Simeone’s activism prompts inquiry into ethical standards for pubradio freelancers

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Public radio is once again struggling to define the line between on-air talent who report as ethically bound journalists and those personalities who are permitted to express opinions.

Freelance radio broadcaster Lisa Simeone, a veteran host of public radio documentary and music programs, was fired late Oct. 19 from Soundprint, the independently produced long-form doc series, for violating NPR’s ethics code. Her role as spokesperson for “October 2011,” an anti-war group aligned with the Occupy Wall Street movement that has staged protests in Washington, D.C., put her longtime affiliation with public radio in jeopardy.

The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call first questioned whether Simeone’s activism violated journalistic ethics in an Oct. 18 story that quoted a comment by Jim Asendio, news director for Washington’s WAMU: “A journalist is always a journalist.” He also cited NPR’s ethics code, which WAMU adheres to.

The station broadcasts Soundprint on weekends, but has no role in its production, although it used to lease office space to producers, according to Asendio and Mark McDonald, p.d.

Roll Call‘s story went viral after it was picked up by The Daily Caller, the conservative news site run by Tucker Carlson.

Hubbub in the blogosphere coincided almost exactly with the one-year anniversary of the dismissal of Juan Williams, who lost his contract as an NPR news analyst over remarks he made on Fox News.

Simeone’s other public radio gig as host of NPR World of Opera also came under scrutiny, but NPR and producing station WDAV in Davidson, N.C., said they faced a different situation. In a statement posted on NPR corporate communication’s blog this morning, NPR deferred to WDAV’s managers to make decisions about Simeone.

“WDAV is standing by me,” Simeone said.

The classical music station, owned by Davidson College outside of Charlotte, N.C., issued a statement differentiating NPR’s journalistic mission from its own role as a provider of arts and cultural programming for national and international audiences. “Based on the differing missions of these two organizations, we are working together to find a solution to the issues surrounding NPR World of Opera.”

WDAV took over production of the opera series in 2010, and NPR scaled its role back to syndication of the performance broadcasts. In the transition, WDAV retained and continues to work with Simeone and producer Bruce Scott.They are no longer NPR employees.

Soundprint acted quickly to sever ties with Simeone, citing NPR’s ethics code during a contentious phone call late on Oct. 19, according to Simeone. She recalled challenging producer Moira Rankin, who directs the Soundprint Media Center independently from NPR, and questioned why she was being held to NPR’s standards.

Since she’s not directly employed by NPR and works on music programming, NPR’s journalism ethics should not apply to her, Simeone told Current.

She also sees inconsistencies in enforcement of NPR’s standards. Full-time employees of NPR have side gigs as Fox News pundits, opinion-page writers and paid public speakers, she said, mentioning NPR correspondent Mara Liasson, host Scott Simon, and analyst Cokie Roberts. “Someone who reports the news can accept a $25,000 speaking fee, and that’s not a conflict of interest?” she said. “Then why is what I’m doing not okay?”

A statement issued by Soundprint Media Center doesn’t cite NPR’s ethics code in explaining Simeone’s dismissal. “Soundprint is a journalistic program and . . . adheres to the highest standards of journalism,” it said. Simeone’s role in the leadership of “October 2011” protests and Occupy DC “conflicts with her role as the host of a documentary series.”

Simeone had contributed to the broadcast for 15 years.

Editor’s note: This post has been revised to include an updated statement from Soundprint.

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