NPR reporter on covering NPR, federal funding and the essense of James O’Keefe

Jeff Winkler Contributor
Font Size:

When news broke that Vivian Schiller was “stepping down” as National Public Radio’s CEO, media reporter David Folkenflik was the first to (forcefully) confirm that the scandal-ridden boss had, in fact, been forced out.

After The Dailly Caller hosted footage by conservative James O’Keefe showing Tea Party-hating, Jewish-conspiracy-propagating NPR representatives begging for Muslim-Brotherhood sadaqat, the scandal became the day’s most important news for those living an abbreviated existence (NYC, DC, NPR). Numerous reporters played catch up with O’Keefe and TheDC, but Folkenflik’s coverage was so respected that even Andrew Breitbart  — in his Breitbartian way — proffered praise. Folkenflik’s bosses at NPR, however, may not be as conciliatory.

Wait? What?!?!

National Palestine Radio may have a lot wrong with it — a billion-dollar organization insisting on public funds, elitist liberal snobbery so thick even other elitist liberals love to write about it, etc.

But NPR does offer a few good things. One of those is media reporter Folkenflik, whose been on the beat for more than six years. He’s also on a “most influential” list, too.

After Folkenflik pointed out yet another gaffe by Geraldo Rivera, the Joe Biden of TV reporting called Folkenflik a “really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter.” It’s a description Folkenflik proudly displays on his NPR profile page. Over at the conservative National Review, Jonah Goldberg, however — who complimented Folkenflik’s coverage of the Juan Williams “scandal” — recently criticized the in-house reporter for not pressing the issue of NPR’s federal funding.

Poor Folkenflik! Caught between objective reporting and a paycheck! It’s all confusing stuff. After a week of running around and “moving on to other stories,” however, Folkenflik spoke at length with TheDC. It’s not “All Things Considered” but we talked about his peculiar position at NPR, what James O’Keefe should put on his business card and what Folkenflik thinks about NPR’s federal funding, the conversation about which quickly became a semantic black hole.

[Full disclosure: This interview has been heavily doctored (or “edited”) for the sake of clarity, continuity, length, and because TheDC made an unfortunate Charlie Sheen reference (“So, David, would you say you’ve been ‘winning’ lately?”). Furthermore, TheDC was given explicit permission by Mr. Folkenflik himself, who said, “As long as they’re put into fair context, you’re entitled to do what you want with my statements.”]

The Daily Caller: You’re an NPR reporter reporting on NPR. Isn’t that kinda … weird?

David Folkenflik (DF): Look, it’s part of my beat. NPR is an important institution. Obviously, for people who listen to NPR — and there are some 30-plus million people a week who rely on NPR and its station — they’re going to be, if anything, more interested in what’s happening at NPR than other folks.

TheDC: I bet our readers would say, “oh well, he’s working for them. He’s friends with all of them. So there’s no way he can cover it accura .. [DF interjects]

DF: Look, I think these people have to judge me by my record. I’ve been a reporter for, gosh, more or less 20 years. I don’t feel that sensitive about it. I think people get the opportunity to judge what I do every day and they deserve to be so. We should be judged by our journalism. That’s appropriate. I’m not writing the press releases. I’m reporting. NPR is entitled to write the press releases in whatever way that makes the best sense to them and I’m going try to go where my reporting takes me.

I think it’s important to give NPR credit in the executive suites even amid all this turmoil, nobody has thought to block my reporting, if I get something wrong I expect to hear from people, as I do from other institutions. There’s no interference with my, and our, ability to report the news as we judge newsworthy. The trick is making sure we’re not over-covering it or under-covering it, but that we’re covering it to the degree that the news warrants. I think that’s something that should be explicitly acknowledged because I think it’s to NPR as an institution’s credit that we do so. That’s not always the case in journalism.

Often times, journalistic institutions like many institutions can be quite defensive when they themselves are the target.

TheDC: So what are some of the disadvantages and advantages to reporting on your own organization?

DF: It’s difficult on a personal level. One thing I’ve got to say for NPR is that throughout the recent months, to its great credit, executives have understood the importance of reporting the news. We’re not doing institutional PR. We’re reporting the news. We’re trying to do the journalism. It’s what people rely on most and we can’t compromise that. I’m not going to do that.

And I think that news executives, but also corporate executives at NPR — whatever else is going on — have been, I wouldn’t say indulgent, but they’ve understood that this isn’t a game and it has to be done right. So they’ve allowed my editors and me to do that.

I think it’s a very important display. But when you talk about the advantage and disadvantages of reporting on your own institution, it’s not as though all the doors of the corporate suites are thrown open and they say, “look through our files” and “we’ll sit for a round robin of interviews.” Sometimes they’ll talk to you, sometimes they’re not at a point where they’re ready to do that. You have to approach it as a reporter.

I do know a lot of these folks. And they know my work. So, if I were coming cold to another institution, there’s some other hurdles I might have to get over.

TheDC: How’s the response been from snobby NPR listeners? [Editor’s note: TheDC didn’t originally say ‘snobby’ but it just sounds better.]

