News leaders draw hard line on employees’ public comments

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Lisa Simeone

Update, Nov. 10: The NPR Board postponed considering the ethics policy scheduled for its Nov. 10-11 meeting. Spokesperson Dana Rehm said work was not complete on two of the three ethics documents. “Management and the board determined that the best course of action would be to release the guiding principles of NPR’s journalism, the handbook and the employee code of conduct at the same time so we’re in a position to confidently answer everyone’s questions about which principles apply to whom,” Rehm said.

For a year NPR has been sharpening its journalistic standards to help shield its newsroom from intense scrutiny by partisan critics.

Lisa Simeone

Lisa Simeone, freelance host of “NPR World of Opera” and “Soundprint”, lost her former gig after NPR discovered she was a public spokesperson for Occupy Wall Street-affiliated protest group October 2011.

Revision of the ethical code, begun after the hasty dismissal of Juan Williams backfired last October, will be completed this month for consideration by the NPR Board. It will define behavior expected of employees outside the news division as well as inside, according to Dana Davis Rehm, senior v.p. for communications.

The network’s policy seems likely to move toward firmer or at least more consistent limits on NPR journalists’ and employees’ public expression of opinion.

Some public radio executives outside of NPR’s newsroom have also shown heightened vigilance regarding ethical conflicts in recent weeks. Two public radio freelancers, Lisa Simeone and Caitlin Curran, lost their jobs in October because they participated in anti-Wall Street protests.

On Oct. 21, NPR maintained a hard-line policy toward apparent conflicts of interest by distancing itself from Simeone, a freelance host of the weekly performance show NPR World of Opera and the documentary program Soundprint, not affiliated with NPR. Simeone lost one of the jobs but not the other.

After the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported Oct. 18 that Simeone was a public spokesperson for October 2011, a group aligned with Occupy Wall Street, The Daily Caller, a conservative news website, made that news. In an Oct. 19 story that went viral, the Caller reported that Simeone “has appeared in several news stories in recent weeks as a spokeswoman for the left-wing anti-capitalists protests.”

Simeone also appeared in a video talking passionately about the group’s agenda, but she didn’t describe her professional affiliation with public radio. When questioned by reporters, Simeone implied that as a freelancer she wasn’t bound by NPR’s rules.

But NPR decided that Simeone must follow its rules if the program carries the network’s name, and it cut ties with NPR World of Opera. In early 2010, it had transferred production of the performance show to classical station WDAV-FM near Charlotte, N.C., while retaining its role as distributor to pubradio stations.

Two days after the Caller’s story went viral, NPR and WDAV announced that, as of Nov. 11, NPR would cut all remaining ties to the program by ending its distribution role. NPR’s name had been dropped from the show title as the controversy over Simeone gained steam.

Reactions to NPR’s stance were divided among political activists on both sides, naturally, and among free-speech advocates, public radio professionals and even Simeone’s employers in public radio.

WDAV asserted that its standards for music and cultural programming differ from those required for NPR News, and it opted to keep Simeone as World of Opera host.

However, Simeone’s other regular employer, Soundprint Media Center, noted that “Soundprint is a journalistic program” and drew a sharp line similar to NPR’s, abruptly ending her hosting gig Oct. 19. Simeone had contributed to the program in various capacities for 15 years.

“In my mind there’s no doubt: You can’t be an organizer and spokesperson for a protest group and expect to be taken seriously as a journalist,” said Moira Rankin, executive producer. The show is produced and now distributed for public radio broadcasts by Soundprint Media Center, an independent nonprofit, but is carried on NPR’s satellite radio channel.

Rights and wrongs

Another clash between journalistic standards and free speech had occurred on Oct. 15 behind the scenes at The Takeaway, produced at New York’s WNYC and co-produced by Public Radio International. The show fired Curran, a freelance web producer for the morning drive-time show, after she participated in Occupy Wall Street protests.

