Freelancer heard on NPR stations fired for protest

October 23, 2011 - 12:56 PM
Capital Protest Radio Host

This undated handout photo provided by WDAV shows Lisa Simeone. Simeone, a freelance radio host was fired from a documentary program that airs on NPR affiliates after she became a spokeswoman for a Washington protest because her producers believed she violated the public radio network's code of ethics, the host said Thursday. (AP Photo, WDAV, Sam Kittner)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A freelance radio host was fired from a documentary program that airs on NPR affiliates because she helped organize a Washington protest, the host said Thursday, while the producers of another show defended her work and said she hasn't violated their policies.

Lisa Simeone said she was fired Wednesday evening from "Soundprint," a documentary show that isn't produced by NPR but airs on about 35 affiliate stations across the country. The head of Soundprint Media Center Inc. cited NPR's code of ethics before she was fired.

"In my mind, it's fine if you want to be a leader of an organized protest movement, but you can't also be in a journalistic role," Moira Rankin, president of Soundprint, told The Associated Press a day after she fired Simeone. "You can't be the host of a journalism program and plead that you are different than the reporter who is going to come on a minute after you introduce the program."

Rankin said she was alerted to Simeone serving as a protest spokeswoman by a radio programming director who airs the show. She said her Laurel, Md.-based production company had adopted NPR's code of ethics as its own in part because listeners don't know the difference between NPR headquarters and independent producers across the country.

NPR also questioned Simeone's involvement in the protest near the White House, which began as an anti-war protest but also adopted what participants call an anti-corporate greed message. But NPR said Simeone doesn't work for the radio network, and it hadn't pressured Soundprint to fire her.

Simeone also hosts "World of Opera," a show produced by North Carolina-based music and arts station WDAV. That program is distributed by NPR. She said that station is supporting her.

"I don't cover news. In none of the shows that I do, do I cover the news," she told the AP. "What is NPR afraid I'll do? Insert a seditious comment into a synopsis of 'Madame Butterfly?'"

Simeone, who lives in Baltimore, said she has been serving with about 50 people on a steering committee for an occupation protest on Pennsylvania Avenue that's known as the October 2011 Movement. She said it is not connected to the Occupy Wall Street movement, but that they share similar philosophies.

WDAV, a classical music station based in Davidson, N.C., defended Simeone's work Thursday and said she remains the host of "World of Opera." The NPR affiliate said it was working to find a solution for the show with NPR.

"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," WDAV spokeswoman Lisa Gray said in an emailed statement.

On Thursday, NPR spokeswoman Anna Christopher said the network's code of ethics applies to cultural programs it distributes, such as "World of Opera," as well as news shows that the network produces, acquires or distributes.

"We are not her employer, but she is a host for a show that we distribute," Christopher said. "She's a public person who represents NPR and public radio."

Though "Soundprint" airs on NPR stations, it's not distributed by the network itself.

NPR's ethics code states that "NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies" involving issues NPR covers. The code notes that some provisions may not apply to outside contributors. It uses a freelancer who primarily contributes arts coverage as an example.

Simeone said she is not an "NPR journalist." For the "Soundprint" show, her role involved writing introductions to the show's featured documentaries, and she was expected to give her point of view. In the past when she worked for NPR, she said she also wrote op-eds for The Baltimore Sun with no problem.

"I have never brought any of my political activities into my work for 'Soundprint,' 'NPR World of Opera,' or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra series," she said, adding that she doesn't cover politics or the news.

The firing came as many NPR stations are in a fall pledge drive to raise money from their listeners. Rankin said that had no bearing on her decision to fire Simeone after 15 years on the show.

Nikki Usher, an assistant professor at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs who has studied NPR, said any news organization would have done the same thing and noted that NPR stations' public funding add to the sensitivity of the situation.

"NPR is under a lot of pressure, especially because of its funding situation," Usher said. "All press organizations should face this level of scrutiny. ... Unfortunately, the situation surrounding public broadcast funding means NPR must hold itself to additional scrutiny."

Lines have been blurred, though, in an age where opinion journalism is pervasive. On Saturday, the Rev. Al Sharpton who hosts an MSNBC show, led a jobs protest in Washington.

In the past year, NPR has come under scrutiny for its firing of news analyst Juan Williams after he said on Fox News that he was uncomfortable being on a plane with someone wearing clothing that identifies them as Muslim. At the time, NPR said Williams's comments violated its code of ethics by participating in media "that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis."

The network has been sensitive to accusations that it carries a liberal bias. An NPR chief executive was forced to resign after a conservative activist posted a video online of NPR's chief fundraiser complaining about the tea party's influence on the Republican Party.

Earlier this month, NPR announced Gary Knell, the longtime president and CEO of "Sesame Street" producer Sesame Workshop, would become its next chief executive on Dec. 1. Knell told the AP he wanted to "depoliticize" NPR by emphasizing its commitment to journalism.

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Associated Press writer Karen Mahabir contributed to this report.

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Brett Zongker can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/DCArtBeat