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Robert Siegel

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(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES’ “BLU-BOP”)

AARON CAIN: Welcome to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Aaron Cain. On Profiles, we talk to notable artists, scholars and public figures to get to know the stories behind their work. Our guest today is Robert Siegel.

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For over 40 years, his voice was heard on NPR's All Things Considered. Siegel was first hired by NPR as a newscaster in 1976 and later became their first overseas journalist in London before returning to the states to oversee production of All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition. Siegel went on to co-host All Things Considered from 1987 until his retirement in 2018. In celebration of WFIU's 70th anniversary, Robert Siegel spoke over video conferencing with former Herald Times editor Bob Zaltsberg.

BOB ZALTSBERG: Robert, it's such a pleasure to be with you tonight. I appreciate it very much.

ROBERT SIEGEL: It is a great pleasure for me to be with you. Happy anniversary to all of you.

BOB ZALTSBERG: Oh, thank you very much. So I want to ask you about those early years with NPR. So how did you come to join NPR and what was it like working there in those first years?

ROBERT SIEGEL: Well, I had been working for a small FM radio station in New York City, which was sold. It was a commercial station with some principled ambitions, and it was sold to a new licensee who was a commercial broadcasting operator without any principled ambitions. I knew that time was up. I looked for a job. I couldn't find anything that I liked that I was qualified for - that I was qualified for that I liked. And a friend of mine had moved to Washington and said that - he was a lawyer and his law school friend, a guy named Robert Krulwich, was working for this - for the new public radio network. And I had loved radio. I'd done it in college. I'd gone back to journalism school for almost a full year. I never finished my master's degree. But I loved radio. Given our situation - which was my wife and I had one little baby and I was about to not have a job - I took the almost unthinkable step of a native New Yorker who was still living in New York, which was to decide, well, who cares, it'll take me two years to work my way back to New York City and civilization, let's - we'll go - I'll take a flyer on NPR. It's - I looked at it, it was the most beautiful radio facility I'd ever seen in 1976. And it was full of people of my generation doing responsible jobs. And some of them were - including Robert Krulwich in particular - some of them were the most creative, interesting people I'd ever come in contact with professionally. And we were - you know, you could fit the whole network staff in the conference room. It was a very small place. But there were people there. Linda Wertheimer was covering the Congress, as she would do for many years later, and then politics. Nina Totenberg was just on board covering the Supreme Court and the Justice Department in those days. We hired, as a new reporter, Cokie Roberts. We hired, on - as a new reporter, Scott Simon out of Chicago. And it was a place that was quite small, but the attitude was this should be big. This should be important. This is a wonderful place to work. And I think that there was never an undervalued medium or medium quite so undervalued as FM radio. Or as - our network being mostly a network of FM radio stations, which clearly sounded better than AM radio. Didn't carry this far. But most people didn't listen to it and it wasn't even present in most cars. So we were able to do interesting things with sound that you could actually hear because of the fidelity of the broadcasting. There was a lot of fun, you know, doing the lighter parts of the program and lots of hard news. After a couple of years, I actually did get a call that might have led to the job at a network that I'd heard of and could have put me on a more conventional path. And by that time, I had been seduced by this very interesting new thing that was happening and stayed on for only another 40 years. So there you have it.

BOB ZALTSBERG: All right. So you went to London and you set up the first foreign desk for NPR. So what was the thinking about that and what were your goals when you went there?

ROBERT SIEGEL: Well, the thinking was that we were we were about to launch a new program - a new morning program which, when I first went over in July of '79, didn't even have a name yet, I think. But it was to become Morning Edition. And it was reasoned, not entirely accurately as it turned out, but it was reasoned that there would be lots of - lots more overseas news on this morning program than there was on All Things Considered, and that we'd never been happy with the selection of stories that we were getting from the BBC. So if they sent me over to London, my first job was to improve the quality of the stories that we would get from the BBC. It turned out to be very easily explained that the - what they called the radio newsreel that they were sending us because it went on early in the morning our time - Eastern Time in the States - was really targeted at Southeast Asia. So every shift in the Filipino cabinet was a big story, not of huge interest in the United States, even for a network that was devoted to international coverage. I was also supposed to recruit and edit stringers and, when I could, to do some reporting. And with each of the four years I was there, I did - I also was liaison with BBC, where I was housed. So there was a kind of managerial dimension to what I was doing. It was radio heaven. It was four years in radio heaven. I worked in a building full of terrifically smart people from all over the world who worked in the different language services of the BBC external services. And not one of them was under my supervision and I didn't - and not one of them supervised me. I had a fabulous time and ended up doing a lot of European reporting in addition to reporting from Britain. But I was technically an editor. I was technically considered an editor.

BOB ZALTSBERG: So then you came back to the U.S. and you were hired to run the news department of NPR. And there were some serious financial difficulties at the time. And so I don't want our listeners out there to think that you're the reason for all these fund drives, but you were kind of there for the very first one, right?

