The timing could not have been worse for the latest in a series of controversies to hit the nation’s scandal-prone public radio network. But the fact that it was pledge week didn’t prevent NPR from caving in to conservative pressure and canceling their distribution of “The World of Opera,” last Friday after it was revealed that host, Lisa Simeone, had taken part in Occupy DC, a spinoff of Occupy Wall Street movement, a protest against corporate greed which is spreading to cities nationwide. Simeone, an independent producer, was also sacked from the public radio documentary series “Sound Print” for her political activities.
In justifying their actions, NPR spokeswoman Dana Davis Rehm stated that it is a conflict of interest for a journalist associated with NPR to take a role in a political protest movement, ignoring the fact that Ms. Simeone is a freelancer and not an NPR employee, and a music host, not a journalist. Leading Time Magazine’s James Poniewozik to jest: “Public radio listeners! Have you long worried that your station was undermining capitalism through its broadcasts of the Ring Cycle? Tired of having your children brainwashed by the socialistic messages of La Traviata?”
For hundreds of listeners who flooded NPRs own blog and switchboard with messages of outrage over the weekend, however, it was no laughing matter. Many saw the incident as merely the latest chapter in the network’s slow drift to the right in an effort to appease republican critics in congress, which funds the Corporation For Public Broadcasting, a major source of NPR’s operating budget.
Critics also pointed out that the network has a double standard when it comes to the political speech of its hosts and reporters. While dropping Ms. Simeone for taking part in a protest rally, NPR routinely permits its own staffers to sound off on the issues that they report on. Saturday morning host, Scott Simon, published an Op Ed in the Wall Street Journal supporting American military interventions in the Middle East and likening antiwar protesters to “a Halloween parade.” NPR reporter Mara Liasson doubles as a commentator for Fox television where she lambasted congressman on a fact finding mission in Iraq before the US incursion and called on them to resign. NPR’s Cookie Roberts regularly spouts off her centrist-right views in handsomely paid corporate speeches on everything from health care reform to the minimum wage.
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The media watchdog group, FAIR, (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) criticized NPR for its excessive dependence on “elite” and “inside the beltway” sources for its stories and said that woman are dramatically under-represented, only one in five of those appearing in its news stories. They also found that network favors Republican over Democratic sources by a three to two margin, and routinely gives short shrift to protest movements like Occupy Wall Street.
For years the “liberal bias” of NPR was an article of faith for those on the right. But I can attest from my own experience as a former freelancer for the network that this is far from the case. In 1996 Morning Edition broadcast a piece of mine on hunger in our nation's cities. The story contained interview segments which suggested that more people than we think go to sleep hungry in America. It was broadcast nationwide on the day that Clinton's new welfare regulations went into effect.
The segment was well received by other journalists. But when I pitched another story to my editor in Washington, he said that I had been criticized for "liberal bias," and that they were not going to give me any more news assignments. In other words I was sacked as an NPR freelancer for daring to suggest that millions are going hungry in America. Radical stuff!
When I read in the Huffington Post last week that Lisa Simeone had been taken off the air by NPR because she participated in the Occupy movement, I was disappointed but not surprised. Sad to say, the hope for a truly independent voice free of commercial and political interference died years back. In the NPR of today punditry of the most biased and superficial kind is OK, but activism and deep analysis of our political and economic malaise are off limits. No wonder former NPR listeners are flocking to the internet and independent radio shows like FAIR’s “Counter Spin” and Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” for the stories that they are unlikely to hear on “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.”