Caitlin Curran, a freelance radio producer in New York City who enjoyed brief fame when she cleverly put Conor Friedersdorf’s words on a placard, took it to an Occupy Wall Street protest, and had her image go viral, has been fired for her stunt. According to a piece she wrote complaining about the injustice of her public radio employer’s action:
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 director 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.
Well, yeah. This is Journalism Ethics 101: you can’t be seen to publicly takes sides on controversies, especially if you’re going to be covering them. Opinion journalists — and Curran is not one — get an obvious pass, but in my view, still ought to stay away from joining protests themselves. Curran doesn’t see it this way:
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?
Oh, for freak’s sake. How dense do you have to be? OWS may not be identified with a particular party, and may not have a coherent strategy, but everybody knows it has a strong point of view. Besides which, it doesn’t matter that Curran did this on her own time. It compromises the appearance of objectivity that her employer has a right to expect from a news reporter on his staff.
And further, where has Curran been? Doesn’t she understand that in this cutthroat political environment, public radio literally can’t afford any mistakes like this, because the Republicans in Congress are eager to cut public radio’s budget on any pretext?
I do think it was ridiculous for NPR to fire and distance itself from freelancer Lisa Simeone for her work for Occupy DC. Unlike Curran, who is a news reporter, Simeone is a host for an opera program, for crying out loud. Nevertheless, if I were in charge at NPR, I would feel compelled to take that action, simply to protect my other employees from Congressional budget cutters. (Note: I would not feel this way at all if NPR were coming down so hard on someone from its news operation).
Anyway, I’m sorry Curran is out of a job, but she was catastrophically naive if she thought she could join a protest as an open participant, not as a journalist covering it, and get away without professional sanction. This is just not done, and most professional journalists, whatever their political sympathies, understand this. An expensive lesson for Curran to learn, though.