ROBERT SIEGEL: Well, what happened was we had a terrible budget disaster in which, as CP - Corporation for Public Broadcasting funds I guess were being cut, management came up with an extremely ambitious plan - that's an understatement - that we would have various ventures based on the great technological innovation of public radio, which was the satellite system. We were transmitting network programming across the country and with a satellite, unlike the old landlines we used, everything sounded just as crisp and present 1,000 - 2,000 - 3,000 miles away from the network - the point of origin, whatever it might be - as it did right at home. These ventures failed instantly. We didn't have the money. We had expended very unwisely. And I like to say that, since I was in London, I was the only person based out of the country, they couldn't blame anything on me. I had no fingerprints in Washington and I was asked to come back. I had been the acting news director before I went to London, so I was asked to come back - inherited a network that was in very, very bad spirits. We'd gone through massive, massive layoffs and many people had feared for the survival of the place. And one of the issues was can we go on the air and ask listeners, in addition to supporting their local station, would they help to defray some of the costs of what NPR was going through, which certainly - I mean, the journalists on the air, the producers of our programs, the newscasters - they hadn't made up this budget and the network might've had to shrink terribly. So we convinced the system to let us have an on-air fund raiser. It was called the Drive to Survive. It was national. There were some people at NPR who felt that journalists should never be involved in asking for money - that it was the equivalent of commercial network journalists reading commercials, which in good shops they don't do. And it was a great success. It set us off on the road to recovery. What I really think got us out of that terrible mess was there was interest in starting a sixth day of Morning Edition on Saturday morning, and the interest from many stations who were angry at us for having overspent - as they saw it - was, let's have a sixth morning with the best of the week. The host of the show, Bob Edwards, could also host the sixth day of Morning Edition. And we'd repeat things from the week and I - my feeling was that we'd been through such trauma as an institution that our next step just being a let's repeat stuff one more time during the week - a program that rolls over so you - as it was, you might hear the same story twice on the morning - it would have been a signal that we were finished making creative new programs. And we - I have to confess that we somewhat twisted the sentiment within the station - among the stations to creating, instead, a new show on Saturday that was called Weekend Edition with Scott Simon. To my knowledge, the only show that was ever launched by us that was received as great on day one. It didn't go through a terrible long period of improvement. I assembled an all-star team for that show and they all played like all stars. It - I think it gave people the sense that the future was still ahead of us and that - about a year into my four years as the head of news, that made me feel that I'd accomplished my main task was getting us out of the funk that we were in and setting us on a future course.

BOB ZALTSBERG: So how did you make the move then from news director to the host of All Things Considered?

ROBERT SIEGEL: Both of our hosts left. One - Susan Stamberg did not want to host anymore, and Noah Adams was leaving for Minnesota Public Radio. He for a while hosted a program that - took over from Garrison Keillor when Prairie Home - when Garrison took leave from Prairie Home Companion. Or he - it wasn't supposed to be a leave, he was giving up the show. So we had two hosts to hire. I had done four years, I thought that I had done my - I thought I'd bled for NPR. I knew that my temperament was very much for coming in in the morning, having a program on at the end of the day, and going home. In other words, I have a relatively short attention span and, having done things like plan a new program over months and months and meetings and meetings and winning over this person to that idea and convincing this person to take part in the project summoned more reserves of managerial talent than I think I possessed. But I begged, can you - our president, Doug Bennett - the late Doug Bennett, he was a very, very good guy - can you get me out of here? You know, I've - this is what I used to do. I used to be on the air. I won a Dupont Columbia Prize for my reporting that I hosted from East end West Germany. I used to host a little tiny eight-minute morning show before we had Morning Edition. I think I've done my service. I've done my - I've served my sentence. Please, can you do this? And whether it was because they thought I was the best person for the job or this was the best way to get me out of their hair as news director I don't know, but the idea was very well received.

BOB ZALTSBERG: Yeah, out of management and back into storytelling. So can you talk a little bit about what a day was like on the show? I mean, can you give us a sense of the rhythm of the day for a host?

