NPR reporters challenge Zwerdling layoff
Originally published in Current,
Oct. 21, 2002
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 election.
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 employees.
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 resigned.
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."
Web page posted Oct.
23, 2002, revised Nov. 5, 2002