By Marisa McKay
***The Guardian recently published a VERY similar editorial on October 31, 2011. Looks like Marisa’s on to something that others also believe!***
FAIR.org, the website for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, has created an on-line petition against NPR’s move to cancel distribution of an opera program, simply because the host of the program participated in the Occupy Wall Street movement currently sweeping across the United States. The confusing part of this story? The host of this cultural radio show was not an employee of NPR.
Lisa Simeone is a freelance radio host of a documentary series on the radio channel “Soundprint.” The program cited NPR’s ethics guidelines in its press release on their website, stating, “Soundprint adheres to the highest standards of journalism which include maintaining appropriate distance from marches, demonstrations, and other political activity. These are standards held by many other journalism organizations, including National Public Radio” (Soundprint.org). NPR is maintaining that they had nothing to do with the firing. When North Carolina station, WDAV, which produces “World of Opera,” said that they were going to keep Simeone as the host and not fire her, NPR announced it would cease distribution of the program.
An NPR spokesperson has said that since NPR is an organization dedicated to maintaining a reputation for unbiased work, this sort of political activism displayed by anyone associated with their organization is something they want to avoid. The NPR ethics code, “forbids journalists from participating ‘in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers’”(FAIR.org). But there is an exception that apparently wasn’t made for Lisa Simeone; the NPR ethics code also states that as “a freelancer who primarily does arts coverage,” Simeone could have kept her job. Which begs the question, why wasn’t it? Could it be that since some Republican politicians have expressed interest in the cutting of funding for public broadcasting, NPR and its president, Gary Knell, thought it prudent to disassociate themselves from someone participating in a liberal movement? Whether or not this is the case, it is a very interesting question to consider.
While it is understandable for NPR to want to maintain distance between its organization and politics, it concerns me that ethics codes like NPR’s exist. And not only do they exist, but a myriad of news organizations have similar ethics codes. The New York Times and The Washington Post are two highly recognizable news organizations who have extensive ethics handbooks that detail exactly what is acceptable from their journalists and what is not. I understand that these organizations do not want their reporters to make speaking engagements on their own without consulting their editors, and that it doesn’t look good for them if their employees do not disclose relationships with government officials and another news source breaks that story. But what I find disconcerting is that lesser offenses are punishable by termination of employment. A journalist could be fired for having political opinions in general; I’ve heard from some journalists and reporters that they don’t even vote when working because of the possible perceived conflict of interest. From what we’ve seen of various past scandals in American journalism, when the public perceives a conflict of interest, whether there really is one or not, it means bad news, literally, for that news organization.
My question is, how is this right? How is it that journalists, whose primary responsibility is to inform the masses and even to educate them in general about certain issues, are not allowed to have their own opinions? If they don’t educate themselves, how are they supposed to do their jobs adequately?
Reporters are inquisitive and thoughtful people. They ask and probe to get answers and to simply understand situations. Generally, people who become reporters are like this outside of their professional life as well and question their surroundings out of habit. I don’t think that reporters and journalists should have to turn this trait off in their private lives simply because they appear on television. I don’t agree with the practice of not participating in public events for the fear of losing a job, especially if the cause is important to that reporter. I admit there are exceptions to this way of thinking because, had Lisa Simeone been a political reporter, I would have agreed with the decision to fire her and drop her programming. If this were the case, the conflict of interest would have been blatant and could have affected the way she did her job. However, Lisa Simeone was the host of an opera radio show and the host of a documentary series, a freelancer whom I would think NPR would put in the category of doing “arts coverage.” It is my belief that she did not deserve to be fired, and that NPR and Soundprint should rethink how their ethics codes are applied in these types of situations.