Longtime NPR host Robert Siegel talks the art of interviewing, the state of the news, and more
For three of his four decades at NPR, Robert Siegel was one of the hosts of All Things Considered, the network’s flagship afternoon news magazine. He retired in early 2018.
“I’ve been living now for over a year-and-a-half without deadlines,” he told KNKX during a recent visit to Seattle. “Generally, I have been reveling in the idea that on any given day, given the approval of my wife, I can do pretty much what I want to do.”
But he’s not taking a break from the news. He still gets two newspapers daily and reads a number of foreign papers on his phone each day. And he has plenty to say about the state of the news media. He shared some thoughts with KNKX All Things Considered host Ed Ronco.
Some interview highlights are below, as well as Siegel’s personal connection to the station.
On lessons from a career spent interviewing people: “You really have to listen to what people say. When I was a much younger interviewer, I went in with 20 fully argued out questions, and very carefully scripted. The risk of doing that was I could be talking to someone and miss a really surprising answer because I had my agenda and thought that was my job. I learned over the years it was also my job to listen to what someone was saying, and react to that, and push on that.”
On the interview that got away: “The bottom line is I had a fabulous job. I got to interview a great range of people from Saul Bellow and several times Phillip Roth – writers whom I admired tremendously. Mel Brooks, who was barely an interview, just my trying to get a word into his comic monologue. I wish I could have gotten an interview with President George W. Bush about the war in Iraq. I was not favored by the Bush White House. NPR barely was, I think. Generally speaking, political interviews were the least interesting.”
On the role of the media, and whether it’s changed: “I would have said that a story like the Obama birther conspiracy claim – not only was it not worth our broadcasting, but it deserved our silence, it deserved our ignoring, until the governor of Hawaii officially dug up a birth certificate and there was something that disproved what had been a pretty stupid claim to begin with. The importance of that function has gone up to identify ideas that have great currency … and to test them and debunk them. That’s become increasingly important because of the ease with which deluded or destructive people circulate false stories.”
On what the media can do better: “We have a great volume of interesting reporting and writing being done for an engaged, educated elite. For people with a high school education or maybe a little bit of community college, and don’t have time or the inclination to read long stories, I think the news media have gotten worse and worse. There was an old-fashioned phrase that ‘the newspaper was the poor man’s university.’
What I fear is people who don’t have a sophisticated knowledge of the way things work in our government or other governments are susceptible to all kinds of wacky conspiracy theories of how things ‘really’ work, and it’s important that our perception of the audience include people who frankly don’t know which faction in Syria historically has governed the country. These are questions that require definitions and earnest reporting. I fear that we’re not really addressing an audience that should be served with a good, broad news agenda, and that may not be terribly educated.”
A PERSONAL CONNECTION
Before he was KNKX’s Director of Content, Matt Martinez was a longtime NPR staffer. That included time working on All Things Considered. On Sept. 11, 2001, Matt and Robert were in New York City for some scheduled interviews. Obviously, the day turned out much differently. Robert tells the story: