A critic sees “pro-government” bias in NPR’s reporting, not a leftward lean

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Last week we posted a conversation with Mark Nootbaar, a public radio journalist who argues that public media leans left and could use more conservative voices for balance. Now, a pubmedia host and journalist with an opposing point of view. Lisa Simeone hosts public radio’s World of Opera, worked for stations in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and also hosted NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered for a time. In an appearance on Current’s podcast The Pub, Simeone took NPR to task for what she perceives as its pro-government stance. This is an edited transcript.

Lisa Simeone, WDAVLisa Simeone: If you think left-leaning — or liberal, which is the term used most often — if that means that you’re in favor of gay marriage and you think pot should be legalized and you think transgender people are cool, then, yeah, most people in public radio are liberal. But I mean something very different by it, and, in my experience, most people in public radio are not liberal.

Adam Ragusea, Current: Tell me about that.

Simeone: I think that to be liberal, in my view of the word, means that you are for social justice, you think that justice is something worth striving for in the world. And you think that freedom — meaning people can speak freely, can act freely, can do whatever they want to long as they don’t step on somebody else’s toes — I think that’s what being liberal means in the broadest sense.

I think that people who work in public radio — or whatever kind of radio, or whatever kind of TV, or whatever kind of media, you name it — who have to go to work every day and have to support their families, that’s the most important thing, and I understand that. And they have to toe the company line, whatever that line may be wherever they work. So to say that they’re liberal in that kind of general foggy sense, yeah, they’re liberal — but when it comes to what they put on the air, far from it.

Current: Is there a specific instance from your time at NPR that illustrates what you’re talking about?

Simeone: I think that there are reports that sound like little more than Pentagon press releases. They don’t sound analytical. They don’t sound like anything but stenography. I find that very right-wing or very centrist — whatever terminology doesn’t matter to me — it’s very pro-government. I think that the use of the odious, insupportable euphemism “enhanced interrogation and harsh interrogation” for the word “torture” — which is what it is; it is torture — people at NPR have and continue to use that term, frequently. I find that completely disgusting and obnoxious and as Orwellian as it gets. And if that’s not a symbol of where NPR’s sensibilities are, I don’t know what is.

Current: So it’s a certain default deference to power or to institutions or takes in a worldview that assumes that the government is fundamentally a benevolent actor and can be trusted, unless you have reason not to trust it? Is that what you’re describing?

Simeone: Yes, that was very well put.

Current: Thank you. How did you fit into the culture there?

Simeone: First of all, I started doing music; I started doing Performance Today as a host. This stuff never came up, but obviously we talked about politics around the lunchroom, around the table or in our cubicles, but nothing came up. When I started hosting Weekend All Things Considered … I wasn’t there very long; I was there 18 months full-time. And I can tell you that if I had stayed longer, the words “enhanced handed interrogation” or “harsh interrogation” would never have passed my lips, and we probably would have gotten into a fight about it, my bosses and I — I’m guessing; I don’t know — and either I would have quit, or they would have fired me. There’s certain things that I would not have done or tolerated.

Current: Did anyone ever give you static, said, “Hey, Lisa, you know you’ve got to keep your political feelings out of this?”

Simeone: Never, because it never came up, and you can feel free to go interview all the people. Certainly, we would have discussions at staff meetings … I do remember this one incident at a staff meeting — again, not on the air — where I wanted to interview — this is pre–Abu Ghraib, keep in mind — this guy who had written this book on torture. And I was told, “What’s the point of that?” And I said, “Well, because torture has been around since mankind has walked the face of the earth, and why isn’t it worth talking about?” One of the producers said to me, “Oh, we’re called ‘The Torture Show,’ ha ha ha,” like this was some term of derision. I said, “Why?” They said, “Oh, we did a report on somebody else who’d written about a book about torture some years before I came aboard.” And I said, “Well, so what? What does that have to do with anything? Why can’t we interview this guy?” “No no no.” There was just no interest in it whatsoever. And I thought, “Hmmm, this gives me some insight into how people think here. This extremely important topic is not worth discussing because — ha ha ha — the rest of NPR calls us ‘The Torture Show,’ and we can’t have that. That’s not cool, apparently.”

Current: Well, certainly there’s got to be sensitivity to the conservative critique of public media at a place like NPR. Do you think that you saw people maybe overcompensating a little bit?

Simeone: Completely, completely. I think that NPR, as an institution, not only is it centrist tending towards right — meaning it’s very corporate, it’s very pro-government, very pro-business. I don’t know that, but I think NPR bends over backwards to the point of making its spine break to try to tell the world, “Look at us: We’re not liberal! Don’t taint us with that dirty L-word!”

The thing is, Adam, NPR could turn into Fox News overnight, and people would still claim that it’s liberal, because 40 years ago when it was founded, yeah, it was, but it hasn’t been that way for 30 or 35 years. So it doesn’t matter what NPR does. People are still going to say it’s liberal. Why do they keep kowtowing in this debased way?

Either they’re a legitimate news network, or they want to suck up to people in power because they’re scared to death that people in power might bring the hammer down on them — which isn’t going to happen, because all these corporations are funding them anyway. So it’s not like if the U.S. government and CPB get pissed off at NPR, suddenly the network’s going to go away; that’s not going to happen.

Current: But if you take tax dollars from all Americans, is there not an obligation to more fully represent the full spectrum of viewpoints?

Simeone: Yes, there is, and I’m saying that’s what NPR’s not doing, because I think NPR is representing the centrist right wing more than it’s representing anything else.

Current: Interesting. So you’d like to hear from both extremes of the spectrum more?

Simeone: I’d like to hear somebody challenge [CIA lawyer] John Rizzo when he comes on the air and says that torture isn’t torture. I’d like to hear somebody challenge a Pentagon spokesman when he comes on the air and says our only choice is to bomb Syria, and the only way to get rid of ISIS is to blow the crap out of people. I guess I can’t use that language.

Current: It’s a podcast; you can totally say that shit.

Simeone: I mean, that’s the kind of thing I want to hear. I’m going to bring this up again, because to me this is why people think that NPR is liberal, and to me it’s laughable. If you have an interview on with an artist, let’s say — and obviously the arts are important; I think arts are a human right — but you have an artist on, and the artist is a transgendered, rapping, hip-hop dancer. That that means they’re liberal. That’s just ridiculous. It’s laughable.

Simeone: Lisa, you’re known not only for your time at NPR but for a little episode that was kind of a coda to your time at NPR, when you were hosting World of Opera, which was a music show that was distributed but not produced by NPR, and then what happened?

Lisa SimeoneSimeone: I was involved in the Occupy movement, and in [the protest group] October 2011, at a time when I had long since ceased being employed by NPR. I was not an NPR employee, I was not an NPR contractor, I was not an NPR freelancer, I was not getting a dime from NPR. I was hosting a program called World of Opera that NPR used to produce but was not producing at that point. I was involved the Occupy movement, and NPR pretended it was firing me. It wasn’t firing me because I was not an employee, but it wanted the world to think it was firing me.

I think they used me to score cheap political points. I think that’s another example of their bending over backwards to appease people who will never be appeased by saying, “Look! We’re getting rid of scary, left-wing Operawoman!”, when in fact they weren’t getting rid of me because I didn’t work for them at that point.

Current: I don’t recall them saying that they were firing you; I recall them saying that they were going to reconsider their distribution relationship for your show, which I thought was their right, right?

Simeone: That’s right, and they tried to get [World of Opera producing station] WDAV to get rid of me. I was told this explicitly by the general manager and other people at WDAV. So NPR tried to interfere with my job, my contract with another entity.

Current: Do you know that they said, “Hey, we want you to get rid of her,” or did they say, “Listen, we’re not comfortable having a relationship or an association with Lisa Simeone in this context, and so we have two options: Either you can sever your relationship with her as host, or we can sever our distribution relationship with the show”?

Simeone: I don’t know, since I wasn’t in on that conversation, how it was worded. But it amounts to the same thing. If you’re trying to squeeze this little station — it’s an independent and a small station — and say, “You know, we really would like it if you would can her” — without using the word “can” — “We really would like it if you get rid of her because otherwise we have to drop the show.” That amounts to the same thing in my book.

Current: I’m on the record as saying that I thought what they did was completely insane, not necessarily because of the dynamic that you just described, but because you were not a news employee, you were not a news host. I see no reason why an opera host needs to be subject to standards of objectivity.

Simeone: You know this because you’ve been around public radio a long time. Scott Simon can write his rah-rah, let’s-go-to-war op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, and they have no problem with that. So, come on, this is hypocrisy writ large. It’s just out there for everybody to see.

Current: Yeah, but the fundamental question that I want to try to get at so that I can understand the culture inside the building — so that everyone can try to understand the culture inside the building — is that hypocrisy — and I agree with you that that’s hypocritical — that conservative bias among NPR management is manifesting. Or is it the fact that they have liberal bias, and they’re overcompensating?

Simeone: That’s a very good question. I think it is the former; I think it is the conservative bias of management. And that’s not to say that individually as people … they’re not quote unquote “liberal.” That is to say, that the management at NPR I see as fundamentally conservative, hidebound, mainstream with a capital M, afraid to rock the boat. That’s how I see it.

Current: What’s your life like these days, Lisa? Do you still get like random Internet hate from that whole blow-up?

Simeone: No! Are you kidding? I get random Internet love. My life is very nice.

Current: Conservative Internet trolls have long memories, I’m just saying…

Simeone: Oh, they don’t. I’m very active online, writing under my own name; I don’t write under a pseudonym, and I don’t get that, not when it comes to NPR stuff or my public radio persona. I don’t get any of that conservative troll stuff. I get it because of other things I write online, but not because of that.

Current: You write about the TSA a lot?

