In a world where anyone with a Twitter account has the possibility of possessing the loudest voice, David Folkenflik critiques chroniclers. An award-winning media correspondent for NPR News, Folkenflik regularly reports on journalists and the trade. In recent months his work has covered a coziness between Fox News and the Trump administration, allegations against former CBS head Les Moonves and controversies surrounding Michael Ferro, former chairman of Tribune Publishing Co.
Folkenflik was in Pittsburgh last week to open the 2019 Media Innovators Speaker Series at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. The Jan. 15 event, which was sponsored by the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University and Pittsburgh’s NPR station WESA-FM, welcomed more than 300 attendees, according to campus police, and afforded Folkenflik the chance to discuss challenges facing journalists today. In answering questions posed by WESA’s Liz Reid and attendees, Folkenflik offered responses to accusations of bias or fake news.
Marshall the evidence, rely on different sources, triangulate information and make sure your sources hold up over time, he said. “Keep faith with the truth. The best way to fight fake news is muscular reporting in earnest.” Bad actors do exist, he said, but accountability is intrinsic to journalism. Apart from the people who score a baseball game, “what other profession publicly lists its mistakes?”
In an interview last week before his appearance at Point Park, he explored similar things. As a journalist there are always questions of “fairness and transparency,” he said, but the way “I try to think about it is ‘What am I doing helping people understand the world around them?’”
During the hour-long conversation with the Chronicle, in which he moved between professional and personal topics, Folkenflik recounted growing up Jewish in Orange County, Calif., his beginnings in print media and the role of contemporary journalists.
Regarding the latter, “the need has never been more pressing,” he said. “Even though we can acquire information from all over the world seemingly instantaneously and get access to firsthand documents — and we can evaluate claims and evidence for ourselves if we want to take the time — the number of people paid to help us do that and help us sort through that in conventional news organizations is by and large going significantly down.”
A paucity of journalists leaves those in power with less accountability, he said. “If you don’t have people who are employed to devote time and energy and passion and intelligence to sorting through what the more influential players are doing in the community or how life is lived by your neighbors and relatives there, then it’s awfully hard to have a grasp on how well your community is serving you and what issues most need attention and what kind of remedies might work.”
Folkenflik is cognizant of his perch atop the professional landscape. He joined NPR in 2004 after having worked at the Baltimore Sun, the Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C., and interning at the News and Courier in Charleston, S.C., but despite his place on the media ladder, the self-described veteran of “some very small papers” hasn’t forgotten the role of community journalism.
“Outfits like yours, public media point of-view organizations, intensive blogs, there are roles for a lot of folks to step up and figure out niches to own, or communities to explore, so people have some sense of the texture of life in their communities beyond what they experience,” he said.
That truth could be seen after the Oct. 27 murders at the Tree of Life synagogue building.
“This terrible thing was visited upon essentially neighbors and friends and relatives of those in the congregation and community who happened to be journalists, as opposed to journalists who happen to have some tie,” he explained. “So in that moment your identity is very much attached to what occurred there even as you’re trying to learn the truth and the facts and be fair to what’s happened.” National outlets may have covered the story exceptionally well, but “I’d be really interested to see what guys like your publication had to say about it or folks in the PostGazette or maybe public media in town to see what voices they captured,” he said.
“Local community journalists are the ones best placed to tell the story,” he added. “They don’t have the fame, they don’t have the stature, they don’t have the name recognitions to the nation at large, but they understand the stakes to a community. They understand the role an institution plays. They understand what kind of disruption this meant visited upon your community, and they don’t have to pretend to be apart from it and they don’t also have to play act at being affected by it as you sometimes see at the national level.”
Folkenflik arrived in Pittsburgh eager to tap the city’s pulse. Doing so mirrors aspects of his radio work, he explained. As co-host of NPR and WBUR’s national news program “On Point,” Folkenflik regularly engages with call-in listeners and facilitates a “connected conversation” between lawmakers, journalists, actors, artists and a general audience on “issues of public interest.”
While his work has rendered him one of media’s most recognizable voices, less familiar may be his Jewish upbringing.
“First thing to say is Orange Country has changed a lot over the years. In the ’70s there weren’t a ton of Jews in Laguna Beach and in the immediate environs, so you kind of found community where you could find it,” he said. “And we’re not strictly observant people by a long shot, so that played into it as well, but there was a strong sense in my home of our background and our heritage and our culture and our pride in that and awareness of that.”
Living now in New York, “you have the sense of the different segments of Jewish life and of the variations in the faith, and they are very vivid and present,” Folkenflik added. “My kids are much more aware of certain kinds of rhythms than I probably was in Orange County in the ’70s, and there are ways in which I think that’s great but it’s just a different experience.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com