Howard Berkes

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.

Since 2010, Berkes has focused mostly on investigative projects, beginning with the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster in West Virginia in which 29 workers died. Since then, Berkes has reported on coal mine and workplace safety, including the safety lapses at the Upper Big Branch mine, other failures in mine safety regulation, the resurgence of the deadly coal miners disease black lung, and weak enforcement of grain bin safety as worker deaths reached record levels. Berkes was part of the team that collaborated with the Center for Public Integrity in 2011 resulting in Poisoned Places, a series exploring weaknesses in air pollution regulation by states and EPA. In 2015 and 2016, Berkes collaborated with ProPublica on Insult to Injury, a series of stories about a "race to the bottom" in workers' compensation benefits across the country, which won the IRE Medal from Investigative Reporters & Editors, the nation's top award for investigative reporting.

Before moving to the Investigations Unit, Berkes spent a decade serving as NPR's first rural affairs correspondent. His reporting focused on the politics, economics, and culture of rural America. Based in Salt Lake City, Berkes reported on the stories that are often unique to non-urban communities or provide a rural perspective on major issues and events. In 2005 and 2006, he was part of the NPR reporting team that covered Hurricane Katrina, emphasizing impacts in rural areas. His rural reporting also included the effects of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on military families and service men and women from rural America, including a disproportionate death rate among troops from rural areas. Berkes has covered the impact of rural voters on presidential and congressional elections.

Berkes has also covered eight summer and winter Olympic games, beginning with the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. His reporting in 1998 about Salt Lake City's Olympic bid helped transform a largely local story about suspicious payments to the relatives of members of the International Olympic Committee into an international ethics scandal that resulted in Federal and Congressional investigations.

Berkes' Olympic and investigative reporting have made him a resource to other news organizations, including The PBS Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, A&E's Investigative Reports, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the French magazine L'Express, Al Jazeera America and others.

In 1981, Berkes became one of NPR's first national reporters and was based in Salt Lake City, where he pioneered NPR's coverage of the interior of the American West and public lands issues. He traveled thousands of miles to every corner of the region, driving ranch roads, city streets, desert washes, and mountain switchbacks, to capture the voices and sounds that give the region its unique identity.

Berkes' stories are heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition, and he has served as a substitute host of Morning Edition and Weekend All Things Considered.

An easterner by birth, Berkes moved west in 1976, and soon became a volunteer at NPR member station KLCC in Eugene, Oregon. His reports on the 1980 eruptions of Mt. St. Helens were regular features on NPR and prompted his hiring by the network. Berkes is sometimes best remembered for his story that provided the first detailed account of the attempt by Morton Thiokol engineers to stop the fatal 1986 launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Berkes teamed with NPR's Daniel Zwerdling for the report, which earned a number of major national journalism awards. In 1989, Berkes followed up with another award-winning report that examined NASA's efforts to redesign the Space Shuttle's rocket boosters.

In 2016, Berkes revisited the 1986 Challenger story with an update on one of the booster rocket engineers who tried to stop the Challenger launch and who was an anonymous source in the Berkes-Zwerdling report. The engineer, 89-year-old Bob Ebeling, was frail and in hospice care when he told Berkes that he still shouldered guilt for the deaths of the Challenger astronauts. The resulting story prompted hundreds of NPR listeners and readers to write supportive messages, which helped ease Ebeling's guilt. He died a few weeks later – at peace, his family said.

Berkes has covered Native American issues, the militia movement, neo-nazi groups, nuclear waste, the Unabomber case, the Montana Freemen standoff, polygamy, the Mormon faith, western water issues, mass shootings, and more. His work has been honored with more than 20 major journalism awards, including those given by the American Psychological Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, the Joan Shorenstein Center at Harvard University, the Online News Association, the National Press Club, the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, the UCLA Anderson Loeb Awards, and the National Association of Science Writers.

Berkes also won four Edward R. Murrow Awards for investigative, sports, and online audio reporting.

Berkes has trained news reporters in workshops across the country and served as a guest faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. In 1997, he was awarded a Nieman Foundation Journalism Fellowship at Harvard University.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Day One of the London Olympics may have signaled a passing of the torch from one generation of swimming superstars to another. Expectations were sky-high for Michael Phelps, who already had the biggest gold medal haul in Olympic history. But a much-anticipated showdown with swimming teammate Ryan Lochte, turned out to be not much of a showdown at all.

