Watching the 'Lights Go Out' : CBS News' Joan Snyder Is One of Many Veterans Caught in Network's Cutbacks


Joan Snyder is packing up 29 years' worth of memories at CBS News. Reporter's spiral notebooks, old photos (a dark-haired Snyder on assignment in a 1960s miniskirt), letters from viewers on stories that affected their lives--it all spills out of drawers into cardboard boxes in an oddly quiet corridor of offices at CBS' "Sunday Morning."

"This whole place feels quiet," said Snyder, who has worked as a producer for "Sunday Morning" since 1987. "It's not just the layoffs--it's the demoralization, people asking, 'Who's going to be next? Now what?' Being at CBS News today is like watching the lights go out on a skyscraper, one by one."

Snyder, who became the network's first female field producer at CBS in 1967 and worked for many years as a writer for Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace and other CBS anchors, has been laid off in a new round of cutbacks at the network. CBS News is taking the biggest hit in the companywide cuts, with some 120 news employees expected to lose their jobs among 400 employees in all divisions.

All three broadcast networks are facing cutbacks in news in the recessionary economy, and Snyder joins such well-known on-air correspondents as NBC's Dr. Art Ulene and Don Oliver in staff reductions that are expected to affect many veterans as well as newcomers in TV news. To many observers, the dismissal of the 55-year-old Snyder is symptomatic of a loss of wisdom under way in network news.

"Joan is a great lady and a great pro who's contributed excellently to broadcast news," CBS anchor Dan Rather said in an interview. "There's a tidal wave of new economic realities that has hit the business, and tidal waves aren't always selective about who they take with them. The heartache is that even people of a Joan Snyder's demonstrated talent and record are vulnerable to being laid off."

Snyder was laid off during a previous round of cutbacks at CBS News in 1987. But Rather, Wallace, "60 Minutes" executive producer Don Hewitt and others intervened, and Snyder's position was saved. This time, Wallace, Rather, "Sunday Morning" anchor Charles Kuralt and others expressed concern to CBS management about Snyder's dismissal to no avail. Last Friday was her final day of work.

Despite the networks' diminished profits, Snyder said, their owners have a responsibility in news.

"CBS News traditionally stood for excellence, and our coverage--from civil rights to the Vietnam War--had real impact. Cutting down a great news-gathering organization is a disservice to the public. (CBS founder) William S. Paley and (former CBS president) Frank Stanton did not expect news to make a profit. Here is (current CBS Chairman Laurence) Tisch, who purports to be such a philanthropist, putting his name on a hospital (in New York City) while he cuts health and retirement benefits at CBS and closes our in-house medical facility. When I think of the new owners and the money they have made personally on the networks, I think, hell, if you're such a philanthropist, why not plow the money back into CBS News?"

Noting that CBS has said that it will lose $170 million this year on its Major League baseball contract, Snyder continued, "Executives have made bad programming decisions, and then they expect employees to pay for it. They close bureaus and fire cameramen, producers, reporters in the field--these are the people who make the business tick."

During the Persian Gulf War, Snyder recalled, she was working with a CBS News crew from Atlanta, covering an anti-war demonstration in North Carolina.

"The cameraman, Rob Rainey, ran backwards through the crowd to get the shot. . . . Well, three of the four of us who were there that night have since been let go. The sound man, J. W. Womack, is still there, but Bruce Hall, a longtime correspondent, Rainey and I have lost our jobs."

The network evening newscasts today are going more toward a newsmagazine approach, doing "takeouts" on issues but picking up footage from affiliates. Snyder says it's not the same.

"The local stations have their own newscasts to fill; how are they going to shoot stories for the network newscasts?" she asked. "With the new cutbacks in bureaus, it's going to be even harder to get correspondents and crews for stories. I've already seen instances recently of stories that were shot, say, by our affiliate in the Midwest, and then 'voiced over' (narrated) by a correspondent who signs off in New York. When you hear somebody sign off in New York when the story was shot in Nebraska, it means the guy in New York was not there. That's the antithesis of reporting, the antithesis of journalism. To me, it feels like a scam on the public."

CBS officials, citing a company policy against discussing individual cases in the layoffs, declined to comment on Snyder's dismissal. But, while Snyder said that CBS News President Eric Ober praised her work when she met with him after being laid off, some CBS sources said that Snyder's sense of independence might have worked against her.

"I may have been seen as a maverick," Snyder acknowledged. "In the 1970s, I was told by Russ Bensley (a longtime CBS News executive), 'If you shoot too much film and spend too much money, they will criticize you. But if you fail to bring back good stories, they will fire you.' That's turned around now. I've worked with some glorious eccentrics in this business; eccentricity was tolerated because the work was so good. Today, eccentrics are not tolerated. I think there's a fear that somebody who's too independent might put shooting the story above spending money."

Snyder--who worked as a producer-correspondent on the CBS weekend newscast from 1972 to 1986 in addition to her other CBS jobs--was 25 years old when she was hired as a temporary writer for the weekend newscast in 1961.

"I was one of the first 'girl' writers in the newsroom," she recalled fondly. "I practically had to pledge chastity and obedience to get the job. Executives were always saying, 'This is no job for a girl--you'll run off and get married,' as if there was a ladder outside the office, and you'd elope down it."

In the mid-1960s, Mike Wallace hired Snyder as a writer for a morning show that he was doing for CBS. "I've worked with the best in this business--Rather, Cronkite, Wallace, Hughes Rudd (a CBS newsman who was known for his crusty wit). Mike taught me that TV journalism must have compelling stories."

Snyder added, laughing, "And, boy, Mike was an equal-opportunity abuser--he never treated me like a 'girl.' I remember one day when my aunt and uncle were visiting from Louisville. Mike didn't know they were there, and he yelled out, 'Where's Joan Snyder? This script is. . . !" Then, when my aunt and uncle timidly approached, he was so charming, saying, 'Oh, Joan, you must be so proud of her--I know we are.' "

Such recollections will sustain Snyder, who said that she wants to write a novel about her experiences on the road and in the studio for CBS. (Because she is 55, she will be receiving a pension from CBS.)

"It's been a great life," she said. "I've been to Colon, and Semi-Colon, Michigan, and all sorts of places around the country. But, God, we worked hard to get the story. I've clocked many 100-hour weeks, catching sleep on the floor in airports, writing scripts in the middle of the night, then arriving with the tape for the newscast practically in our teeth.

"I'm not that old, but younger people around here often have come around, asking me to tell their friends some of my 'war stories.' I hate to sound like some retiree who says, 'With me go all the great things of CBS News.' I'm not bitter about what's happened to me--I'm angry about what's happening to the company today. I was here for the great years. I feel sorry for the kids who will never know how wonderful it was."

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