NPR’s solution to getting bullied on the playground is to bring more lunch money

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.

26 Oct 2011 12:46 am 15 Comments

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.


Adam Ragusea says:

Well-argued and compelling as always.

I do, however, think it’s worth noting that Knell doesn’t actually start at NPR until December 1, which means he likely had nothing to do with the Simeone affair.

Your essential narrative still holds, I just think that’s an important fact to keep in mind.

Adam Ragusea says:

I mean, am I naive to think that Knell isn’t yet working at some place he doesn’t work…yet? I ask that sincerely.

Jim Reese says:

Jon Stewart said it best. NPR brought a tote bag to a knife fight.

Knell’s statements so far do not give me hope that NPR management understands that these people seek NPR’s destruction, and they will never stop. Nothing NPR does will satisfy them. Ever.

Excellent analysis, Jay. I heard the interview with Knell after he was announced as the new CEO, and that same quote stuck in my craw: “It’s not about liberal or conservative — it’s about fairness.”

“NO, NO, NO,” I found myself yelling to the radio while driving. “Journalism is above all about TRUTH, not fairness.” Yes, reporting needs to be fair, but going into an interview or other press situation with the mission of being fair rather than of first finding the truth (the whole and nothing but) automatically weakens the practice of journalism. Truth above all else — that’s critical.

I also have to confess it bothered me deeply that the next CEO of NPR hailed from “Sesame Street,” rather than from any news program. Nothing against “Sesame Street,” but is that the type of leadership we need in a news organization?

Seriously, is Adam Hochberg retarded?

Full disclosure: I’m a Davidson College alum (’82) who worked at WDAV for four years, 1978-82. My late father, also a Davidson alum and longtime president and board member of Opera Carolina in nearby Charlotte, put a ton of time, effort, love and money into getting that station as it exists today off the ground in the late 1970s and early 1980s, during and after my time there. I never much picked up on his joy in opera, but I get that a lot of people share it.

With that out of the way, I think it’s important to point out that although there is a huge political angle to this story, it goes beyond the culture wars and journalistic ethics. It goes to the freedom of individual Americans to express themselves without being suppressed by corporations.

Here’s what I mean. At the time that Roll Call stirred things up, Lisa Simeone was neither an employee nor a freelancer of NPR’s. She had a freelance arrangement with WDAV. WDAV, in turn, had a contract to provide content — i.e., “World of Opera” — to NPR. The latter contract contained no stipulations regarding the off-work behavior of anyone affiliated with WDAV, and WDAV placed no limits on the off-work behavior of its freelancers.

NPR, purely and simply, had no standing even to care what Lisa Simeone did on her own time, let alone retaliate against her for it after the fact, let alone try to get WDAV and Davidson College to do its political-hit-job dirty work for it. (The station and college politely told NPR to get bent. I’m proud of them.)

NPR’s response: pitch a hissy fit and drop distribution of the show, whereupon the grownups at my alma mater cleaned up the mess. They’ll start distributing it themselves next month.

Memo to NPR: If you want to assert control over your contractors’ behavior … or your contractors’ employees’ behavior … or your contractors’ freelancers’ behavior … then you can negotiate for those rights and include the appropriate stipulation in the contract. (Well, you can try. A lot of freelancers would make anatomically improbable suggestions if you did, however.)

As large corporations shed jobs and our private sector refuses to create more of them, increasing numbers of people are going to be freelancing, self-employed, whatever you want to call it. And while it obviously surprised NPR, it does not surprise me at all that a lot of them see something very wrong with NPR trying to claim control, particularly after the fact, over the free-time behavior of people from which it is twice removed in terms of any kind of professional relationship. Yeah, this is about Occupy Wall Street, and I am quite certain that had Simeone been speaking on behalf of the Tea Party she would have suffered no consequences, but it is about a lot more than Occupy Wall Street, as well.

I’ve freelanced off and on for 35 years, and I’ve hired and supervised freelancers. I try to make my expectations clear, but one thing I would never do in a million years is try to control the off-duty behavior of someone to whom I’m not even giving job security, let alone health insurance, sick days, vacation days, medical- and dependent-care reimbursement accounts, etc.

