October 27, 2005

A Chat With Folkenflik

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Some 15 years ago, David Folkenflik ’91 and buddies Jeremy Schaap ’91, Preston Mendenhall ’93, Saman Zia-Zarifi ’90 and John Hassell ’91 frequented The Chapter House.

Like most who have patronized the Stewart Avenue tavern, the five friends admired the dated fraternity composite photographs that cover the bar’s wood-paneled walls. The images are at once decorative and easy to lampoon.

As commencement neared, at least for Folkenflik, Hassell and Schaap, the group sought to memorialize their friendship, forged and sustained through their involvement with The Sun at Cornell.

There could be few things more indelible, they agreed, than a picture, sturdily framed in Plexiglas, hung in their favorite college watering hole. There are, after all, few Ithaca institutions more revered. But for their image to be displayed and fit in, they knew they had to be clever.

They loaded a camera with black-and-white film, donned smoking jackets and did their best impersonations of fraternity brothers circa 1950. A friend took the photo. It passed muster.

The image, now part of The Chapter House’s permanent collection, pays tribute to an impressive class of young journalists.

Folkenflik, who visited Ithaca this week as Cornell’s first Sevin Visiting Fellow, is National Public Radio’s media correspondent; Schaap is a well-respected and often-imitated reporter for ESPN; Mendenhall heads NBC News’ Moscow bureau; Zia-Zatif covers the Middle East for Human Rights Watch; and Hassell’s reporting for The Newark Star-Ledger won him a Pulitzer Prize in 2002.

After his lecture Tuesday night at the Alice Cook House, “Judith Miller, Valerie Plame, Lewis Libby and the Media,” Folkenflik joined two young and unemployed (as of press time) journalists for a few drinks at The Chapter House.

Folkenflik graciously bought the first round (he favors Harp’s, for those of you keeping score). As he led us to a table, Folkenflik took comfort in the continued presence of free popcorn, then paused a moment to point out and admire his photograph.

We agreed that his appearance has not changed much, and that his smoking jacket suited him. This trip was not just a homecoming for Folkenflik. His parents, Prof. Robert Folkenflik, and Prof. Vivian Folkenflik, who met as graduate students at Cornell and now both teach at the University of California at Irvine, flew in from the West Coast for a few days as well. Although they didn’t make the flight simply to marvel at their son’s success – Robert spoke for the English Department earlier in the day – they did insist on making him pose for pictures with them after his talk.

Folkenflik recalled an earlier visit he and his parents made to the East Coast back in high school for an interview at Williams College. After the seven-hour flight and three-hour drive, Folkenflik was irritated when his interviewer began by asking for a recitation of his GPA and SAT scores – both sitting on a piece of paper in front of her. He kindly reminded her how far he had come for this 20-minute interview, and prodded her to ask him about his interests or personality or anything that he had not paid the College Board $40 to mail to the school.

Her response: “Tell me about your AP scores.”

With that, Folkenflik left the room, and promptly withdrew his application to Williams.

Soon enough, he ended up at Cornell. Initially overwhelmed by the campus, Folkenflik followed his dad’s advice to try to forge a connection with Isaac Kramnick, R.J. Schwartz Professor of Government.

After writing Kramnick a carefully crafted note, Folkenflik was invited for one of the first office visits of his college career. As Folkenflik remembers it, the eminent professor of Anglo-American political thought insisted on reading the note aloud at their first meeting, openly mocking its formality. The two hit it off immediately.

Folkenflik found an early champion in Kramnick, who applauded the reporter’s character and literary facility in a glowing introduction on Tuesday night.

It was Prof. David Silbey ’90, Alvernia College, Folkenflik’s freshman-year residential advisor, who suggested that the freshman from Laguna Beach, Calif., try his hand at journalism.

“David Silbey said essentially, ‘Folkenflik, you’re mouthy. Why don’t you go write a column for The Sun?'”

Folkenflik, whose early extracurricular involvement had been minimal (he was a chorus member in an on-campus production of The Pirates of Penzance), took Silbey’s advice.

In the late 1980s, The Sun’s offices were on The Commons in a rented basement. They were hardly luxurious digs.

Early in his second semester, he and a friend headed downtown, grabbed a knish at Hal’s Deli, and began training to be copy editors. The Sun was a vibrant, animated place, with a very dynamic staff.

“It was crackling with energy,” Folkenflik said.

He trained under Jeremy Kaplan ’88, who was then The Sun’s managing editor.

“He was this hard living, hard drinking guy from Louisville,” Folkenflik said.

According to Folkenflik, at their first meeting Kaplan produced a bottle of Wild Turkey from his desk, and the two did shots of bourbon as they copy edited the next day’s paper. Kaplan and his wife, incidentally, are both now rabbis.

It was a different time, we agreed.

