500 Years of Great Reporting

Ombudsman

December 26, 1993|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

Louis L. Snyder, who wrote 60 books and was an expert on Adolf Hitler, died a few weeks ago in Princeton, New Jersey, at age 86. An older generation of journalists once swore by the best-seller he co-edited with another historian, Richard B. Morris.

VTC Their volume of 175 news stories, ''A Treasury of Great Reporting,'' is as good reading as in 1949 when it was published, but it's almost forgotten now. Morris is also dead. Just a few of my Sun colleagues had heard of the out-of-print book.

The author was born in Annapolis in 1907, the second of eight children of a homemaker and a shoe salesman who used to answer the question, ''How many children do you have?'' with ''Four pair.'' There were four Snyder girls and four Snyder boys. Faye Lieberman, one of four surviving Snyder siblings, for years ran a women's apparel shop in Annapolis. Also surviving are Rosalie Leace, of Baltimore, Irene Walder, of Annapolis, and Harold Snyder, of Rockville.

A widow for 25 years, Mrs. Lieberman told me how much her brother had meant to her, and I told her how much the book meant to me. It was an exchange of lovely adjectives.

''Lou was the most talented of us,'' she said. ''He was graduated cum laude from St. John's College here. He was a wonderful scholar. He wrote the first book that predicted the Hitler horror a year before he came to power [''Hitlerism: The Iron Fist in Germany,'' 1932, using the pen name of Nordicus].

''He was a fine musician, he played so many instruments. He was a champion tennis player in college. He traveled by ship to Europe every year with Ida Mae [his wife of 57 years]. He taught psychological warfare to fliers during the war but came to dislike flying and never flew after that. They had no children but he was a Pied Piper around them, with his magic tricks. He taught many years at CCNY. We two were very close.

''My brother was in his early 40s when he edited the newspaper book with Mr. Morris. He wasn't a newspaperman but he read the papers and he admired what journalists did.''

I told her I knew the Snyder-Morris book best as a fat, old, white-covered 795-page paperback. My copy's pages from the 1962 second edition are now yellowing. It entranced me and many would-be American newspaper people after the half-century in the same romantic way as radio's ''The Pall Mall Big Story.''

The lively book's selections put the lie to the press' denials that it stresses bad news. Of course it does. News people value bad news as a stock in trade, and the book is chock-full of killings, wars, political disasters, human misery.

The book starts bad, with the burning of a 15th-century German sorceress. It ends bad, with the Nazi Adolf Eichmann. But many news people also value courage, justice, honesty and sensitivity in the face of these calamities, and the book's got those, too.

In an odd newspaper way, it's a good book, as readable today as in 1949. The editors set the scenes for each story. Forget your 1993 politically correct thoughts as you enjoy the different writing styles and passions from 300 years to a half-century ago. Copies can still be found in old book stores and some libraries.

How about Jack Lait's lead for the International News Service on a famous shooting? ''John Dillinger, ace bad man of the world, got his last night -- two slugs through his heart and one through his head.''

Compare that with the leisurely pace of William Howard Russell reporting from Crimea for The Times of London on a famous battle in 1854. He begins with ''the most brilliant valor'' and ''a savage and barbarian enemy'' (Russia), but readers learned that precisely 409 of 607 British soldiers died in what Tennyson after reading Russell called, ''The Charge of the Light Brigade.''

The legendary newspaper editor Herbert Bayard Swope wrote in a preface that reporting was not as good in 1949 as earlier in the century (of course, his own story about breaking a famous crooked cop case is included). The co-editors felt there was more ''bravura reporting'' in the old days, but in later years, fewer ''rhetorical pyrotechnics and raucous sentimentality'' and ''greater subtlety and depth.''

I don't know if we're more interesting now. Just read the likes of The Evening Sun's Lee McCardell who covered Gen. Douglas MacArthur smashing the bonus march in Washington in 1932. He began his sad and colorful story, ''The bonus army was retreating today -- in all directions.''

It's good that some newspaper stories aren't thrown out with the trash.

Ernest F. Imhoff is The Sun's reader representative.

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