A high-profile, high-energy local TV reporter recounts his storied career -- and how it almost fell apart.
The Bakers' miracle man just arrived at their front door. At 6 feet 6, Tom Lyden barely fits inside their mobile home, a poker chip's throw from Mystic Lake Casino. He has a yellow pashmina scarf wrapped around his neck, sunglasses atop his head and a hankering for one of the couple's doughnuts.
At first glance, he looks too cute, too laid back to be the crusader for the Twin Cities' downtrodden, disgusted and defenseless. But the Bakers have been watching KMSP's "Fox News" too long to see him as anything but the man who will save their skin.
For the past seven years, Steven Baker had been fighting to get pension benefits from his union after a work-related accident and now, after seven surgeries and even more runarounds, he's hoping a few minutes on the evening news will be his passage to justice.
"Are you going to take care of us?" says Marcie Baker, the injured man's wife, cupping Lyden's face with her hands. "I'm looking in your eyes. I can see it in your eyes."
She then drops her hands. "Pinkie-swear me."
Lyden does better than that. A few weeks later, he files an eight-minute story that spotlights Baker and two other union members in similar circumstances. By the time the piece airs, all three have been offered financial settlements.
It's another impressive rescue mission for Lyden, one of the market's highest-profile TV reporters. He's known for his aggressiveness, determination and competitive spirit -- traits that have made him a standout on KMSP's fast-rising nightly news shows and led some to brand him a showboat more interested in sensationalism than substance.
If Lyden were doing his own story, the tease might be: Superman or super dangerous?
An acquired taste
Lyden's childhood dream was to become a newspaper reporter. He worked for a small paper in California in his early 20s, hosted a middle-of-the-night radio show at Cal State-Northridge in the San Fernando Valley and aspired to land at the Los Angeles Times. Then he got some unlikely inspiration from Linda Ellerbee. Her book "And So It Goes," about her years in network TV, prompted him to switch media.
After studying at the University of Missouri in Columbia, he worked in Green Bay, Wis., and then came straight to the Twin Cities, a rather quick ascension into one of the country's top markets.
In person, Lyden, 42, is effusive, quick-witted and swears like a longshoreman. On camera, he is deadly serious, earnest and determined. He's Geraldo Rivera without the cheesy mustache. "I'm an acquired taste," Lyden said. "I'm not everyone's cup of tea."
But he's just right for KMSP News, which has gone from getting only slightly more respect than a public-access talk show to a first-place contender in the late-night ratings, increasing viewership at both 9 and 10 p.m., while the competition continues to slip.
Several factors explain the rise, one being the station's commitment to investigative journalism. While other local-news outlets are slashing or eliminating those units all together, KMSP boasts an 11-person investigative team, biggest in the Twin Cities and one of the biggest nationwide.
"Some stations have a strategy of filling a show with news stories or relying on feel-good stories, and those are great, but you also need stories that question authority and can change a community," said Bill Dallman, who became KMSP's news director in May 2006. "Those stories from our investigators are the ones that pop with viewers and trigger the most feedback."
Lyden works part-time for the investigative team. He's too antsy to be on the air only once every couple of weeks.
"Tom is genuinely excited to turn in a daily story," Dallman said. "I'm just pleased that he recognizes that this is such a strength. He's as competitive as anyone I've ever seen."
Crossing the line
Lyden's competitive nature and in-your-face style might be his greatest strengths. They might also be his Kryptonite.
In June 2007, Lyden was looking into a case involving a 2000 traffic stop and was told by St. Paul police that the report wasn't public. An informant, one of 40 with whom he speaks regularly, retrieved the information, which Lyden used in a story. Police then secretly seized two months of Lyden's personal phone records in what they said was a search to find the snitch. Lyden believes it was a calculated effort to dry up his sources. (St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington later said he had "regrets" about the seizure.)
Police officials aren't the only ones who have had problems with Lyden. Jon Austin, a longtime spokesman for Northwest Airlines, said he would be "very hesitant" to work with Lyden after a couple of shaky experiences, including one about 10 years ago in which he believes the reporter agreed to an off-the-record conversation for background and then reneged.
"He's the only guy who ever deliberately burned me on an off-the-record agreement," said Austin, who now runs his own crisis-management business. "I always got the impression from him that getting a good story, by his standards, was more important than anything else. Where he and I part company is what qualifies as a good story."
Lyden said he recalls the exchange differently.
"I do remember some negotations, but I think he offered me a deal that wasn't acceptable and I blew the whistle on him," Lyden said. "I totally honor my off-the-record conversations."
There is one incident in which there is little disagreement that Lyden crossed the line. In May 2000, Lyden was tipped off about a police raid on a local boxer suspected of organizing dogfights. When Lyden got to the scene, he noticed a videotape inside the boxer's unlocked car. He swiped it.
The tape, which included dogfight footage, led to a red-hot story. It also led to criminal charges and the possible end of his career.
"It would have been easy for me to just disappear," said Lyden, who apologized on the air and pleaded guilty to tampering with a motor vehicle, a crime that cost him $500 in fines, community service and a year of probation. Lyden opted to stay in the Twin Cities, knowing that if he had left, the incident would have defined his legacy.
Pit bulls and better angels
Ted Canova, who was KMSP's news director a few years after the guilty plea, said Lyden's crime was not an issue by the time he got there.
"I think the culture that was there at the time was very forgiving of Tom," said Canova, currently a spokesman for the Twin Cities chapter of the American Red Cross. "There was a renewed emphasis on hard news and the people I hired and helped nurture respected Tom's journalistic depth."
Fred Ohlerking, Lyden's live-in partner for more than 10 years, said the incident had a significant effect on Lyden.
"It gave him a much clearer appreciation for people he does stories about," said Ohlerking, an acupuncturist. "He now knows what it's like to be the subject of an uncomfortable story and, as far as developing empathy, it gave him a clearer perception of what they go through."
Lyden still describes himself as "tenacious as a pit bull," but he also believes that he's mellowed in recent years, both professionally and personally. A typical night at home with Ohlerking may consist of nothing more than a glass of wine, a home-cooked meal and conversation with a small group of friends.
As for the job, maybe Lyden no longer has to be Superman. Being a super-good reporter might be good enough.
"It's about perspective after all this time," he said. "I'm trying to follow my better angels."
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