Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Tuesday, October 25, 2011 12:55 am

Who knew one radio network could hold so much Stoopid?

I did not realize this until just moments ago, but apparently NPR’s ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, wrote last week about the Lisa Simeone case. Even by the standards of in-the-tank ombudsmen, the piece is remarkably incoherent: It talks about NPR’s code of ethics for journalists while 1) failing to note that Simeone was a contractor for a contractor, and thus beyond any reasonable understanding of NPR’s control with respect to stuff she did on her own time, and 2) insisting that “Simeone has no influence or role in NPR news” and that “the issue surrounding her, therefore, is a management and legal one.”

My response, which might or might not get past the moderators:

Ed, could you possibly be any more disingenuous?

Your organization went after Simeone — who was neither an NPR employee nor a contractor, but was, rather, a contractor of a contractor, for political reasons, for things she was doing on her own time. That’s bad enough. Then your organization TRIED TO GET MY ALMA MATER TO DO YOUR DIRTY WORK FOR IT. And when my alma mater quite sensibly refused, your organization stopped syndicating the program. At least one D.C. lawyer I’ve talked to has described NPR’s action as “tortious interference with contractual relations.” You want a “management and legal issue”? Congratulations; you’ve got one. If I liked popcorn at all, I’d be making some right now.

What NPR did was bad enough, and you’re just compounding the error by lying about it in a way that makes quite clear you think your audience is dumber than linoleum.

So noted.

Good God, these people are idiots.

(UPDATE, 10/25: Schumacher-Matos’s Twitter feed makes quite clear he is toeing a party line: The phrase “not a news issue” appears repeatedly. In the unlikely event that it wasn’t a news issue before, it is now. That he is not recognizing that fact means either that he’s on the take or that he’s too stupid to be holding his current job. I’m sorry to be personally abusive, but there really aren’t any other plausible explanations for his behavior on something that perhaps, once, briefly, was “not a news issue” but which 1) originated with a flawed news report and 2) is now ricocheting around The Atlantic, the Huffington Post and the online writings of some of the nation’s most prominent press critics.)

I also finally got around to sending an email to Dana Rehm, the NPR spokesbot who was babbling about all this last week. I wrote:

Dear Ms. Rehm:

As a Davidson College alumnus, a former WDAV-FM staffer and someone who has freelanced a time or three in the past 35 years, I’ve watched NPR’s behavior in the Lisa Simeone case with growing disbelief, anger and disgust. First you did something stupid. Then you tried to get my alma mater to do your dirty work for you and apparently lied about it. Then you dropped “World of Opera” out of what appears to be nothing more than sheer petulance and spite. Certainly, I can see no journalistic, moral, ethical, legal or PR upside for NPR to what you did, and as a guy with almost 35 years in media, I’ve looked at it from every possible angle.

I’ve also blogged about it here and here and gone after the author of the original Roll Call piece here for her crappy reporting. (In the likely event that I hear nothing more from her, I’ll move up her food chain to her editors, too: This was either a malicious fabrication or Roll Call tanking for a source with an agenda, and either way, I’m not going to let it go.)

The good news for you is, my blog doesn’t normally get much traffic. The bad news is, because I was briefly almost  famous in the media biz a few years ago, the traffic it does get is kind of influential.

And since I first blogged about this subject, my daily traffic has gone up an order of magnitude. I realize you’re surprised. After all, no one could have foreseen that in this era of job insecurity and increasing incidence of sole proprietorship and freelancing, a lot of people might think that there’s something badly wrong with NPR’s trying to screw around with the livelihood of a contractor’s contractor. One lawyer I’ve talked to in D.C. thinks Simeone might actually have a cause of action against you for tortious interference with contractual relations. If I liked popcorn at all, I’d be making some right now.

The first rule of holes, Dana, is: When you’re in one, stop digging. Put the shovel down before you hurt yourself, and the country, any further. And while I appreciate your giving my alma mater the opportunity to look good in the national spotlight twice in one week, you really need to rethink how you’re doing business if you want to avoid serious harm to the country, let alone stay in business much longer. There’s a war against accountability journalism going on right now. I’ve been a Red State Republican for 33 years, and yet even I don’t think I’d much like the country I’d be living in if accountability journalism loses. If you think there’d be a place for you, you’re delusional.

Best,

Lex Alexander

In the unlikely event that she responds, you’ll see it here.

Sunday, October 23, 2011 4:24 pm

So how did all this stink with NPR and Lisa Simeone get started in the first place?

