Robert Pear taught me how to listen and I am forever grateful

Last week, one of my health care heroes passed away. Robert Pear, health care reporter for the New York Times, died on May 8, 2019, RIP. If you know nothing about this incredible reporter, these articles in the New York Times Robert Pear, Authoritative Times Reporter on Health Care, Dies at 69, and Washington Post, Robert Pear, Scrupulous Chronicler of Health Care for the New York Times, Dies at 69, are useful starting points.

Not many people know that while I started working in health care in Massachusetts at the Department of Health, I then moved to D.C. and was a “cub reporter” with real press credentials. As I learned the health care beat, working for a newsletter company called CD Publications, I also came to know of Robert Pear.

My first D.C.-based reporting job was to churn out a newsletter every two weeks called the Community Health Funding Report. Eventually I became the Supervising Editor of the AIDS/STD News Report, Mental Health News Alert, and Substance Abuse Funding News newsletters. While each of these newsletters covered some “real news” about what was happening in D.C. related to their respective health care topics, each publication was truly only serving its readers if it provided information on newly announced grants or contracts.

This was way back in the mid-1990s (!!) so I had to go in-person to press conferences, meetings, Hill offices, briefings, etc. in order to figure out what was happening. One of my first interactions with Robert Pear was after a Hill briefing on some health care issue I was just learning. As the briefing ended, the HHS representatives who participated were moved to the back of the room. Before they could even grab their coats, Robert was in front of them:

“Robert Pear. New York Times,” he announced before starting his question.

First lesson learned: Don’t wait for the perfect moment to approach someone, just do it!

Second lesson learned: Say your name and publication before asking your question. It wasn’t until quite a bit later that I realized when you say “Robert Pear. New York Times,” it is just a formality because pretty much everyone in the health care policy world knows who you are, and when you say, “Brenda Gleason. Community Health Funding Report” you might have to say it several times. It probably wouldn’t matter anyway, because I also learned the person being asked might only answer one question and it would be Robert’s, not mine.

So I leaned in and tried to learn.

When Robert Pear asked a question, he didn’t ask about what the person had just said during the hearing or meeting. He would ask a question that did something totally different. He would weave together several pieces of information from many different sources that he had read, or heard, or something that had been speculated about, and he would ask his question. Robert Pear’s question-asking was impressive. But what was truly amazing was how he listened. The New York Times obituary said, “Colleagues described him as an almost sphinxlike good listener.”

Third lesson learned: Great questions come from listening.

I learned to listen, really and truly, deeply listen, from Robert Pear. I also learned the importance of weaving together all kinds of information from different places to read between the lines, anticipate what might happen next, ask great questions, then after more listening, connect the dots.

The one occasion in which I was able to help Mr. Pear is “on-the-record” and I still find it thrilling:

President Wants Curb on Medicaid, January 14, 1997

“Over the objections of senior members of his own party, President Clinton is drafting a budget that would set firm limits on Federal Medicaid spending as a way to help balance the Federal budget by 2002.”

“A newsletter that follows Federal spending for public health said today that Mr. Clinton would seek additional money for treating people with AIDS, for Head Start and for the Indian Health Service. But the newsletter, Community Health Funding Report…”

To Robert Pear I am forever grateful for teaching me so much. May he rest in peace.