Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Truth in Broadcasting

By Debbie Gilbert

NOVEMBER 9, 1998:  Scott Simon is a little harried right now. He’s on deadline to finish his new book Home and Away, a memoir about being a sports fan – and in particular, being a fan of the long-suffering Chicago Cubs. The book is strictly from a spectator’s perspective; Simon has never worked as a sports announcer. But he’s held just about every other job in broadcasting.

If you get your news primarily from television, you may have seen Simon co-anchoring NBC’s weekend Today show, or hosting a variety of PBS shows such as the State of Mind series and last year’s Affluenza, a special about the dangers of materialism. But he’s best known for his 20-year career at National Public Radio. As a correspondent, he’s reported from some of the globe’s most troublesome hot spots, including the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, El Salvador, and the Middle East, and he’s covered stories in just about every state in the Union.

While acknowledging that it’s a cliché, Simon says that he is indeed “trying to change the world,” and he enumerates all the “events that have to concern us”: the Holocaust, Albania, Bosnia, violence against gays, and the whole history of racism in the United States.

Growing up as the son of comedian Ernie Simon and actress Patricia Lyons, Simon spent time in several of America’s largest cities, including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. While he never personally felt persecuted or discriminated against, he lived in neighborhoods where some of the residents were Holocaust survivors. Recalling the mother of one of his childhood friends, he says, “I remember being startled when she put down a Coca-Cola and I could see the serial number on her arm.”

The memory continues to haunt him, and as a journalist he’s returned to the issue repeatedly. “The longest piece we’ve ever done on the show,” he says, “was on the death of Anne Frank.”

Anti-Semitism also figured in one of the earliest stories Simon did after joining NPR’s Chicago bureau in 1978. “The American Nazi Party wanted to parade in Skokie, Illinois, and the ACLU supported them. They got permission and then decided to march instead in Marquette Park. Robert Siegel was my editor then [on All Things Considered] and he permitted me to do a story on it, after the fact. Other news organizations would have said, ‘The march was two days ago – move on,’ but NPR allows us the time to do important stories in-depth.”

The piece won an award, one of dozens that Simon has amassed over the years; others include a Peabody, an Emmy, and the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award, among journalism’s most prestigious honors. But to Simon, one of the most rewarding aspects of his job is being able to investigate and expose injustice in the world. For example, he’s reported on racism in South Philadelphia, famine in Ethiopia, and deplorable conditions at an Immigration and Naturalization Service detention center in Texas. He’s also done a number of stories about prejudice against homosexuals.

“I think we’ve been outspoken against gay-bashing,” says Simon. “A couple of weeks ago, I would have told you we were making progress on this issue.”

He’s alluding to the shocking murder in Laramie, Wyoming, of gay college student Matthew Shepard, which provoked a national outpouring of sympathy but which also drew outrage when anti-gay protesters showed up at the funeral proclaiming “God Hates Fags.” Their appearance was orchestrated by a Topeka, Kansas, minister who has made a career out of promoting hate, and Simon finds it difficult to contain his revulsion.

“I suppose it’s one thing to have your own personally repellent beliefs,” he says, “but to travel thousands of miles to make those views known … ” His voice trails off in disgust.

Simon knows such people are out there – he hears from them regularly. “The vituperative crank mail I get – and it’s a small percentage of our audience – is mostly anti-Semitic and anti-gay,” he says.

That tells him there’s still work to be done. As long as such evil exists, organizations like Facing History and Ourselves will have to continue pushing back the tide of ignorance and hate.

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