On Friday NPR decided it would no longer distribute an opera program because of the political activism of the program’s host–who does not work for NPR.
A controversy erupted over freelance radio host Lisa Simeone’s participation with an activist group occupying a park in Washington, D.C. Simeone was promptly fired as host of the documentary program Soundprint (AP, 10/20/11), which cited NPR ethics guidelines. NPR claims it had nothing to do with that firing (Poynter.org, 10/20/11).
On Thursday, North Carolina station WDAV, which produces World of Opera, announced it would keep Simeone as the host of the program. The very next day, NPR declared it would cease distributing World of Opera (AP, 10/21/11).
Despite the fact that Simeone’s politics would seem to be entirely irrelevant to her role as an opera host, an NPR spokesperson explained the supposed ethical issues at stake: “We are not her employer, but she is a host for a show that we distribute…. She’s a public person who represents NPR and public radio.”
NPR spokesperson Dana Davis Rehm elaborated (AP, 10/21/11):
This would be a strange principle to apply broadly. Does NPR intend to monitor the political activities of the hosts of every arts and culture program heard on public radio? If the hosts of Car Talk took part in a Tea Party protest, would they be fired by NPR? This would seem to be less a hypersensitive sense of journalistic ethics than it is an exercise in McCarthyism.
NPR‘s standards for news reporters do not appear all that clear, either. NPR news host Scott Simon took public positions supporting the Afghan War and the Iraq War (Current, 9/8/03). News reporter Mara Liasson denounced antiwar Democratic politicians on Fox News Channel (10/3/02): “These guys are a disgrace…. You don’t go to an adversary country, an enemy country, and badmouth the United States… these guys ought to, I don’t know, resign.”
What about the political opinions of news analyst Cokie Roberts? As Robert Naiman pointed out (Huffington Post, 5/22/07), Roberts co-authored a column declaring that “Democratic leaders cannot afford to listen to the labor movement as the country approaches a major debate over trade policy.” She also co-authored a column (12/10/10) attacking “liberals in fantasyland,” like New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and Norman Solomon, for their “delusional” criticism of Barack Obama.
The Simeone controversy started with a report at the Roll Call website (10/18/11) that claimed Simeone was acting as a spokesperson for the October 11 group. 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 Roll Call story was picked up by other outlets like the conservative Daily Caller, and soon NPR sent an internal memo (WarIsACrime.org, 10/20/11) advising that they were “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.”
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 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.”
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 this are fodder for right-wing complaints about the “liberal bias” of NPR.
NPR and Knell could have decided, clearly and publicly, that a music host can engage in political activism. Instead they decided to send a message intended to comfort their Republican critics.