On the Twitter “hellscape” and the roots of the media’s #MeToo coverage – Fourth Watch “BCC Interview” with NPR’s David Folkenflik

For this week’s “BCC” interview, I emailed with NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. I’ve enjoyed Folkenflik’s work for years – and while we don’t agree on everything, I have tremendous respect for his take on the industry.

Below is the full email exchange between myself and Folkenflik – where we disagree strongly on press coverage in the Trump Era, but talk about the roots of #MeToo (and Weinstein, Epstein, Lauer and Ailes), the “hellscape” that is Twitter and much more. This is a good – long – one! For some past interviews, click here for my “BCC Interview” with Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld, or here for my “BCC Interview” with the New York Times’ Ben Smith. And click here to subscribe to the Fourth Watch newsletter.

From: Steve Krakauer

To: David Folkenflik

Hey David-

Thanks for doing this! Hope you and the family are doing ok in this crazy time.

Let’s start, as with most conversations these day, with the coronavirus crisis. You read the newsletter so you have a general idea how I feel about the media’s day-to-day coverage. That said, it’s a particularly challenging story, because there’s not a lot of prior experience that can be drawn from. What do you think of the coverage? Have you seen anything that stands out as particularly strong or particularly troubling?

I wonder if the Trump vacuum that has consumed the past three years has hurt the coverage – everything is centered around the (albeit very important) reality TV host in the White House, at the expense, in some cases, of covering other elements to the story. Like China, for example, where your recent excellent reporting has shown some alarming coziness between media entities and the country. What do you think of Trump’s role in the media fight that has continued during this crisis? How about the media’s coverage of China?

Feel free to throw any questions my way…

Thanks, Steve

From: David Folkenflik

To: Steve Krakauer

Hey Steve –

Thanks for the invitation to participate in this back-and-forth. I feel like Lewis and Clark here – we’re on the road to discovery without knowing exactly where we’ll end up or how it will look.

I think the coverage hasn’t been uniform, in the media at large or even within individual outlets. There have been terrific reports, and some wince-inducing swings-and-misses. Some local outlets have revealed the extent of deaths and problems at nursing homes. The Sioux City (Iowa) Journal disclosed the extent of infections at a Tyson beef plant, despite the refusal by the company and state and local officials to enumerate how severe the contagion was there. (669 confirmed cases of COVID-19 of a workforce of about 4300, according to the paper. Hat tip to Bill Grueskin on that.)

This crisis sometimes moves lightening quick and still seems like it lingers forever – as you say there hasn’t been anything like it in our lifetimes or our careers as journalists. There’s been a recurrence of old and not great habits – careening toward the new instead of the known and minor shifts rather than overall dynamics; forgetting key context in headlines, chyrons and social media posts, that sort of thing. (We’ll talk about coverage of the White House and the president below.)

I think about this like coverage of global warming and climate change. We know the larger story. Yet there’s great uncertainty about what exactly will play out, where, and when. Scientific conclusions may shift. And that’s in part due to vast changes in human behavior and a huge influx of new data. But we know this thing is highly contagious. It’s often deadly. And social distancing is an incredibly important tool in slowing it down.

Stat News, a site that covers medicine and scientific research, has been pretty relentlessly great. The reporters at Pro Publica and Kaiser Health News have done some great work. I think Ed Yong of the Atlantic has really done a terrific job of synthesizing what’s known, what’s surmised, and how to think about all this in incredibly useful ways. My colleagues on the science, health and business desks have attacked this in waves of comprehensive coverage that I think gives audiences realistic understandings of the sobering challenges we face as a society without scaring people out of proportion. Several Washington Post insider tick-tocks of how decisions were reached, or botched, inside the administration have been excellent. I am in awe of the stories about the confrontations between state and federal authorities over protective gear.

I think it’s really important to cover the economic fallout of the pandemic and the risks that continued shutdown raises. But to do that skipping over *why* we’re doing what we’re doing – the Fox-style whipping up anger at socialism or big state bureaucrats or whatever – that’s irresponsible. And I think it’s fueled the anger at the modestly-sized but intense protests that have cropped up around the country in a way that hijacks debate from constructive channels.

The pandemic is inherently a crisis that invites and even demands competent federal action, oversight and coordination. And we haven’t had much of that from the federal government. We don’t have the ability to say the federal government has led the nation in a unified or coherent way, even as federal public health officials and governors have acted to protect citizens from the spread of the disease and Congress has passed major relief bills. Trump has made himself on television the key and seemingly defining figure while often sidelining the feds as a substantive actor in the actual drama. And it’s not a drama!