ROBERT SIEGEL: The rhythm of the day was - first of all, the rhythm of the day for a host of the show really begins long before you get to work. It begins with reading newspapers. And for most of my time on the program, there wasn't a digital dimension to that so I couldn't work in the front pages of four European or Middle Eastern newspapers into my morning reading. But I could get through The New York Times and The Washington Post and some of The Wall Street Journal, watch some television news and listen to NPR while on the stationary bike in the morning - that's the beginning of the workday. Then I would - then work would start after that. And the first thing of the day was - the first event of the day was a meeting where the staff of the program would sit and talk about what the foreign desk, the national desk, the Washington bureau, the science unit - what stories they were offering us for that day and what we thought we should - what we wanted from them, either in addition to or instead of those things, what we wanted to add to them, what our ideas were, what projects we wanted to pursue independently. And at that meeting, the interesting thing about it that was true of All Things Considered when I first walked in the door in 1996 and was true when I walked out of the door in 2018 - I guess in January - ideas were welcomed and expected from the most senior host and editor and producer present and from the 19-year-old intern who was spending a few months with us. Everybody's ideas were heard out. And not everything got on the air, but sometimes the youngest, most junior people on the staff were people who put together - put out the best ideas. So that was the meeting. After that would come - our producers would go and negotiate with the heads of the various desks about why the piece from Pakistan would have to run for nine minutes, couldn't we get it at six minutes instead? Something that - or why can't we get a piece about this instead of about that from the science unit? Meanwhile, I would retreat with the producers who were assigned to the three or four items I'd be doing that day, and we'd either talk about who would be the best people for me to interview, we would find lots of clips. If we hadn't planned for this the day before, I then wouldn't have been reading the previous night - which was also part of the job - but I would start reading and preparing for interviews and writing my introductions to the stories that I would be interviewing people for. And then around eleven o'clock, mostly noon, we'd start recording things. And an interview that would end up on the air for four and a half minutes might unfold over 17 minutes in the studio. If it wasn't going well, it could go a lot longer than that. And the producer and I would then talk about how to edit it down to an appropriate length. And throughout the afternoon, I would be hearing the edited version of story A while I was about to go into the studio to interview story B. And finally at about a quarter to 4:00 or 3:30 we would turn up in the studio and record the - what we call the billboards and the returns - the things you hear every half hour in the program, at least the ones on the national feed. And - which are - they're kind of fun. They're kind of complicated. They're reading - you're reading text and you have to hit what they call a musical post when the music swells up and then have the tease cuts in them. And it all should time out to exactly 50 - I think 8 seconds or 28 seconds. Then we would sit in the studio for two hours for the - most of the time that I worked on the show. It was a 90-minute program when I started. And during that time, if you sat with me and, say, Audi Cornish or Linda Wertheimer or Noah - whoever the other host was at that time - you would have thought from where we sat that this was the calmest, most controlled workplace you'd ever seen because the chaos all unfolded outdoors - outside, rather, at the editor's desk as stories would come in late on deadline, as last-minute cuts were being made because the story we were told would be five minutes came in at five minutes and 45 seconds. And so lots of chaos went on out of doors and we sat very quietly and read our scripts during the show. And probably I started reading a book that I would have to interview the author of within a couple of days while the program was on the air. So, you know, it was a - I've only realized since I retired that a lot of people work and don't have many deadlines every single day of their working life - that this isn't true of all work, but it was definitely true of mine. And that was just - that would be my view. I'm sure our producers and editors would all have different ways of summarizing a day at All Things Considered.

BOB ZALTSBERG: But I'm sure that all of them had a lot of deadlines to deal with.

ROBERT SIEGEL: Yes.

BOB ZALTSBERG: So you've had lots of big stories that you've been involved with and coverage that you've overseen or been a part of. I want to talk about 9/11 and just - if you could give me a take on what that was like for you, to cover 9/11.

ROBERT SIEGEL: Well, I mean, it was - for me, it was, of course, like everybody else, I mean, I experienced all the same things that we all experienced. I happened to be in Manhattan. I was there for an interview that was supposed to happen at 9:30 in the morning. And indeed, if I had gotten on the subway and - on time with the author of The History of New York - The History of the Five Points Neighborhood, the original slum neighborhood of America - in Lower Manhattan, we would have been downtown within the shadow of the World Trade Center towers if we'd left earlier. We were supposed to - we were at the New York bureau at forty - as it was then at 43rd Street. For me, it was a very personal matter. I grew up in lower Manhattan. My parents moved when I was in college, but I'd grown up there as - you know, from the time I was one year old. And if you looked out the window of my bedroom, you would have seen the World Trade Center towers. I saw the very top of the Woolworth Building, which was once New York's greatest skyscraper, about two miles out there in the distance. So that was where I came from. And I've lived my adult life in Washington - in Arlington, Virginia - in fact, in South Arlington, about two miles as the crow flies, if that, from the Pentagon. So in a very real sense, the two places that I considered home in various ways had been attacked. Every day in New York City is an incredible feat of coordination of human activity for I don't know how many millions to come into Manhattan and then leave Manhattan, coming in at the beginning of their work shift and leaving at the end. In this case, all those people tried to leave at once in the mid-morning, so there was chaos. Relatively few people had cell phones. And in fact, that was a moment for me to decide that really my family - we should have cell phones. We should have a way of communicating in time of emergency. But it was very difficult to communicate with anyone. We headed out from the bureau - producer, engineer and I - whole crew. The closest place to walk to was Bellevue Hospital, which would have been one of the places that the wounded would have been brought. And there were lines and lines of New Yorkers there lining up to give blood. But as it turned out, there were very few people who survived and were in need of that kind of medical attention. The point that I've always tried to make to people about covering that story or any very big story is that, with hindsight - with the passage of lots of time, these events acquire a beginning, a middle and an end. But when they're actually unfolding and you're in it and you're covering it, it's all middle. You don't - you know when it began, but actually it has roots and events that go back many years, but you don't know when it's going to end. And I remember once being on 42nd Street with my crew getting back to the bureau when there was the rumor of a van that police were looking at - that perhaps there was a bomb in the van and there was a mini stampede for a moment. And it was a reminder that we didn't know that this had settled. We didn't know that the last of the attacks had happened. And there was the - I tried all week long to avoid the word surreal I remembered because it was real. I wanted to emphasize the reality of what was happening and describe it. But there was something that seemed unreal in that down over what we came to call it Ground Zero - I don't know if we called it yet Ground Zero in the first week, I can't remember. But above it, there sat a cloud on these perfectly sunny days - all the dust that had been thrown up into the air when the towers went down was - it caked all the cars and the sidewalks, but it also created a cloud that hung over the bottom of the - the end of the island of Lower Manhattan. From midtown, you could look down whatever avenue would have been Third Avenue or Park and you would see that this cloud hanging over the end of the island, and it was really very eerie and very disturbing - reminded me of what my job was. My job was to describe and explain what was going on. I hosted that week from New York since I happened to be there. And our job - we felt the same anxieties and the same fears as everybody else, but we had something to do, which was what I loved about broadcast news and about journalism - that our job is to get to work reporting on what had happened and trying to sort through the truth from the rumor and trying to explain to people who Osama bin Laden was and where our reporters had come across his name and his hand in the past. So it was one of those weeks that, you know, you live with forever. It confirmed my sense that I was doing the right job - that this is what I was suited for, and gave me the opportunity to be of some use to people at a time when otherwise I would have just been worried sick about what was happening in the world.

