Earlier this week, Lisa Simeone came under scrutiny as an organizer of the Occupy D.C. movement. Her program, produced by WDAV in North Carolina, is distributed by NPR to more than 30 radio stations across the country. Simeone was also host of the documentary program, Soundprint, which is also not part of the VPR lineup. VPR Classical does broadcast the Chicago Symphony on Thursday evenings, which is hosted by Simeone.
There have been inaccuracies in the reporting of this story. First, Simeone continues in her position as host of World of Opera, a decision made solely by WDAV. Also, NPR had no role in the decision made by the managers of Soundprint to end its relationship with Simeone as the program's host, nor did NPR have contact with the management of the program prior to their decision.
NPR maintains a strict code of ethics to maintain its integrity as a news organization. Many stations and independent producers, including VPR and the producers of Soundprint, have adopted NPR's code of ethics or adopted their own to preserve neutrality and trust in the news. To provide transparency, the codes are public and widely distributed.
The NPR code has a restriction on participating in political activities because it’s a news network and needs to remain neutral. The debate is whether the same ethics should apply to Simeone, who is a freelance host. Do all distributed programs, regardless of their content, reflect on a network’s identity? If a group of hosts were involved in political activities of one kind or another, would listeners begin to associate those politics with the network?
Update: On Friday, we learned that NPR has decided to cease distribution of World of Opera. However, the program's distribution will be handled by WDAV, the station that produces the show. On their blog, WDAV assures that listeners to the over 60 stations that broadcast World of Opera, will not experience any interruption of the program. Here are the details from the story on NPR's news blog, The Two-Way:
Dana Davis Rehm, senior vice president for communications for NPR, said the decision to change the arrangement came "from different views about the role of a program host." She said NPR believes hosts "represent NPR regardless of the type of program they host." As such, they are barred from any political activity.
Although Lisa Simeone is not an NPR employee, NPR has taken the position that hosts of any programs they produce or distribute are highly visible public figures that by default, serve as representatives of NPR. As such, these hosts cannot serve as both the voice of that program and the voice of an activist movement without jeopardizing the trust listeners put in NPR to serve as an impartial provider of news and information.
It’s an important and complicated discussion, and we welcome your thoughts and comments. To make comments directly to NPR, please call 202-513-3232, or send an email by going to NPR.org.