Nonprofit news outlets including the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism have become a valuable piece of the media landscape but cannot fully replace the lost capacity of local and regional newspapers, NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik told a group of Center supporters Wednesday.
“I was asked this morning, ‘Do you believe in not-for-profit reporting? Is that an important thing?’ You bet it is,” Folkenflik told about 20 people gathered at the Lakeside St. Coffee House in Madison. “They are not going to replace the losses we’ve seen in newspapers, … but they supplement a lot of the losses, they fill in a lot of things, and they do great work.”
Folkenflik pointed to the Center and The Marshall Project as examples of nonprofit news outlets that are bringing attention to local issues and “making sure that journalism still matters and counts.”
“There are places, like the Center here, that are doing important work, and … have ambitions to expand the parameters for what’s possible,” Folkenflik said.
The veteran NPR journalist has reported on the relationship between the press, politicians and the public. His talk included reflections on the problem of covering elections in real time and how he has handled challenging topics, including sexual harassment allegations against a top NPR executive and President Donald Trump’s propensity to make statements that are untrue.
Speaking just hours after a tense midterm election in which two-term Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, was ousted, Folkenflik said as a media critic, he consumes news coverage differently from most viewers. For him, watching the nationwide vote tallies jump back and forth and listening to commentators shift their predictions “was like watching a car without a regulator.”
Overall, Folkenflik called the live news coverage “entertaining confabulation.”
News outlets gave “a series of inconsistent messages” over the course of the evening as returns rolled in, he said. For example, he added, the liberal TV network MSNBC started out the night by reporting there was going to be a blue wave, commentators turned “ashen” as Republican wins in the Senate piled up, and finally they shifted to a narrative of it being a mixed night for Democrats.
“Because you’re watching CNN — or whatever it is — live, it’s not like you’re scrolling back to see what they said eight minutes ago to hold them responsible for being consistent,” Folkenflik said. “They were kind of literally and figuratively all over the map.”
In addition to his reporting, Folkenflik is a host and editor of “On Point” from NPR and WBUR in Boston. His stories are broadcast on NPR’s news magazines, including “All Things Considered,” “Morning Edition” and “Here & Now.”
He believes it is proper for journalists to stake out positions that are consistent with democratic values.
“I am willing to say that I’m biased in favor of transparency. I am biased in favor of clean government. I am biased in favor of accountability,” Folkenflik said. “I’m in favor of fact and truth. I don’t think those are partisan values. … I think those are just fundamental enduring, journalistic values.”
At times, Folkenflik said he has called out Trump for lying — something journalists rarely do. He believes such a judgment is warranted only when a journalist is confident that a person’s intent is to mislead. Folkenflik said he uses such “inflammatory” language sparingly. In those pivotal moments, he said, it is important for journalists to take a hard stance in favor of the truth.
In 2017, the issue of transparency and accountability came close to home when Folkenflik covered alleged sexual harassment by Michael Oreskes, NPR’s editorial director and senior vice president of news, who resigned soon after the allegations came to light.
In October 2017, The Washington Post came out with a report of sexual harassment allegations against Oreskes. Folkenflik investigated these allegations for “All Things Considered.” He said he talked with many young women who were “haunted” by interactions with Oreskes because they questioned, “ ‘Did I get this job for this reason or did I not get this opportunity for that reason?’ ”
He said NPR’s corporate and news executives did not review his reporting before the stories were published. It was “a hard time for NPR,” Folkenflik acknowledged, and he lost friendships in the newsroom over how he covered it.
Nevertheless, “I am very proud of what we did,” Folkenflik said. “I don’t think any other news organization acquitted itself with such journalistic transparency.”