Robert Siegel’s performance at the Saban Forum

Robert Siegel with Avigdor Lieberman
Robert Siegel (l) with Avigdor Lieberman and joined flags. Photo by Natasha Mozgovaya of Haaretz

Last Friday night, Robert Siegel, star baritone of National Public Radio,  moderated a Washington event featuring Israel’s rightwing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and in their reports on the event, David Remnick and Ali Gharib faulted Siegel for being docile. I sat down and watched the video of Siegel and Lieberman last night, and I share that criticism.

The first issue is, Why is Siegel serving this function? The Saban Forum can rightly be described as part of the Israel lobby: it works hard to preserve the special relationship between the two countries by getting Israeli and American officials together in off-the-record meetings so that they can more effectively make policy together, as Haim Saban explains at the opening of the first video here. A “tireless cheerleader for Israel,” Saban blasted the Palestinian statehood initiative at the U.N. speaking on a stage where the Israeli and American flags were blended together. At a time when our closeness to Israel has become a source of international controversy, I believe that journalists should be writing about the Israel lobby, not participating in its events. But Siegel seemed to enjoy the access. He referred to Saban as “Haim” and dutifully called on Israel supporters Saban, Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross to ask the first three questions of his honored guest. Later he interrupted the Egyptian  ambassador, Mohamed Tawfik, telling him to get to his question.

The second issue is Siegel’s overly-respectful attitude to Lieberman. He was often deferential to the rightwing politician, beginning with his first question when he asked Lieberman about the new “housing units” on the West Bank and East Jerusalem– not calling them settlements. Lieberman promptly called them “settlements.”

That set the mood. Over the next 50 minutes, Siegel was polite to Lieberman and Lieberman was rude back– ignoring his questions, lecturing him, and making offensive comments about the backward political culture of the Middle East and Islamic countries when compared to Europe. While Siegel often pressed Lieberman to answer questions, he was on the whole courtly, most notably in his smarmy closing: “Well, Foreign Minister Lieberman, it’s been a pleasure talking to you, and I appreciate all your time and your ideas.”

His ideas! What are Lieberman’s ideas? Though Siegel chuckled at the start in encouraging Lieberman to be as politically incorrect “as you can possibly be,” he never sought to expose the political incorrectness– actually, racism– in Lieberman’s ideas: He never asked Lieberman about his support for “transfer” of Palestinians out of Israel, or his support for a loyalty oath for Israelis.

Gharib is incisive on this point:

[No one asked Lieberman about] his advocacy for a shocking policy of redrawing borders to transfer some Israelis on the basis of their ethnicity, thereby stripping these Palestinians of their citizenship. Washington, in one of its rare public sit-downs with Lieberman, seemed not to care. There was no accounting for the notion, nor for the anti-democratic laws pushed by his party. No one read any of Lieberman’s old quotes back to him.

To his credit, Siegel pressed Lieberman about Palestinian statehood, but Lieberman repeatedly fended him off by saying that the key issue is that Palestinians must attain $10,000 GDP per capita. When they attain that level of prosperity, Lieberman said, everything will be fine– because they will have something to lose, and won’t want to be terrorists.

Siegel never countered by saying that Palestinians live under military occupation and have to go through checkpoints just to get to work. Or that Jewish settlers can vote, while Palestinians living alongside them cannot vote for the government that runs their lives. Or that you can understand Gazans resorting to rockets when they live under occupation in an open-air prison.

In fact, it was Haim Saban who played the liberal. He rose from the audience to challenge Lieberman, OK, let’s say that Palestinians have $10,000 GDP per capita. Then what? Meaning, they still would lack political self-determination, and what do you aim to do about that? Lieberman brushed Saban off, too.

In fairness to Robert Siegel, Lieberman was terrifying. He insulted his questioners and the crowd with boisterous familiarity, even though this is the Washington hand that feeds him; he checked his watch impatiently; he repeatedly interrupted Siegel and browbeat him. I’ve been a passive interviewer myself in such circumstances.

Still I was struck by Siegel’s deference. Even the audience seemed stunned by Lieberman’s indifference to the holy grail of Washington, the two-state solution — and Siegel could have ridden the crowd’s sentiment, to bridle at Lieberman’s intransigence, or lecture Lieberman, or observe that the Israeli political class “is a full-blown trainwreck,” as Remnick put it.

The episode leaves me wondering about Siegel’s personal commitment to Israel. If you watch the show, you’ll see that Siegel knows how to pronounce Lieberman in the Israeli way (just as he knew how to pronounce Amos Oz’s name right here). He knows that Herut was Menachem Begin’s party. Presumably he knows that “housing units” in the West Bank are illegal settlements. I’m not faulting him for his knowledge; but Siegel was a young radio journalist at Columbia University when Israel won the Six-Day War, and I’ve always wondered whether that victory that so inspired American Jews didn’t also thrill Robert Siegel. I’d love to ask him about his belief in the need for a Jewish state, how often he’s been there, whether he has family there. Maybe I’ll get my chance when a Washington thinktank has a forum on Jewish journalists and Zionism.

