UPDATE, 10.22: NPR, having failed to pressure WDAV into getting rid of Lisa Simeone as the host of "World Of Opera," has gone ahead and done the next best thing. The AP reports that NPR "will no longer distribute the member station-produced program "World of Opera" to about 60 stations across the country." WDAV will distribute the show themselves. These are some extraordinary measures that NPR has taken to ensure that the people who use their airwaves to discuss opera do not have any evident political opinions.
Lisa Simeone, a freelance content provider for a pair of radio shows that are broadcast by National Public Radio, is under fire today for her tangential participation in the OccupyDC movement. Simeone, who has worked in radio for over two decades, is the host of a WDAV radio show called "World Of Opera," and a freelancer for a program called "Soundprint". She also participates in an activist organization called "Stop The Machine," which is part of the broader Occupy movement.
Simeone has, for a long time, blended her love for grassroots political activism with her talent for radio, without anyone objecting. Her involvement in the Occupy movement, however, seems to have been deemed by NPR to be a bridge too far. That NPR has a history of hasty personnel decisions and a pathological aversion to their employees being publicly exposed as having opinions surely does not help.
Sure enough, the hammer is being lowered, and it's being lowered rather awkwardly. Simeone, as it happens, is not an NPR employee, so what appears to be happening is that they are putting pressure on her employers to get rid of her. Wednesday night, she was fired from "Soundprint," despite the fact that the show isn't produced by NPR. According to reports, Simeone was read the NPR code of ethics at the time of her dismissal.
But NPR was pretty hot to get Simeone dismissed from "World of Opera" as well, and until this afternoon, Simeone had to await word on whether she'd continue to be allowed to fully exercise her rights while simultaneously continuing to appreciate opera on the radio. (Erik Wemple gives good comedy on how Simeone's politics could creep into her coverage of opera.)
This morning, NPR posted a "clarification" on their website regarding the matter which suggested that the screws were being put to WDAV:
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 NPR or of WDAV; 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.
That we're even having a conversation of the political leanings of someone who hosts a program on opera enthusiasm basically precludes the possibility that anyone is taking anything "very seriously." And, indeed, when we reached out to NPR's Director of Media Relations, Anna Christopher Bross, the task of taking it seriously became even harder. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Bross essentially admitted that she'd never actually verified whether Simeone was a "spokesperson" for "Stop The Machine" at all, and that NPR's actions were prompted solely on hearsay.
"It seems from media reports that she's a spokesperson for 'October 2011' [a Stop the Machine campaign]," Bross said. When asked why she would characterize Simeone as a "spokesperson," Bross reiterated, "We said 'spokesperson' because she was quoted as a spokesperson in many media reports and then other press said she had functioned in a spokesperson role."
When we asked what "other press" had made these claims, Bross replied, "I don't know."
Officials at WDAV radio in Davidson, North Carolina, who produce "World Of Opera," have resisted the pressure to fire Simeone. WDAV's Lisa Gray wrote that Simeone "is an independent contractor of WDAV Classical Public Radio" and that her "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 ... Ms. Simeone remains the host of World of Opera."
Simeone offered a rebuttal to NPR for the Baltimore Sun's David Zurawik:
"I'm not an NPR employee ... 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?"
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Simeone was just as emphatic.
"My work has never suffered or betrayed my political activities," she said. "Nobody has anything to complain about with regard to my work. What I'm doing on my own free time was exercising my right as an American citizen -- not harming any of these entities."
Simeone is at a loss as to why "Soundprint" deemed it necessary to fire her: "It's a documentary series. It consists of half-hour documentaries acquired from producers all over the world on all kinds of subjects. Two documentaries in one hour. My job was to listen to the documentaries and write an introduction. I was expected in my introduction to express a point of view. That's a whole other irony. I've never hidden my political views. It's not really a surprise where I stand politically. I haven't lied."
As far as her involvement with the Occupy demonstrations, Simeone sums it up like this: "I did a lot of chanting ... I did interviews with the press." When she spoke to the media about Stop the Machine's "October 2011" campaign, she would identify herself as a member of the steering committee, not a spokesperson. And she didn't camp out: "I'm a wimp and I need to sleep on a bed."
Soundprint's Moira Rankin doesn't see it that way.
"Lisa is taking a leadership role, acting as a spokesperson as well as being on the steering committee. That is fine to do whatever she thinks is important. However it's not compatible with being the host of documentary series on public radio," said Rankin. "Our programs are broadcast over NPR. The listener doesn't understand the difference between the host of a show on NPR and the host of Soundprint."
She apparently takes a dim view of her listeners' intelligence.
Rankin continued: "We are not a news program. We try to give context to the news. We do like to have writers have strong points of view when they are writing. That doesn't mean they are writing from a political angle."
Of Simeone, she says, "She's a very good writer, a very good presence on public radio. That's not the issue. The issue is the integrity of what we put out every week. I agree that she should have full exercise of [her rights to assemble and demonstrate] but that doesn't mean that she can also be a journalist."
NPR has an ethics policy for its journalists that precludes them from participating in "public relations work, paid or unpaid."
NPR's Bross told the Huffington Post, "Other public radio people have read and used NPRs code of ethics because its a very strong code of ethics."
