Q&A: Howard Berkes, Veteran of the Rural Beat, to Retire from Public Radio

NPR’s first rural affairs correspondent ends his 38-year broadcast journalism career with a Frontline television documentary on federal regulators who turned a blind eye on a major resurgence in black lung disease.

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Veteran NPR reporter Howard Berkes caps off his 38-year public media career with a rare foray into television journalism this week.

On Tuesday night, January 22, PBS’ Frontline will air a documentary, “Coal’s Deadly Dust,” on the resurgence of black lung. The report pairs Berkes with filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon, who won an Emmy for her 2017 documentary short “Heroin(e).”

Berkes, who turns 65 this month, has spent more time than most reporting on rural America. In his first 20 years with National Public Radio, he covered the interior West from his base in Salt Lake City. “I spent a lot of time driving ranch roads and mountain roads and doing stories about small towns and ranchers and cowboys and Native Americans,” he said. (NPR’s bio of Berkes has other career highlights, including his coverage of eight summer and winter Olympic Games and award-winning stories on the Challenger space shuttle disaster.)

NPR assigned him to a national rural beat around 2003. “I jumped at the opportunity,” Berkes said. From there he covered the role of rural voters in national elections, the impact of Hurricane Katrina on small communities beyond New Orleans, the disproportionately high death rate of U.S. military personnel from rural America, and more.

When NPR restructured its beat system, Berkes continued to keep his focus on rural stories through investigative reports on worker safety. He’s broken major stories on mine safety, black lung, and grain-bin suffocation.

His Frontline report Tuesday night reveals how federal regulators for the past 20 years have failed to adequately regulate rock dust – or silica – even though it’s a culprit in causing deadly black lung. His radio reports aired on NPR in December.

We talked to Berkes about what he discovered on the rural beat, how media cover rural communities, and how he moved into major investigative reports on worker safety. Berkes talked to us via phone from his home in Utah. The interview is edited for length and clarity.

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Howard Berkes: “As I look back on my career, I’m grateful that I worked for a news organization that let me run all over the West and all over rural America.” (Elaine Sheldon/FRONTLINE)

Tim Marema: When you moved from covering the interior West to NPR’s national rural beat, what were the similarities and differences that you found between rural communities of the West and the rural communities in the rest of America?

Howard Berkes: I think the biggest takeaway for me that was consistent across all rural communities, no matter where they were in the country, was that in every place I went to, there were thoughtful people who were trying to figure out how to make their communities work better, who had concern about the ability of people to learn in their communities, the ability for young people to stay there, the kind of changes that occur when maybe there is some big, new economic driver that suddenly comes in. I found in every community people who really gave a lot of thought to what they wanted their communities to be.

The difference between the communities that were successful in meeting those challenges, or at least had a chance for success, were communities where those kinds of people were also leaders. Every rural community that I’ve been in that had innovation going on and was having some success at meeting new challenges and at adapting to changes were communities where there were strong leaders, business leaders, community leaders. That made the difference.

Marema: Tell me about moving from a broad, general beat on rural issues and then, in the last several years, focusing on mine safety and other worker issues. How did that change occur?

Berkes in his wood-heated home studio in the late 1980s or early ’90s. (Photo courtesy of Howard Berkes)

Berkes: It started with the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster in West Virginia in 2010. [He worked with fellow NPR reporter Frank Langfitt initially.] That started my interest in workplace safety, in general, not only coal mine safety. I basically shifted to doing investigative projects. I always tried to make them projects about things that were happening in rural places. I continued to return to coal mine states because I just kept discovering what to me seemed to be a failure of regulators to force industry to keep coal miners safe on a bunch of different fronts. That was very clear in Upper Big Branch, and it became clear in black lung. [The black lung investigations] grew out of the Upper Big Branch disaster because the autopsies that were done on the miners at Upper Big Branch showed an incredibly high rate of black lung disease among those miners.

That got me to do a series of stories with the Center for Public Integrity and Chris Hamby on a resurgence of basic black lung. I did some other regulatory stories about mining, but I was always interested in this advanced stage of disease and returned to that in 2016. This is the project that’s culminating with the collaboration with Frontline.

Marema: What did you learn in this investigation?

Fundamentally, as someone says in our story, both in the NPR story and in the Frontline documentary that’s going to air on January 22nd, fundamentally, it’s an example of regulatory failure.

A message from the Rural Assembly

In the summer of 2016 I got a tip, a text message, that said that clinics in Appalachia, lawyers and medical clinics, were slammed with miners who have progressive massive fibrosis [the advanced stage of black lung], more cases than anybody had ever seen.

What I found in looking at data from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and by looking at internal memos from MSHA going back to the 1990s, was that everybody knew that silica was a specific threat – that it was causing advanced disease. What we found when we looked at MSHA’s own data was that there were thousands and thousands of exposures to dangerous levels of silica that they didn’t respond to. These miners are desperately sick and who knows how many more of them are going to get sick, but it’s a really tragic situation.