About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.
Posted in Israel/Palestine

{ 17 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. pabelmont says:

    Any reason we should not all demand — on the basis of this display — that Siegel be dismissed from NPR? Does this not set the seal on blatant taking-sides on the side of international lawlessness and anti-human-rights, and should not that be a sufficient reason to remove a reporter (or other public face) of NPR?

    • I’m not sure he should be fired, but shouldn’t there be some kind of disclosure by Siegel or by NPR about his participation in this event?

    • Rusty Pipes says:

      A few years ago, on the Garish Orange Site, user Eddie Haskell wrote an informative diary about NPR and How to Fix It. Among the noteworthy tips:

      …what does all this have to do with changing the editorial slant at NPR?

      Point 1: your local station has very little to say about the editorial policies of the NPR News Department. NPR does a pretty good job of insulating its news staff from complaints from individual member stations. You must let your station know about your views, of course, but you must also communicate to NPR directly. NPR has an ombudsman for this very purpose. Send a note today.

      Point 4: If you insist on not donating anything to your local station, then you MUST let them know exactly why. Calling the pledge line volunteer and reaming out her or him about programming issues will NOT do any good. Whether or not you decide to support your local station(s) you will want to write to (not call) the General Manager of the station. For maximum real impact, follow this precise format. At the top of your letter, include these words:

      To: FCC Public File for Radio Station _ _ _ _(insert call letters)
      Re: Programming Comments from the public
      I guarantee you that this will get his or her attention! All broadcast licensees MUST keep on file — in the station’s official public file which is available for inspection by anyone at anytime during business hours — all copies of letters from the public about programming specifics. Any letter from the public regarding programming in the public interest which specifically references the FCC public file must be kept in that public file for years. You can even drop in on your local station later and check its public file to see if it’s in there! I assure you, again, that these letters do get their attention!

      Your letter should be direct and to the point. You may want to touch on issues or concerns about journalistic integrity, diversity of points of view, and independence from governmental and corporate interests. You definitely want to explain if you are planning to continue your financial support and why or why not.

      So much for your local station. Now, you have a tool that will also get NPR’s attention. Make six copies of that letter and send it to these people at NPR…

      NPR staff names should be updated since he wrote the diary, but the procedure for getting NPR’s attention is still relevant.

  2. Henry Norr says:

    Remember that in October, 2011, NPR dumped a show called “World of Opera” because host Lisa Simeone took part in Occupy DC. Applying the same principle n light of Siegel’s role in this forum, I think NPR now needs to dump “All Things Considered.”

    • Taxi says:

      They should just call it “Nothing Considered”.

      • Donald says:

        “They should just call it “Nothing Considered”.”

        I might steal that. Or maybe “Not much considered” or “On careful consideration, shut up and listen to us” or “Consider changing the dial”.

    • lysias says:

      I held off with my donation to the D.C. NPR classical music radio station, WETA, until after a few months they finally allowed Lisa Simeone and her show back on the air, whereupon I resumed my donations.

      I wonder if they reinstated her because a lot of people were doing what I did.

      • Lisa Simeone says:

        lysias and others, thank you for your words of support.

        To explain a little about the confusing arcana of public radio, I’ve been a freelancer for the past 10 years. Though I have in the past worked for NPR, I wasn’t working for them last year when all this happened. (And the last time I worked for WETA was almost 30 years ago).

        I hosted 3 nationally syndicated programs — Soundprint, World of Opera, and the Chicago Symphony — *NONE* of which were produced by NPR.

        Soundprint fired me. NPR couldn’t fire me because I wasn’t working for them, but they apparently wanted the world to think they could. They used me to score cheap political points. They also tried to strong-arm WDAV (producer of World of Opera) into getting rid of me. WDAV told them to take a flying leap.

        Bottom line: I managed to hang on to two radio gigs — World of Opera and the Chicago Symphony. I also write for Style Magazine here in Baltimore.

        That’s why you still hear me occasionally on WETA — because WETA carries either World of Opera or the CSO or both. It has nothing to do with NPR. Each individual public radio station around the country decides for itself which programs it will carry or not carry. NPR doesn’t decide that; the member stations. A station can still be an NPR member and carry or not carry whatever shows it wants.

        So nobody reinstated me. I was fired by Soundprint and I was pretend-fired by NPR.

        Here’s a link to the HuffPo story, which got the details right:

        link to huffingtonpost.com

  3. marc b. says:

    Robert Siegel, star baritone of National Public Radio

    i’ve never seen a more concise, accurate resume. you’ve captured all of siegel’s qualities in a single clause. it’s a description thrown about too liberally here, but i’d have to say that in this case your writing was truly brilliant.

    In fairness to Robert Siegel, Lieberman was terrifying. He insulted . . . and brow beat him. I’ve been a passive interviewer myself in such circumstances. Still I was struck by Siegel’s deference.

    deference is one interpretation. siegel is a member of the DC chapter of the eulenspiegel society. ‘passive’ may hit closer to the mark. i couldn’t figure out the pre-arranged ‘safe word’ to signal that the beating had gone too far, though. maybe siegel just took it like a trooper till the end.

