Like so many career stories, David Folkenflik’s began with not intentionally majoring in what he ended up doing for the rest of his life. Growing up in Laguna Beach, Calif., the son of two university professors, he attended Cornell University. He studied history and thought he’d get into some kind of public service or public policy. He says he “fell by accident” into writing for the student newspaper. From there, he was hooked. Graduating in 1991, in the midst of an economic recession, was in his words, “daunting,” and he spent some time unemployed before finding work with the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun. From there he moved to the Baltimore Sun and in 2004 joined NPR as the radio network expanded its coverage areas.
For 10 years he’s covered the media and news industry beat for NPR, where he’s reported extensively on numerous industry trends and controversies — several at his own organization (notably the firing of Juan Williams and, later, Vivian Schiller). His coverage of the British phone hacking scandal at News Corp.-owned newspapers led him to write his new book “Murdoch’s World” about Rupert Murdoch, perhaps the most recognized media mogul in the world.
What made you want to do the Rupert Murdoch book?
The hacking scandal in the summer of 2011 provided an exceptional window into how that company worked at some of its highest levels. The two newspapers at the height of the scandal were both integral to Murdoch’s sense of identity. He leapfrogged from Australia to Britain to here. They were still major elements that helped to fund the operations of the more prestigious newspapers he owned. What we learned was there was a tabloid culture, but particularly a Murdoch culture, where nothing was supposed to get between you and the story. It really spoke to the way in which this had been news organizations beyond accountability. He is the owner of the most widely watched and influential news channel in the country (Fox News), and the New York Post and Wall Street Journal. There really is nobody like him in the media world. It struck me that this was the moment that warranted a new look.
Did it present any challenges doing the book and then having to report on Fox News and News Corp. in the future?
Well, Fox News doesn’t even respond with a “no comment,” and hasn’t since about a week before the book came out. It appears I’m not for the first time on one of their blacklists. You report (stories) fully and fairly, and your hope is that they participate, and if they don’t participate, that’s on them. At the Wall Street Journal, an editor went to my publisher and begged for a copy ahead of time, and (my publisher) asked “Oh, are you going to review it?” And they said “No, we just want to get a copy. We’re not going to mention it in the paper.” And by the way, I have a lot of respect for the Journal, and I think the book reflects that.
Speaking of challenges, you’ve had to cover your fair share of controversies within your own house at NPR. How do you approach reporting on those who are essentially your bosses and colleagues?
It’s complicated. There’s a human element. You’re covering people you like in many cases. Some of them sign your paycheck or make your job possible. There’s nothing hidden there. I’ve been incredibly impressed by how the top executives of this company have allowed me and my editors to do the stories necessary even when not reflecting favorably upon the network. It seems to me that whatever the controversies have been, the fact that I’ve been able to do this reporting is that NPR lives its values and embodies them. And that’s worth knowing. It’s different than what you would see at a lot of news organizations. It’s hard for news organizations to cover themselves, but NPR has allowed us to cover the ones of note, and to do it in an honorable way.
It’s not a stretch to say Geraldo Rivera and you have some background, and it’s not particularly collegial. What’s the history there?
He and I don’t know each other personally. It all goes back to a story I did for the Baltimore Sun (over 10 years ago) where he said he was praying over the tattered remains of American servicemen and their Afghan allied fighters.
[Note: The full story and background on the feud is probably best described in a 2005 Atlantic profile of Rivera. Search “Folkenflik” in your Web browser to find where the incident is described in the article.]
He’s called me (recently), a lying leech, a lying, chicken-hearted punk, just a series of things. It’s all a distraction. He thinks it’s all about him and his manhood. It’s about his integrity (as a journalist). He calls my report the most grievous wound. It is a grievous wound because he has so far proven unable to address it in a transparent way. That’s why this wound still lingers.
You’re a journalist who ostensibly covers other journalists. Do you ever get tired of media news? Do you go home and completely disconnect from that environment?
That’s a really good question. When I go home, I don’t watch a lot of news at night. I tend not to do that. I will make sure my iPhone is not by me at dinner. Before I had the kid, I would watch “The Daily Show” and “Colbert Report” at night. I still read The New Yorker and New York Review of Books, but I try not to make it all meta-media, all the time.
It’s no secret that the news media loves covering itself — hence you and I have jobs. Do you ever think it’s too much, like we’re just echoing insider baseball and the general public really doesn’t care as much as we’d like them to?
We pay people to look at the business of sports, and religion, and labor unions. The media, and now social media, are the prisms through which they see the world around them. So, yeah, it’s worth understanding to know how people see the stories they see. I feel people are entitled to decide. If we expect to hold other institutions accountable, we need to hold (media) institutions accountable ourselves.
Where do you get news, other than NPR? I mean, what’s your daily news consumption routine?
The first thing I do is look at Twitter. And I have a subscription to The (New York) Times and Wall Street Journal. And I listen to NPR not all the time, but a lot of the time.
I get asked by non-journalism friends and family about the “future of journalism,” and usually that means they think newspapers are dying. How do you approach those conversations? How do you respond to people who think “newspapers” equal journalism, and for that matter, that they’re all “dying.”
Take my old newspaper, the Baltimore Sun. There were, I think, nine foreign bureaus. There are no foreign bureaus now for the Sun. They’ve dumped a lot of their independent critics. The sophistication there is not what it once was. On the other hand, if you were just to show up there fresh from journalism school, it’s the largest news outlet in Maryland. They’ve done genuine enterprise work. Their investigations have shown the corruption of the former governor of Baltimore. I would say this is great. They’re doing a lot of different things they weren’t doing before. If someone said to me, should I take a job at the Sun, I would say, what do you want to do? NPR is going to have their challenges, too. Journalism is around and as necessary as it ever was. The financial model for legacy organizations is challenged. I think people are trying new things, and we have to be more forgiving and experimental.
Of all the media stories you’ve covered — scandals, plagiarism, phone hacking in the U.K., NPR’s own issues — does any one stand out as the most difficult or otherwise memorable?
I did a story about how the National Catholic Reporter based in Kansas City really had been a leader on child abuse by clergy, even though it had been hard to do given its readership and its standing in the church. And they did it painstakingly from a position as almost a member of the family being critical. And I enjoy stories like that that take you to places away and take listeners from one of the main media capitals and says this is something that deserves attention, and we need to be aware of the importance of the reporting that’s done.
You lived in Baltimore, but now you’re in New York City, but you’re not a native of either place. So, Orioles or Yankees? Yes, there is a right answer.
I always loved going to Camden Yards (Orioles stadium) when I was in Baltimore. But I’m definitely an Angels fan (he grew up in southern California). I don’t hate the Yankees, but they make it very hard to love them.