BOB ZALTSBERG: We have a clip of a story that you did back then. We're going to share some of your work with the people who are listening and watching tonight and I want to get your take on it after we play this. So we're going to play the clip now.

ROBERT SIEGEL: Nature ordained a blue, cloudless sky for New York today - a perfect canopy for a temperate end of summer, not quite autumn day. But as you walk south toward the World Trade Center site, you have to look back uptown to remember the impeccable weather. Downtown at Chambers Street, where Hudson Street and West Broadway form the point of a triangular vest pocket park, the sky is overcast with dust and ash. The air is so thick with it, it makes you cough. The emergency workers all wear masks. The sidewalk is coated with a dusting of the stuff, which is the pulverized remains of hundreds of offices - offices that employed as many people as you would see in a major league ballpark during a pennant race. And in the dust, you find paper - some newspapers, some magazines, but mostly artifacts that document what people did for a living in those offices. A single page with three holes punched for a loose-leaf binder is a New York state tax form. The Chugoku Bank of Japan filed a surcharge return in 1998. Their offices were in One World Trade Center. A tattered page from a court reporting service is the deposition of one P, McJoint. It is page 159, ripped from the context of whatever litigation occasioned it. I didn't see that question in here, P. McJoint is quoted as saying: “Question - OK, what information would we need to find?” P. McJoint turns out to be Pat McJoint, a banker with Keith Bratton-Woods in Columbus, Ohio. She told me this afternoon the deposition was on file in the firm's New York office at the World Trade Center. That's where their general counsel is. The past tense still comes unnaturally to people. Another page in the dust is a resume for one Guille Avital, an Israeli with a diploma from the Sommelier Society of America. I called him up and he knew at once what I'd found. He just sent in the resume applying for a job as a dining room manager at Windows on the World, the most famous restaurant in the world, he called it. It was the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center with a view of New York so vaunted that from its windows the islands of New York City actually looked like islands. Mr. Avital told me that he and his wife and wondered aloud, what if he'd been called for an interview? Now that resume is just one among many scattered artifacts of jobs and of dreams that were.

BOB ZALTSBERG: Robert, what made you decide to go out and do that story and, you know, what do you think about it when you hear it here tonight?

ROBERT SIEGEL: Well, I didn't actually - I didn't decide to go out and do that story. I decided to go out and get close to ground zero and see what it was like under this cloud that I could see from the town. I - you know, we had lots of reporters working, and I would be doing - I knew we'd be doing interviews with various people. But I wanted to do a descriptive piece of some kind. I knew - I didn't know what. And I saw this paper all around. I think just reportorial instincts took hold, which is, look, I'm here and there are these documents - there are these - there's stuff here that that's all around. So I began collecting it and found these names and these, you know, very banal transactions that had all gone on in the World Trade Center. And I felt that it was - the story actually - at the time, I - lots of people told me that they were very moved by it. And I think it's because we were connected to one another through these things. I mean, we'd all feel more emotive about our love letters from - you know, that were stored somewhere or baby pictures or something like that. But the testimony that we give, you know, the contracts that we sign, the resumes that we submit - this is - these are the documents of our working lives, and lower Manhattan - that's what its business was. It was people filling out documents, whether they were documents of sale of stock or issuing bonds or were writing insurance policies, that's what people do in a service - financial sector - service center. So I thought that was an odd selection of people I found in there in those documents. And as I found myself curious about it and just the whole notion that this record of a gazillion unrelated transactions and lawsuits and business deals were scattered all over the financial district - it struck me as a good hook for a story, so I did it. And it was a - the lesson to me as a journalist was also that - story ran about two minutes, I think - two and a quarter, as I recall, and it had great impact. So I had to remind myself of that whenever I wanted to do long-form pieces, which I really liked doing. I had to remind myself that you can do very short-form pieces, or at least by NPR standards short-form pieces that also have impact.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENGUIN CAFÉ ORCHESTRA’S “VEGA”)

AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. Our guest is Robert Siegel, former host of NPR's All Things Considered. He's speaking with Bob Zaltsberg.

