NPR’s Daniel Zwerdling out after investigation into harassment

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Daniel Zwerdling accepts a 2006 Peabody Award for an NPR investigation of treatment of Iraq War veterans with symptoms of mental health problems. The ceremony was held June 4, 2007, in New York City.

Daniel Zwerdling, a veteran investigative journalist at NPR, has left the network amid allegations of sexual harassment.

At least two NPR staffers reported Zwerdling to human resources in November, according to sources close to the investigation. Employees filed in response to an invitation by NPR’s top leadership that month to report inappropriate behavior. The NPR sources declined to describe the incidents that prompted complaints because the women could be identified.

In an emailed statement, Zwerdling said the allegations are untrue and that he retired in January. NPR spokeswoman Isabel Lara said in an email Tuesday that the network “can confirm Daniel Zwerdling is no longer on staff at NPR. As this is a personnel matter, we do not have any additional comments to share.”

Six current and former NPR interns and staffers told Current that they had been subject to harassment or inappropriate behavior from Zwerdling. Most were interns or young producers at the time. One of the women who reported Zwerdling to HR said he tried to kiss her. Three said they had witnessed inappropriate behavior.

Staffers who experienced or witnessed Zwerdling’s behavior did not want to be identified for fear of retribution.

Sources characterized Zwerdling’s alleged harassment as unwanted kisses and touching, and conversations that he steered into personal territory. Mid-career women and former interns told Current of incidents that date as far back as the mid-90s, and as recently as last year. None of the women filed complaints with NPR at the time of the alleged misbehavior. Most sources described a pattern of Zwerdling taking interest in younger women, including junior staffers and interns, who are hungry for career advice.

“The allegations are not true,” Zwerdling said. “When the movement started sweeping across the nation recently to expose sexual harassers and predators, I applauded it. I still do. The current national reckoning regarding sexual harassment is a momentous opportunity for America to make itself a better, safer and more equitable country. Yet as many have already observed, there are also perhaps predictable and troubling collateral casualties along the way. The allegations against me are one of those instances.”

Zwerdling worked with the investigations team, on the third floor of the NPR building, and several colleagues said it’s like he disappeared from NPR’s newsroom. They have not seen him since November.

The second part of a two-part investigation by Zwerdling into the anti-malaria drug, Mefloquine, scheduled to air on All Things Considered Monday, Nov. 27, was canceled Nov. 23, according to an NPR email to stations.

In December, NPR spokeswoman Lara declined to confirm whether Zwerdling was on leave or comment on the allegations.

Zwerdling did not answer questions about sexual harassment complaints against him. He also did not respond to a request for comment on the details of incidents in this story.

NPR also declined to answer questions about the terms under which Zwerdling left NPR and whether NPR had investigated complaints against him. NPR also did not answer questions about cancellation of Zwerdling’s anti-malaria investigation.

After Michael Oreskes, NPR senior VP of news, was forced out last fall by allegations of sexual harassment during his tenure at NPR and the New York Times, NPR encouraged employees to speak up about harassment and broader problems with workplace culture. David Sweeney, who had been promoted to chief news editor under Oreskes, also left NPR amid sexual harassment allegations.

Current began looking into claims in November, shortly after the dismissal of Oreskes. Eighteen current and former NPR staffers and interns spoke with Current about Zwerdling’s alleged conduct, which ranged from unwanted kisses to overly personal conversations.

Zwerdling had reported for NPR since 1980 and has won numerous prestigious broadcasting awards. His bio on NPR’s website, which NPR recently removed, called him one of the “best known and most acclaimed investigative journalists in America.”

A woman who worked at NPR in 2013 as a summer intern said she looked up to Zwerdling and thought it was “amazing” when he offered to mentor her. He began inviting her for coffee at a Starbucks near NPR’s headquarters, and they developed a weekly standing appointment, she said.

“I wasn’t giving off any signals that I wanted anything other than a professional mentorship, and I would always talk about work, but he always tried to lead the conversation toward his personal life or my personal life,” the woman said. “There were times when it felt uncomfortable, but when you’re in that sort of situation, it’s hard to say, ‘Danny, please stop talking about your wife with me.’ You just politely nod and wait till … you can get back to talking about work and NPR as a network and journalism at large.”

