Another Public Radio Employee Canned for 'Occupy' Activism

Another NPR freelancer has been fired for activism at an Occupy rally. On Gawker, Caitlin Curran laments she was canned from 20 hours a week producing for the public radio talk show The Takeway (co-produced by Public Radio International and WNYC Radio in New York, and supported in part by the taxpayers through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.)

Unlike Lisa Simeone, who served in a very official capacity as a public-relations flack for “Occupy DC,” Curran held up a sign in the Occupy Wall Street march in Times Square on October 15. The plan was for her husband to hold the sign, but she was also photographed with it and posted it to her personal Twitter account. It drew blog kudos – which was her undoing.

Her sign simply quoted Conor Friedersdorf: “It's wrong to create a mortgage-backed security filled with loans you know are going to fail so that you can sell it to a client who isn't aware that you sabotaged it by intentionally picking the misleadingly rated loans most likely to be defaulted upon.” Curran reveled in the little media storm it caused:

The next day, Boing Boing co-editor Xeni Jardin posted the photo as the site's Occupy Wall Street sign of the day, the post circulated around Tumblr, Friedersdorf himself saw it and wrote about it, as did Felix Salmon at Reuters, who called me "one of those protestors that photographers dream of" and the sign "true, and accurate, and touching, and grammatical, and far too long to be a slogan, and gloriously bereft of punctuation, and ending even more gloriously in a mildly archaic preposition."

I thought all of this could be fodder for an interesting segment on The Takeaway—a morning news program co-produced by WNYC Radio and Public Radio International—for which I had been working as a freelance web producer roughly 20 hours per week for the past seven months. I pitched the idea to producers on the show, in an e-mail.

The next day, The Takeaway's general manager fired me over the phone, effective immediately. He was inconsolably angry, and said that I had violated every ethic of journalism, and that this should be a "teaching moment" for me in my career as a journalist. The segment I had pitched, of course, would not happen.

Ironically, the following day Marketplace did pretty much the exact segment  I thought would have been great on The Takeaway, with Kai Ryssdal discussing the sign and the Goldman Sachs deal it alluded to in terms that were far from neutral.

Curran seems to have no idea that wanting to cause a wave of media reaction to her temporary sign-holding activism could look bad for NPR at congressional funding time. When asked on Twitter if she was an "occupier," Curran replied, "I'm not sleeping in the park or anything, but yes, I support the movement." She doesn't understand how the public would object it's unprofessionalfor her to be on one side of the protest microphone/camera lens, and then turn up on the other.

My thinking ran along the same lines as [Lisa] Simeone's. It's unclear to me how our participation, on our personal time, in a non-partisan movement warrants termination from our jobs. If the protest is so lacking, in terms of message and focus, then how can my involvement with it go against The Takeaway's ethical policies? In other words, if I'm associated with a party-less movement (and barely associated, since that was only the second time I've attended an Occupy Wall Street event), and have never exercised bias in editing The Takeaway's website, what's the harm?

On one hand, isn't it great that, as Friedersdorf wrote, our "decentralized networked-era culture" makes a movement like this possible, and as Salmon wrote, "the sentiment behind Occupy Wall Street has resonated worldwide," as a result. But on the other hand, we live in an age where I can carry a sign expressing a non-partisan, seemingly inarguable message at a peaceful protest, unknowingly have my photo taken and disseminated around the world, and subsequently be fired as a result, all within a matter of days. What are the implications of this for a democracy founded on free speech ideals? Are these "teaching moments" like mine going to dissuade people who have jobs they want to keep from expressing their opinions, however benign?

It's disingenuous to argue the Occupy Wall Street protests are "nonpartisan," as if they're non-ideological. You can protest with a "party-less movement" and be incredibly political. Many causes -- gun rights, abortion, even wars -- can be asserted have "bipartisan" support, so opposition could be pitched as "party-less." She knows she was being an advocate and making an argument. Having it be "seemingly inarguable" is beside the point. Does she know how many journalists refuse to wear flag pins or say the Pledge of Allegiance, which to many Americans is "seemingly inarguable"?

But it's beyond disingenuous for Curran to say she "unknowingly" had her photo taken. Her own Gawker post explains she posted the picture on her own Twitter page, and hoped for it to be picked up everywhere.

Clearly, Curran wasn't canned for having liberal opinions. Check out this liberal mind-meld with her then-employer on her Twitter page on October 9: "I think this is a great question. RT @The Takeaway: Columbus Day is a controversial federal holiday. Does he deserve a holiday, in your opin?"

She was canned for promoting herself as an activist instead of a journalist. Her only understandable confusion is that line gets awfully blurry in the liberal land of public radio.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis