Can't get my head round this: NPR sacks opera host for joining Wall Street protest

Can't get my head round this: NPR sacks opera host for joining Wall Street protest


norman lebrecht

October 26, 2011

Lisa Simeone felt strongly about the financial crisis and sat down in Wall Street as part of the Occupation protest.

Next thing she knew the US Right were screaming for her head and a gutless public radio network duly delivered it.

She no longer hosts The World of Opera or Sound Print on NPR network radio.

Just like that. So far as I can tell, Lisa was exercising her democratic right, pure and simple. She wasn’t even promoting a new book, like Naomi Wolff. Yet that was enough to get her the sack, summarily and without right of appeal.

I cannot imagine the BBC being so chicken to dismiss a presenter on a one-sided wave of public acrimony when no crime had been committed. And where were the left-wing voices supporting Lisa, balancing the debate, and calling for her to keep her job?

Has it all gone totally lop-sided? Someone please enlighten me.


UPDATE: Steve Bass, President & CEO Oregon Public Broadcasting, has written in to clarify that Lisa Simeone was not fired as host of World of Opera. ‘She is still hosting the program, which is produced by WDAV, a classical public radio station in North Carolina. Rather than being distributed by NPR, it is now distributed directly by them to a few dozen stations that carry the program.’  While I’m pleased to learn she has been kept on by her host station, it does not alter the deplorable decision of NPR to drop her shows for an overtly political reason. It’s a free speech issue. Agree, Mr Bass?


2nd UPDATE: Ms Simeone has confirmed to the Baltimore Sun that she was fired from Sound Print for taking part in the demo. She continues with The World of Opera, though to fewer stations. ‘A solution is being sought,’ say station execs.



  • Michael P Scott says:


    The United States HAS gone totally lop-sided, not to mention, loopy, looney and so politically correct that one cannot use the word denigrate in a written or spoken sentence without fear of a kangaroo court.

    We’re math illiterates, too, and thus support loopy, looney Presidential candidates who are somehow able to convince a significant portion of the population that a “flat” tax would cost them more, no matter how appealing it sounds.

  • Steve Bass says:

    Lisa Simeone was not fired as host of World of Opera. She is still hosting the program, which is produced by WDAV, a classical public radio station in North Carolina. Rather than being distributed by NPR, it is now distributed directly by them to a few dozen stations that carry the program.

    Steve Bass
    President & CEO
    Oregon Public Broadcasting

  • Steve Bass says:

    I don’t know what you mean by the term an “automatic feed.” No station is required to run any program from NPR (my station doesn’t run World of Opera because we stick to a news & information format). There’s no such thing as a national feed or a national schedule.

    World of Opera is a program that is carried by only a handful of stations. It’s peripheral to NPR’s primary focus on news. Given the way that the public radio system works, the fact that NPR isn’t distributing the program makes no difference whatsoever to any station’s ability to broadcast the program. Those that want it will still have it — with Ms. Simeone as host, and to my knowledge, no station has dropped the program as a result of any of this.

    • Thank you for the clarification. Are you sure no-one has dropped it? And why, if it makes no difference, was it politically necessary for NPR to make the change to its distribution program?

  • Chris Johnson says:

    People related to her as a presenter who exercised her first amendment rights as a particpant and that is, sadly, not the case. Lisa branded herself as a journalist a long time ago. She previously hosted All Things Considered and her bio reads like that of someone who is a journalist and not a simply a presenter of classical music. Add to that the fact that NPR has been rebranding itself as a strictly news organization over the last decade, and it is not surprising at all that they do not want the brand associated with someone who as a spokesperson and leader of a political demonstration, not a participant.

  • Terry Moore says:

    Last year, NPR fired Juan Williams for expressing views on Fox News that he was uncomfortable when he saw people in Muslim clothing on an airplane (NPR also expressed other reasons for firing him). NPR handled that dismissal as poorly as they handled this one. Williams was one of their few black analysts as well as one of their few conservative ones. The firing irked Republicans, who soon took control on the House in Congress and tried to defund NPR and other publicly funded media. This would have had minimal effect to NPR but would have hurt the budgets of local radio stations that carry NPR programs, so there was significant pressure from these stations on NPR. In the US, there exist other distributors of content for public radio, including American Public Media and Public Radio International, so the backlash from local stations whose funding was threatened also caused some concern for NPR. Depending on your political bias, the firing of Williams was either justified or overtly anti-free speech. To justify the firing, NPR implied Williams’ journalistic integrity was damaged by expressing such biased views. The firing of Lisa Simeone not only helps justify NPR’s actions last year, but it also appeases critics who claim that NPR has a political bias and reiterates its position that it’s journalist not participate in political events, especially events that NPR covers. NPR is merely guilty of being consistent in a non-partisan way.

    As for free speech, neither Juan Williams nor Lisa Simeone were denied the right to free speech. They spoke and can continue to speak their views. The right to free speech does not prohibit an employer from firing someone for their views.

    • To lose one’s job as a the price for free speech is such a severe restriction that the right to free speech is largely rendered meaningless.

      Ronald Standler summarizes the situation well on his website. An “at-will” employee in the USA can be terminated at any time, and for any reason – or no reason at all – and the courts will generally not intervene to protect the ex-employee from allegedly unfair treatment by the employer.

      “Just cause” employees can be dismissed from employment only for a good reason, such as poor job performance by the employee.

      The combination of:
      1. no legal protection for freedom of speech of employees of for-profit and non-profit corporations and other non-governmental employers, and
      2. the freedom of employers to terminate at-will employees at any time, for any reason

      means that at-will employees have essentially no legal rights to freedom of speech.

      • Terry Moore says:

        A correction to William Osborne’s closing statement: At-will employees (essentially non-union) have no legal rights to their current employment. Just cause employees (essentially union) do have legal rights to their current employment. But those legal rights are private and were agreed upon between the employer and employee (or their union), not the federal government. The government merely upholds the contract. It is a stretch to argue that the government’s reason is to protect the employee. It is not. It is so that business can function.

        The right to freedom of speech essentially guarantees that there is no criminal penalty for the vast majority of speech. (Not all speech: Do not yell “fire” in a crowded theater when there is not fire.) It means nothing more than this.

        • My argument here isn’t that the first ammendment protects free speech from limitation by employers. My point is that employers now so often constrain free speech that the first ammendment is rendered essentially meaningless. The problem would need to be solved through careful legislation to protect employees – something like putting the burden of proof on employers to show that the employee’s statements were work related, untrue, malicious, and damaged the company’s business or image. A little more freedom to say the truth in the US might be helpful – such as employees being more free to speak about the corruption that was leading to the mortgage crisis, among countless other examples.

  • Terry Moore and William Osborne, in describing the situation, raise some interesting issues. It seems entirely plausible that NPR was trying to demonstrate even-handedness in the wake of the firing of Juan Williams. And doing so rather clumsily. It does also seem that the right to freedom of speech is a good deal less absolute than we would like to think. Hasn’t it always been the case that while, in theory at least, you are free to say anything you like, that does not make you immune from the consequences of so doing? If I say things that lead people around me to conclude that I am an idiot, then I can hardly blame them for regarding me as an idiot. The first amendment to the US Constitution is hardly a blanket waiver. It simply means that Congress (later extended to state governments) cannot make laws abridging freedom of speech. Period. It protects the citizen from government. It does not protect the citizen from himself.

    • At issue, is the extent to which individuals should be protected from their employer constraining their right to free speech. In the US, the balance has tipped too far in favor of employers – almost to the point of disemboweling the first amendment.

  • Frank says:

    So NPR fires an employee despite it sounding stupid, cruel and illegal. If I were Steve Bass I would resign but he loves his work, however morally reprehensible it is. Why is NPR sticking its finger in the eye of all of its “World of Opera” audience – an audience made up of check-writing, highly educated liberals? Because they have lost all sense of self worth. Culture in America is already suffering and there are scumbags in seats of power who are happy to make it worse.

  • The host of NPR’s All Things Considered, Michele Norris, recently stepped down from that position (though she retains a reporting role) because her husband has just accepted an advisory position with the Obama campaign.
    Why is this considered prudent when Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife is a major pro-life lobbyist and there is no whiff of impropriety or suggestion of recusal?