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Why I’ll Miss Robert Siegel (and why you should too)

NPR Photo
NPR Photo
NPR's Robert Siegel signs off for good on Jan. 5, 2018.

I’ll let you in on a secret that doesn’t seem to make it to everyone in journalism school anymore ?? we’re not here to make you comfortable. We’re not here to make you feel safe. We’re also not here to provoke you to action. We’re here to tell you what’s important to know. And we’re here to tell you when some well-dressed huckster with a charming smile is really quietly greasing you with snake oil.

Guys like Robert Siegel came of age journalistically in the 1960s and 70s, when regular people first came to grips with the fact that institutions and individuals of authority can’t just be given a pass. Consequently, he seemed almost allergic to spin, to buzzwords. Maybe even to bon mots.

That’s a dying skill in reporting these days. So many interviews seem … safe. Almost, dare I say, polite. It’s nice to be polite, but politeness should not mean you just let somebody bust out some crazy hogwash while you nod and smile. Yes, this is America, where we’re honor-bound to let someone speak, even if we hate what they say. But this is also America, where if you speak you will be spoken to in return; and where if you speak gibberish, nonsense, or horse flop, you should be prepared to be called on it.

I wish I had a few specific examples of Robert Siegel calling bull on someone, but the truth is, he did it so effortlessly, it all sort of blends together. In a good way. Like a really good pipe tobacco blend.

But even beyond holding the proverbial feet to the fire, Siegel just made sure that guests on All Things Considered clarified what they were saying. So much of what gets broadcast on public radio is esoteric and thought-provoking. Siegel was as fascinated by that stuff as anybody else. But he understood that esotericism sometimes needs a glossary section to help the rest of us understand.

Maybe it’s the fact that Siegel is a native Northeasterner like me that has always made him so keen to see that the truth gets told accurately. He’s from New York, I from New Jersey. And people from our neck of the woods tend to be a little less tolerant of sheen and glitz. We’re more comfortable with a little grime. We don’t easily trust anyone. Especially anyone who says he has all the answers.

I’ve always theorized it’s because of the weather back east. It’s nice for maybe 10 days in a calendar year. That seems to make the people from there more likely to not worry about hurting your feelings or making you feel safe. It’s not sunny and 80 degrees everyday. And if you’re supposed to be the weatherman, we prefer it if you just own up to the fact that we’re going to be cold, wet, and miserable when we go outside.

It’s not until someone like Robert Siegel leaves the job, leaves the field, that we tend to notice what’s going to be missing when he goes. So many broadcast journalists these days, on public radio or television (and even those making documentaries that should be classified more as op/eds or essays than documentaries), seem to need us to know who they are as personalities. Siegel wanted us to know he was a kick-ass reporter. Known for the work, not for his name or his way of saying things or any other aspect of his personality.

It all puts me in mind of something Chris Rock said once about his fellow comedian, Ricky Gervaise. Rock talked about how brilliant Gervaise is because he so effortlessly, subtly drops blockbuster jokes, almost in passing; whereas Rock himself needed to stalk the stage screaming “Look at me, look at me!”

So while so (so!) many others in broadcast journalism need you to look at them and tell them they’re good, Robert Siegel effortlessly, almost in passing, put on a clinic every day he worked on how to talk to people, how to get information from people in a rational, professional way, and how to do so without worrying about how safe you felt with the answers.

Given that the keys to the information kingdom these days are in the hands of the inmates, I’m certainly going to miss someone able to hold people accountable for what they say. So I’ll miss Robert Siegel. And if you care about journalistic integrity, you should too.