NPR: Howard Berkes

Howard Berkes has been NPR's rural affairs correspondent since March 2003 focusing on the politics, economics, and culture of rural America.

Based in Salt Lake City, Berkes reports on stories that are often unique to non-urban communities or provide a rural perspective on major issues and events. In 2005, he was part of the NPR reporting team that covered Hurricane Katrina and in 2010, he reported from West Virginia on the disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine. Berkes’ reporting also includes the impact of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on military families and service men and women from rural America, including a disproportionate death rate from this community. During multiple presidential and congressional campaigns, Berkes has covered the impact of rural voters on those races. 

Berkes has covered seven Olympic games including the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing and the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. He was part of the reporting team that earned NPR a 2009 Edward R. Murrow Award for Sports Reporting for coverage of the Beijing Olympics.

In 1981, Berkes pioneered NPR's coverage of the interior of the American West and public lands issues. He's traveled thousands of miles since then, 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. His analysis of regional issues has also been featured on NPR's Talk of the Nation. Berkes has also been 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. 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.

Reporting by Berkes in 1998 helped transform the Olympic bribery scandal from a local story in Utah into a media firestorm and attracted international attention. His ongoing reporting of Olympic politics and the Olympic Games has made him a resource to other news organizations, including The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS, MSNBC, A&E's Investigative Reports, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the French magazine L'Express, and many others. When the Olympics finally arrived in Salt Lake City, Berkes' coverage included rides in a bobsled and on a luge sled in attempts to help listeners understand how those sports work.

Berkes has covered Native American issues, the militia movement, neo-nazi groups, nuclear waste, the Unabomber case, the Montana Freemen standoff, polygamy, western water issues, and more. His work has been honored by many organizations, including the American Psychological Association, American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, and the National Association of Science Writers.

Berkes also trains news reporters, consults with radio news departments, and serves as a guest faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. Berkes was awarded a Nieman Foundation Journalism Fellowship at Harvard University in 1997.

NBC beat out rivals Fox and ABC/ESPN Tuesday to win yet again the gold medal franchise in sports broadcasting.

And it cost the veteran Olympic broadcaster an average of $1 billion dollars an Olympics for the four winter and summer games from 2014 through 2020.

The International Olympic Committee is listening to pitches and accepting bids Monday and Tuesday for exclusive rights to broadcast the Olympics in the United States.

American broadcast rights are the single biggest revenue generator for the IOC and the bidding underway in Lausanne, Switzerland, has ABC/ESPN and Fox challenging NBC for its lock on the 10 most recent summer and winter games.

The IOC is hoping for a deal totaling more than $4 billion for four Olympics, beginning with the Sochi, Russia, Winter Games in 2014. That would be the biggest TV rights deal ever.

There's one guilty plea so far in the immigration "hit list" case in Utah that energized anti-immigration activists and appalled privacy and civil rights groups.

Two days after being absorbed in a merger, Massey Energy released its final report on the explosion that killed 29 mine workers at its Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia last year.

As we have thoroughly documented here in the last year, the company that owned the Upper Big Branch (UBB) coal mine in West Virginia has been thoroughly criticized by federal regulators, members of Congress, mine disaster investigators and mine safety experts.

We've reported and heard plenty in the last year about how the Upper Big Branch mine explosion was preceded by failures to strictly apply mine safety regulations and practices. Both mine owner Massey Energy and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration share blame, according to a recent report from the West Virginia Governor's Independent Investigation of the disaster.

Shareholders of Massey Energy and Alpha Natural Resources have approved a merger that creates the world's third largest producer of high-priced and high-demand metallurgical coal. Massey became a takeover target after last year's deadly explosion at the company's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

A Circuit Court judge in West Virginia has ordered the release of more than 5,300 pages of documents that could reveal new details about the Upper Big Branch mine disaster and the just-completed merger between Massey Energy and Alpha Natural Resources.

NPR News has learned that Massey Energy executive Chris Adkins will not be part of the executive team at Alpha Natural Resources following today's merger of the two coal companies.

The shareholders of coal mine giants Massey Energy and Alpha Natural Resources overwhelmingly approved a merger this morning, despite challenges from some large institutional investors and an ongoing controversy about Massey executives moving into the management structure of the merged company.

Documents just unsealed in a lawsuit involving the pending merger of coal mine giants Massey Energy and Alpha Natural Resources claim a "secret pact" promised high-level jobs to Massey officials if the company agreed to the takeover.

The Massey officials include several who were directly involved in the management of Massey's Upper Big Branch coal mine, where 29 mine workers died in a massive explosion last year, and in the investigation of that disaster.

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has declined a request to block Wednesday's expected takeover of coal mine giant Massey Energy by Alpha Natural Resources.

They were in charge when the nation's worst coal mine disaster in 40 years hit their Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia.