Not surprisingly, with a bone-headed play by the So-Called Liberal Media.

In this case, it was a short piece by Roll Call’s Neda Semnani, who writes the “Heard on the Hill” column. From the snarky headline to the factual inaccuracies, it is one steaming, stinking heap of FAIL.

So late Friday, I emailed her:

Hi, Neda:

I thought I’d fill in some gaps in your reporting on Lisa Simeone. Whether you choose to share this information with your readers or not, I leave to your conscience. Oh, and my blog. Hee.

Lisa Simeone is a FREELANCER. For WAMU (until her unjustified dismissal). And for WDAV, for whom she continues to produce “World of Opera.” Although she did, once, work for NPR, she hasn’t had any direct, formal relationship with the network in quite a while.

Have you ever been a freelancer? Because I don’t think you have. It’s a tough gig. For one thing, overentitled clients generally presume that because they pay you to produce a certain body of work, they assume control over all other aspects of your public life EVEN IF THEY HAVEN’T BOTHERED TO OBTAIN THE CONTRACTUAL RIGHTS TO DO SO.

No, dear. The technical term for that is “slavery,” and it was outlawed by the 13th Amendment. Jim Asendio should have known that. So should you.

If WAMU had wished to obtain that level of control over what Simeone did on her own time, it was perfectly entitled to negotiate for the rights. It failed to do so. I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve freelanced off and on since 1978, and because whether I ate or not depended on my attention to this level of detail, I’m confident I’m accurate when I say that absent other evidence of which I am unaware, not only was WAMU’s action unjustified, but also that Ms. Simeone has grounds to seek, at the least, a buyout of the remainder of her contract, if any, and possibly other damages.

As for WDAV, for which I once worked, and which is operated by my alma mater, it didn’t need any of this explained to it. The station and college looked over the contract with NPR under which they produce “World of Opera” for NPR, decided that they were in full compliance and politely told NPR to take a flying flip at a rolling doughnut.

“If you want to be a hack, don’t flack.” No, Neda; if you want to be a journalist, you need to start calling bullshit on every noncontroversy that the right-wing Wurlitzer tries to gin up into a Category 5 scandal. I’ve been a Red State Republican since 1978, and even I get that. You’re being played, and the fact that NPR management has the political savvy and common sense of dryer lint (see: Williams, Juan) doesn’t let you off the hook. [Note that I am giving her the benefit of the doubt here and presuming that she’s just passing along a bug someone put in her ear, rather than presuming that she fabricated a controversy on her own initiative. — Lex]

Pity Roll Call doesn’t take comments, but if this is an example of its “journalism,” I can see why.

Best,

Lex Alexander
Davidson ’82
WDAV-FM 1978-82
Her response was, to say the least, puzzling:

Hi Lex,

Many thanks for your email. I spoke to and used Ms. Simeone’s quote in my original post. I have her on tape, which is what I used. I was quite explicit about her role as a freelancer and a host. I was clear about the information I had as I received it, including stating that she was not fired from her post as host of NPR’s World of Opera in my follow up item.

I have passed your email to my editor.

If you have any further comments and concerns, feel free to email me any time.

Many thanks,
Neda

For those of you following along at home, the question wasn’t the accuracy of Semnani’s quoting of Simeone. It was the accuracy, or lack thereof, of what she was saying about what Simeone said. So I responded:

Neda:

Thanks for responding. I wasn’t questioning the accuracy of your quote. I was pointing out that your snarky item …

… she said, “Well, I work in radio still, but this is totally different.”

Huh. Different, how?

“I’m a freelancer,” she said.

OK …

… completely misrepresented the nature of a freelancing relationship by making clear with the “OK …” that you thought Simeone was full of shit. In fact, her position has a basis in everyday contract law.

You also allowed Jim Asendio to assume facts not in evidence, as the lawyers say. What he says is true if and only if WAMU’s code of ethics is incorporated directly or by reference into the freelance contract the station has with Ms. Simeone. If it isn’t — and your article offered no evidence that it is — then he doesn’t get to decide after the fact that she’s a journalist and therefore bound by some code of ethics to which she never agreed.

I’m not only questioning your abilities as a journalist, I’m now also questioning your ability to read plain English. Feel free to share that with your editor as well.

Cheers,

L.