NPR apparently thought it could impose such limits unilaterally and post hoc, and Adam Hochberg sees nothing wrong with that. I think that tells you everything you need to know about both of them, which is that they have the IQ of a geranium.

Adam Ragusea says:

I personally think NPR made the wrong decision here, but I think it’s going a little overboard to say they “retalliated” against Simeone.

NPR was put in a position in which they had to ask themselves: “Are we comfortable putting our name on a show that’s hosted by a political activist?”

The answer they came to was “no,” so they took their name off the show (which is all “distribution” really means in this context, since technically all public radio programs are distributed by NPR through the PRSS, even those not associated with NPR).

I think it was a silly decision because it’s a show about opera, but to question the legitimacy of the decision seems off base to me.

Different organizations have different objectives, mandates, and accompanying ethical standards. When the needs of two cooperating organizations come into conflict, they may have to part ways. Seems to me that’s all that happened here.

The show will go on.

Sorry, but dropping the show after asking for and failing to get something you’re contractually not entitled to strikes me as retaliation.

The reason that the show will go on is because the station and the college are doing the right thing, not because NPR wasn’t a bad actor.

And really, Adam, how comfortable are you with companies being able to control the off-duty behavior of people at two professional removes? Does that strike you as in any way congruent with, well, freedom?

Adam Ragusea says:

Lex, I think you’re assuming a scenario that may not have actually happened. How do you know that NPR asked WDAV to dissmiss Simeone?

Put yourself in NPR’s shoes for a moment. Say you’re not comfortable co-branding a show that’s hosted by a political activist. That means, from your perspective, either WDAV needs to let Simeone go, or you need to let WDAV go. So what’s the first step? You call WDAV, and you ask them what they intend to do. They think about it for a day, they come back to you and say they’re keeping Simeone. At that point, you cut the chord with WDAV.

Once again, I think NPR made the wrong decision, but I’m totally comfortable with it. I myself am a reporter at a public radio station. I’m not allowed to get involved in any kind of political advocacy or voice controversial opinions in any public forum (though I’ve assumed the right to comment on my own profession/industry, and my employer hasn’t objected to that yet). I think it’s an old-fashioned model of journalistic ethics that needs some updating, but it’s essentially sound and has served us well for many decades.

Because I spoke on the telephone directly with WDAV’s general manager.

And what about the NPR employees who regularly shill for FOX news? How about Mara Liasson? I don’t understand how it’s OK for her go on FOX news, the Republican propaganda outlet, and not OK for Lisa Simeone to have an opinion totally outside of any connection with NPR, and still get fired? This is the reason I stopped contributing to NPR (No Problems for Republicans) years ago.

“NPR has never been comfortable with black voices and brown voices and white voices that challenged conventional liberal thinking….And that problem in Congress with NPR’s funding? It’s not new. Conservatives can always win cheap points by threatening NPR — until they find out that their constituents love the programs.” Joel Dreyfuss is The Root’s managing editor and a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists

Lex mentions “the freedom of individual Americans to express themselves without being suppressed by corporations.” Strawman. Simeone’s freedom of expression has not been suppressed.

She lost of one of her freelance jobs because she dared express her opinion. You’d better pray a strawman that light doesn’t fall on your head.

She didn’t lose her position steering documentaries at Soundprint because she expressed an opinion.

Overreach or Partisan Strategy?: NPR Host Steps Down After Husband Joins Obama Campaign: “All that was needed here was an approach similar to Nina Easton’s on Fox News. Whenever the topic on Brett Baier’s all-star panel or Fox News Sunday turns to Mitt Romney, Easton clearly states that her husband is an adviser for the Romney campaign.”

I am an NPR listener, and not a journalist nor a lawyer.

I think it is fair to frame this as a free speech issue in the sense of America being the country where I’ll defend to the death your right to speak, but I think it’s not accurate to frame this as a First Amendment issue.

That said, though I identify as a liberal, I agree with Hochburg. As a listener, I just hear “NPR”.

Given all the other bullshit I hear from “journalists” about how they can be objective and unbiased in their reporting, given how proudly they often strut how they don’t vote so they won’t be biased, I think Simeone is wrong to be participating in OWS.

However, I think it’s bullshit that journalists can be unbiased and objective, and when journalists stop pretending they can be, then I’ll be perfectly fine with Simeone participating in free speech events.