Simeone: I run a civil-liberties watchdog site called TSA News, but that’s all-volunteer. All of us are volunteers because we do it because it’s important; nobody’s paying us to do that. So my professional stuff is World of Opera, the CSO — which is just another interesting sidebar because no reporter bothered to call the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to ask them if they were going to get rid of me. They just missed that.

So I do the CSO, I do World of Opera, and I write for Style magazine here in Baltimore, which I’ve been doing for, oh Lord, at least 13 years. They also didn’t get scared about my big scary Occupy stuff because I still write for them. That’s why I get to write about architecture and design and fashion and the arts and interviews with interesting people and history and travel. So that’s what I do. But when I get off with you, I have a meeting with somebody and then I’m going to run errands, and I have a board meeting tonight, and then I’m going to have a nice dinner and have fun. So I have a lot of fun.

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  • Aaron Read

    There’s an interesting discussion to be had here about the fundamental role of journalism, too. There’s a school of thought…one very pervasive amongst NPR and many member stations…that journalism is there to present information and analysis, nothing more.

    While I’m just an engineer and not a newsperson (and thus my opinions are solely my own and NOT reflective of anywhere I’m professionally affiliated with), I personally believe that journalism’s role is to serve as a force for the betterment of its community. To not just report the facts but to represent their community’s interests in reporting those facts.

    “Community”, of course, is a very broad word here. It can indeed mean the physical locale, like the “city of license” that a station broadcasts to. But it can just as easily mean a smaller neighborhood inside that city, or a broader regions outside it. Or even certain demographics of listeners/consumers of the news product. Even NPR, big as it is, has a “community” that it serves, although admittedly defining that community gets tricky when the scope is that large.

    Worth keeping in mind is that many, many media critics and pundits are screaming to the heavens that the only way newspapers can survive is to stop being only the former and really embrace the latter. And there’s a plethora of “micronews” websites and, yes, some dead-tree papers who are finding success with the “community betterment” model. Many of them do indeed tend to focus on a narrower scope than we tend to think of as a “news outlet”, but the best are good at keeping their scope broad enough to avoid becoming a true advocacy site. Take the New Haven Independent or The Batavian for example.

    Of course, I can’t help but chuckle a little at the hand-wringing over this. People seem to forget that in the pre-radio/TV days, when cities would have dozens of newspapers with several daily editions, it was common…even expected…that a given paper would have a particular editorial slant. Certainly they would target a particular demographic/region with their content. Those days were far from perfect but it’s not like hyper-objective journalism was this grand gift from the heavens that’s the end-all, be-all of news reporting.

    Anyways, it annoys me that this “community betterment” concept has been tagged as a “liberal” concept, especially since quite a few rather conservative outlets nevertheless are serving their communities well with this ethos. I’d hazard an opinion that Simeone falls into the second camp (the “betterment of community”) and that’s why she was shoved out. Whereas NPR as a whole tends to be much more tolerant of journalists who hew strongly to the first camp even when they flirt with editorially slanted environments (Mara Liasson comes immediately to mind).

    • Nathan Moore

      The old journalism professor Philip Meyer called this “public journalism” rather than the “community betterment model,” but I think you and he capture a similar ethos in what you’re describing. See his 20-year old piece (but still very relevant!) at http://www.unc.edu/~pmeyer/ire95pj.htm.

      Personally, I’d respect any media outlet that seeks to rebuild a community’s sense of itself, foster deliberation, cover substance over tactics, deeply explain the systems that direct
      our lives, etc — as Meyer describes — even if that approach might sometimes be inconsistent with the NPRian notion of “objectivity.”

  • Aaron Read
  • I love how Current chose the most demented-looking screenshot it could find from the video I did for the October 2011 movement. (I was sick as sch1te with West Nile virus at the time, but that’s not the point.) The point is that a picture speaks a thousand words, and editorial decisions are made about photographs every bit as much as they are about words.

  • davidgilmore

    Courageous woman – Lisa. Her criticisms of NPR are accurate and valid. I know about these things as I produced a show that was funded by CPB years ago. There is pressure on these organizations to be “unbiased” but unbiased doesn’t mean not calling a spade a spade…like torture for example. And I’m sure there are many more issues that don’t get fair airtime bc they’re controversial or will raise critics’ eyebrows. Well, being a news organization should be free of concern for raising eyebrows at airing the ugly facts. Lisa gets a lot of credit for holding their feet to the fire. Unfortunately, you won’t hear her story on All Things Considered…which ought to be called Some Things Considered.

  • CB

    Good stuff.
    My issue with NPR, since it’s supposed to be more prone to democratic ruling (but isn’t), is that it garners the news the same way MSNBC and Fox do, i.e., hope someone in power wants to share some propaganda with you. The news is top down. Top being the state, or people in power. Down being the dissemination from the news network to the populace.

    What it should do is take cues from the tax base as to what we want and NEED to know, and investigate those issues and report back to us.