NPR’s David Folkenflik ’91 talks ‘Freedom of Expression’

As media correspondent for NPR, David Folkenflik ’91 has to respond to breaking news regardless of what else he’s doing, and that necessity didn’t change just because he was on campus as this year's Zubrow Distinguished Visiting Journalist for the College of Arts and Sciences. But despite managing two major stories he still made it to every stop on a packed schedule that included meetings with faculty, class visits, a public event on dissident writers and a tour of the Rare and Manuscript Collection conducted by University Archivist Evan Earle. 

Students had multiple opportunities to hear from and interact with Folkenflik, including an “Inside Journalism” Q&A with Cornell Daily Sun reporter Sofia Rubinson, hosted by the College of Arts and Sciences’ (A&S) Career Development office, and a conversation on “Law and Media in the 2024 Election Cycle” with Prof. Gautam Hans at the Law School.

At the end of his campus visit, Folkenflik spoke with the Chronicle about his experience and offered reflections on the university’s Freedom of Expression theme year.

Question: What insight or advice can you offer to the Cornell community as we explore the complicated landscape of free expression?

Answer: It's a fortuitous time to be exploring the principles and practicalities of freedom of expression. It's also obviously a fraught time to be doing so, whether within the State Department or major newsrooms, including my own, or major American universities, such as Cornell. But freedom of expression isn't at its most potent as an issue or principle when it's easy. In some ways, it matters most when it’s hard. 

Communities have to work through what it means for them, and also find ways for speech to be heard constructively. The ability to shout each other down, the ability to drown each other in a sea of social media posts, is different from the kind of free-ranging speech and exchange of views that may lead to more constructive ends. 

College campuses are a place where students work through what they believe and stand for, often with great fervor and passion. But campuses are also a place to explore with a degree of curiosity -- and from my standpoint, some humility as to the fact that somebody else may have a point you haven't thought about. Reconciling those two imperatives for everyone, while respecting each other's rights and humanity, it takes a lot.

The polarization of American society and given the further kinds of fracturing of a lot of communities, particularly academic communities over the Israel-Hamas war, the question of freedom of expression has become only more salient. But we kid ourselves if we think this is the only time and the only issue over which people have these tensions and these dynamics. People seeking to exert power to prevent certain voices from coming out, others seeking to essentially wash away a point of view that they do not share, can come from a multiplicity of directions.

Question: While you were on campus, big news broke that you had to cover. What’s it like to live constantly in this rollercoaster of a career?

Answer: There's this line in “The Godfather”: “This is the life we've chosen.” It's applicable to journalism, for sure. News does not break in a tidy way congruent with the vacations or weekends, off hours, or for that matter, trips back to Cornell. There are times you can hand it off to others, but on very sensitive stories, or stories in which you have particular expertise, you're expected to take it up, because otherwise the networks might not get to it. And that was certainly the case in this story. I was up till two a.m. that night, but we made sure to handle the story in a way that we thought was appropriate for the sensitivity involved. And many is the day that's happened. It is a roller coaster. There are times where it's a little more placid, so you can take it a little easier, take an extra run, go out for lunch, do whatever. But if you wanted to, you could write a story or two stories every day, and part of what you do is try to pace yourself, because you know there are times where it will be big and engulf you, no matter what you do.

Question: How did your years at Cornell inform your choice of career and how you have pursued it?

Answer:  I found that my reporter’s notebook proved to be a passport to the outside world that helped me understand the constituent parts of Cornell, which was a pretty big and initially intimidating place. It served as an excuse to go knocking on doors, as I used to do it. Suddenly you came away knowing somebody and because the community was small you kept running into them, kept knowing them, and that ensured that you were in some ways accountable to that community because you had to keep going back to them. And I try to keep that kind of same sensibility in mind in reporting on people and institutions on the beat I now have, which is media politics and broader pop culture.

Question: In your Law School event you said that “democracy doesn’t work in the absence of a working press.” How do you see your role in contributing to the preservation of our democracy?

Answer: It's absolutely the case that the way I look at what we do is that we are giving our audiences the information they need to equip them to act as citizens, and not simply consumers of news. And that's the ball game. We're also looking to inform, surprise, educate, entertain, illuminate, irritate, amuse, challenge and confound people; we want to be a source of joy and wonder and whimsy, as well as all the rest. But fundamentally there is that core public service mission: the idea that these stories are how the people within those communities understand who each other are and recognize themselves reflected in it as well. And that's part of the nature of being a broadcaster; we want to serve and reach all people possible, recognizing and affirming their humanity. Even as the issues involved may be contentious, with certain stories being unwelcome in this corner or that, it is fundamental to how I see my job.

Question: What do you see as the value of the Distinguished Visiting Journalist Program?

Answer: It's like hitting the refresh button for me to be able to pursue interaction with such a stimulating and sharp cadre of students and scholars and administrators who are thinking from various perspectives about the student experience. And my fellowship year happened to fall in a year where free expression was the core of what the university was focusing on.

I've been able to sit in on and participate in classes in the Departments of Literatures in English, Astronomy, Government and Psychology (A&S), urban design (College of Architecture, Art and Planning), crisis communications (SC Johnson College of Business) and First Amendment (Law School). Being able to squarely find myself in the middle of these conversations certainly was invigorating for me, and I hope stimulating for students and faculty as well, to have the opportunity to talk with somebody who's a practitioner in an adjacent but different field.

Additionally, there were the public events in which people from the university community and greater Ithaca took part. It's my hope that these events offer a different, additional channel through which to think about these issues of free expression.

it's a great privilege to have the chance to do this, and I'm so grateful for the opportunity and appreciative of the welcome that I received here. It felt very generous.

Question: What would you say that you're taking away from your time as DVJ?

Answer: In some ways it's a crash course on the relevance of so many things and so many disciplines. I had some very stimulating conversations about AI, and how it might intersect with journalism and with flow of reliable information. And that spoke to me. Also, the first class I attended, with Prof. Christopher Way, (GOVT 3999) How Do You Know That?  is the kind of stuff I'm working on right now. It’s a world of partial information, assumptions, all kinds of questions about how we know and what we give faith to.

And there are things that are just metaphors. I attended an astronomy class in which the professor spoke about the ways in which black holes are observed not through their own presence but by the ways in which the light of other celestial bodies is affected and distorted by the gravitational pull of the black hole. There are times in reporting or in human psychology where you see dynamics that aren't quite explainable except by the presence of a not-visible gravitational pull, and you have to figure out what those are. It’s a nice metaphor.

And I was very moved by the conversation we had about the role of dissident writers with Suzanne Nossel, obviously a very impressive figure, the chief executive of Pan America, but also with Prof. Valzhyna Mort about her firsthand experience. It was at once poignant and difficult, but also filled with spirit and humor in ways that I found very moving.



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		David Folkenflik, with black hair, salt and pepper beard and mustache, in suit and tie, laughing, seated in an armchair.