By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

NPR’s unlikely pit bull

You don’t often hear a confrontational interview on NPR, and “All Things Considered” co-host Robert Siegel is hardly the first person you’d think of as someone who might break the mold. So I was surprised and impressed yesterday when Siegel, in that polite way of his, sunk his teeth into the unsuspecting secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff, and resolutely refused to let go.

You can hear the entire segment by clicking here and selecting “Listen.” As you will learn, Siegel devoted most of the interview to badgering Chertoff about why planning for Katrina had been so inadequate, when people on the ground (that is, in the water) are likely to see some relief and – most important – when folks at the convention center, a scene of third-world desperation, are going to be rescued.

Here is the toughest exchange:

SIEGEL: We are hearing from our reporter – and he’s on another line right now – thousands of people at the convention center in New Orleans with no food, zero.

CHERTOFF: As I say, I’m telling you that we are getting food and water to areas where people are staging. And, you know, the one thing about an episode like this is if you talk to someone and you get a rumor or you get someone’s anecdotal version of something, I think it’s dangerous to extrapolate it all over the place. The limitation here on getting food and water to people is the condition on the ground. And as soon as we can physically move through the ground with these assets, we’re going to do that. So –

SIEGEL: But, Mr. Secretary, when you say that there is – we shouldn’t listen to rumors, these are things coming from reporters who have not only covered many, many other hurricanes; they’ve covered wars and refugee camps. These aren’t rumors. They’re seeing thousands of people there.

CHERTOFF: Well, I would be – actually I have not heard a report of thousands of people in the convention center who don’t have food and water. I can tell you that I know specifically the Superdome, which was the designated staging area for a large number of evacuees, does have food and water. I know we have teams putting food and water out at other designated evacuation areas. So, you know, this isn’t – and we’ve got plenty of food and water if we can get it out to people. And that is the effort we’re undertaking.

After bringing the interview to a tense close, Siegel turned to reporter John Burnett, who had seen the convention-center disaster first-hand. (You can listen to Burnett here.) Burnett began with this:

BURNETT: Let me clarify for the secretary and for everyone else what myself and … just drove away from three blocks from here in the Ernest Morial Convention Center. There are, I estimate, 2,000 people living like animals inside the city convention center and around it. They’ve been there since the hurricane. There’s no food. There’s absolutely no water. There’s no medical treatment. There’s no police and no security. And there are two dead bodies lying on the ground and in a wheelchair beside the convention center, both elderly people, both covered with blankets now. We understand that two other elderly people died in the last couple of days. We understand that there was a 10-year-old girl who was raped in the convention center in the last two nights. People are absolutely desperate there. I’ve never seen anything like this.

It was a devastating response to Chertoff’s cavalier suggestion that Siegel was rumor-mongering. Not surprisingly, at the end of Burnett’s report, Siegel announced, “And later this afternoon Secretary Chertoff’s spokeswoman called to say that after our interview with the secretary of homeland security, he received a report confirming the situation at the convention center. And he says the department is working tirelessly to get food and supplies to those in need and also to save lives.”

I’m going to cut Chertoff a little slack here. He can’t know everything that’s going on, and certainly the Department of Homeland Security isn’t nearly as responsible for hurricane relief as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is getting ripped for the way it has (or hasn’t) responded. It was both decent and politically astute of him to have his spokeswoman call NPR to acknowledge the suffering at the convention center.

Still, other than President Bush, Chertoff’s the highest-ranking federal official dealing with disaster. NPR’s member stations are dependent on federal tax money, which makes NPR itself vulnerable to political attack. In that context, Siegel deserves credit for taking such an aggressive stance. Chertoff came off as surprised, defensive, arrogant and uninformed. We never would have heard that side of him if Siegel had contented himself with blandly allowing the secretary to run through his talking points.

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  1. Jp, Writing from NYC.

    I was even more impressed when I heard that NPR interview last night, after hearing that when Pres. Bush was on “Good Morning, America”, no one called him on his inane “No one could have expected this” line.You just get the feeling that they’re spinning and spinning while these poor people are dying in droves in New Orleans.And then when called on how some of the same short-sighted policies that he instituted in Texas are writ large on a national scale, MacCellen and the other GOP spokespeople say that people are playing politics with tragedy and that we’re hurting the war effort/the relief effort or what not.When are people going to realize that the thing that’s hurting the morale of our troops abroad is seeing loved ones dying here and knowing there’s not a damned thing that they can do for them while they’re in Iraq and Afghanistan.Sorry, a little too much venting in that post.

  2. agaffin

    That was an amazing segment, but Siegel’s broken out of his laid-back mold before. After the London bombings, he interviewed the one Muslim member of the House of Lords who went on and on about how strongly he condemned all forms of terrorism. Siegel asked him about terrorism directed at Israelis and he began hemming and hawing and Siegel just would not let him go.

  3. Anonymous

    I heard that interview, and Chertoff deserves no slack. I’ve been reading about and seeing images of people at the convention center since Tuesday, it’s been all over the net. I can’t believe no one at Homeland Security was seeing what I was seeing. For Chertoff to deny those people existed was beyond arrogant. Good for Siegel for not letting him off the hook.I have much less confidence in the Department of Homeland Security than ever, and I was never all that confident to begin with.

  4. Anonymous

    Thank you for pointing out excellence of Siegel’s work in this episode. This is exactly what NPR should be doing–asserting itself as a professional and independent voice.I think that nationally NPR has been doing a good job of covering the New Orleans tragedy. Unfortunately, here in Chicago, our lone NPR affiliate WBEZ has been sticking to its lame afternoon schedule of local programming with its shows like Odyssey (a terribly pretentious “talk show of ideas” that is being canceled and thank god for that) which is predictably focusing on film minutia as is its Friday habit.Even more disappointing is that the usually interesting Chicago-based program Worldview has done a terrible job of focusing on the international reaction to the tragedy. Today’s show was devoted entirely to a musical guest. Thank god for nationally syndicated shows like News and Notes, All Things Considered, and The World.- a reader in Chicago

  5. Anonymous

    I know what you mean. I had to listen to Boston’s WBUR to get the coverage I couldn’t get on WNYC.

  6. Steve

    “the Department of Homeland Security isn’t nearly as responsible for hurricane relief as the Federal Emergency Management Agency”I’m not so sure about this. Some bloggers (Josh Marshall?) are looking at just where the responsibility lies for responding to disasters like this, and the answers are not all that clear. Certainly FEMA’s budget has suffered as monies have been shifted over to the new DHS.I’ll keep looking, but I think the jury is out on this.President Bush has termed the federal response “unacceptable”. But in the Bush administration, loyalty has always trumped performance, and no one is ultimately held accountable. Will anyone be fired over this “unacceptable” response?

  7. Steve

    Following up on my previous, according to the DHS website:”In the event of a terrorist attack, natural disaster or other large-scale emergency, the Department of Homeland Security will assume primary responsibility on March 1st for ensuring that emergency response professionals are prepared for any situation.

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