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 will be in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, Jan. 15 to open the 2019 Media Innovators Speaker Series at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.
It will be his “first voyage to Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania,” he said in a phone interview last week.
Though a neophyte in a land of French fries between bread, Folkenflik is certain to deliver a heaping hand of observations, as promotional materials for the event, which is sponsored by the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University and Pittsburgh’s NPR station WESA-FM, promise he “will put these times in context while pointing a way forward for the Fourth Estate.”
During an hour-long conversation, Folkenflik moved between professional and personal lines of questions. He recounted growing up Jewish in Orange County, Calif., his beginnings in print media and the current 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
“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 Post-Gazette 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.”
To what extent these issues will be developed during Tuesday’s remarks, Folkenflik is undecided. More certain are his plans once he arrives in the Steel City. During his approximate 24-hour “whirlwind” he will meet with college students and local journalists, visit the Post-Gazette and “spend significant time” at WESA with staff, members “and some of the people who help support the station,” he said. “We’re not a network, we’re a system, and we all support each other up and down in different ways.”
Tapping into Pittsburgh’s pulse is particularly exciting as it 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.”
Although Tuesday evening will allow guests to hear 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,” he 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.”
Those seeking to learn more about NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik are encouraged to attend the Jan. 15 program at 7 p.m. at PNC Theatre at Pittsburgh Playhouse.
Tickets are available at pittsburghplayhouse.com
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.