We also discovered, by the way, that the official count from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health was 99 cases [of progressive massive fibrosis or advanced black lung disease] in five years. Our count in roughly the same time frame was over 2,200 cases.

Berkes tries to interview David G. Zatezalo after the head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration gave a speech. Zatezalo and other current MSHA officials refused to speak to NPR about the silica investigation. (screen capture from Frontline preview)

Marema: A lot of us got into journalism so the information we reported could be acted upon. How do you feel about that part of the model of journalism these days? 

Berkes: Well it’s actually in my job description, for those of us on the investigations teams, that the stories we do have the potential for impact. But I learned a long time ago that you can’t go into a story expecting impact. You have no control over how people are going to receive what you do and how they’re respond to it. You hope that by shedding light on something that can be directed maybe that it will be, you always hope that.

I grew up in a political family, a political household and I saw how politics worked when I was growing up. I knew that going into journalism that being right, that having the facts, that having a clear path laid out to doing something that needed to be done didn’t necessarily mean it was going to get done. I’m not under any illusion that I’m going to do a story and the world is going to change. You hope that by laying out a set of facts that people respond to it, but you can’t count on that happening because there are so many things that are beyond your control. Especially in the realm of politics, when you’re talking about Congress and political parties. Doing the right thing is not often the first thing that members of Congress or elected officials default to.

I think the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster is the perfect example. Generally, when there are mine disasters, big ones, there’s been a legislative response. That didn’t happen after Upper Big Branch. With a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president for basically the rest of that year in 2010, that didn’t happen. There just wasn’t the chest beating that occurs after a mine disaster, the worst mine disaster in 40 years, 29 people killed. There were significant problems that some members of Congress did write bills to correct, but those bills didn’t go anywhere in a Democratic Congress with a Democratic president. Of course, they haven’t gotten anywhere since in the Republican Congresses that have followed. It could seem really clear that something needs to be fixed, that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

Marema: During your time in journalism, have you seen changes in how media portrays rural?

Berkes: Well I’d say just when I get optimistic and I see some really good stuff written and thoughtful stuff, then I see crap. There’s that horrific story of that reporter from der Spiegel. Just when I get hope about some of the reporting I see, there are tons of reporters out there who – and this is especially true in the wake of the election of Donald Trump – where many news organizations think the way to capture what’s going on with the Trump base is to send reporters to rural places, to Appalachia in particular, and try to understand what these people are thinking. I’ve seen a lot of so-called journalists parachuting into places with preconceived notions about rural people, about rural voters, about Appalachia, in particular, and doing nothing but confirming their preconceived notions. That continues and that’s going to continue.

That said, there has been some great reporting. I know my own colleagues who have been assigned to go to the places that I know, some of them will call me and want to get an intelligence download, want to know who they might talk to, what I know about the politics and the region, and that’s a really positive thing. They’re truly interested in going in without being blind, not everybody [at NPR] does it but some of them have.

I will say that one of the things that I’ve noticed in my time in covering rural places, and especially in Appalachia, is that these organizations have invested in rural places. You have ProPublica basically hiring reporters for its local reporting network to continue to work for their local news organizations, but with the resources and money of ProPublica. You have Report for America out hiring reporters to work for local news organizations, many of them in rural places. So all of the sudden you end up having really talented and smart reporters who might be working in some city somewhere end up working in Appalachia, or rural Mississippi, or rural Oregon. The Abrams Nieman Fellowship at the Niemen Foundation is doing the same thing with supporting investigative reporting in rural places by identifying people who have become Neiman fellows and then go back to their communities and do an investigative project. These are very positive things that in terms of supporting good reporting in rural places.

Howard Berkes interviews Montana rancher John Holden in 1997. Berkes spent the first 20 years of his career covering the interior West. (Photo by Sean Collins, copyright 1997, courtesy of NPR)

Marema: What’s next for you in retirement? Do you have any projects lined up or anything you want to do professionally or otherwise?

Berkes: I’ve been approached to work on some things [such as follow-ups to stories  he previously covered], so I may do those things, but I’m interested in real retirement. I’ve been doing this for 38 years. I’ve worked at home for 38 years, but that doesn’t mean I’ve spent enough time with my family. My wife is interested in us doing some of the things that we haven’t been able to do. We’re both outdoors people. We like to hike, and kayak, and ski, and bike and boat, so we’ll see.

Marema: What didn’t I ask that I should have?

Berkes: As I look back on my career, I’m grateful that I worked for a news organization that let me run all over the West and all over rural America. Nobody at NPR said to me, “Go investigate Upper Big Branch,” I just did it and nobody told me to stop. We had an investigations unit at NPR that gave me a home for that reporting and I was just able to continue to do it. I’m just grateful that I worked for a news organization, NPR, that believed that was important

I’ve been really lucky that I’ve had a place to do these kinds of stories and a platform with an audience of millions of people, many of whom really care about it and responded.

A message from the Rural Assembly

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