NPR show host Lisa Simeone is shown here in scene from a YouTube video, promoting the October 2011 movement.
NPR show host Lisa Simeone is shown here in scene from a YouTube video, promoting the October 2011 movement. (Handout photo)

Bravo, fat lady.

Or rather, bravo, "World of Opera," the public radio show that brought a measure of sanity to the drama surrounding Lisa Simeone, the Baltimore-based public radio host who landed in a controversy over media bias last week over her volunteer work with an Occupy Washington-related group.


It says something about our current political climate that it was the world of Valkyries and suicidal geishas that eschewed the operatics and noted the obvious: What Simeone does on her own time has no bearing on her role as host of an arts show, so she can remain as its host.

She did, however, get dumped by another radio show, "Soundprint," which airs documentaries and said that her activism violated the code of impartiality required of journalists.

We interrupt this column for one of those necessary disclaimers: I know Simeone, and while we're not so much friends as friendly, I like her fates-be-damned approach to whatever is consuming her heart or mind at the moment. Which, no doubt, helps explain the current brouhaha.

To resume our regular programming: This tempest reflects the bigger problem with political discourse today. At a time when the issues are large and complex, everything gets reduced to the simplest, most tribal of terms: Are you one of us or one of them?

That, of course, is what has Washington frozen in paralysis at the moment. To take only the latest example, President Barack Obama's jobs bill is being blocked by Congress, even as polls show a majority of the public supports it. But then, in Washington today, compromising across party lines equals consorting with the enemy.

So perhaps it should be no surprise that the movements that have emerged to highlight what's wrong with the country are themselves increasingly forced into separate corners as well by this endless partisanship. The tea party and the occupy movements should have some overlap — most obviously, the bank bailouts that each rejects — but in an us-vs.-them world, there can be no bridges.

Given that the shows Simeone worked on are aired on National Public Radio stations, I guess it was inevitable this would be yet another skirmish in the same old war once conservative bloggers caught wind of Simeone's extracurricular activities. There may be nothing that gets the political right's juices flowing more than NPR, after all, unless it's Planned Parenthood.

But it's not that simple. Simeone was and is a freelancer rather than an NPR employee, and, at least in the case of "Soundprint," that show is independently produced and distributed to public radio stations. Admittedly, this sounds like a lot of hair-splitting — to most listeners, if you hear it on NPR, it's NPR.

But it's not so clear to me that Simeone should be considered a journalist and that the NPR code of ethics that bans reporters from political activity applies to her. After all, NPR carries a range of broadcasts, not all or even most of them straight news. Garrison Keillor presumably is free to occupy Lake Wobegon if he so desires.

It's an easier issue to address in the case of "World of Opera," and maybe less so with "Soundprint." I've never heard "Soundprint" — it's on only about 35 stations, according to news reports — but a statement on its website announcing the parting of ways with Simeone says the show is "journalistic" and abides by the highest standards of the profession.

Simeone has said she wrote and delivered introductions for the segments produced by others — which from the show's website seemed to lean largely toward personal stories and features on health, education and the environment — and was expected to provide a point of view. It seems to me that disclosing her role with an Occupy Washington-related group should have been enough if "Soundprint" ever did a program on the movement or the issues it has raised, especially since the show is hardly a conventional, hard-news-gathering broadcast.

For those broadcasters, say, on signature NPR news shows such as "Morning Edition" or "All Things Considered," I would take an entirely different line. Of course those hosts would be covered by the network's code of ethics — they're covering, for example, the occupy movement and obviously can't also be a part of it.

If anything, the brush-up over Simeone shows how hard it is to lump "the media" into a single category, judged by the same standards across the board.

So here's a novel idea: How about we both trust media consumers more and give them more responsibility as well? Disclose, and let them decide on their own whether someone's bias is at play.


Or just give it a rest and go listen to some fat lady sing.