In public radio ethics, it's who you are that counts

NPR and its affiliates fire freelancers and dump a music show because of Occupy Wall Street connections. But it treated star host Scott Simon very differently when he took a controversial stand out here.

Crosscut archive image.

Caitlin Curran with the sign that launched a thousand tweats and cost her her public radio gig.

NPR and its affiliates fire freelancers and dump a music show because of Occupy Wall Street connections. But it treated star host Scott Simon very differently when he took a controversial stand out here.

It was the Ides of March, 2003, four days before U.S. bombers began pounding Baghdad, launching the trillion-dollar invasion and occupation that would topple Saddam Hussein and make “suicide bomber” and “improvised explosive device” household words. Scott Simon, the veteran host of NPR’s Saturday morning Weekend Edition, was delivering the keynote address at the King County Library System’s annual “Literary Lions” gala. The librarians had told Simon he could say what he wanted, but “we expected him to talk about the joy of reading,” says Jeannie Thorsen, the King County Library Foundation’s director — especially since his stepfather had chaired Chicago’s library board.

Jaws dropped when Simon, recalling the horrors he’d reported on in Bosnia, delivered a passionate speech supporting the imminent attack on Iraq as a moral necessity. Perhaps half the audience applauded afterward; the rest glowered or stared dumbstruck. “We were all astonished,” says Wayne Roth, the general manager of KUOW-FM, one of the local public-radio figures in attendance. “We all thought it was really inappropriate.” KUOW reporter/host Marcie Sillman, who’d introduced Simon, was particularly shocked.

In fact, this wasn’t the first time Simon’s martial sentiments had led him to stray beyond NPR’s much-bruited code of neutrality and objectivity, which its staffers are supposed to observe in outside appearances as well as on air. The public-broadcasting trade journal The Current reported that soon after 9-11 he urged attacking Afghanistan in a speech to the United Church of Christ’s convention and published a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Even Pacifists Must Support This War.”

On a similar note, in an appearance on Fox News Sunday, NPR political reporter Mara Liasson excoriated two congressmen who’d made a controversial visit to Iraq just as the Bush administration was preparing to attack. (One of them, Seattle's "Baghdad Jim" McDermott, also happened to be in the library audience when Simon spoke.) “These guys are a disgrace,” Liasson exclaimed; they “ought to resign.” Oh, those clever NPR lefties, lulling us with phony rightwing bluster!

Liasson afterward repented: “I have no excuse for what I said,” she told The Current. But such slips may be inevitable when highminded outlets like NPR encourage their reporters to garner publicity in hot-talk environments like Fox. Simon did not recant. He told The Current he'd merely “laid out several lines of thinking” on the prospective war and hadn't taken sides. That’s not what Roth, Sillman, or I heard at the time or recall now. The Current reported Simon thought “some may have disagreed with his comments not because he crossed ethical lines but because they disliked what he had to say.” He didn't return a call requesting comment for this article.

These incidents came to mind recently, after two less exalted public radio figures got slammed for taking smaller steps over those lines. On Oct. 19 the Soundprint Media Center, whose documentary program Soundprint airs on many NPR stations, fired its longtime host Lisa Simeone because she’d acted as a spokesperson for Occupy DC. "Soundprint adheres to the highest standards of journalism which include maintaining appropriate distance from marches, demonstrations and other political activity," the group  announced. "These are standards held by many other journalism organizations, including National Public Radio."

Simeone used to host NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered but according to Salon hadn’t worked directly for the network since 2002, and NPR managers were quick to distance themselves from her firing. But then they collapsed that distance (and came off as bullies) by pressuring her other employer, North Carolina affiliate WDAV, where Simeone hosts another show, The World of Opera, which NPR distributes. How Simeone’s Occupy activity would compromise her credibility as an opera host isn’t clear; perhaps NPR feared she would rouse revolutionary spirits with airings of Tosca and Fidelio. WDAV stood by her; NPR responded by cancelling its distribution of World of Opera.

The next week an Occupy Wall Street rally cost another public radio freelancer her halftime gig. Caitlin Curran was a producer for The Takeaway, a daily news show produced by NPR’s affiliate WNYC and rival Public Radio International and aired locally on KUOW2. As Curry tells it on Gawker, she was inspired by an essay Conor Friedersdorf posted on, arguing that if the Occupy movement wants to have any effect, it should attack not just the “symbolic Wall Street” of wealth and inequity but the “actual Wall Street” of sleazy, destructive buccaneer finance. He suggested a wordier but more pertinent slogan: “It's wrong to create a mortgage-backed security filled with loans you know are going to fail so that you can sell it to a client who isn't aware that you sabotaged it by intentionally picking the misleadingly rated loans most likely to be defaulted upon.”

In a kind of metajournalistic experiment, Curran printed this out on a sign and then photographed her boyfriend carrying it in the rally, tweeting about the responses it drew. “Inevitably, Will developed sign-holding fatigue,” she recounts, “and I took over momentarily.” Someone snapped her picture and tweeted it, various sites picked it up, Reuters’ Felix Salmon and Friedersdorf himself wrote about it, and she became Occupy Wall Street’s poster child of the week. Curran thought the experience would make a cute Takeaway spot and sent WNYC a pitch. The general manager promptly fired her: “He was inconsolably angry, and said that I had violated every ethic of journalism…. Ironically, the following day Marketplace did pretty much the exact segment I thought would have been great on The Takeaway… in terms that were far from neutral.”

Consider the ways that Curran’s and Simeone’s transgressions, and their fates, differed from Simon’s and Liasson’s. Timing, of course: NPR had a similar ethics code back in 2001-03, but such incidents didn’t so readily go viral in those pre-Twitter, pre-YouTube days. And ideology: Lefties grumble endlessly about what they see as NPR’s timidity and drift to the right. But they don’t stalk the network, seeking every hint of ideological bias and allegiance and even staging covert provocations to elicit them as its critics on the right do, all the while trying to block its relatively small share of federal funding.

NPR stirred up the latter last year with its hasty, ham-handed sacking of “news analyst” Juan Williams over something he said not on its air but at his other gig as a Fox News commentator; the network’s president subsequently resigned. A conservative dirty trickster subsequently dispatched bogus Muslim Brotherhood “donors” to con top NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller into blabbing about Republican yahoos on a secret tape; NPR’s administration declared itself “appalled,” even though Schiller had nothing to do with its editorial content, and he resigned. The saga continued with Simeone; the conservative Daily Caller and Fox News trumpeted her lapse, mislabeling her an “NPR host.”

If public radio managers are running scared, you have to spare a little sympathy. It’s not easy standing out as a paragon of virtue, resented for your loftiness and hounded by the unprincipled, who rush to castigate you when you fall short of your principles. Still, you’d think they might learn to think twice before shooting. Each precipitate firing seems more panicked than the last, and the network’s ethical compass starts to swing like a pendulum.

In Simon’s and Liasson’s cases there were no conservative nemeses to appease; they’re not the ones to take offense at her patriotic outburst or his speech and op-ed. But the impunity with which Simon spoke may have more to do with who he is than what views he espoused. Simon is no marginal freelancer; he’s one of the network’s most familiar personalities and distinctive voices. Each Saturday, unlike other hosts, he delivers an eloquent homily — sometimes a reflective essay, sometimes a pointed commentary. “Scott has this special dispensation,” says KUOW’s Roth. “He’s the only host who editorializes.”

Given that, Simon’s pro-war peroration seems less remarkable than the niche he’s carved out from NPR’s adamantine ethical restrictions. But his radio colleagues, especially young up-and-comers, should be advised: Don’t try this on air. Or on your own time.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.