They ran a company with a "culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable, where deviation became the norm," according to a team of independent investigators who scrutinized that deadly mine explosion.

While we were focused last week on the report that severely criticized Massey Energy for the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster, the company quietly submitted a document to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that reveals new details about a pending merger with Alpha Natural Resources.

The first investigative report about last year's coal mine disaster in West Virginia blames a corporate "culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable, where deviation became the norm" for the deaths of 29 Massey Energy mine workers.

The report was produced by an independent team of investigators appointed by former West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin and led by Davitt McAteer, a former federal mine safety chief who has investigated other mine disasters in the state.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting (WVPB) reports tonight that the first final report on the cause of last year's Upper Big Branch mine explosion will be released Thursday in Beckley, West Virginia.

A federal judge will consider blocking implementation of Utah's controversial immigration enforcement law during a hearing that starts this afternoon at 4 p.m. ET.

The law took effect today after civil and immigration rights activists failed to get Utah officials to agree to delay enforcement until after U.S. District Clark Waddoups rules on a plea for a temporary injunction.

As we reported here Friday, the release of 1,700 pages of interviews about the Upper Big Branch mine disaster search and rescue effort revealed undue risk to the rescuers.

The 31 mine workers hit by the explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia last year weren't the only people whose lives were at risk that day.

Some of the mine rescuers who tried to find the disaster's victims say their lives were also endangered by a reckless mine rescue effort.

A representative of coal mine owner Massey Energy walked out of a meeting Thursday that was to focus on the company's plans to seal off portions of its Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

An explosion at the mine last year killed 29 mine workers in what is now the nation's worst mine disaster in 40 years.

Federal regulators evacuated coal miners from portions of a Massey Energy mine in West Virginia Sunday after finding two dozen safety violations that could have triggered fires or explosions.

The surprise inspection at Massey's Randolph mine in Boone County, W. Va., resulted in 20 "withdrawal" orders for excessive coal dust, weak water sprayers on mining equipment, illegal use of mining machines and failure to properly ventilate areas being mined.

The site of last year's deadly coal mine explosion in West Virginia may be abandoned and sealed-off, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

29 coal miners died at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine a year ago in the nation's worst mine disaster in four decades.

"Massey Energy has indicated it wants to seal the UBB mine," says MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere. "A meeting is set for May 5 to discuss the plan for sealing the mine."

Massey has yet to respond to NPR's request for comment.

Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette confirmed a story today that had been rumored for months: The FBI has sent letters to the families of the 29 victims of last year's deadly coal mine disaster at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine in West Virginia.

"As you may be aware, the FBI has instituted an investigation into various activities at UBB in an effort to determine whether any federal crimes occurred," the letter says. "In connection therewith, you may be a victim of a Federal crime."

As workers continue to blast through solid rock to try to reach an Idaho silver miner missing in a cave-in, reporter Jessica Robinson of the Northwest News Network has produced a fascinating story about the antiquated communication technology used in the Lucky Friday mine. (We've posted the audio at the top of this post.)

"So you're working more than a mile below the surface of the Earth, and there's a cave in," Robinson begins. "How do you let someone know you're alive?"

Here's a quick update on the search for 53-year-old Larry Marek, who has been missing more than a mile underground since a cave-in last Friday at Hecla Mining Company's Lucky Friday silver mine in Mullan, Idaho:

-- Workers are blasting through solid rock to reach the area behind the cave-in.

-- They've progressed 90 feet since Monday night, but have 130 feet to go.

-- A second rescue tunnel is proposed.

The families of the 29 victims of last year's Upper Big Branch mine explosion now have until June 1 to accept $3 million settlement offers from mine owner Massey Energy.

Falling rock and the ongoing threat of more rock falls have forced rescuers to give up on the direct route to 53-year-old Larry Marek, who has been trapped in an Idaho silver mine since Friday.

Rescuers had been trying to dig through the rubble that fills a mine tunnel more than a mile underground. But a relatively small, remotely-controlled mucking machine was only able to make 40 feet of progress in three days.

A top Massey Energy executive who presided over the company while it compiled some of the most criticized safety records in the coal mining industry will jointly manage the main safety program at Alpha Natural Resources if the two companies merge as expected.

That's one of the merger management shifts announced late Friday by Alpha that ensures key roles for several Massey executives in the combined company.

A former foreman for Massey Energy has pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the federal criminal investigation of last year's deadly coal mine disaster in West Virginia.

Thomas Harrah, 45, admits in a plea agreement (see below) to faking the foreman's credentials he used at the Upper Big Branch mine and then lying about it to federal agents.

One year ago tonight, mine rescuers discovered the remains of the last four missing coal miners deep inside Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

There had been hope that the four had made it to refuge chambers and were still alive. Optimistic rescuers carried four sets of breathing apparatus with them, hoping they would be used to bring the miners safely to the surface. The bodies of 25 other miners were found four days earlier.

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