By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
12:38 PM EDT, October 24, 2011
Five posts ago, I promised I would report the NPR-Lisa-Simeone-Occupy-DC controversy down the middle until it played out.
With the news that NPR will no longer distribute "World of Opera" because of Simeone's political activism, both shoes have dropped.
(She had already been fired Wednesday from the public-radio documentary series "Soundprint" because her activities with the protest group October 2011 violated NPR's Ethics Code, according to the show's producer.)
So here's my take on the matter: I admire Simeone for her commitment and her willingness to put her salary and career on the line for what she believes. But, on the other hand, NPR had to do exactly what it did if it wanted to have an ethics code it could enforce.
Simeone's integrity is admirable, and some of the folks on the right who try to mock those involved in the Occupy movement should only have such high standards as they slavishly take their marching orders from a certain cable TV channel chairman.
Whether you agree with her or not, you have to admire the way this 54-year-old Baltimore resident has stood her activist ground. (You can read an interview I did with her Friday afternoon here.)
That said, however, you also can't blame NPR for refusing to carry the "World of Opera" with her as host. In fact, it has no choice but to sever ties.
(The show, which NPR now distributes to about 60 stations, will remain in production at the North Carolina music station WDAV with Simeone as host. The small station says it will distribute the show itself. That could be a hard road.)
Here's Simeone's argument as to why NPR has no case against her as she made it to me in an email Wednesday night:
"I find it puzzling that NPR objects to my exercising my rights as an American citizen -- the right to free speech, the right to peaceable assembly -- on my own time in my own life," Simeone wrote.
"I'm not an NPR employee," she continued. " I'm a freelancer. NPR doesn't pay me. I'm also not a news reporter. I don't cover politics. I've never brought a whiff of my political activities into the work I've done for NPR World of Opera. What is NPR afraid I'll do -- insert a seditious comment into a synopsis of Madame Butterfly?"
Here's Adam Hochberg, a 15-year NPR veteran who is now a fellow and columnist at the Poynter Institute, explaining why he believes NPR does have a case. Hochberg made these points in an interview for a print column I wrote for the Sunday Sun.
"The NPR ethics code makes no distinction at all among NPR full-time employees, freelancers or people involved with what they call acquired programs, which would be produced by member stations or independent producers," he said. "It specifically says that the ethical guidelines apply across the board."
So, Hochberg explained, "This whole distinction that people are trying to draw where she works for a member station or she's a freelancer or whatever, in terms of NPR's Ethics Code, it doesn't matter."
And, he continued, "In my opinion, it shouldn't matter, because on any given day, 'Morning Edition,' for example, is a conglomeration of stories produced by full-time NPR correspondents, member-station people, freelancers and independents. But the bottom line, to the listener, it's all NPR — it's all NPR news."
Hochberg, who teaches radio news and journalism at the University of North Carolina, also said it doesn't matter, according to the NPR Ethics Code, whether she is performing as a journalist on a news show or as host of a music program on NPR.
"The ethics code also addresses this other thing where people say, 'Well, she's not a journalist -- she's hosting an opera show.' ... The ethics code says this applies to every program unless the program producer has conferred with NPR and NPR has agreed that it doesn't. I take that to mean that the conferring has to be done before you commit the behavior -- not retroactively."
And NPR had never given WDAV such a waiver.
"And even if this weren't spelled out in black and white, I think most journalists would just look at this and say it's obvious," Hochberg said. "If you just wrote about the local music scene, or you were just doing the recipe-swap column in the Thursday food section in your paper, you still couldn't be out serving as the spokesperson for a political movement at any journalistic organization I'm familiar with."
Simeone disagreed about the ethics code: "From what I've looked at of the NPR ethics code, I don't believe I've broken it," Simeone said in an interview with the Sun Friday, "because it specifically says if you are a news reporter covering these topics, then you can't go and advocate on these same topics. I am not a news reporter, and I am not covering these topics."
Hochberg is correct about what the ethics code says, and the decision has been made in accordance with it. And while some columnists are having fun satirizing NPR for hewing so closely to the letter of its law, the public broadcasting operation did what it had to do if it wanted to have an enforceable ethics code.
Simeone is part of a larger media movement that is starting to emerge in a significant way. And, in my opinion, that movement is an important story that has yet to be outlined or seriously reported.
I'll try to tell some of that story later tonight or tomorrow. There are a few moving parts that I want to nail down and think about before I commit to print. Please check back later.
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