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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 04:55 PM ET, 10/20/2011

NPR and Simeone: Lots of corrections

Whoever’s piloting the Twitter account at NPR today must be neglecting to promote all the fine work that NPR journalists are doing on this beautiful fall day. Instead, that individual is playing defense against a plague of journalistic errors committed over the Lisa Simeone story:

Those tweets seek to correct the prevailing story out there on the Internet: NPR fires reporter over Occupy D.C. That’s the headline from the Daily Beast. Facts are the NPR fired no one; the person adversely affected by the days events was not a “reporter”; and Occupy DC was not in the mix, either. NPR’ll need at least three tweets to correct that headline.

NPR’s corrective tweets are the story here. The sudden and dramatic media bubble over the political activities of a nice and talented woman who works in opera and documentary radio reflects just how little people, and the media, understand about NPR, public radio, radio, airwaves, frequencies, and so on.

“What I have spent the morning doing is just trying to explain the complicated arcana of public radio, trying to explain to people, so they understand why they got the story wrong,” says Simeone.

Simeone worked for more than 15 years as a freelancer on Soundprint, a documentary radio show out of Laurel. Last night she had a talk with her boss, Moira Rankin, president of the Soundprint Media Center.

It wasn’t one of those discussions that bosses like having. Rankin quizzed Simeone about her involvement as an organizer of the October 2011/Stop the Machine protests. (For the record, and per Simeone: She had no official connection or duties as a spokesperson for Occupy DC whatsoever; all reports indicating as much are incorrect, including the NPR post that claims to correct the inaccuracies in all the other accounts.)

The back and forth between documentary mogul and freelancer, says Simeone, was drawn out and strange. After much awkwardness, Simeone just came out and asked, “Wait a minute — what are you doing? Are you firing me?”

Yes, came the response. Simeone was not pleased. The reason for her dismissal as a freelancer was her participation in the protests: She was told that she was “not allowed to have any partisan involvement.” She fired back: “The occupy movement is as nonpartisan as it can get because we despise all political parties equally.”

Rankin parried: “What I did point out to her was that partisan was not just pro-Republican or pro-Democrat. It has a larger meaning.”

The shove from Soundprint jolted Simeone’s understanding of what she brought to the franchise. Perspective, opinion, edge, that is---not straight-up-the-middle reporting. “If you go back and listen to the shows, they include my political and social opinions. That was desired, that was what I was expected to do. If I do a show, say, on immigration, the lede would include examples from my own family,” she says.

Perspective and opinion are precious commodities in documentary radio. Affliation with surging protest movements? Different matter: Tying your name to any organization with an agenda can very easily corrupt your journalistic input and generate conflicts of interest that shrink your organization’s choice of stories. As the organization’s press release states, “Soundprint adheres to the highest standards of journalism.”

An “independent contractor agreement” governed Simeone’s work for Soundprint, and she’s a member of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). As such, she’s asking AFTRA to ”explain” what went down with her contract. When asked whether there’s a provision in that contract authorizing Soundpoint’s decision to terminate, Rankin said, “I wouldn’t have done it if it didn’t.”

What we have here is a contentious affair between a radio talent and her boss. How did NPR get folded into the mix? Was some antsy executive from this under-fire-for-liberal-bias outlet gunning for Simeone?

Nah, NPR got hauled into the thing because of its superlative ethics guidelines. It has been reported that during the phone discussion, Simeone was read NPR’s ethics rules. That’s not true, says Simeone; Rankin concurs, saying she didn’t have the rules in front of her at the time.

Yet Rankin did indeed invoke NPR guidelines in firing Simeone. “We adhere to NPR standards,” says Rankin, in much the same way that newspapers that don’t have an Associated Press subscription follow the copy rules of the wire service. (Which should capi­tal­ize the tea party movement.).

Other than liking — in a Facebook way — the NPR ethics rules, Soundprint has almost no connection to NPR. It doesn’t get NPR funding and runs primarily on money from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Soundprint’s statement of existence uses the letters “n” and “p” and “r,” but not in sequence:

Soundprint Media Center, Inc. (SMCI) is a national non-profit public broadcasting production and educational center based in Laurel, Maryland. Its public radio documentary series, SOUNDPRINT, is the longest running and one of the most highly regarded documentary series on public radio. The hallmark of the show is a sound-rich story that draws the listener into the subject. For over 20 years, Soundprint documentaries have aired on U.S. public radio stations and been distributed through Sirius Satellite Radio, as well as international partners. SOUNDPRINT programming spans the world. It has produced original series and individual programs on a range of subjects from science and history to contemporary issues and personal explorations.

Even so! Soundprint does sell its programming to public radio stations that happen to be NPR members. Just goes to show you: If something goes wrong in the world of public radio, it’s not too hard to tar NPR with the smudge. Regardless of the facts.

A further wrinkle is that Rankin was getting calls from NPR asking to verify whether she’d canned Simeone. She said that indeed she had, and gave NPR a preview of the press release. “I wanted to let them know the reason for what I was doing; that’s why I sent it to them,” says Rankin.

The second half of the Simeone story relates to her role as the host of NPR World of Opera. Given its name, you might be tempted to say that NPR World of Opera is an NPR show. Such a statement could well draw a tsk-tsk tweet from the NPR police. It is “a production of WDAV Classical Public Radio, a service of Davidson College.”

Even though WDAV runs the opera show, its managers engaged in ”conversations” with NPR about how to handle Simeone’s involvement given the revelations about her protesting. They didn’t take long in reaching the right decision.

By tomorrow noon, this whole mess will be gone, its legacy a bunch of errors — and, hopefully, corrections — spread across media-obsessed websites. Well, that and a woman who should have given more thought to her own affiliation agreements: “I would like to just have my life, my nice freelance life back,” says Simeone. “To be a free citizen and a responsible worker, a conscientious worker.” Those sound like the words of an excellent protest-movement flack

By  |  04:55 PM ET, 10/20/2011

 
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