This article was funded by a grant from the Open Society Institute.
National Public Radio listeners with long memories may recall that in 2002, veteran reporter Daniel Zwerdling began showing up on PBS' "NOW with Bill Moyers." This was not a promotion. The radio network's management farmed him out, he says, after telling him that his hard-edged, often investigative type of reporting "was not part of NPR's primary mission." He could do daily reporting from now on, they said, perhaps a beat, maybe Capitol Hill. "I'd be interested in Capitol Hill," Zwerdling said, "but I think it needs to be investigated."
Instead, Zwerdling spent a couple of years as NPR's television correspondent. After a staff uprising over his transfer, his TV reports were sometimes repackaged for radio.
Today, Zwerdling is front and center in a new eight-member NPR unit that reflects the network's desire to flex some investigative muscle. Directing it is Susanne Reber, deputy managing editor for investigations, who held a similar post at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. until she arrived at NPR in January.
"We wanted to institutionalize investigative reporting," says Ellen Weiss, senior vice president for news and information. "That's what hadn't been done at NPR. It was episodic. It wasn't baked in, and you have to do that to follow stories and churn them out consistently."
Adds Executive Editor Dick Meyer: "It was clear that broadcast news was retreating from investigative journalism in America massively, and newspapers were retreating from all kinds of reporting. It clearly matched NPR's public service mission to fill that opening."
How the unit came to be, and how Zwerdling got there, goes back to 2004.
That year, Zwerdling returned from his PBS post to a changed climate. Bill Marimow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and, later, editor of the Baltimore Sun, had become NPR's managing editor. Zwerdling learned that his own approach to reporting was now part of NPR's "primary mission." Weiss, then head of the national desk, sums up the change this way: "Bill created an environment where investigative reporting was something we could aspire to... He was about saying 'yes' to people."
Zwerdling was one of those people. In one of his first encounters with the new managing editor, the reporter described a story he was working on about immigrants who had been picked up by the Department of Homeland Security, jailed and abused, and then deported. He had already done interviews via remote hookups with two sources in Egypt and Guyana. Marimow asked when he was going to Alexandria, Egypt, for an interview. No need, Zwerdling explained. It was done. No, said Marimow, you need to talk to him in person. And after he had done that, Marimow said, Zwerdling should go to Guyana to interview the other source. Zwerdling did travel to both Egypt and Guyana, and the resulting pieces prodded the Department of Homeland Security to change its policies, sparked a GAO investigation and won a slew of prestigious awards.
The NPR veteran was stunned at the turnaround in philosophy. "My head was spinning," he says.
But Marimow left in 2006 to become editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the new NPR newsroom management team was less enthusiastic about investigative reporting. In 2009, the wheel turned again and Vivian Schiller, a senior vice president at the New York Times Co., moved into the network's top post. Demonstrating her commitment to investigative reporting, she agreed to deliver the keynote address at the 2010 IRE Conference. When her turn came to speak, she told her audience they were "my heroes — in your smarts, diligence, patience, impatience and single-minded dedication to uncovering wrongdoing, and setting the facts straight."
Openness to collaboration is one of the hallmarks of the new regime. Early last June NPR aired the results of a partnership between Zwerdling and T. Christian Miller of ProPublica in a series about traumatic brain injury in the military. For Zwerdling, the collaborative process was "very exciting." He had no trouble bonding with the ProPublica reporter, who had just won the 2010 Selden Ring Award for exposing obstacles faced by civilian contractors entitled to medical treatment for injuries suffered in war zones. "He's an incredibly skilled award winning reporter who" — no small matter — "isn't costing NPR any money, to be crass about it." Zwerdling says that even more important, "Our collaboration has produced better stories than either of us would have done alone."
The two reporters were not the first to explore TBI, but no one had done it more forcefully. In a display of broadcasting prowess, for a week, it seemed, nearly every NPR venue resonated with their reporting. Zwerdling wrote in an e-mail interview that the rollout was planned by Weiss, Meyer and Reber, who "were determined to report our stories from every angle we could — dare I use the word from every 'platform' we could?" Radio versions, Web versions, a video featuring a soldier, plus blog follow-ups "were all part of the strategy, and we consciously made the stories in each of those versions complementary but different. I think that was one of the best parts of this project: we tailored the reporting to each medium, so we had lots of stories out there, all on different facets of the military's failures to grapple well with TBI."
For Zwerdling, his is one tale with a happy ending in the scorched landscape of American journalism. "This is the first time ever, and I've been here since 1980, that the top management starting with the president has said this is one of the most important things we're going to do. We're going to dig, and we're going to investigate."