During Folkenflik’s tenure at The Sun, he was the head of one of the most successful editorial boards in the paper’s history. He and Schaap remain close friends. Folkenflik claims that he still crashes on Schaap’s couch on occasion.

“I think that he is one of the smartest journalists I’ve ever worked with,” Folkenflik said of Schaap. “This guy is doing some unbelievable stuff.”

Did Folkenflik and his fellow editors ever think that their experience at The Sun would lead them to impressive journalism careers post-graduation?

“We thought about it annoyingly often,” Folkenflik said. “We challenged each other. We tested one another. God knows we tested each other’s patience. But we loved it.”

Folkenflik appreciated the cross-campus access The Sun afforded him.

“The Sun was like this extraordinary passport to all realms of the campus, which I’d found intimidating,” Folkenflik said. “It gave me a measure of control over the campus.”

He could show up at any lecture or meeting on campus, and if he said he was writing for The Sun, people did not question him.

Folkenflik’s affiliation with The Sun was a valuable entree to professors’ offices, too. His articles and editorials led him to many faculty members he continues to count as influential intellectually and professionally: Kramnick, Prof. R. Laurence Moore, history; Prof. Glenn C. Altschuler, American studies; and Prof. Richard Polenberg, history, to name a few.

With a little encouragement and another pint, Folkenflik resurrected a killer impersonation of the latter, Folkenflik’s thesis advisor.

“These guys really took pains to carve time out for undergrads,” Folkenflik said. “If you made the slightest effort to reach out to them, they’d bend over backwards to encourage you, to cultivate you.”

As editor in chief, Folkenflik continued to be a prolific writer. He estimates that he wrote nine out of every ten editorials.

Their subjects were as varied as his interests then: everything from intradepartmental academic squabbles to budget issues, racial politics and construction projects.

After college, Folkenflik applied to over 70 jobs and internships between May and September. He remembers accruing masses of rejection letters. After being turned down in turn from The Sacramento Bee, The Modesto Bee, and even The Bonner County Daily Bee, Folkenflik began to have doubts about what hive would accept.

But soon enough he landed a job at The Durham Herald-Sun, where he covered the higher education beat. Throughout the 90s he watched a series of national issues spring up from college campuses – controversy over gays in the military started out as controversy over gays in ROTC; issues about affirmative action began at a local level before rising to national concern.

From there, he went to The Baltimore Sun, wher
e he continued covering higher education. After that he spent three years covering Congress. Just as he was getting in his groove with that, his boss called him back to Baltimore with the instructions to cover “something about TV.” Folkenflik asked what, and was told, “You figure it out.”

What he came up with was an early incarnation of the work he does now: media criticism. His idea was to cover the media for The Baltimore Sun just as they cover all other major institutions.

“It seems to me that the media is a prism through which you view everything,” Folkenflik said. “This is how you learn about greater society beyond your surroundings.”

When NPR came looking for a media critic, Folkenflik made the move to radio. He had a brief training session in how to work the equipment, but mostly found himself learning on the job.

Folkenflik has been at NPR for 11 months, and has no plans to leave any time soon. He pointed out that NPR is the only media outlet currently expanding instead of cutting back, and pointed to the incredible number of people they reach with each broadcast, as compared not only to print media but also to cable news.

He has also noticed a difference in the bond people feel toward NPR.

“People have an unbelievable connection with NPR,” Folkenflik said. “You have to be engaged to a certain degree. You can’t just listen passively. People really seem to like it.”

Although Folkenflik has no intention to make another transition from radio media critic to TV media critic, there is one particular colleague in television for whom he has a ton of respect, and that is Stephen Colbert, once dubbed The Daily Show’s senior “journalismologist,” a position Folkenflik can liken to his own. At least to an extent.

“He’s so damn funny,” Folkenflik said. “He’s so damn good.”

At a White House Correspondents Association Dinner, Folkenflik approached another correspondent from The Daily Show, Rob Corddry.

“You bastards!” Folkenflik said jokingly. “You’re trying to put me out of business!”

But it’s not all fun and games in the life of a journalismologist. Folkenflik expressed concern about where things are headed with the Judith Miller case. With Maureen Dowd’s fiery column from Saturday and word spreading about Miller lying to her editors, Folkenflik is not sure how The New York Times will recover.

“Journalistically there is a lot of collateral damage,” he said.

He predicted that Miller’s current leave of absence would extend for at least 130 years. But as for indictments in the White House, he was less sure of what to expect.

“They’ve made statements, and they’re going to have a hard time squaring them if these things turn out to be true,” Folkenflik said. “This is an extremely uncomfortable and delicate time for the White House.

And more importantly, an uncomfortable and delicate time for the two young and soon-to-be-graduating aspiring journalists, who have no desire to be rejected from over 70 jobs before reaching Folkenflik fame.

Archived article by David Austin Gura
Sun Senior Writer
and Samantha Henig
Sun Contributor