I think some White House reporters shown in confrontational exchanges with Trump – Paula Reid and Weijia Jiang, Kaitlin Collins of CNN, Jon Karl of ABC News – are simply trying to cling to some notion of reality in the face of statements that whip together elements of truth, irresponsibility, untruths and self-contradiction into an incoherent froth. David Muir could have benefited from studying closely Trump’s past statements in interviewing him – anchors don’t have to go to battle, but they should do more than simply set up their interviewees to make their points unencumbered by contradiction. Muir barely nudged him.

I do think TV networks erred in carrying so many of the Trump briefings live and in full for so long – almost hoping against hope that something constructive would emerge. Attend it. Tape it. Cover it. Simply having the ability to carry something live doesn’t mean you have a moral imperative to do so.

And I do think that consumed oxygen and diverted public and reportorial attention that would have been better spent examining what was happening elsewhere in the federal bureaucracy, in hospitals, research centers, corporate headquarters, factory floors, schools and other sites throughout society.

I also think different outlets can reach different decisions about how best to serve their audiences. The point of having many different news organizations is that they aren’t all identical.

You ask about China:

I don’t sense that anyone is soft pedaling coverage of China right now over the concerns of getting tossed from the country. The story is too fundamental; it overwhelms other imperatives for most newsrooms I’ve heard about.  

China is an important part of this story, as an economic rival and partner, and as the origin of the disease, even if the strains prevalent in the US are traceable instead to Europe. Reporters from the NYT, WSJ, NPR, LATimes, Reuters, BBC and other news outlets have worked hard, at times at risk to themselves, to bring back stories of what’s happening there – and what happened there. We don’t really know how it started. We don’t have to credit claims or speculation without evidence as credible – even if issued by the president. But we should report muscularly on it.

Ok. We’ve figuratively set out from St. Louis. Where to next?

From: Steve Krakauer

To: David Folkenflik

Hey David-

Wow! Appreciate the thoughtful, lengthy responses. Let me push back on the briefing aspect. I’ve been thinking recently about Trump as a sort of UCB Theater type improviser. These briefings are like shows, and for weeks, they were hour-long sessions of improv. Ultimately, his “yes, and…” got too far when he started wondering aloud about disinfectant, and the shows have started to end. You go to an improv show for 20+ hours, and you will find something offensive – particularly if you’re looking for it.

But I also think it’s a mistake not to cover them live. There was valuable information in those briefings, from doctors and experts. But more importantly, there were opportunities for reporters to ask important questions and serve the public. However too often, they devolved into a Paula Reid asking about what happened in February, which serves absolutely no purpose for Americans going through this crisis now. She wanted a soundbite, and she got it.

I think it actually stems from our media now operating much like you say about climate change, from a place of believing they already know the larger story. There is a built-in instinct that everything Trump says is a lie, and everything he does is wrong. Then you just have to work backwards and fit it in to the narrative.

But let me turn to something else, that I think we agree on more – the elite power structure being upended, in my view, as a result of this Trump presidency. Do you agree, like me, that coverage of the MeToo movement – Harvey Weinstein, NBC’s Matt Lauer or CBS’ Charlie Rose – have come due to the Trump Era? And what do you think comes next in the NBC story, which you have covered extensively, now that Andy Lack is gone? 

I’ve also written about how you were one of the very few reporters to dig into the media protection of Jeffrey Epstein for so long, which also ultimately crumbled in the past several years. Is that story done now that he…has killed himself? Or is there still more to the elite power structure which protected him for so long?

From: David Folkenflik

To: Steve Krakauer

Steve –

Agree to disagree, I guess? I appreciate in these newsletters and online the scrutiny you give the press from the stance of someone with distance from Trump but skepticism from both a professional and ideological outlook. I think it’s fair to say this much: the press does not reflexively believe that what comes out of the president is true. And than can mean skepticism is not always sufficiently practiced on social media. Credibility, as we learned early on in this business, is easily squandered and much harder to build back up.

Oh, also: I’m with you on “yes, and.” Big believer in it. Try to teach it to my kids. But we’re not at an improv show – whatever the president’s schtick, any president’s – he (or she) has to lead and serve the nation, not just rally the people who are already on board.

As someone who reported on it, I trace the journalistic interest in #MeToo back to earlier in 2016 – first Bill Cosby (thanks to Hannibal Buress and Gawker) and then Roger Ailes. I remember going to Cleveland to attend the Republican National Convention in July 2016 with a story list about seven items deep, and walking away having filed stories only on Gretchen Carlson’s accusations and the crisis that erupted at Fox News.

