Some months ago, I sat with Steve Inskeep as he hosted a show on Morning Edition beginning at 5 a.m. Eastern time. When he wasn't doing live interviews, he re-wrote his copy, rehearsed and called out questions to producers. The clock ticked, second by second, as taped reports played. From time to time, the director broke in and began his countdown. Three, two, one. And suddenly Inskeep was once again speaking to nearly 6 million people, calm and in control.
He was fluid, smart and engaging, without the banality of much of local television. He was, in other words, what Morning Edition listeners have come to expect and like from him and his co-host Renee Montagne.
I thought of that morning as I read several listener complaints about Inskeep last week. They said that during the coverage of Hurricane Sandy, he took his personality and early-morning humor too far, and made a handful of inappropriate jokes.
"I understand the 'we're in this together' nature of New York City residents," wrote Jonathan Burton of Camas, Wash., "but people have died. I don't think the tone showed proper reverence for those who are suffering."
Katherine Kitzmann of Memphis, Tenn., called Inskeep's tone "flippant" and cited references the host made to Bruce Springsteen, vodka and sea monsters. "I don't see any humor in this situation," she said.
One such on-air exchange was this one Oct. 30 among Inskeep, Montagne and reporter Zoe Chace, who was on the scene in Lower Manhattan:
CHACE: ....This one bar — the actual bar itself of the bar — was moved two blocks up the street by the wind.
INSKEEP: Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute. You're saying the building was moved? Is that what you're suggesting?
MONTAGNE: No, the bar. The bar.
CHACE: No, no, no. The bar itself.
INSKEEP: Oh, the bar. Okay.
CHACE: Where you would put your beer down and drink it...
MONTAGNE: So, it rolled out of the bar and sent up the street.
INSKEEP: Maybe it was a moving party when it happened.
CHACE: ... And so what happened was the water just carried all this stuff up from downtown Manhattan a few blocks north.This one guy I talked to was actually picking up stuff from this store, Brookstone, and bringing it down and then tossing it through the broken window back into the store.
INSKEEP: Reverse looting. That's good.
Or there was this introduction after a break, Oct. 30:
Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep. The arrival of Hurricane Sandy was unprecedented, but not quite as unprecedented as it seemed on the Internet. Countless doctored images spread more swiftly than the storm. For the record, giant sea monsters did not emerge from the Atlantic. The Statue of Liberty did not climb down and take cover behind her pedestal. And a monstrous tidal wave did not wash over Manhattan, although from the look of things this morning, that last image was not really all that far off. You're listening to MORNING EDITION.
I forwarded the complaints to Inskeep. He responded:
This won't be the first time I have cited Langston Hughes, author of a poem and a book called "Laughing to Keep From Crying."
As long as you can laugh you are not defeated. In our many hours of serious coverage, I reserve the right to notice the absurd, even in an awful situation, and also to allow our correspondents to report what they see. This approach is informed by my many years covering wars, disasters, economic catastrophes, 9/11, and also, incidentally, living in New York.
I am a great admirer of Inskeep. He is a consummate professional who has shown both bravery as a reporter and intellectual heft as the writer of a book on Pakistan. He earned his hosting slot.
Having covered wars and disasters myself, and having hunkered down in my own house in Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy, I am sure that over a beer with Inskeep I would engage in the same humor. It is often how I keep my sanity.
But I understand that many listeners react otherwise and were offended. My sense of what is funny has gotten me in trouble more than once with family and friends. Those of us who have dark humor streaks have no choice but to sometimes curb ourselves out of respect for those who might not share our sense of irony and the absurd. And in the Morning Edition family of listeners, there are many people with those other sensibilities.
This is not to say that dark humor does not have any place in covering a human catastrophe. I do think that there is a way to communicate despair — or crying — through jokes. Think of the humor that has helped people survive gulags and dictatorships, or just life's many small reverses. Pointing out the absurd can add depth, like a bas-relief, to the tragedy all around. But this is difficult to do from a chair in a studio on a general interest news show, without the time to develop the context to be understood.
Inskeep has proven day in and out that he has great empathy for human suffering and is not, in fact, routinely flippant. He demonstrated this time and again while hosting the coverage of Sandy. But humor is also one of his on-air trademarks, and has drawn criticism before. I have usually ignored the complaints as vague matters of taste, but agree with the letter writers that he went too far a handful of times during Sandy without giving listeners enough of a context to understand him.
Not all listeners heard all remarks. Morning Edition stories and comments by Inskeep were updated live for delayed local broadcasts and different time zones Oct. 30, the morning after the brunt of the storm had hit. Also, 30-second introductory segments called "returns," such as the above sea monster one, are often not heard on stations that substitute local coverage instead. These segments, designed to signal the return to NPR's national broadcast, are usually light.
That said, these are hardly major sins. I do hope that we all want NPR's hosts such as Inskeep to have real personalities. There is no way for a host to be engaging and not make mistakes. There also is no way to keep everyone in the entire audience on the same wave length.
I for one prefer that our hosts continue to assert their intelligence and, yes, their humor at the risk of stumbling, rather than not to risk at all. But we also have to point out when a host stumbles, and Inskeep stumbled on this one.