The woman said Zwerdling’s informal manner seemed odd, but she didn’t see it as a red flag. “He’s like this short, jovial, very creative guy, and I thought that was just something that came with the territory,” she said. “I didn’t really pay it any mind because nothing had happened.”

At one weekly meeting, they couldn’t get seats at Starbucks, and Zwerdling suggested they go to an outdoor public courtyard in the center of a building nearby.

The woman didn’t recall what they were talking about when they sat in the courtyard, but she remembers that out of the blue Zwerdling put his hand on her knee. “I was wearing a skirt, so he touched my bare skin on the inside of my right thigh. … It was momentary.”

In hindsight, the woman said she believes Zwerdling was testing her boundaries. “I felt like all of the women who talk about this stuff — frozen and also ashamed — and in those moments dozens of emotions come crashing down,” she said. “But you’re supposedly in a professional setting so you have to keep your wits about you and the decorum has to stay professional. So you brush it off, and you hope that it was just a weird mistake or something from … his generation that doesn’t mean anything so you shouldn’t pay attention to it.”

The woman did not object, but began canceling their weekly meetups and avoiding Zwerdling. As her internship drew to a close, Zwerdling suggested they meet again.

“He gives me a hug, and then he says, ‘I really like you.’ And I’m like, ‘I really like you, too, Danny, that’s great.’ Almost like, of course. That’s why I wanted to be your mentee. And he said, ‘No, I really like you.’ I think I just kind of nodded my head and smiled politely and waved and walked away. And it made me feel like an idiot.”

The woman said she later realized that Zwerdling wasn’t interested in her work but in pursuing “something that wasn’t professional.”

“I think with all of these sorts of power-play, mentor-mentee stories that have come out, the thing that makes everyone sad on the woman’s side is we feel that we were there to do something good for ourselves and our career,” the woman said. “But at the end of the day, we were there to possibly be a fun dalliance for an older man who has no business bringing this into the professional sphere.”

The woman said that when she stopped talking to Zwerdling, he left her alone.

The woman confided in a few people about her experience but didn’t consider a formal complaint. “It was still 2013. Who was going to believe me?” she said.

In retrospect, she described the relationship as “a very NPR-style predation.” NPR demands that its people are “nice,” unlike television which enables super egos of star talents such as Charlie Rose, she said. The former PBS and CBS News host was reported to have walked around nude among young women who worked for his production company. But NPR’s emphasis on civility and respect doesn’t prevent harassment, she said.

Ultimately, the woman said the experience damaged her confidence. She left public radio but works in journalism. “Now I’m literally afraid of men in the workplace,” she said. “I won’t see a man alone. I won’t get coffee alone… Whereas before with Danny, I would think the best of it immediately because — why would anyone hunt down women to take advantage of them under the guise of their work? … Now we know it’s because of power and desire. Now, it’s ‘What do they actually want to meet with me for?’”

Second-guessing harassment

Zwerdling met NPR interns through brown-bag lunch presentations, where he’s explained his work and path to investigative journalism, according to recent interns. One intern introduced herself to Zwerdling after his presentation last year. Zwerdling began visiting her desk frequently to check on her, according to the woman and witnesses.

“It’s kind of creepy that he would come to my desk all the time or that he wanted to check in on how I was doing, even though I don’t work with him at all,” the woman said. NPR staffers who witnessed the behavior at the time agreed Zwerdling’s interest was strange because the young woman’s team did not overlap with investigations.

During her internship, the two occasionally grabbed coffee inside the office. Once, they went out to the Starbucks near NPR headquarters. Zwerdling asked questions about her personal life that made her uncomfortable, she said, and she tried to keep the conversation focused on work. As she discussed a story she was working on, Zwerdling abruptly changed topics. “If you don’t mind me saying, I think you’re beautiful,” he said.

“I found myself second-guessing whether or not this was harassment until I talked to someone else about it,” the woman said.

When the woman returned to NPR with Zwerdling, a female colleague warned her to stay away from him. Other colleagues said they had noticed Zwerdling seeking out younger women.

The woman did not report her experience to NPR. “I’m scared to have my name be in a bad light,” the woman said. “That’s all people will know of me.”