Haven’t heard any more from her, but she’s entitled to a weekend, too, so that’s fine. I’ll let you know what else, if anything, transpires, although I’ll be subject to the demands of work, school and parenting and so might not be able to do so in anything approaching real time.

More on Lisa Simeone, “World of Opera,” NPR and WDAV

When last we spoke, Thursday evening, NPR had said that it was going to have a “conversation” about the fact that Lisa Simeone, the freelance host of “World of Opera,” her political involvement in her spare time and WDAV’s relationship with the network in supplying “World of Opera” for syndication by the network.

I emailed the general manager of WDAV, who promptly informed me that he and the college already had had their own conversation about Simeone, determined that what she did on her own time was her own business and were going ahead with business as usual.

And if things had been left to lie there, all would be well. But NPR being NPR, it ignored the First Rule of Holes: When you are in one, stop digging. Instead, it found a way to make itself look even stupider by announcing that it would stop syndicating “World of Opera” to 60 stations nationwide.

In stark contrast to that behavior, WDAV and Davidson College simply and quietly did the right thing yet again, announcing that if NPR didn’t want to distribute the show anymore, they would do it themselves. Station general manager Scott Nolan emailed me yesterday to specify that the new arrangement would take effect Nov. 11.

We’ve already established that Lisa Simeone has no formal relationship with NPR, as employee or as freelancer, which means NPR has no legal, moral or ethical justification for attempting to regulate her political involvement on her own time. Given the pontification of NPR news staffers — news staffers, not producers of opera showson Fox News and other outlets, it is difficult for anyone with half a brain to think that NPR cares about the ethics or appearance or bias of its news people in general and quite easy to believe that something altogether more sinister is at work, whether right-wing political conspiracy or simple petulance.

NPR never should have tried to make an issue of Simeone’s off-duty political involvement in the first place. And once it did, it certainly never should have expected WDAV and Davidson College to do its intellectually dishonest and journalistically unethical dirty work for it. It is difficult to understand NPR’s decision to stop distributing the program as anything other than a childish act of pique, the raving of a clueless dinosaur as it sinks into the tar pits of its own irrelevance and oblivion.

But we need to ask a question: Why is it OK with NPR for NPR employees Mara Liasson, et al., to do what they do and be paid for it, but not OK for Lisa Simeone, a freelancer, to do what she does on her own time for no money? What is the moral or ethical difference in the behaviors? Why is the NPR’s response to the differing behaviors so dissonant? And what does that dissonance tell us about NPR’s news credibility, ability to navigate ethical questions and overall common sense?

The honorable behavior of my alma mater and former employer stands in stark contrast to that of NPR. It is, yet again, a good day to be a Wildcat.

But it’s a bad day, and has been a bad decade, to be an American in need of smart, credible news and information programming produced by insightful, ethical people. Those Americans are screwed, and the Occupy movement of which Lisa Simeone has been just one small part is one big sign that a lot of Americans aren’t going to stand for it. If they Occupy enough voting booths, some things will happen on the political front, but I suspect the only thing that will change NPR will be extinction. The network certainly hasn’t demonstrated an ability to learn from experience.

Thursday, October 20, 2011 8:57 pm

Letter to Scott Nolan, general manager, WDAV-FM, re: Lisa Simeone UPDATE: … and his reply

UPDATE 2: Please click on the link below and join me in thanking President Quillen for doing the right thing. If you’d also like to thank her for making Davidson look good in the process, that’s fine, but I won’t insist on it. ;-)

UPDATE: DAMN. I had no sooner hit “send” on that email and begun copying and pasting it into the blog here when Scott Nolan called me.

Long story short, I am delighted to report that he, the station and the college are doing all the right things here for all the right reasons. They’ve reviewed the terms of their contract with NPR to provide content — i.e., the opera show Simeone produces. They have concluded that the college is in compliance with every stipulation of that contract, and they’re going to ignore the national media and keep doing what they’re doing.

It is a good day to be a Wildcat.

(As you might expect, I bcc’ed a lot of people on that email. I’ll be letting them know about this conversation immediately.)

* * *

cc: Dr. Carol Quillen, president, Davidson College

Scott:

As a Davidson College alumnus and former employee of WDAV-FM during its critical early years as a high-powered broadcast outlet, I was more than a little dismayed to learn that NPR was “in conversations with WDAV about how they [sic] intend to handle” Lisa Simeone.

