Fun With News

Lessons in Journalism From NPR’s Robert Siegel

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.

Technically it was Ira Glass who imparted the lesson, to me and everyone else who heard his keynote address at the 2002 Third Coast Conference. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that this was before I was any kind of reporter — professional or amateur. I just knew I liked public radio and the conference seemed like a good place to look for a door into which I could jam my foot.

“This is an example of … how you can do a news story in a way that’s different than anyone else does,” Glass said, adding that one of the best places to get story ideas comes from listening to the jokes and sarcastic comments one’s colleagues make about the news.

His example was from 1990, during the first Bush administration — “the cute one” — when David Souter was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court. “Basically with anybody who gets nominated to the Supreme Court in America — Democrat or Republican — what happens as soon as they’re nominated is that we begin a process where we slowly roast them over the barbecue fire that is abortion rights.”

Glass said Souter came up with a unique strategy for getting through his confirmation hearings: “He said that when it came to abortion rights, whether they should be legal or not, he said he just hadn’t ever given it any thought.”

David Souter at his Senate confirmation hearing in 1990.

Glass was then a producer at NPR, and recalled a story meeting at which Siegel asked: “How did the Bush administration find the one adult in America who does not have an opinion about abortion?”

A story was born.

“Now, as a reporter, your question becomes: What’s the tape? Like what are you going to go to, because you can’t just come out and say that joke. You have to create a context,” Glass said. Here’s what they came up with:

“You get the feeling that everyone involved is enjoying themselves,” Glass said. But in most news organizations, he said, serious stories and funny stuff are strictly separated.

“The funny is not supposed to touch the serious, because the serious is afraid of being contaminated,” Glass said, before arguing against that posture. “Unintentionally, because of the super-serious aesthetics of the news, it’s like all humor and surprise and pleasure and a sense of discovery are totally removed from the real news part of the newscast.”

Telling stories with pleasure and surprise and joy and curiosity is “restoring the world to its real size,” Glass said. “My problem with most journalism and most radio, in fact, is that it all makes the world seem way smaller and less joyous than it is. And I feel like that’s why it’s important to have really funny, great moments in really serious issue stories.”

Glass’ ideas and Siegel’s story on Souter and abortion have inspired some of my favorite work, like the story I produced on why politicians work so hard to convince voters they don’t really want the jobs for which they’re so desperately campaigning:

Thank you, Robert Siegel. I’ll continue trying to live up to your example.

If you’re into Ira Glass and This American Life, his entire 2002 Third Coast talk is worth a listen. His discussion of Siegel’s story begins 32 minutes in.

Siegel’s final moments on today’s All Things Considered are also worth listening to: “I’m just trying hold it together here,” Siegel said. And he did — mostly:

Photo of Robert Siegel: Stephen Voss/NPR
Photo of David Souter: Laura Patterson/CQ Roll Call Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)