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NPR back in hot seat over opera show host Lisa Simeone's political activities

Baltimore-based broadcaster says she thinks controversy 'really overblown'

By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun

11:30 PM EDT, October 21, 2011

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Lisa Simeone thinks the media storm over whether, as an NPR show host, she should also be an activist for an Occupy D.C. protest group is "really overblown."

"Maybe that's my naivete speaking," the 54-year-old Baltimore broadcaster said in an interview Friday. "It just strikes me as 'My God, such a big hoo-haw over this.'"

But it is big hoo-haw for National Public Radio, which has spent much of the last year at the center of fierce and partisan debates about its politics. From the firing of Juan Williams over comments he made about Muslims, to a secretly taped video showing a NPR executive disparaging tea party members, the broadcaster's identity as an objective news source has constantly been under attack.

Right or wrong, Simeone has landed NPR back in the culture-wars battlefield. Her role in October 2011 — one of the groups encamped in the nation's capital as part of the Occupy movement — could also spell an end to her presence on public radio after decades on the air.

"I think it's a shame that somebody can't partake in the democratic process, as Lisa's trying to do, without creating a stir," says Joe Hutchins, general manager of WBJC, Baltimore's classical music public radio station, where Simeone worked in the 1980s.

"But at the same time," he added, "I can understand NPR's reluctance to be associated with anything controversial, especially with these political ramifications, because they've been on the carpet now for quite a while for some other incidents. I understand where they're coming from, and I wouldn't blame them for taking a stance [against Simeone]. I guess as a public figure, you have to be aware of what you're doing."

The first mention of Simeone's role as a spokeswoman for the protest group came online Tuesday. By the end of Wednesday, after a blog post that day on Tucker Carlson's "The Daily Caller" website, she had been fired as host of the public radio documentary series "Soundprint," which is produced in Laurel and carried on NPR stations such as WAMU in Washington.

"Look, I've been involved with this [October 2011] since springtime, and it obviously hasn't affected my work," Simeone said. "And nobody took notice of it, until … 'The Daily Caller' mentioned it. But it didn't bother anyone before that. I could have hidden it, but that's just cowardly and smarmy."

Simeone said no one from NPR ever voiced any concerns to her. She found out about the controversy late Wednesday when she checked her emails at the end of the workday.

As the workweek ended, Simeone's other freelance job as host of "World of Opera," a music show produced by WDAV, a North Carolina music station, was still under review by National Public Radio.

Although Simeone is not an employee of NPR, the public radio giant distributes "World of Opera" to about 60 stations nationally and feels that Simeone is seen as a representative of it.

For its part, WDAV says it is keeping Simeone as host.

"As host of 'World of Opera,' Lisa Simeone is an independent contractor of WDAV Classical Public Radio," says Lisa Gray, a station spokeswoman. "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."

But without NPR distribution, "World of Opera" would face a most uncertain future.

"We continue to work with NPR to find a solution to the issues surrounding 'World of Opera,'" Gray said, adding late Friday afternoon that the conversation with NPR continues.

NPR has the big stick here, and an ethics code that some analysts say Simeone has violated.

Adam Hochberg, a 15-year veteran of NPR who is now a fellow and columnist at the Poynter Institute, questions the distinctions Simeone makes.

"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 says. "It specifically says that the ethical guidelines apply across the board."

So, Hochberg explains, "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 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.

"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.

Simeone said Friday that the NPR ethics code was quoted to her when she was fired by "Soundprint."

"From what I've looked at of the NPR ethics code, I don't believe I've broken it," Simeone says, "because it specifically says if you are a news reporter covering these topics, then you can't go then and advocate on these same topics. I am not a news reporter, and I am not covering these topics."

According to WDAV's Gray, the station is looking at "all the options" if NPR decides to no longer distribute the show because of Simeone.

"We could get another distribution partner, we could distribute it on our own," she says. "I guess there's an option that it could go away. I think we're all working on solutions to eliminate that as an option."

Simeone says she has no insight into how the talks between WDAV and NPR are going — or what will happen if NPR does drop the show.

"Right now, all I know is WDAV is standing by me, and we're going to go forward and do the show. Obviously, I hope that's correct," she said.

No matter what happens with "World of Opera," though, the longtime Charles Village resident says she's feeling "good" about life.

"I have a very nice life," she said. "I'm very lucky. I get to do work I love — work that I think is important as an engaged, active citizen, work that I find intellectually stimulating and challenging. I have no complaints."

"Yes, I'm sorry this happened with 'Soundprint.' But I take my lumps. … I'm not like so many millions of American who don't have jobs, have debts, have health problems. I don't have any of those problems. … I'm married to a man who makes a good living. It's not just my little, puny income. So I'm very lucky. I cannot complain about my situation."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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