NPR reporter to discuss uncertain climate surrounding the free press

click to enlarge David Folkenflik - NPR
NPR
David Folkenflik

As a new administration takes the reins in the U.S., many are wondering how the change will affect the free press. 

Where the Trump administration used the media like “a punching bag,” discrediting reporting to gain control of the narrative, Biden is taking a different tack, said David Folkenflik, who has reported on the media for NPR since 2004. Regardless, the media’s mission remains the same.

“(The Biden administration says) they believe in free press, transparency and professionalism of independent agencies,” Folkenflik said. “If those things are true, then those things can be held to account.”

Conversely, the press should not go too far to try to show it’s fair, he said. “Not every small dispute, fumble or flub should be turned into a major scandal by the press corps.”

Folkenflik will discuss “Trump, the Media, and the Path Forward” online Feb. 4 as the keynote speaker for the University of Idaho’s Oppenheimer Media Ethics Symposium (details below).

The press also can be fallible and should be held accountable, but that’s different from saying the press has no role, he said. 

“The press has been undermined and even, in some cases, discredited with certain sectors of the public. And yet, you have journalists doing wonderful work across the country to explain what is happening, sometimes at tremendous risk to themselves.”

The importance of local news was highlighted by the pandemic, he said. In the absence of an overarching federal response, states, counties and cities were left to their own decisions, which were covered by local journalists.

While reporting on the pandemic and protests over racial justice and the election, journalists braved exposure to COVID-19 and were targeted by people hostile toward them. A record number of journalists were arrested in 2020, Folkenflik said. At the same time, they worked with fewer resources than ever before.

“I think the threats are real,” he said. “One of the great sources of strength in American democracy has been the strength of its local news outlets.”

Public appetite for news hasn’t decreased. Statistics show audiences are scooping up stories from conventional, old and new news sources through search engines like Google and Yahoo, he said. At the same time, these audiences also are helping spread information through social media that turns out to be false or deliberately misleading, like conspiracy theories.

While it’s fine for people to have concerns and disagreements about the media, “to try to knock the foundations out, that’s been a terrible blow against American society.”

Trump worked hard, “and somewhat successfully,” to turn supporting the free press into a partisan stance when it’s not, he said. “We need resilient, strong, thoughtful people with a secure financial base trying to hold these folks accountable.”

IF YOU WATCH

WHAT: NPR's David Folkenflik on “Trump, the Media, and the Path Forward.”

WHEN: 4 p.m. Feb. 4.

COST: Free.

WHERE: Via Zoom at www.bit.ly/360Folkenflik.

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