BOB ZALTSBERG: We have another story we're going to play here in a minute, but before we do I just wanted to ask you about the differences in going out and doing interviews with people who are used to being interviewed - public leaders and whatnot - and people who are not necessarily used to being interviewed. Which would you prefer?

ROBERT SIEGEL: Oh, if there were any people who haven't yet been interviewed, I'd rather interview them. I mean, I - you know, once many years ago I had to update a chapter on NPR's book of - on - "Sound Reporting" it's called - sort of a guide. And I updated Susan Stamberg chapter on interviewing, and she had talked about mic fright and the problem of people being intimidated by the - when you take the microphone and, you know, put it near their face. And I found that in the intervening 15 years or whatever it was - that media had so radically changed and everybody had a video camera and made movies at home and edited them and was quite accustomed to microphones and that people had all learned how to talk on the make-believe radio or, when I got there, on the real radio. But no one was as bad as politicians who are accustomed to being interviewed all the time and who have learned that you can, in fact, ignore a question and just give an answer to another question. And I, as the interviewer, can ask the question again, but you can ignore it a second time and a third time. And I can even point out that you're ignoring my question and you can still ignore my question. And once in the studio Linda Wertheimer was caught - you know, you didn't hear a lot of this on NPR because everything was typically recorded in advance and then edited. So if you had one of these inane back and forths that went on for four or five rounds, you know, we'd cut it to one round or two rounds where you heard us pushing back. But we didn't waste your time with the non-answers. And once Linda Wertheimer, when she was my co-host, was caught doing a live interview with the head of OMB at the time - Office of Management and Budget, who was giving the same party line answer to every single question she asked. And when Linda - when we finished doing the interview, she was so fed up she said, you know, I - my next question was going to be and what do you think the Redskins chances are this season? Because she would have said exactly the same thing about - this budget is designed to do the following. So the politicians are tough. It's - they're not doing the interview in order just to see if I have some curious questions that they might be interested in answering and thinking about. They're doing it to advance their own cause. And sometimes it's a hostile relationship, but in all cases it's barely an interview. I mean, you do - you're obliged to challenge, and I think NPR interviewers do a good job of doing that post. But you're not guaranteed to get much for your effort. You know, it's not - that's not the - let's just say that's the duty of the job - that we have to ask our elected officials and their - the nominees who serve them basic questions about who's running the country and what they're doing with it. We have to follow up when they evade our questions with the follow-up questions and push them a bit. But to me that was never the fun part of the job. That was - you know, that was the necessary part of the job.

BOB ZALTSBERG: In 2016, you interviewed some people who weren't used to being on the air - it was several - people and a family. They were farmers and they were supporters of Donald Trump who was, at that time, running for president. And we have part of that interview that we're going to play now.

ROBERT SIEGEL: It has been a rough summer for supporters of Donald Trump. A convention that aimed for harmony turned contentious. The candidate picked arguments with a Gold Star family and with the Republican speaker of the House, and polls have shown Trump falling behind. So how is it all playing with his supporters? We went to central Pennsylvania - a Trump stronghold - to ask some members of his strongest demographic group, white men. The Wallizer Farm in Howard, Penn., is home to three generations of Trump supporters. The Wallizers raise beef and corn - or in this year of drought, they try to raise corn. Jim Wallizer is 82.

JIM WALLIZER: This corn out here - last year was 12 feet high. It's not 12 feet today. We had corn hit 12 feet last year and we were kind of proud of that. Not going to hit it this year. You know, that's as high as it's going to get.

ROBERT SIEGEL: It looks like, what, about six - seven feet?

JIM WALLIZER: Six - seven feet.

ROBERT SIEGEL: Yeah, seven feet high.

DENNIS WALLIZER: So for about a month that corn sat there, shriveled up, just no water - just dormant, so it wasn't growing much at all.

ROBERT SIEGEL: That's Jim, son, 57-year-old Dennis Wallizer. The family's farming tradition is being carried on by Dennis's 22-year-old son, Jason.

JASON WALLIZER: Working with these two men - it's made me who I am and that's why I love it so much. I get to have a bond like no other with them.

ROBERT SIEGEL: To help support the farm Jason works part time at a local plant that makes natural lubricants and cleaners. He would work more, he says, but the plant cut back his hours. Many of the farmers in the scenic rolling hills of central Pennsylvania can't get by just farming.