She continues to work in journalism.

“Given all that we’ve learned in recent months of seemingly ‘good’ men performing boorish, disgusting and illegal deeds, I recognize that the reputation I’ve built over almost 50 years does not automatically refute the allegations against me,” Zwerdling said in his statement. “I also understand why some accusers want anonymity. As the nation has been learning from painful accounts, some women have felt it best to conceal their identities as they’ve dealt with their genuine ordeals.”

Support among rank and file

Women who have worked with Zwerdling during his NPR tenure say he is good at giving advice and generously shares his time with interns. During a brown bag last fall, Zwerdling talked to interns about investigative reporting and the session became a story skills workshop, where interns practiced mock interviews, according to one participant. Zwerdling played snippets of stories for the group to dissect how he drew a particular quote or captured a scene, the intern said.

But two additional women who formerly worked at NPR described inappropriate behavior by Zwerdling in incidents more than a decade ago. Both said he immediately backed off when they confronted him.

One woman said Zwerdling made a “strong pass” at her during a work trip. The other woman said Zwerdling directed a conversation into uncomfortable personal territory when they met shortly after she left NPR. She recalled discussing the incident with a former colleague who said Zwerdling was known to behave inappropriately. Neither reported his behavior. Both said he was not their manager and had no bearing on their careers.

NPR staffers describe Zwerdling as funny and approachable. His typical office attire is casual — a black T-shirt and khaki slacks — but his rapid-fire interviewing style is like a machine. Zwerdling was loathe to miss a Tiny Desk concert, according to colleagues. “These are a gift,” he often said. “You have to go!”

When NPR was downsizing its newsroom in 2002, colleagues campaigned to protect Zwerdling’s job. Because of his long history and stature as a reporter, the proposal to dismiss him stirred debate about whether NPR had veered from its core mission.

“He has produced easily some of the most memorable moments heard on NPR in the last 20 years,” investigative correspondent Howard Berkes told Current at the time.

Ultimately, Zwerdling’s job was saved.

The 2002 campaign to protect Zwerdling’s job “demonstrates the difficulty someone might have in saying something against Danny because there was such obvious support for him among the rank and file,” said Sara Sarasohn, a 20-plus-year NPR veteran who now works for Gimlet.

In his statement to Current, Zwerdling said he intends to continue “investigating and reporting important stories in new ways.”

“I’ve spent my career trying to report on complicated issues with balance, fairness and meticulously researched facts — and I hope my colleagues in the media will continue that tradition. I wish my great colleagues at NPR the best.”

UPDATE: After this report was published, former Minnesota Public Radio producer Kryssy Pease told the MPR blog NewsCut about an uncomfortable encounter with Zwerdling in 2007. Pease was not a source in this article.

7 thoughts on “NPR’s Daniel Zwerdling out after investigation into harassment

  1. Thanks for doing a much better job at reporting on this than NPR. I read their “article” about this and it was 50% talking about that predator’s achievements. Thanks for not pulling any punches here. NRP should be ashamed of protecting this asshole.

  2. I’m giving up on NPR because of its excessive witch hunts and ultra feminism. It ‘s not worth the trouble and constant aggravation and lack of due process and fairness

  3. I’m giving up on NPR because of its excessive witch hunts and ultra feminism. It ‘s not worth the trouble and constant aggravation and lack of due process and fairness. I am repeating this complaint…

  4. This is a strange article. At no time was there mention of Danny Zwerdling using any power he had at NPR to oppress or intimidate anyone. Abuse of power is a key element of sexual harassment. That conversations would cover small talk which could touch on personal matters in not sexual harassment. What one gets from this article is – never be friends with anyone you work with as it could easily be misinterpreted.

    • You obviously have no idea of what “intimidation” is in a workplace. Most women can tell you stories that make it clear that intimidation need not include obvious threats or groping. The use of a powerful position or authority to cause concern for career and reputation of the victim is intimidation. You need to do quite a bit of reading before you make statements like that.

      • None of the people mentioned in the article said they lost any position or promotion. Several indicate they were mentored by Zwerdling. More likely he helped advance their position at NPR. This article is not about most women. I am commenting on the lack of substance in this story. Read it again.

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