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Home BUSINESS Allan M. Siegal, Influential Times Watchdog, Dies at 82

Allan M. Siegal, Influential Times Watchdog, Dies at 82

Allan M. Siegal, a former New York Times deputy editor who left a deep mark on the newspaper’s policies and practices as a rigorous and unquestioning arbiter of language, taste, tone and ethics for 30 years, died Wednesday in his house. in manhattan hello what 82

His wife, Gretchen Leefmans, confirmed the death. She did not specify a cause, but said that she had dealt with heart problems for many years.

Siegal, who started at The Times as a copyist in 1960, was highly respected, often revered and sometimes feared in the newsroom. Though he was never the face of The Times (he worked in relative anonymity), he was something of its collective conscience, the supreme institutionalist who policed ​​a place whose popular ways he was often asked to codify.

He did it in the late 1990s with William G. Connolly, a senior editor who had met Siegal when they were copyists at the newspaper’s headquarters on West 43rd Street in Manhattan, across from Times Square. The two edited a revised and expanded edition of the “New York Times Style and Usage Manual,” a guide consulted by news organizations and journalists across the country.

“Readers will believe more than we know if we make clear to them what we don’t know” was one of Siegal’s favorite injunctions, articulated long before the media in the digital age began emphasizing transparency in the collection and editing of information. news.

Another: “Being fair is better than being first.”

Mr. Siegal’s knowledge of grammar, history, geography, nomenclature, culture, and cuisine was extensive. But on no subject did he have more authority than The Times itself.

“Al knew all about The Times, it seemed,” Mr. Connolly once said. “By the age of 19 or 20, he had made the role of his life and the religion of his.”

Mr. Siegal had a significant involvement in the newspaper’s news reporting early in his career at The Times.

As an editor of the nightly foreign news, he helped shape coverage of the Vietnam War and was part of the team that edited the landmark Times report on the secret government study that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. He oversaw the newsroom’s conversion to electronic typesetting in the late 1970s, and in 1980 he organized the news operation for a national edition, an engine of The Times’ later growth.

In 2003, after a scandal in which the fabrications of a reporter, Jayson Blair, led to the downfall of the newsroom’s top two managers, Siegal headed an internal committee that reviewed the paper’s organizational and ethical practices.

Among their recommendations was the creation of a new position: standards editor. Mr. Siegal was the first to be appointed to the position, adding the title to assistant managing editor, a position he held from 1987 until his retirement in 2006. At the time, his name was listed among the newspaper’s top editors in the masthead , which appeared on the editorial page, was more than twice as long as anyone else’s.

Max Frankel, the executive editor who promoted Siegal to assistant managing editor, called him “a shining symbol of an inside man’s career.”

“Raising him was intended to give notice that there is a distinguished career available at The Times for non-reporters,” Frankel added, in an interview for this obituary in 2005. “It was a peculiar form of affirmative action, but he was superbly qualified.

“I used to call him ‘Pooh-Bah,'” Frankel continued. “I had seven or eight folders that dominated every aspect of The Times production, news production and all the rules and regulations – drawers full of contracts with the business side about how much space we got and how we filled and where the ads went. The entire design and structure of the role was in his hands.”

But Siegal was temperamentally reluctant to break the chain of command.

“Al’s knowledge of current affairs, and of journalistic ethics in general, was always on par with anyone’s,” Evan Jenkins, a fellow editor at the newsroom, recalled in 2005. But, he added, “he wasn’t one to suggest that maybe the emperor didn’t have clothes, and there were times when he was like that.”

Mr. Siegal was able to withstand the criticism. His post-mortem critiques of subordinate editors and reporters, written in precise calligraphy with a green marker (known as “greens” among the staff, they stood out well against the black-and-white newsprint, he discovered), could be as concise as like “Ugh!” “As please?” “Name Names” and “Absurd!”

Once, after asking a headline to combine several complex elements into a short number of words, he found the result lacking: “As if written by pedants from Mars,” he declared.

But his rockets were also astute and instructive, guiding generations of editors and reporters on the finer points of style and tone. And perhaps because he was so demanding, the not infrequent notes of praise from him were appreciated all the more. “Okay, who?” was his characteristic comment when he thought a headline or subheading, by an anonymous editor, was especially clever. (The answer, the editor’s name, would appear, to the editor’s great pride, in the next day’s autopsy compilation, run and stapled together by a photocopier and distributed throughout the news department.)

Other critics displayed a scathing sense of humor. “If this small-town spelling is the best we can do,” he once wrote of a subtitle that included a reference to “foie gras” (instead of foie gras), “we should stick to minced liver.” When a headline admitted that football coach Mike Ditka “should recover” from a heart attack, Mr. Siegal wrote: “Unless God calls us back, we must not predict in such cases.”

“He was famous for being a man of integrity,” said former Times executive editor Bill Keller, “but he managed to apply it without being a dispenser of prudish righteousness and, in fact, flouted his reputation as the discipline of the House”.

“When he entered the hospital for heart surgery,” Keller added, “he joked with a couple of people that some colleagues would be surprised to learn he had a heart.”

Allan Marshall Siegal was born on May 1, 1940, in the Bronx to Irving and Sylvia (Wrubel) Siegal. His father, who had emigrated from Poland as a teenager, ran a mineral water delivery company for a while, and young Allan helped deliver bottles to customers on Pelham Parkway. Irving later became the owner and Allan would work as a handyman on his buildings. His mother was a housewife.

Allan attended Christopher Columbus High School in the northeast Bronx, where he learned French and was editor of the school newspaper.

New York University offered him a scholarship and, while still a college student, he was offered a place at The Times as a copyist. He started on September 11, 1960.

Armed with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from NYU, Mr. Siegal joined the foreign affairs section as a copy editor in 1963 and, after a brief stint at ABC News, writing for anchorman Peter Jennings in 1966, was promoted to deputy editor for foreign affairs in 1971, the year he worked on the Pentagon Papers.

The Times was so concerned that the government might find out it had the documents and try to seize them before publication that it set up what amounted to a secret newsroom in the New York Hilton hotel, a few blocks away. . To break the tension, Mr. Siegal brought rubber ducks to a colleague for a bath.

In addition to his stint at ABC, he had another writing job: as a reporter covering the Bronx for The Times in 1974. His editors liked his work. One article, about a woman’s unexpected delivery, began: “Mrs. Hattie Thomas came to the kindergarten of her daughter, a mother of three, and left the mother of four.”

Mr. Siegal had tried reporting to improve his career prospects at a newspaper whose senior editors had all been reporters. But he found that writing was painful and he went back to editing at the foreign desk.

He was appointed the paper’s news editor in 1977, responsible for overseeing front page design and editing, and for producing “Winners & Sinners”, the paper’s internal writing, editing, and visual presentation critique, founded by a predecessor. , Theodore M. Bernstein. He was promoted to deputy editor in chief in 1987.

In early 2002, long before same-sex marriages were legalized in the United States, Siegal was appointed to head a standards committee that ultimately recommended a change in the Times’ policy on posting union ads. between people of the same sex on their society pages. While the newspaper had previously limited ads to legally recognized marriages in the United States, it declared in August of that year that it would begin publishing “reports of same-sex commitment ceremonies and of some types of formal registration of gay and lesbian couples.” lesbians”.

Mr. Siegal married Mrs. Leefmans, then a freelance manuscript editor, in 1977. He struggled with obesity for much of his life, losing a prodigious amount of weight before their daughter, Anna, was born. He told his friends that if he was going to have a baby, he wanted to be able to hold it on his lap. He later he regained much of the weight.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his daughter, Anna Siegal; a son, Peter; and a granddaughter.

Mr. Siegal’s devotion to The Times was so encompassing that virtually no detail escaped his attention, not even the list of survivors in an obituary.

In the revised Times style book he co-edited in the 1990s, the entry on obituaries includes this advice: “Survivors should be listed at the end of a routine obituary. But a more complete one, if artfully constructed, will get to the basics first and end with a memorable anecdote or paragraph.”

Siegal himself provided a concluding paragraph, though not with that intention in mind, when he succinctly summarized his views on newspaper style in the preface to the style book he had so assiduously helped to compile.

“The best style is based on the ears and eyes of reporters,” he wrote, “and on simplicity: the unassuming language of a letter to a courteous and cultured friend. In that scenario, the sudden flash of an unusual word, syncopation or deviation from logic lets the reader know that there is something richer here than an hourly bulletin.”

Alex Traub contributed report.

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