Here’s some free advice from someone with decades of experience in media and PR: You don’t. You listen politely to NPR, you then tell its representative to take a flying flip at a rolling doughnut and you let Ms. Simeone keep doing what she’s doing for WDAV without interruption or hassle. (If nothing else, I’m sure my late father, Class of ’52, founding member of the WDAV advisory board and a board member at Opera Carolina for about two decades, would appreciate it. He’d have loved her show, I think.)

There are so many things wrong about this situation that it’s difficult to know where to start. Fortunately, that’s exactly the kind of situation where I’ve eaten, professionally speaking, for the past 30 years.

First, if I understand the situation correctly (and I might not; I’ve seen conflicting reports in major media outlets), Lisa Simeone is a freelancer for WDAV and has no direct, formal relationship whatever with NPR anymore. That being the case, then absent any written agreement between the station and her with respect to how she will conduct herself off the air, the station simply has no jurisdiction — no moral, legal or ethical standing to tell her what she can and cannot say, what groups she can and cannot participate with, whom she can and cannot represent besides WDAV. If, going forward, the station finds it valuable to control that conduct, it is welcome to attempt to reach a contractual arrangement with her on that point and to attempt to compensate her accordingly. She, of course, is free to tell you to go to hell, and if you’re foolish enough to try to achieve that goal, then for reasons that have nothing to do with politics and everything to do with my having been a freelancer off and on for much of my career, I sincerely hope she does.

Second, although there are no true First Amendment issues here as no government agency is involved so far as I know, Davidson College and every college and university worth the name has a strong interest in defending freedom of expression, particularly unpopular expression. One of the unfortunate side effects of the evolution of the American economy from one based on manufacturing to one based on knowledge — and, therefore, frequently on relationships — is that otherwise rational people can and do sever perfectly productive professional relationships because overentitled jackasses get a bad case of butthurt over something someone said or wrote or blogged or tweeted about them. The academy, of all our institutions, ought to be the one that stands up and points out both the impracticality and the immorality of shutting down unpopular speech. If you have a problem with that, you’re welcome to seek employment in the for-profit sector. I hear it’s hiring. Oh, wait.

Third, moving from the general to the particular, what, exactly, is it of which Ms. Simeone stands accused? Depending on which news account you read, she’s guilty of being a “spokeswoman” or “organizer” for Occupy Wall Street — again, on her own time, separate and apart from her work for WDAV. Unfortunately, neither NPR nor anyone else has bothered to explain exactly what that even means, let alone why it’s a bad thing. Moreover, from everything I’ve read or heard about Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots (including first-hand accounts from my brother and sister-in-law in Raleigh, friends here in Greensboro, friends in New York and other participants), one of its defining characteristics is that anyone who wants to be can be an “organizer” or “spokesperson” for the movement. It’s a consensus movement, not a hierarchical one. While that might not bode well for its political effectiveness, it also makes defining moral and ethical transgressions on the part of any one participant problematic when we’re talking about an act of speech as opposed to, say, defecating on a police car. Put another way, the terms are meaningless. Two nights ago, as a joke, I created the Twitter hashtag #LWS — Liquidate Wall Street. (This was before Bloomberg Business News broke the story that Bank of America intends to try to stick taxpayers with a looming $53 TRILLION loss on its derivatives; in 24 hours, Liquidate Wall Street evolved with no effort on my part from joke to logical policy proposal, but that’s a different subject altogether.) Does my having created that hashtag make me an “organizer” or “spokesman” for the Liquidate Wall Street movement? If so, neither I nor the movement appear to be deriving much benefit.

Finally, I would point out something that I hope already has become obvious to you in your dealings with NPR: In matters relating to politics — a subject on which its news coverage purports to have some expertise — NPR cannot find its own ass with both hands and a flashlight. It has mishandled every major story of the past decade related to important political issues, from war crimes to the economy, health care to regulation. Probably not coincidentally, it has failed to recognize that it is facing ongoing, coordinated political attacks from one and only one side of the aisle that are bent on destroying it because they are bent on destroying accountability journalism entirely. I have been a registered Republican since 1978, but even I am not blind to this phenomenon, nor do I care for the likely national consequences if this effort succeeds. NPR is blind, willingly or otherwise, but you need not let your affiliation with the network blind you, too.

What you do, or choose not to do, is up to you. But you need to understand that your actions and those of the college in whose name you operate will be watched carefully and interpreted in the context of the values for which this country and Davidson College purport to stand.

Best,

Hooper “Lex” Alexander IV ’82
Greensboro, NC
www.lexalexander.net

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