< (More) Controversy at NPR

Transcript

Friday, October 28, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media.

I’m Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD:

And I'm Bob Garfield.

LISA SIMEONE:

From National Public Radio, I'm Lisa Simeone, with NPR World of Opera.

BOB GARFIELD:

Recently yet another controversy flared at the intersection of NPR and politics. The D.C.-based newsletter Roll Call revealed that Lisa Simeone, host of World of Opera, had been serving as a spokesperson for an economic justice rally allied with the Occupy Wall Street protests. This was quickly condemned by conservative blogs.

Simeone was promptly fired by the documentary program Soundprint for violating ethics guidelines governing public radio journalists and explicitly forbidding public advocacy. The producers of World of Opera, an arts program, took no such action. But then NPR announced that it would no longer distribute World of Opera, at which point the anger flew in, this time from the left.

Joyce Slocum is NPR's interim president and CEO. Her tenure ends December 1st. When she took the job back in March, she was in the cross hairs of conservative politicians, after the firing of commentator Juan Williams and the supposedly smoking gun video manufactured by James O'Keefe.

Hey Joyce, welcome back to the show. In with a bang, out with an opera, huh?

JOYCE SLOCUM:

[LAUGHS] Thanks, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD:

Tell me please, who made the call on suspending distribution of World of Opera?

JOYCE SLOCUM:

It was really a mutual decision between us and WDAV. We had a problem with having the NPR brand attached to a program being hosted by someone who was very politically active and, you know, through a series of very amicable and reasonable conversations worked out a compromise that served everyone's interest

Lisa kept her job. World of Opera continues to be distributed to all the stations to which it was previously distributed. And NPR's name is no longer associated with it.

BOB GARFIELD:

But it is associated with censoring a voice. That is the, the accusation that is all over the blogosphere and elsewhere, with respect to ending the distribution deal.

JOYCE SLOCUM:

You know, when people take certain roles in life they make choices about what they can and can't do. I adhere to the same code of ethics that our journalists do. And Lisa was serving as host, a very public figure, representing NPR, so long as NPR's name was associated with the show.

You know, we had ceased production of the show back in January 2010 and it — production went over to WDAV, and nobody seemed to have a problem with that. So I have to tell you I’m a little puzzled about why anyone objects to WDAV taking on distribution, when no one objected to them taking on production two years ago.

BOB GARFIELD:

But are you really puzzled?

JOYCE SLOCUM:

I am puzzled.

BOB GARFIELD:

Because it looks like NPR is somehow caving to purely political – interests. That's how it appears to the people who were complaining, and I must say, also to me. So you’re not confused about that, are you?

JOYCE SLOCUM:

I, I said I'm puzzled as to why anyone would object to this resolution, when it serves the interests of all concerned. It really will be completely seamless to the listener. The only thing that will happen is it will no longer be in NPR World of Opera, it will be World of Opera. That doesn't seem very objectionable to me.

BOB GARFIELD:

Let's change the subject slightly to a - another conflict of interest event that occurred hard by the Simeone incident, and that is Michele Norris, the co-host of All Things Considered, who is stepping down temporarily from her hosting duties, while her husband is an employee of the Obama reelection campaign. Now, that is explicitly covered by the ethics code, no?

JOYCE SLOCUM:

Yes. The ethics code would not have required Michele to step down as host, but it, of course, does require her to recuse herself from any coverage of the election. And having a host of a program like All Things Considered who can't cover election matters in a presidential election cycle, stepping away from the host role was just a natural conclusion that we all came to together.

BOB GARFIELD:

And it just so happened that these two personnel matters would be clustered together in the context of your successor Gary Knell coming in, stating publicly that he wishes to de-politicize NPR.

Now, it isn’t entirely clear what he means by that, and I certainly won't ask you to explain it for him, but I wonder if these two decisions represent some sort of running start to somehow de-politicize NPR.

JOYCE SLOCUM:

The confluence of these two is sort of interesting because people of one sort of perspective criticizing the decision regarding Lisa Simeone, you had people have another perspective criticizing the decision regarding Michele Norris. And I think it really is a demonstration of the fact that we do the right thing. We think about it carefully, we try to work out reasonable compromise positions.

And I think that's really what Gary is saying when he says he wants to de-politicize NPR. I actually talked with him about what he meant about that, and he didn't mean, of course, taking political coverage out. He meant doing the right thing, not thinking about it from a political standpoint, one side or the other.

BOB GARFIELD:

The politicization Of NPR has, it seems to me, been imposed on it by third parties. You know, others have decided to accuse NPR of somehow being a platform for progressive thought or Radio Moscow, or whatever it is that conservative critics seem to be irritated about. So then, how would it be within the network's own power to de- politicize?

JOYCE SLOCUM:

You know, it only becomes a fight if we engage. We're going to continue to do the right thing and not, you know, be influenced by political views one way or the other.

BOB GARFIELD:

But the Simeone situation looks for all the world to be NPR engaging in that debate and trying to assuage outside critics who see her participation with the Occupy Wall Street crowd as the smoking gun for NPR's liberal bias. Have you not engaged by discontinuing distribution of an opera show?

JOYCE SLOCUM:

Not at all. We've been true to what this organization stands for by removing NPR's association with someone who wants to be a political activist.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

BOB GARFIELD:

Well, there's my answer. Thank you very, very much.

JOYCE SLOCUM:

Thank you.

BOB GARFIELD:

Joyce Slocum is interim president and CEO of NPR. She will be replaced on December 1st by incoming president Gary Knell.