NPR, Lisa Simeone and Biased Opera Reporting

There’s quite a controversy brewing over freelance radio host Lisa Simeone for her participation with an activist group occupying a park in Washington, D.C. It’s a worth a look at how this unfolded– especially since it appears to have cost her one of her jobs.

A report at the Roll Call website (10/18/11) noted that Simeone was acting as a spokesperson for the group, which goes by the name October 11. Roll Call wondered if this violated NPR ethics guidelines, since Simeone acts as a host on two programs that air on some NPR affiliates: the long-running documentary series Soundprint and the NPR World of Opera. (Neither show is produced by NPR; World of Opera is distributed by the network.)

Shortly after the Roll Call story appeared (and was picked up by other outlets like the conservative Daily Caller), NPR sent this internal memo, which was posted by activist David Swanson (Warisacrime.org, 10/20/11):

From: NPR Communications

Sent: Wednesday, October 19, 2011 6:12 PM
Subject: From Dana Rehm: Communications Alert
To: All Staff
Fr: Dana Davis Rehm
Re: Communications Alert

We recently learned of World of Opera host Lisa Simeone’s participation in an Occupy DC group. World of Opera is produced by WDAV, a music and arts station based in Davidson, North Carolina. The program is distributed by NPR. Lisa is not an employee of WDAV or NPR; she is a freelancer with the station.

We’re in conversations with WDAV about how they intend to handle this. We of course take this issue very seriously.

As a reminder, all public comment (including social media) on this matter is being managed by NPR Communications.

All media requests should be routed through NPR Communications at 202.513.2300 or mediarelations@npr.org. We will keep you updated as needed. Thanks.

NPR posted the first two paragraphs of the memo as a blog item shortly thereafter. Within a few hours, Soundprint fired Simeone (AP, 10/20/11), citing NPR ethics guidelines. It is not clear why the show, which has no apparent formal connection to NPR, would make this move. AP reported that Simeone was fired “after NPR questioned her involvement in a Washington protest,” though NPR claims it had “no contact with the management of the program prior to their decision” (Poynter.org, 10/20/11).

Simeone is not an NPR host or employee, but the network did seem to be taking some sort of active role in the decisions about her employment status.

NPR‘s Ethics Code forbids journalists from participating “in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers,” and it also states that “NPR journalists may not engage in public relations work.” The code “also applies to material provided to NPR by independent producers.” But NPR there are exceptions, such as a “freelancer who primarily does arts coverage.” The NPR code also states, “There may be instances in which the type of programming may not demand the application of a particular principle in this code.”

WDAV, the station that produces World of Opera, decided today that Simeone could continue to host the show:

As host of World of Opera, Lisa Simeone is an independent contractor of WDAV Classical Public Radio. Ms. Simeone’s activities outside of this job are not in violation of any of WDAV‘s employee codes and have had no effect on her job performance at WDAV. Ms. Simeone remains the host of World of Opera.

That would seem like good news.

But NPR‘s handling of this is a reminder that it has never been entirely clear what kind of political positions NPR deems objectionable. News reporter Mara Liasson once denounced antiwar Democratic politicians on Fox News Channel (10/3/02): “These guys are a disgrace. Look, everybody knows it’s Politics 101 that you don’t go to an adversary country, an enemy country, and badmouth the United States, its policies and the president of the United States. I mean, these guys ought to, I don’t know, resign.”

The comments caused some controversy (NPR‘s ombud wrote a column on 7/20/03), but obviously Liasson was not removed from her job as a reporter. Cokie Roberts is apparently free to take political stances, given her role as an analyst.

NPR‘s new president Gary Knell has stated his desire to “calm the waters” and “depoliticize” the debate over public radio (FAIR Blog, 10/7/11) in response to Republican politicians’ desire to cut funding for public broadcasting. Incidents like the revelation of Simeone’s activism are likely to provide fodder for right-wing complaints about the “liberal bias” of NPR. One understandable response is derision. Time‘s James Poniewozik writes:

Public radio listeners! Have you long worried that your station was undermining capitalism through its broadcasts of the Ring Cycle? Tired of having your children brainwashed by the socialistic messages of La Traviata?

Poniewozik argues that firing Simeone “would be a stupid, stupid decision”–but that due to the politicization of the funding debate NPR is “practically obligated to overreact when a staff member or even freelancer comes within 200 feet of a political opinion.”

It’s beyond absurd that there’s really even a controversy over whether the freelance host of an opera show should be fired for political activism. But let it be a reminder to NPR‘s new president: It’s going to be nearly impossible to “depoliticize” this debate, given the vehemence of your right-wing critics.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.