Curran was photographed holding a sign that declared, in part, “It’s wrong to create a mortgage-backed security full of loans you know are going to fail…” The photo, posted to Twitter and then picked up in blog coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protest, prompted her firing. She turned the experience into a first-person story that Gawker published Oct. 28.

Caitlin Curran

Like Simeone, Curran lost a freelance pubradio job when she went public with personal views while her employer sought to avoid perception as a biased news source. (Image from Gawker.)

Linking her firing to Simeone’s ordeal, Curran didn’t agree that she should lose her job because of political activity outside of work hours: “[I]f I’m associated with a party-less movement (and barely associated, since that was only the second time I’ve attended an Occupy Wall Street event), and have never exercised bias in editing The Takeaway’s website, what’s the harm?”

In a statement, WNYC said its journalistic guidelines require that editorial employees be “free of any conflict” that might compromise its programming. “The Takeaway has covered the Occupy Wall Street story since its beginning through active reporting on the protests and the positive and negative responses to those events. When Ms. Curran made the decision to participate in the protest and make herself part of the story, she violated our editorial standards.”

As the Occupy Wall Street movement confounded mainstream news organizations with a populist message that’s loosely defined and unconnected to either political party, it also revealed how easily those with less visible roles in public radio can be sucked into the culture war along with NPR.

Ben Roe, a classical music veteran who has produced for NPR, managed WDAV and now oversees classical services for Boston’s WGBH, said the episode reflects the “toxic political atmosphere in Washington” more than a policy change in NPR’s management of cultural programs. Employees of NPR have always known that their political activities are subject to scrutiny, Roe said, but a different dynamic comes into play with on-air personalities who work outside the field.

“A lot of creative people have strong opinions,” Roe said.

Simeone told Current she’s never been shy about sharing her political views with professional colleagues. As a freelancer for Soundprint and World of Opera, she thought it was ridiculous to expect that she would be held to NPR’s ethics code. She quipped to NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, “What is NPR afraid I’ll do — insert a seditious comment into a synopsis of Madame Butterfly?”

NPR wasn’t concerned about the editorial content of World of Opera, according to Rehm, but with upholding its standards for show hosts. “We feel the role of a public radio host has some proper limitations on it to preserve the perception of being free of conflict of interest,” Rehm said. “Lisa either failed to appreciate that or doesn’t accept the role of a public voice of a program host.”

Producing station WDAV took a different stance. “We don’t question NPR’s decision to react to the situation as they did for their news mission,” said Lisa Gray, spokesperson. As a producer of arts and cultural programs, WDAV has a different mission. Issues of political involvement “don’t color our decision-making process.”

How people perceive

NPR’s new ethical guidelines — expected to combine a broad statement of journalistic principles with practical guidelines for following them and an employee code of conduct — “will speak to not just questions of content but also how people comport themselves outside of their work on a show or a website,” Rehm said.

“It’s not just about the content. It’s also about how people perceive our organization and the level of trust they have in the organization. It has to touch on content and the activities that people undertake outside of their work.”

Rehm indicated that the code will address longstanding questions about star NPR journalists who have been given leeway to punditize or analyze in media outside of public radio.

During her trial in the blogosphere, Simeone pointed to exceptions made for NPR’s Mara Liaisson, Scott Simon and Cokie Roberts to express opinions on news of the day.

Early in the review process, NPR’s ethics task force recommended that the new policy require that NPR’s journalists wind down any contractual relationships with other media outlets, but it’s unclear how the recommendation will be implemented.

The guidelines were developed by an internal task force that convened 17 sessions to discuss the principles over the past year, said interim news chief Margaret Low Smith in a presentation to the NPR Board in September. After several drafts, the task force gave the board a statement of guiding principles expressing NPR’s commitment to values such as accuracy, impartiality and independence in its reporting.

At the time, the handbook and code of conduct were still under wraps. After the board approves the new standards — expected this week — the network will plan a series of training workshops for staff and member stations.

“Understandably, people who are not involved in the production of news and aren’t in public roles wonder what aspects of this apply to them,” Rehm said, “and that will be sorted out in a clear way.”

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