JIM WALLIZER: They're working away from the farm to make a living. That's what everybody's doing. You've got your wife working someplace else, and so you're just kind of sitting on the farm and you're not making any money. You're hoping that your land will get worth more money and someday, when you sell it, it'll be worth money.

ROBERT SIEGEL: Jim Wallizer's grandson, Jason, went to a recent Donald Trump rally in Altoona. He came away convinced that Trump understands people like him and his family.

JASON WALLIZER: We were in this kind of overflow room packed probably full of 1,000 people and 2,000 upstairs in the big main room. He actually came down to our room first and he came in and he said, I got to be honest with you, folks, you don't have the nicest real estate in the building, but that's why I wanted to come see you first. So it just made me feel that much more important.

ROBERT SIEGEL: This was the rally at which Trump told the crowd that the only way he could lose Pennsylvania - a state where he's polling well behind - would be in the event of a fix.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL RALLY)

DONALD TRUMP: The only way they can beat it, in my opinion - and I mean this 100% - if in certain sections of the state they cheat.

ROBERT SIEGEL: The Wallizers share Donald Trump's aversion to government regulation, to immigration, to gun control and, above all, to Hillary Clinton. But do they actually believe that a Clinton win in their state - which hasn't gone for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988 - could only happen if the vote were rigged? I asked 22-year -ld Jason Wallizer. If he were to lose Pennsylvania by eight or nine points, would you say that's because he was robbed and crooked people took it from him?

JASON WALLIZER: Yeah, I could say that's possible. Absolutely. There's so much corruption on Hillary right now, you know, how could I not believe that?

ROBERT SIEGEL: Jason's grandfather, Jim, says a Clinton win in November in Pennsylvania could be legitimate, but it could be produced by cheating in heavily Democratic areas.

JIM WALLIZER: I think it's possible either way, and we think voter fraud in Philadelphia is pretty high.

ROBERT SIEGEL: Republicans claim that Mitt Romney was robbed when dozens of Philadelphia polling places in Black neighborhoods showed zero votes for him, but the Philadelphia Inquirer debunked claims of vote theft. They searched for Romney voters in those precincts and they didn't find any. Dennis Wallizer says it's going to be close in Pennsylvania despite the polls that show Clinton well ahead. He says the margin could be just one percent or half a percent.

DENNIS WALLIZER: So when you get things that close, it does not take much of a fraud or anything to sway the election.

ROBERT SIEGEL: What does he make of the polling that shows Clinton up by eight or nine percent?

DENNIS WALLIZER: I think a lot of people who are saying whether they're for or against the candidate may be a little bit afraid of what the label's going to be put on them. When they get to the voting polls and it's a secret ballot, things could be totally different.

ROBERT SIEGEL: You might think there's a bit of a hidden Trump vote in the polls - people who feel that, in public, it's the politically incorrect thing to say and therefore they're not saying it.

DENNIS WALLIZER: Exactly.

ROBERT SIEGEL: Here's something interesting about the Wallizers. They may oppose a lot of federal regulation, but they also take their environmentalism very seriously. They maintain private forestland. Jim speaks proudly of the chute he built to carry mountain stream water over his pasture to keep it free of pollution from manure. Green does not necessarily mean liberal.

BOB ZALTSBERG: Well, Robert, as you listen to that and then you listen to what President Trump is saying these days, not much has changed.

ROBERT SIEGEL: Well, first, we should've have hired Mr. Wallizer as a political analyst in 2016. He seemed to - forgetting about the corruption part, he seemed to call Pennsylvania right which was, of course, won by Donald Trump. Yes. Until you told me about the piece, I'd forgotten how much the - this claim would figure - how much it figured in 2016 that the only way - Donald Trump saying the only way I can lose the state of Pennsylvania is if there is massive voter fraud in Pennsylvania. Now, I have to - I should insert here that I do have, in my extended family, some relations in northeastern Pennsylvania who regarded Philadelphia as the absolute boiler room of political corruption and rigged votes statewide in much of the way that people used to speak of the graveyard vote in Chicago. There was, outside of Philadelphia, skepticism about what the Democratic machine would do. I hadn't heard that for years until 2016. But it's - Donald Trump won the popular vote in Pennsylvania, and it wasn't because he stole the votes. It was because there were lots of people like the Wallizers who supported him. It's - you know, it's a reminder, first of all, that there were people who were won over by this charming - as he could be when he campaigned – non-establishment figure, somebody who did not represent a continuation of what either the Democratic or the Republican Party had been doing. And certainly among the demographic that the Wallizers fit in, he ran very well. It is very germane to what we're hearing right now when the president says nationally the only way he could possibly lose would be if there is massive criminal fraud. And I think that that's a - without - I mean, I feel perfectly fine as a journalist and not as a political partisan in saying that I think that's a dangerous thing to do and I think that it's wrong to mislead one's supporters into thinking that your defeat equals mass criminality. On the other hand, on the other side, there is - there are all kinds of possibilities - all kinds of dangerous possibilities if people take that sort of thing very seriously. And I think we're at a very dangerous moment right now if that idea really catches on. So, yeah, the Wallizers were - they were a glimpse into the future. And that's the - you know, if I were still working today - and most of my friends have been working from their homes all this time since March or April - I don't know that I could've gotten out to western Pennsylvania. I don't know that we would've had host reporting trips like that. That - they weren't the only people I spoke to on that trip. And - but it gave me a good sense of not who was going to win and who was going to lose, because that - you know, you can look at polls and see what the polls say, but what were the attractions? What was it that led some people to vote one way or the other? And Donald Trump - the businessman who carried about - cared about the people in the overflow room carried that family and Mrs. Clinton - Secretary Clinton was not a favorite with that crowd. So, yes, it's - as you play it, it all comes back to me, Bob. And I think that the polls I was looking at and that I were - that I thought pointed to a Pennsylvania - a significant Pennsylvania win for the Democrat, as it had been for several presidential years, was totally wrong. My assumptions were totally wrong. And we gave them enough time to describe a different view of what was going to happen in their state - a more accurate one, as it turned out. Yeah.