There are, however, allowable exceptions, "for certain volunteer nonprofit, nonpartisan activities, such as participating in the work of a church, synagogue or other institution of worship, or a charitable organization, so long as this would not conflict with the interests of NPR [and WAMU] in reporting on activities related to that institution or organization." (Presumably, NPR's frequent pledge drives are also an allowable exception to the ban on public relations work as well.)
But NPR has to have known that Simeone has been a longtime political activist. She's been upfront about her involvement with Stop The Machine since she joined up. Her bio on the organization's website reads: "Lisa Simeone is a proud loudmouthed feminist and rabble-rouser. Her husband wonders whether her love of natty dressing might interfere with her participation in the revolution." Along with other members, like Andy Shallal, David Swanson, and Chris Hedges, Simeone cut a video, announcing that she'd be participating in D.C. demonstrations.
And back in March of this year, she was arrested while participating in an anti-war demonstration in front of the White House. No one seems to have been particularly bothered by that event at the time, and in all likelihood, it's because of the reputation she's earned for herself. Over at Poynter, Julie Moos points to this 1994 piece from the Baltimore Sun, titled "The familiar tones of Lisa Simeone rise in protest," that emphasizes how Simeone managed to develop a reputation for balancing these two parts of her life":
In the four weeks since Baltimore County Judge Robert E. Cahill sentenced a man to 18 months in jail for killing his wife hours after finding her in bed with another man, Ms. Simeone has helped organize demonstrations at both the Towson courthouse and a judicial conference on domestic violence and discussed the case on her weekly interview program with Johns Hopkins professor Mark Crispin Miller.
She was even more outraged 18 months ago when Baltimore County Judge Thomas J. Bollinger granted probation before judgment to a man found guilty of raping an unconscious 18-year-old. That case prompted Ms. Simeone to found a Baltimore chapter of the Women's Action Coalition.
On the air, Simeone hardly comes across as some raving ideologue. Her dulcet tones, which have wafted over Baltimore's airwaves for more than a decade, have won her quite a following -- including some people who disagree strongly with her views, but appreciate her voice and her taste in music.
"She is someone blessed with a tremendous warm voice and manner and a good knowledge of classical music," says conservative talk-radio host Ron Smith of WBAL, praising Simeone for restricting her views to her interview program. "She doesn't directly espouse her views on the air that I've ever heard. You only hear about them when you read about them."
"I like her. I think she's really fun," says Les Kinsolving of WCBM radio, whose conservative credentials would seem to put him at odds with someone like Simeone. "She's very attractive and fiery and fun. She's a very colorful person and I enjoy her."
So Simeone is well known for being a grass-roots activist and a talented radio presenter, two sides that she's successfully kept compartmentalized to everyone's satisfaction, until now. Given how much of her identity is tied to activism, it's simply not credible that any of her employers could have been ignorant of her involvement in these causes.
Speaking with Zurawik, Simeone also noted the existence of a double standard:
"This sudden concern with my political activities is also surprising in light of the fact that Mara Liaason reports on politics for NPR yet appears as a commentator on FoxTV, Scott Simon hosts an NPR news show yet writes political op-eds for national newspapers, Cokie Roberts reports on politics for NPR yet accepts large speaking fees from businesses. Does NPR also send out 'Communications Alerts' about their activities?"
I'm guessing that no one has an objection to Liasson, Simon, or Roberts because they successfully project an air of indifference over the plight of people who are economically dislocated.
NPR has had a troubled history in dealing with the way the human beings they employ tend to have opinions. When Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert brought their "Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear" to the District of Columbia, NPR employees were not allowed to participate, lest they become publicly exposed as people who like jokes, or performances from The Roots. As Danny Shea reported at the time:
NPR has reminded its employees that they are not allowed to participate in the upcoming rallies led by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
"NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers, nor should they sign petitions or otherwise lend their name to such causes, or contribute money to them," Senior Vice President for News, Ellen Weiss, wrote in a memo Wednesday morning. "This restriction applies to the upcoming John [sic] Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallies."
NPR CEO Vivian Schiller forwarded the memo, sent initially to news staff, to the entire organization, telling employees that the note applied to "digital, programming/AIR, legal and communications" employees in addition to the news staff.
"However, no matter where you work at NPR you should be very mindful that you represent the organization and its news coverage in the eyes of your friends, neighbors and others," Schiller continued. "So please think twice about the message you may be sending about our objectivity before you attend a rally or post a bumper sticker or yard sign. We are all NPR."
And NPR has a similarly checkered past when it comes to dealing with the personnel decisions that arise as a result of their policy against opinions. When Juan Williams was cashiered for making remarks on "The O'Reilly Factor" about airplane passengers in "Muslim garb," it was done in an extremely unprofessional manner: over the phone, without Williams being allowed to speak in his own defense. (Why NPR could not have simply offered a countering opinion to Williams' own, continues to be confusing. It suggests that they were motivated more out of a dislike of Williams, and less out of a concern that Muslims should be allowed to travel on airplanes.)
Simeone plans to continue to participate in the demonstrations in Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C., regardless of how NPR feels about it.
"I'm not an NPR journalist," she said. "I wasn't covering any of these issues for NPR. I was just an aware citizen."