Fun With News

Lessons in Journalism From NPR’s Robert Siegel

There have been a lot of great tributes leading up to Robert Siegel’s retirement today, including a Fresh Air interview and a series of pieces reflecting on his 40-year career at NPR.

Like a lot of public radio listeners, I will miss Siegel’s voice and presence on air. They’re defining characteristics of NPR News. But there’s another reason I’ll always have a special regard for Siegel: He taught me the importance of having fun with ostensibly serious news stories.

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Boss Tones

“Politicians once again choose Springsteen songs that don’t mean quite what they think they mean.” That’s the observation from a friend who heard “We Take Care of Our Own” immediately after President Obama’s reëlection victory speech.

The song has been called a “bitter anthem,” and features lyrics such as “I been stumbling on good hearts turned to stone / The road of good intentions has gone dry as bone.” It’s skeptical about whether we’re living up to Lincoln’s American dream of charity for all. Perhaps the people responsible for choosing the music, like many listeners, are more interested in the upbeat chorus than the nuanced verses.

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Interviewing Politicians

Of course President Obama’s “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit was nothing but “milquetoast defense after quip after simple explainer,” as Alexis Madrigal put it at The Atlantic:

Much as many would like to believe that the medium determines the message, a modern politician is never unmediated. Not in a pie shop in Pennsylvania, not at a basketball game, not while having dinner, not on the phone with NASA, not on TV, not doing a Reddit AMA.

This resonates with a book I’ve been reading: Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Norman Mailer’s take on the 1968 Republican and Democratic national conventions. Near the beginning of the section “Nixon in Miami,” Mailer writes about the futility of trying to get a politician to say something interesting: Continue reading “Interviewing Politicians”

After Apollo

Last week, we marked the anniversary of man’s first steps on the moon. But I’ve been mesmerized by another aspect of one of the greatest leaps in the history of mankind: sitting around.

In 1969, We weren’t sure whether Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin might pick up an alien disease on the surface of the moon. Under the Extra-Terrestrial Exposure Law, Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins spent 21 days under quarantine as soon as they returned to Earth. Initially, that meant hanging out in a “van” aboard the U.S.S. Hornet. As though eight days in a spaceship the size of a Dumpster wasn’t bad enough, now the men had to spend another few weeks in what was essentially an Airstream trailer, waiting to see whether Alien-style babies would punch their way out of their abdomens.

Which brings me to this photo, collected in The Atlantic’s Apollo 11 gallery. I’ve returned to it again and again in the past week. According to the Apollo Archive, it was taken July 26, 1969, two days after the men returned to Earth.

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The Help

It’s hard to watch a grown man berate another adult. This week, after a committee hearing, a senator had a question.

A staffer walks over to answer. She’s talking, then either turns away or starts moving away. A natural moment of conclusion? Or wanton insubordination?  The senator knows what he saw, and there’s a sudden turn in his demeanor.

That’s fine, walk away. Go ahead, walk away. I’m trying to ask you a question, but you walk away? Go ahead. You should show more respect. But that’s fine, walk away.

She tries to diffuse the situation. But it’s too late — He Is Not Having It. He walks out of the room. She turns to a colleague and they exchange silent glances: “WTF just happened?”

This is someone who warms his seat by virtue of an appointment, who has not yet been elected. A back bencher. And a big man.

‘I want them to see what they have done to Jack.’

The April 2, 2012 edition of The New Yorker has a remarkable piece on Lyndon Johnson’s experience of Nov. 22, 1963. LBJ awoke an alienated vice president, dogged by scandal and likely in the twilight of his political career. You know how the story ends.

The piece is an excerpt from the upcoming fourth book in Robert Caro’s five-volume biography of Johnson. You might have thought every angle on Nov. 22 had been dulled, but this account is fresh and immediate.

The motorcade enters Dealey Plaza. From Johnson’s convertible, far behind the president, they hear a motorcycle backfire, or maybe a firecracker in the crowd. Then Rufus Youngblood, LBJ’s Secret Service agent, saw one of his colleagues in a car ahead “suddenly rising to his feet, with an automatic rifle in his hands.”

Whirling in his seat, Youngblood shouted — in a “voice I had never heard him ever use,” Lady Bird recalled — “Get down! Get down!” and, grabbing Johnson’s right shoulder, yanked him roughly down toward the floor in the center of the car, as he almost leaped over the front seat, and threw his body over the Vice-President, shouting again, “Get down! Get down!” By the time the next two sharp reports had cracked out — it was a matter of only eight seconds, but everyone knew what they were now — Lyndon Johnson was down on the floor of the back seat of the car. The loud, sharp sound, the hand suddenly grabbing his shoulder and pulling him down: now he was on the floor, his face on the floor, with the weight of a big man lying on top of him, pressing him down — Lyndon Johnson would never forget “his knees in my back and his elbows in my back.”

The piece is also a master class in transparent journalism. Caro carefully differentiates what is known, what is unknown, and what falls between. He treats certain sources with skepticism (“Carpenter, like Valenti, was an idolater …”) and is clear when he is speculating (“What was going through Lyndon Johnson’s mind as he stood there history will never know”).

Despite the apparent rigor, Caro glides from attribution to attribution, stitching a remarkably complete story. Jackie, her husband’s blood caked on her leg and glove, agreeing to appear with LBJ at his swearing-in on Air Force One:

Only once did Jackie’s voice change: when Lady Bird asked her if she wanted to change clothes. Not right then, Jackie said. “And then … if with a person that gentle, that dignified, you can say had an element of fierceness, she said, ‘I want them to see what they have done to Jack.'”