On taking the job, the new CEO of NPR, Gary Knell, said he wanted to “depoliticize” the debate over the future of public radio. This alarmed me, for reasons I will explain.
“It’s not about liberal or conservative — it’s about fairness,” Knell told David Folkenflik on October 2. “We’ve got to make the case we’re delivering a fair service, not only in the way we do our jobs, but in the way we disseminate the news.” He later told the Los Angeles Times that he wanted to “re-tell” the NPR story so that Congress would see why it deserved taxpayer support. “If you listen over a period of time you hear voices from all ends of the political spectrum on NPR,” Knell added. “I think a lot of the critics, by what they say, don’t even listen to the service.”
At the same time that he said he wanted to de-politicize the debate, Knell announced that he would be fighting vigorously to retain taxpayer support for NPR and its member stations:
In an interview Monday with All Things Considered’s Melissa Block, Knell said federal funds are necessary for public radio stations to help ensure Americans are informed and engaged citizens.
“Certain rural parts of this country, for instance, when you drive across the state, and there is no commercial radio covering local news, [or] local and state government,” Knell said, “the only place is public radio.”
Knell pledged that NPR will continue to seek such funding — which polls suggest a majority of Americans support.
“We’ll have to make up [our minds] as a country, and the Congress will need to decide, as well as state governments, whether this is something important enough to support,” Knell said. “I happen to think it is. But we’ll see what happens.”
Five days before Knell said that, a House appropriations subcommittee introduced legislation to prevent local stations from using any of the funds they get from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to support NPR. Normally, they pay a fee to NPR to broadcast programs like Morning Edition and All Things Considered. The House measure would try to cripple that arrangement. There’s a long way to go before it becomes law, but the intentions of the House Republicans are clear: to cut off all federal dollars for NPR, direct and indirect.
Let me summarize what had already happened, then, before the latest turn in the story.
A new CEO (to replace the one forced out by culture war politics and a skittish NPR board) comes into office vowing to de-politicize the situation, to cool it down. He immediately declines the most direct way of doing that, which would be to renounce federal funding, a course recommended by his predecessor. Instead he plans to push for continued Congressional support, but to do it by telling a different story. It’s not about left or right, but about fairness and public service. That’s his different story. The critics don’t actually listen to NPR, he adds. If they did, they would hear a balanced news source with a broad range of views. They would hear an essential service. Through such means he plans to fight for public radio’s share of federal funding and change the minds of those in Congress who have been most critical, which of course means engaging with the Republican party and its activist wing.
Last week, they engaged with NPR. First The Hill, then the Daily Caller ran with this story: NPR host is Occupy DC spokeswoman. It was about Lisa Simeone, host of World of Opera, a show produced by WDAV, a music and arts station in North Carolina, and distributed by NPR, which makes it “an NPR show.” Simeone, a native of Baltimore, had become active in October 2011, one of the groups involved in the Occupy DC movement. She served on its steering committee and acted as a spokesperson.
From the Daily Caller story a four-day culture war controversy followed, ending with Simeone’s dismissal as host of Soundprint, a documentary series that airs on some public radio stations (it is not “an NPR show”) and NPR’s decision to stop distributing World of Opera because WDAV refused to fire her. (Which means World of Opera is no longer “an NPR show.”)
“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 told the Baltimore Sun. “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?”
For a different view, reporter David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun turned to Adam Hochberg, who worked as a journalist at NPR for 15 years. He’s now a fellow at the Poynter Institute. “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 told Zurawik. “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.
Obvious that the host of an opera program who is not being paid by NPR should be prohibited from having a political life if she wants to remain host of NPR’s opera program? Maybe it is to Hochberg, but it is not obvious to the code, which says, for example:
There will be instances where provisions of this code are not applicable to an outside contributor. For example, a freelancer who primarily does arts coverage, for example, may not in some situations be subject to the prohibition on making contributions to political campaigns. Such contributions, however, might limit the range of topics or individuals the outside contributor could cover.
Sounds a lot like Simeone’s situation to me. The code also says….
Producers of standalone programs acquired by NPR should also apply these ethical principles and procedures to the production of that programming. There may be instances in which the type of programming may not demand the application of a particular principle in this code.
Like say, the host of an opera show and her political activities? Clearly, the NPR code of ethics requires interpretation and judgment, but this is the opposite of what Hochberg said. He said it was “spelled out in black and white.”
For an explanation of why NPR acted as it did, we can’t go to the code. We also need the roar of the war. The culture war, that is. In March it claimed the head of Vivian Schiller, the previous CEO of NPR, who was forced out after a right wing trickster, James O’Keefe, secretly taped an NPR fundraising official making volatile comments about the Tea Party. Here’s Brent Bozell, who makes $423,000 a year off the culture war as head of the Media Research Center, in a letter to the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, on October 20:
Dear Mr. Speaker:
Enough is enough. NPR must be defunded.
It has been exposed that NPR host Lisa Simeone has been acting as a spokeswoman for the radical Occupy D.C. group “October 2011.” Regardless of the fact that NPR has recently terminated Miss Simeone, this is an outrageous violation of NPR’s so called ethics rules, which specifically state that “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.”
This is just the latest in a long list of abuses by this taxpayer subsidized leftist propaganda machine. It learned nothing from the public outrage when it fired Juan Williams in 2010. NPR is out of control, using taxpayer money to lend support to a sometimes violent and lawless mob set on crippling the financial backbone of our country.
NPR is not an objective, independent news broker. NPR is a shill for George Soros and other liberal funders….
And so on, and so forth.
I hope Gary Knell understands that there’s no changing that conversation. Brent Bozell’s letter to John Boehner is going to call NPR a “subsidized leftist propaganda machine” whether or not Lisa Simeone’s opera show is sacrificed. As I said in March:
Wake up, public media people! You have no magic exemption from the requirements of political maturity. There are people out there who seek your destruction, and they are not evenly distributed. They reside among culture warriors on the political right. That is a fact, and you are in the business of reporting facts… These people want to destroy you. You don’t get to decide whether you have political enemies or not. The enemies have that power. But you can decide how to respond to them. The default setting is a series of political defeats.
And the decision to cave on World of Opera is another in that series. This is the problem I have with Knell’s attempt to “depoliticize” the struggle over public radio. When you are the object of a politicized attack, which extends from full time culture warriors like Bozell and O’Keefe to their allies in Congress who want to defund most of the government, not just NPR, it is not within your power to make the situation less political. Your opponents have that power. You do not.
Who politicized World of Opera more: Lisa Simeone by joining October 2011 but leaving her show untouched by politics, or NPR by divorcing itself from the show after taking criticism? I would say it’s NPR. Gary Knell complains that critics don’t actually listen to NPR. But did he listen to World of Opera and hear any “bias” problem with it? I doubt it. It’s about fairness, he says. What about all the people who listen (and donate) to NPR and who think that divorcing yourself from an opera show because the host has a political life isn’t all that fair?
If you’re getting bullied on the playground, bringing more lunch money won’t make it stop. You can’t keep sacrificing people to the culture war and expect things to calm down. Just because you want to make the safe choice doesn’t mean that any of the choices actually available to you are safe. This week was pledge drive for WNYC, my NPR station. We’re members and gave them $120. I don’t want a tote bag for that. I want a CEO who can think politically.