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”

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.