ROBERT SIEGEL: So I know you have some experience moderating debates and just...

BOB ZALTSBERG: Once, yeah.

ROBERT SIEGEL: ...Once. And that was - which one was that?

ROBERT SIEGEL: It was a radio debate that NPR did in 2008 - the Republicans wouldn't let us do a debate with them, so we did it with the Democrats. And I was the head - I was the chair of the panel of three NPR moderators - Michele Norris, Steve Inskeep and I. And we had all the Democratic candidates for the 2008 nomination in a fairly small room at the Historical Society. And they included Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden and then people who figured less in our national life since - Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, Mike Gravel who had been an Alaska senator for decades earlier, Connecticut Senator Dodd - Chris Dodd. Interestingly, one of the things I remember is that I called out Chris Dodd for saying something. We were talking about immigration. And he had made a statement that I had read the transcript of from the previous night's event at which he had - at which all these guys had spoken or debated, I think, in which he had made the claim that most undocumented immigrants in the United States were not from Mexico or Latin America, but they were from Ireland. And I called him out on it. We had good Pew Research Center documents - solid estimates of where undocumented immigrants came from and the biggest group, by far - 60% or more was from Mexico, and then Central America added another, I don't know, 10% and South America had another five - it was clearly - the phenomenon of 11 million people having come to the states without visas or overstayed their visas had a lot to do with our relations with our neighbors to the south, and I didn't see the point of why one would try to avoid that. And when I called him out, Joe Biden interceded to kind of say, I think I can explain the difference here. I think I - to try to get his friend, who was his rival for the nomination, Chris Dodd, out of this problem. I mean, his - he had this natural impulse to try to fix it - to try to smooth things over. And said, maybe it was visa overstayers - that most of them, over history, had been - Ireland led the league in I think the most - the largest number of visas overstayed. I think that was what his point was. But his instinct was right there, which was let me rush in here and try to mediate this problem and sort this out, and it seemed very typical of him.

BOB ZALTSBERG: Things don't seem to be going that way with debates these days, so if you are invited to moderate the next debate between President Trump and Vice President Biden, would you be excited about it?

ROBERT SIEGEL: I would say anything I could to avoid being in Chris Wallace's shoes. I thought he made a good effort. It was an unsuccessful effort, but he tried at times. And some of the ways he tried went over lines - crossed lines that they shouldn't have. He shouldn't have had to say, Mr. President, I think you're going to like the next round of questions. It's not - that's not for us to tell the candidates in a debate, but he did his best to try to keep order. And the president arrived intent on not having a normal debate but being, once again, the - you know, the idol smasher who was going to disrupt the way that politics as usual is practiced. And that was the message. There was a very clear message that, as he'd said in Pennsylvania four years ago - that if he loses the election, it's only because of widespread criminal cheating, which is certainly not in line with polls that have - you know, you can say, well, it's the same polls again, but actually a lot of those polls have redrawn their sampling principles to get a better reflection of who votes, who the electorate is, and it looked to me like just a horror show. I mean, I didn't - I watched out of a sense of duty. I certainly didn't enjoy watching that. And I thought that it's disgraceful that a presidential debate would turn into a spectacle like that when, at least in theory, this is the occasion for the two candidates, side by side, each to say his piece about what we should be doing about this pandemic that has us all Zooming instead of dining together or what we should do about an economy that's been laid low by the pandemic or all the other very serious issues that we face - to see it degenerate into just a shouting match. And it wasn't - the responsibility wasn't - or the blame was not equally deserved. That was Donald Trump's strategy going in, clearly, and I don't know how they can fix that. If you - I suppose they're talking about giving the moderator a switch to turn off the microphone of whoever won't stop talking when the other candidate has his time, but you would still possibly have the sound of hearing somebody off-mic shouting, you know, the same thing and interrupting the other candidate's ability to speak. So I don't know what they're going to do to try to repair that.

