NPR reporters challenge Zwerdling layoff

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NPR ignited a long-smoldering identity crisis in its newsroom Oct. 9
when it laid off Daniel Zwerdling, a veteran investigative reporter
whose work exemplifies the in-depth, sound-rich journalism that distinguishes
public radio.

Zwerdling, a senior correspondent and 21-year veteran of the network
recently reassigned to the Science Desk, was one of nine employees laid
off as NPR tries to counter a sizeable drop in underwriting revenue. He
was the only journalist included in the reduction.

NPR has offered Zwerdling other jobs, but the decision to drop an investigative
reporting post has shocked news staffers and given new definition to rising
anxieties over the network’s future. If tight budgets prompt cutbacks
on in-depth reporting, they ask, is the network in danger of forsaking
its ideals?

“We’re trying to figure out if we’re still the organization that a bunch
of us helped birth,” says Morning Edition host Bob Edwards. “It’s
fair to say that a lot of people are very nervous here when somebody of
that caliber and that length of service is just thrown to the wind.”

“I find it hard to believe that what Danny does is the most disposable
thing in all of NPR,” says Richard Harris, a science correspondent.

Eight employees outside the newsroom, some also highly placed, lost jobs
as well. They include Don Lockett, chief technology officer; Madison Hodges,
director of policy and station services; and veteran music producer Tim
Owens, program manager for NPR’s jazz division. The network laid off other
staff in communications, building services, programming and member and
program services.

A 30 percent decline in underwriting sales from fiscal year 2001 left
NPR with an $8.5 million shortfall. The layoffs will save $1 million annually.

Confused about ‘core mission’

But Zwerdling’s possible departure caused the most immediate worry. About
20 NPR journalists met on the morning of Oct. 16 and began organizing
a response to management. The next day, they circulated a letter urging
management to reinstate Zwerdling, and dozens added their signatures.

Reporters are particularly alarmed by the explanation Zwerdling says
he received for his dismissal. He says Bruce Drake, v.p. of news, told
him NPR was eliminating his position to protect its “core mission.”

Zwerdling asked what “core mission” meant, and says Drake told him NPR
had to ensure it could cover news such as live events, Capitol Hill debates
and the possible war against Iraq.

The suggestion that NPR’s core mission excludes Zwerdling surprised many
of his colleagues, who say his work, distinguished by its artful writing,
rigorous reporting and flair for using sound, is the very sort that NPR
higher-ups and station execs single out when defining public radio and
making the case for its funding.

Zwerdling’s reporting has repeatedly broken news and shaped the direction
of government investigations. In 1986, he and correspondent Howard Berkes
uncovered evidence that NASA officials ignored engineers’ warnings that
the Space Shuttle Challenger was in danger of exploding, as it did shortly
after launch.

Berkes says the reports earned them “half a dozen or so” major awards
and probably influenced the course of the ensuing investigation.

“He has produced easily some of the most memorable moments heard on NPR
in the last 20 years,” Berkes says, “and it’s really hard to see how he
does not fit into what we’re doing now.”

“To lay him off is to say that we have been off base, that we should
not aspire to Danny’s kind of thoroughness, but rather limit ourselves
to quick turnarounds of breaking news,” said the letter to NPR management.
“We sincerely hope this is not what you want, but it clearly is the message
you are sending.”

Caught between two worlds

Zwerdling joined NPR in 1980, covering the health, science and environmental
beats that would become his permanent domain. He reported from Africa
from 1989 to 1993, then hosted Weekend All Things Considered until
1999, when he returned to reporting and joined American RadioWorks, an
investigative collaboration between Minnesota Public Radio and NPR.

NPR pulled out of RadioWorks Oct. 1 to save money. Earlier this year,
Zwerdling says, his supervisors told him he was doing “wonderful work”
and not to worry about his job. They reassigned Zwerdling to the Science
Desk, where he would continue investigative reporting. That job was eliminated.

Fretting for NPR’s soul is hardly novel for its employees — in fact, it
seems hard-wired into the network’s evolution from its funky youth to
its high-profile present. Balancing the best of both worlds has always
proved challenging.

Now, Zwerdling’s dismissal focuses the debate. Journalists wonder if
NPR has lost its dedication to providing an alternative news source. They
ask if it too often follows the lead of the New York Times and
other major newspapers, a game of stamina and drive that produces a surfeit
of solid but unmemorable reporting and a deficit of unique storytelling.

These concerns have not impeded the network’s growth or success. More
listeners tune to NPR’s newsmagazines than ever before, drawn by coverage
of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and, before that, the 2000 presidential

Even amid the growth, some journalists question the allocation of resources.
NPR’s total staff has swelled by 40 percent since 1997. But the news division
has grown at only half that rate over the same period.

Compensation for some marketing executives has climbed to rival the pay
of senior hosts. And NPR is doubling the size of its underwriting department
in an effort to reverse softening revenues, even as it lays off other

Meanwhile, anxiety mounts about a creeping “corporate culture” within
the network.

Lynn Neary, an arts correspondent, says arguing over NPR’s flirtation
with becoming a “CNN of radio” dates back at least a decade.

“There’s been an unresolved tension within the organization for a long
time of how you continue to feed two daily two-hour news programs and
respond to the incredible amount of news that is happening around the
world, and at the same time produce amazing pieces,” she says.

“Management knows it’s hard to do, and maybe the whole battle to keep
those signature kinds of pieces is just being lost,” says Neary, who says
Zwerdling’s work inspired her to take up radio and join NPR.

“I don’t know — maybe you just can’t do both,” she says, sounding sadly

Still a place for in-depth news

Drake denies that the network’s “core mission” has veered toward short,
quick-turnaround pieces, and says he did not intend his talk with Zwerdling
to send that message.

“It would not be right to say that this kind of reporting is disappearing
from NPR,” he says, noting as an example that NPR News just produced a
seven-part history of Israel, reported by correspondent Mike Shuster.

But “sometimes it’s not possible to do as much as you like,” he says.

Drake did offer Zwerdling other jobs at NPR. But Zwerdling says none
compares to his old gig. Reporting on Congress or taking a temporary,
foundation-funded position would come with substantial pay cuts, he says.
Another possibility — reporting for PBS’s Now with Bill Moyers — would
be only temporary, and Zwerdling says he was not promised a position with
NPR when the assignment runs out.

For now, Nov. 22 is slated to be his last day.

“Fortunately, I still am at NPR,” Zwerdling says. “I really do hope that
the managers will realize, ‘Gee, that was too hasty — let’s go back to
the drawing board. There are other ways we can save money.”

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