You know, I’ve gotta be honest with you, it’s been a pretty intense week, so I haven’t got that many. We get all kinds of feedback online, through e-mail and the other stuff from listeners. So far, it’s been relatively modest.

One guy asked the other day why we hadn’t covered this at all and so I sent him links to about five of my stories and said, “I would disagree with your characterization but please take a listen and see what you think.” Other listeners said, “Yeah, during all this it’s good to know that through all this I can turn to NPR to report comprehensively even on its OWN struggles,” and I appreciated that.

TheDC: This isn’t your first rodeo, either. You covered the Juan Williams firing.

DF: Yeah, sure. I think it’s all part of the larger story of the past few months.

TheDC: Larger story of?

DF: Against the backdrop of a push by conservative congressional Republicans to strip public broadcasting of its funding, NPR has found itself in the middle of a firestorm. And that Juan Williams thing was a strong element of it. It seemed to be re-inflamed, rather than doused by the resignation of Ellen Weiss. That has colored, I think, affected, the way in which the events of the past few days have been perceived both internally and externally.

TheDC: So why is it an important story?

Yeah, I mean there’s all kinds of elements to this. The question of the political backdrop. There’s the question of the funding. There’s the question of the nature of public broadcasting itself. Others have said this, but I think it’s fair to say that NPR has been something upon which more people rely and to which more really look to for credible news especially as it has grown and other major news institutions have constricted their ambitions. And so it’s a paradoxical moment for NPR in that way.

TheDC: I’d say it’s equally paradoxical for you, too. In one of your segments you call the federal funding of NPR ‘modest.’

DF: We get directly from the feds about $2 million which is in a budget of $160 million. So $2 million seems relatively modest. It’s more than a percent but it’s not a lot of our budget.

TheDC: Sure. That’s relatively modest. But “$2 million of tax payer’s money” just SOUNDS different than “modest.”

The reason I say modest, is that it in terms of — and I’m trying to be careful about this — in terms of direct money from the federal government, it’s relatively small. But as I say, member stations received appreciatively more and we receive from programing fees.

You can talk to NPR corporate, they will happily point you to all these financials. It’s all public knowledge and you can decide how you want to characterize it. I encourage you to figure it out on your own. You’re a journalistic outfit, you guys get to describe it yourselves. But I’m just saying this was the best characterization I could provide in the broadcast medium. It’s a complicated system!

TheDC: It is! Math sucks. So it sounds like you support continuing federal funding for NPR.

DF: Well, I’d ask you what you point to to conclude that I support federal funding for NPR? I’m trying to report on this and therefore, it’s not my job to decide what should happen.

TheDC: Ok. Fine. Then as a reporter-with-a-unique-perspective-who’s-talked-to-both-sides-in-this-debate, do you think NPR could sustain itself without federal funding? What will NPR lose by such an action?

Um, I think this is a question better directed at the executives at NPR and public broadcasting and particularly at member stations. It is my sense from talking to NPR that it would sting a bit but that it would be endurable. But to the public radio ecosystem it would be a much greater blow.

Feel free to use anything I have used on the record with you and feel free to use anything I’ve said on the air in whatever way you want. But I don’t think I’ve publicly come out for federal funding or against federal funding. I don’t even have time to think about the implications right now. There’s some interesting arguments on both sides.

I think the nature of who O’Keefe is and what his motives are and how he conducts his business are an element of the story, too.

TheDC: What is the nature of O’Keefe? How would you, as a journalist, describe what he does?

Look, I’ve seen the phrase video provocateur used to describe him. There’s ways in which that is a fair assessment. I’d say, in my mind, it’s a bit of a judgmental characterization, so I’ve shied away from it on the air. Or at least, I’ve tried to describe him in a way that signals for listeners what they can draw from it and also to reflect the context in which way other people have characterized the way in which he presents his findings.

He’s described himself, I think, as a “citizen journalist.” He’s also a conservative activist and I don’t think he’s shied away from that characterization. He is looking to sting and affect institutions that he views as right targets to which he is ideologically opposed. And he does so by adopting, in some way, the methods of some journalists. Not always fully embraced in this day-in-age, but certainly embraced by some of the most famous broadcasters in terms of doing serendipitous video. There have been significant questions raised about whether or not he presents those videos fairly.

Journalism is evolving but this is definitely a sting and definitely a stunt. People can definitely decide whether they nonetheless want to find value in it. But it’s a little different than the kind of reporting that tells you about the poor treatment of returning soldiers at Walter Reed.

There were a lot of people, even in more conservative circles who pulled back a bit, when O’Keefe, for example, tried to lure the CNN reporter onto a boat filled with sex-toys as a way to humiliate her. And I think it’s fair to question what the real point was to doing all of that.

That said, obviously the resulting audio and video tapes had consequences and the statements captured on tape were both repudiated and rejected by this institution, the one for which I work. It also echoed loudly into the larger climate, the larger culture.

Email Jeff Winkler and follow him on Twitter

This article has been updated.