    • seanmcbride says:

      marc b.,

      deference is one interpretation. siegel is a member of the DC chapter of the eulenspiegel society. ‘passive’ may hit closer to the mark. i couldn’t figure out the pre-arranged ‘safe word’ to signal that the beating had gone too far, though. maybe siegel just took it like a trooper till the end.

      That is some damned fine writing. :)

      Regarding NPR and Robert Siegel:

      I am acutely aware of and lament the well-known editorial problems with NPR on Mideast politics and some other issues. But when driving around in one’s car, it’s the only game in town for intelligent radio and I listen to it often, often with pleasure.

      Siegel has a sharp mind and he is a first-rate interviewer. His affected and plummy voice and over-precise enunciation amuse me, of course — the truly “erudite” people I know don’t talk that way — they sound more like Philip Weiss and Jonathan Cook in that recent interview. They are real people who are focused on developing their difficult thoughts. They speak naturally, with complexity around the edges. They are not trying to win an elocution contest. They don’t preen.

      Siegel is a bit of a namby-pamby and a ponce — not the kind of person who would ever have the balls to speak truth to power. You take what you can get on NPR, I guess. Same for Bill Maher — for all his “issues” — he is obviously a closet Likudnik, and not much in the closet at that — there is a spark of intelligence there and some real blood flowing in his veins.

      In relation to Avigdor Lieberman types, Siegel is definitely a bottom. He is a liberal Zionist. Fire-breathing Jewish nationalists can easily run roughshod over liberal Zionists and bend them to their will.

      • marc b. says:

        i agree. options are limited. NPR is worth a listen because of the guests, or for some insight, as if any more is needed, on a particular mindset. t.gross, as i keep repeating, is painful to listen to, but she does draw great guests, even if you can hear them over the radio rolling their eyes at some of her questions. (aside from emily rooney, a local NPR hack, gross is just about as unprepared a professional interviewer as i’ve heard.)

  4. Reds says:

    This is a case where I recommend people contacting NPR on this.

    The review tends to be PDF format and listed on the ombudsman thread like below

    link to npr.org

    I did this before when Siegel used when describing Iranian reaction to Israel/U.S. aggression(the time after stuxnet virus) Siegel talk about if Israel or the U.S were to attack what would the Iranian do. But used something along the lines as “Iranian Terrorist Response” That’s right if the U.S. or Israel would attack Iran there response would be terrorism.

    It’s also worth pointing out NPR counstant use of Andrew Tabler, Ross and WINEP never being included in John Felton reports.

  5. RE: “I’d love to ask him about his belief in the need for a Jewish state, how often he’s been there, whether he has family there. Maybe I’ll get my chance when a Washington thinktank has a forum on Jewish journalists and Zionism.” ~ Weiss

    MY COMMENT: Lol! Fat chance of that! ! !

    Where the term “fat chance” came from – link to answerbag.com

  6. danielmate says:

    Thanks for the report, Phil. Just shared this on Facebook, with the following preamble:

    ‘I tend to despise (or at least mistrust) NPR for reasons that are usually unclear to me: something about it just rubs me the wrong way — maybe it’s the veneer of relaxed, coffee-sipping objectivity, maybe it’s the way my liberal friends rely on it for what they think is a progressive perspective but really is far from it. So consider me grateful that I now have a very precise and excellent reason to be a hater. Robert Siegel, the smarmy, plummy host of “All Things Considered”, moderated this lobby-centric event featuring Israel’s openly racist foreign minister and, from the sounds of it, kowtowed to the man. “All Things Considered”, indeed — except, it seems, “things” like “serious journalism” and “holding politicians accountable for their inflammatory and well-nigh genocidal views.” Next time I sigh “oh fuck you” and turn off the radio at Siegel’s quizzical baritone prattling, I will smile, secure in the knowledge that I’m tuning out a craven apologist for xenophobia and ethnic supremacism.’

  7. a blah chick says:

    “In fact, it was Haim Saban who played the liberal. He rose from the audience to challenge Lieberman, OK, let’s say that Palestinians have $10,000 GDP per capita. Then what? Meaning, they still would lack political self-determination, and what do you aim to do about that? Lieberman brushed Saban off, too.”

    My guess is that Lieberman brushed him of not because he had no answers but because his answers were not gentile-friendly.

    I’m sure that if he was speaking before the party faithful he would have had no trouble articulating his opinions.

  8. radkelt says:

    NPR’s main function is to imply that, all things considered, everything is going to be all right. If you are even slightly aware that the species is in fact sleep walking towards its own extinction then the reassuring message of NPR becomes addicting.

    Also, remember that Linda Gradstein was somewhat rebuked for her Israel biased commentary.(thats how long ago it was that I listened to NPR)

  9. irmep says:

    I wonder if Saban has begun to buy up the necessary number of superdelegates for a Hillary bid? One can never start too early…

    link to opensecrets.org