But yes, what played out in the 2016 campaign with Trump – the “grab them by the” Access Hollywood tape and the subsequent multiple, overlapping and hard to dismiss accusations by so many women against him –  propelled interest further. Even given what happened at Fox, it seems to me given Weinstein, Lauer, Rose, etc it’s hard to argue this was an ideologically driven journalistic agenda.

Over at NBC, the next question is what this does for NBC President Noah Oppenheim. Hard not to believe new NBC executive over NBC NEWS, MSNBC and CNBC won’t want his own person in place soon enough, especially given Oppenheim’s starring role in Farrow’s narrative (which Oppenheim rejects).

All of this does speak to a backlash against elites, I think; a further erosion of assumption that media executives have best interests of employees, the public or the news at heart; that they are apart from the powerful figures and forces they cover. NBC is right in the middle of that, given both the Weinstein and the Lauer stories. The Mike Bloomberg in China story, though resurrecting an episode some years ago, is part of that. He’s one of the richest people on earth. He shouldn’t care what anyone thinks of him. Yet even his organization bent to the Chinese ruling party and families to pursue a larger business objective.

Interest in the Epstein story has receded but could flare back up – depending on what new information emerges about his influential and powerful friends. The most important story wasn’t salacious – it had to do with the favoritism and kid-glove treatment given by the US Atty’s office. For me, the revelation that the NYT forced out a reporter who was the paper’s chief conduit to Epstein for soliciting a $30,000 gift from him for a Harlem community group was pretty shocking. The editors who suspended him from covering Epstein once they learned of it and ultimately forced his departure were good journalists acting in good conscience. (And they desperately regretted the reporter’s gushing 2008 profile of Epstein just before he entered prison.) But the Times has never shared that information with its own readers, except through our coverage. It wanted to avoid embarrassment. And it turned out it couldn’t, as one of its corporate directors had to resign too; he had solicited millions from Epstein for MIT and his own investment ventures.

The NYT is not apart from the elites it covers, though its coverage has blown the lid off a lot of insane behavior. All that said: if there were a big enough story about Epstein – the Times and the rest of the media would cover it. They wouldn’t hide it. Not at this point.

From: Steve Krakauer

To: David Folkenflik

Hey David-

It’s interesting to trace the #MeToo roots back to Ailes and Cosby… it does feel now looking back on it that 2016 and then 2017 were these seismic shifts in the bounds to which the media would chase the truth. There was this collective bandaid rip that, ultimately, serves the public, because it means no one, no matter how powerful, is immune from scrutiny and truth. I welcome that, and I know you do too.

Let me close things out with two other things. Earlier this week you had a minor Twitter spat with Greg Gutfeld of Fox News, and ultimately, it felt like the biggest issue there was a misunderstanding – a sort of lost-in-translation moment that is exacerbated by the cesspool of dishonesty that Twitter breeds. The media over-indexes on Twitter for sure, and Twitter has become a de facto programming department for much of the media, on all sides. What do you think of the effect Twitter has had on the media industry? How has it made coverage worse?

But let’s end on a hopeful note. As you look across the industry – what makes you optimistic? Could be a couple young journalists, or a new media outlet, or even an anecdotal moment that made you think… we’re in good hands for the future…

Thanks for doing this, and stay safe!

From: David Folkenflik

To: Steve Krakauer

Twitter: Hellscape apocalypse? Or apocalyptic hellscape? That debate, next up on Hardball. That thing with Gutfeld was a quick aside – obviously he was joking; I was riffing off it. He decided (or decided to decide) I was in earnest and seriously claiming he was serious too – and he spent the better part of that evening ripping me for doing so. It’s ultimately fine.

Twitter is terrible. It indulges our worst impulses and enables us to fire off ripostes that three days (three minutes later?) you wonder why you thought were worth it. As you rightly pointed out, people raked VP Pence over the coals for what, on closer inspection, was a light joke at his own expense.

It’s also in my experience the best social medium platform in which to find far-flung knowledge, insight, inspiration and humor in a timely way. The number of journalists, experts, and citizens with relevant and interesting insights that play on there is extraordinary. So: useful tool. Also: cesspool.

And damn straight – young reporters are doing great work and forcing their more experienced peers to test their ongoing assumptions – about what news is, how we frame it, how we approach it. All of that. They are helping drive that accountability we both welcome. I don’t always agree with their approach, but they have zero figs to give. They’re doing it in local newsrooms. Dominant national outlets. New digital players. Breaking stories. Sustaining journalistic (rather than partisan) outrage. I dig it.