On Wednesday, NPR rural affairs correspondent Howard Berkes was sitting in a meeting at the NPR West office in Los Angeles. As a shop steward for the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists, he was being informed of a pending announcement that NPR was about to shed 64 jobs, 7 percent of its payroll. Two shows would be canceled.
Sitting in that closed-door meeting, Berkes’ BlackBerry came alive. “I started getting e-mails in my BlackBerry expressing sympathy,” he said in a phone interview.
It became clear that somebody was reporting that he was among those who were losing their jobs.
“I got some interview requests — one from a radio station wanting to talk to me as a victim,” Berkes said. “Fortunately, Ellen Weiss, NPR’s VP for news, was there so I was able to turn to Ellen and say there is a blog reporting that I have been laid off. She said that is terrible, it’s not true, don’t worry.”
FishbowlDC, a blog on Mediabistro.com, had reported that Berkes, along with high-profile NPR journalists Noah Adams and Linda Wertheimer, all had lost their jobs. In fact none of those three was on the layoff list.
The post as originally written is no longer online, but a Craigslist post in Nashville quoted it:
Berkes has been a leader among NPR correspondents in filing radio stories for the Web (See Al’s Morning Meeting profile), so he knows how quickly news, especially bad news, travels online.
He was worried that his wife, who had been laid off from her job as a tech writer and editor the Friday before, would hear it. Or that someone would text his teenage daughter that “her dad was out of a job.”
Berkes said he believes the rumors started when somebody learned that he was in a meeting with VP Weiss and “tried to connect the dots about what was happening. … This person who leaked this information must have sort of said ‘Oh, Howard is there, he must be laid off.’ “
FishbowlDC’s Patrick W. Gavin told Poynter Online in an e-mail:
… My sources at NPR have never steered me wrong but they and others were hearing inaccurate rumors that day and I should taken a more cautious approach.
In a followup message, Gavin wrote, “I think that on reflection, it’s best to return to the original post and note the Howard error, instead of the deletion.”
Gawker also reported the rumors. That post, too, was corrected, but it didn’t note anything about Berkes. Hamilton Nolan, the author of that post, told Poynter Online that he “updated the post with all the news that came out that day including the stuff that contradicted the earlier rumors, and haven’t heard more about it until now.”
Berkes said none of the bloggers tried to verify the information with him. “All they would have to do is call the NPR switchboard in DC and ask for me. My extension was forwarded to my cell phone and I would have gotten the call. It would have taken 10 seconds to reach me.”
Berkes said when false information is posted online, it tends to stay “out there.” Unless it is corrected, searchers years from now might still find the same bad information.
“This all reinforced a few things I knew,” Berkes said. “The Internet is fraught with junk like this that people should not trust. It is not journalism — journalism is different.”
Berkes did joke that not one of his dozens of friends who have e-mailed or called him out of concern offered him a job.
But then, Berkes somberly reflected, “You know even despite what happened to me, it is nothing compared to what happened to so many others at NPR. I have a job. They lost theirs.”
(Disclosure: Howard Berkes has been a guest faculty member and participant in seminars that I have led at Poynter. Ellen Weiss has also been a guest faculty member at Poynter.)