Here's NPR's Howard Berkes.

Every recent opening ceremony of the Olympics went for glitter and glamour, in an escalating war of excess. Ceremony fanatics consider the Beijing opening ceremony the gaudiest of all — and Oscar-winner Danny Boyle (the director of Slumdog Millionaire) had $42 million to try to outdo the Chinese organizers.

Instead, Boyle says, "You can't get bigger than Beijing. So that, in a way, kind of liberated us. We thought, 'Great. Oh good. We'll try and do something different, then.' "

"What's in a name?" a British writer named Shakespeare once asked in Romeo and Juliet, long before the Olympics ever came to London.

Well, it turns out that some Olympic names herald the greatness athletes seek, and the events they enter, while some bear monikers better suited for others.

Olympic reporting veterans like myself (London is Games No. 8) noticed something extraordinary this weekend at the first London 2012 news conference called by International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge.

The "something" sat there on the podium, directly in front of Rogge: an aquamarine bottle of Powerade, a Coca-Cola product. And next to Rogge, in front of IOC spokesman Mark Adams, was a carefully positioned bottle of caramel-colored Coke. Dozens of photographers and TV cameras were capturing the event; it seemed impossible to miss the OIympic sponsor's products.

Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee have inserted into a broad appropriations bill language that would block funding for a Labor Department effort to reduce the occurrence of black lung, the disease that afflicts coal miners exposed to excessive mine dust.

The bill covers appropriations for Fiscal Year 2013 for the Departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services. Tucked away deep inside the measure is this language:

NPR and the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) have learned that the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and the Labor Department are putting together a team of agency experts and lawyers to specifically consider how to bolster coal mine dust enforcement given the statutory and regulatory weaknesses detailed by NPR and CPI this week in stories about the resurgence of black lung.

Part two of a two-part series.

Thousands of coal miners continued to suffer and die from black lung during the 40 years that tough new limits on exposure to coal dust were supposed to provide protection.

Part one of a two-part series.

It wasn't supposed to happen to coal miners in Mark McCowan's generation. It wasn't supposed to strike so early and so hard. At age 47 and just seven years after his first diagnosis, McCowan shouldn't have a chest X-ray that looks this bad.

"I'm seeing more definition in the mass," McCowan says, pausing for deep breaths as he holds the X-ray film up to the light of his living room window in Pounding Mill, Va.

One year ago today, Alpha Natural Resources officially absorbed the troubled coal mining company Massey Energy, which had one of the worst safety records in the industry.

The United States and International Olympic Committees have formally announced a revenue-sharing agreement that paves the way for the return of the Olympics to the U.S.

Details of the deal were not released but sources familiar with it say it guarantees the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) at least $110 million a year from international Olympic sponsorships and the American rights to televise the games.

Olympic officials meeting in Quebec City have reached a tentative agreement in a persistent revenue-sharing dispute responsible, in part, for keeping the Olympics out of the United States for at least 20 years.

The dispute centers on the American share of Olympic revenues. Since 1984, The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) has received the biggest portion of the billions of Olympic dollars paid by corporate sponsors and American television networks. And the rest of the Olympic world has resented it.

[Editor's Note: NPR's Howard Berkes covered the 1989 crash landing of United Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa.]

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

Utah Senator Orrin Hatch survived his state's Republican nominating convention yesterday, but barely failed to get enough votes to avoid a June primary. It'll be the six-term senator's first primary in 36 years. Still, he's not complaining because convention delegates didn't toss him from the race and ultimately from the Senate. That's what they did two years ago with three-term incumbent Bob Bennett.

Tonight, in Whitesville, W.Va., mourners will silently walk with candles on sidewalks lined with luminary lights to remember the 29 coal miners who died two years ago today in the nation's worst mine disaster in 40 years.

That memorial will follow a 3 p.m. ET event in Beckley,W. Va., where an honor guard will ring a bell 29 times to mark the moment the Upper Big Branch coal mine erupted in a massive explosion.

Thursday's guilty plea and plea agreement from the former superintendent of the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia is a key step in the effort to seek criminal charges further up the corporate ladder at Massey Energy, according to court documents and the U.S. Attorney for the southern district of West Virginia.

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