BOB ZALTSBERG: So I want to ask - we only have a few minutes to go and I want to ask about your view of, you know, how NPR and the rest of the media, however you choose to define it - because, you know, that term the media takes on all sorts of different definitions for people. But how do you think that it is doing when you think of all the major challenges that we're facing today, not just the election, not just COVID, not just climate change, racial justice - I mean, there are so many challenges that we're facing. How is the media doing?

ROBERT SIEGEL: Well, I think one has to look institution by institution, newspaper and network by newspaper and by network and station by station. I think that these are very difficult times economically for all newsrooms, and there have been furloughs and layoffs and in many places that have led long-established newspapers that were almost synonymous with their cities to go out of business. So clearly that - you know, regardless of what the intention was, the result of shutting down this year is of no great assistance to their city. The media - and I mean, I'm stunned, first of all, how much the two newspapers that arrive at my doorstep, The New York Times and The Washington Post, how much of the primary source new reporting on the Trump administration has simply been done by two papers. I mean, there's been some buy by a politico, which is sort of the trade mag of Washington political circles. The Wall Street Journal has done some. Among broadcast networks, I think NBC News has had a kind of an investigative edge. But I'm more surprised by how few newsrooms are bringing really tough reporting to bear on the administration. I think NPR has done well in part by also keeping its eye on all of the science stories, all of the environmental stories, all of the arts stories that still are happening around us, even though we're preoccupied with COVID, with protests against racial injustice and with the faltering economy and the election. I think NPR has done well. I think The Times and The Post have done incredible things. And I think when the dust settles, a lot of veteran news organizations are going to bite the dust. I think that people have changed their habits during this time in a variety of ways in how they shop, and how they live, and how they worship, and how they teach, and how they do business. And I think that there will be changes that are - I'm not wise enough to be able to know what they'll be exactly, but I think a huge change already happened when The New York Times reached six million paying subscribers at a time when advertising was almost non-existent. And so we saw a shift in the, I think, profitable newspaper, big newspaper, away from advertising to actual newspaper sales as the main source of their revenue. Those could be, obviously, sales for digital access to the paper. So that's a huge difference. And it's going to remain until the people who advertise have money once again and customers to sell to or who find that it's necessary to do something other than a targeted digital, you know, Internet advertising. We just don't know. I have a feeling that big, big changes are coming. And one of the lessons I've learned in my retirement, having been asked very often about my sense of the media, is that I think most of us tend to identify the way the media were when we were in our salad days, when we were young and coming up, as the way they were for a long time. And now it's all different and things have changed. There's nothing like Walter Cronkite anymore. And the truth is that it's always changing. It's always changing. Journalism lives in different systems, and it's a work that's constantly in progress. And I just am pleased to see that what I read on many platforms, some of them perhaps not profitable in the long run, is very often very high-quality reporting about many, many subjects. And it's certainly, I think at least an educated reader can avoid some of the truly fake news that's out there in social media. The unique thing about NPR is its governance structure is - someone early on said that it was like the - I think the bumblebee, which scientists say scientifically looking at its mass and its wings, it cannot fly. There's no way it should be aloft. NPR is a membership organization of public radio stations. All of them are all over the country. WFIU is one of the first. And it's a unique structure in which the network doesn't have owned and operated stations. We're owned and operated by the stations, if you will. And it makes for a very special relationship between people who work at the network and the stations and the people who listen to those stations and the people who support those stations. So to all those who work at WFIU and all those who listen to and support its work, on behalf of my former colleagues of 40 years, thank you and congratulations on your seventieth anniversary, a duration which I'm now convinced is really not that long a time.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENGUIN CAFÉ ORCHESTRA’S “NOTHING REALLY BLUE”)

BOB ZALTSBERG: Thank you.

AARON CAIN: Robert Siegel, former host of NPR's All Things Considered. He's been speaking with Bob Zaltsberg as part of a virtual anniversary event on the occasion of WFIU's seventieth birthday. I'm Aaron Cain. Thanks for listening. For more information about Profiles, including archives of past shows, go to wfiu.org/Profiles.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES’ “BLU-BOP”)

Profiles is a production of WFIU and comes from the studios of Indiana University. The producer is Jillian Burley. The studio engineer is Michael Paskash. The executive producer is John Bailey. Please join us again next week for another edition of Profiles.

Robert Siegel

Robert Siegel (Photo courtesy of Stephen Voss/NPR)

For over 40 years, Robert Siegel has been a staple of the radio world as the long-time host of the classic NPR newsmagazine All Things Considered. He was first hired as an NPR newscaster in 1976. He later became the first NPR overseas journalist in London, before returning to the U.S. to oversee production of All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition. He became co-host of All Things Considered in 1987.

Siegel was awarded the John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism by Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2010. He was also awarded the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Award, and was a three-time recipient of the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Silver Baton. Siegel has even lent his voice to popular television shows, including The Simpsons and BoJack Horseman.

In celebration of WFIU'S 70th anniversary, Robert Siegel spoke over video conferencing with former Herald-Times editor Bob Zaltsberg.

 

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