sans Snyder is published. "This case was not over money," Snyder says. "Restoration of my reputation had everything to do with this."

One question remains: Where did the authors get the quirky account of Snyder's GOP debut? According to Snyder, 500 articles were written nationwide about his 1994 suspension, but none of them claimed he endorsed Bush or worked as a Bush "volunteer." It turns out that a low-level researcher for the book mistakenly attributed to Snyder a summary of comments made by readers responding to a Fort Worth Star-Telegram poll.

The poll, according to the settlement brief negotiated by Snyder and his attorney, "showed that the majority of readers believed Mr. Snyder's suspension was not justified."

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Jonathan Fox
Contact: Jonathan Fox