Corey Flintoff studied English literature at University of California, Berkeley and Renaissance Drama at the University of Chicago before “falling in” to public broadcasting at a small station in his home state of Alaska. Flintoff moved to National Public Radio in 1990, serving as a foreign correspondent in such places as New Delhi and Moscow. He retired in fall 2016, after a rigorous four years covering Russia.
What drew you to journalism and to public broadcasting in particular?
I almost fell into it by mistake. I started out in a small town in southwestern Alaska. I was there because my first wife had been a dental student and had student loans, which she paid off by joining the Indian Health Service. This town was primarily made up of Yup’ik Eskimos, and they had a public radio station. The first night I got there I said, “What do you do for jobs around here?” and the guy said, “Go over to the radio station; they always need somebody.” So I did. It was a bilingual English and Yup’ik station, and it turned out the only thing you had to do to get the job was to be able to give the station identification in Yup’ik. I got someone to coach me so I could do this. I can still do it.
One of the things the reporters had to do was cover city council meetings, school board meetings, things like that. I started out and I really was pretty full of myself, pretty arrogant. I went to these committee meetings and I thought to myself, “These people are just buffoons.” There were wonderful characters, factions. But I realized pretty quickly that these were the people who really got things done in a small town in rural Alaska. When I came away I finally understood [that this is] one of the best things about American democracy, what happens at the local level.
Before that I’d wanted to be a fiction writer, but I realized that these stories were better than what I could make up.
Are there any stories that stand out to you from that early time in your career?
Because we were in a Native community, we had lots of Native sovereignty issues. Native people were fighting to get their rights recognized – land rights and fishing rights. It was like the civil rights struggle in Alaska.
You mention starting as a skeptic, but coming to greatly respect the residents of Alaska. Did these early experiences help you develop a sensitivity that would be helpful later on?
I got a fast course in cross-cultural communication. I wrong-footed myself over and over again, and it was really the people in that area who taught me respect. There are lots of things you must do when you interview a culturally strong Yup’ik person. For instance, you never look a person that’s older than you in the eye because that shows aggression. You never ask people about the future because in that culture, questions about the future are ridiculous. We know we can’t predict the future, so why would I even [ask] “am I gonna have a good fishing season?” It’s just nonsensical.
You learn these things little by little and you come to understand that everyone has things that make their culture special, that you need to learn to respect.
What impact did those cultural differences have on your preparation for interviews?
It depends on the story. For political stories like Native sovereignty, you need to know a lot about the history of how people lost their rights in the first place under colonial Russian and American administrations, and how they got them back. You need to understand that [Natives] see land as something that can’t be owned. The legal issues that came about regarding land rights were quite complicated because they went against the Yup’ik cultural sensibility about what land was.
What do you think constitutes a good story, as both a fiction aficionado and journalist?
Something that surprises you. When I go to an interview, I always sort of imagine to myself what the person is going to say. I know it’s a good story when I’m hearing something I didn’t expect.
In that vein, what’s been one of the most surprising stories in your recent career?
The Russian people are exposed to an enormous amount of state propaganda that makes the government look good and anyone who opposes it look like a traitor. One of the things I discovered was that the organizations that are sometimes [labeled] as… foreign agents because they receive foreign aid are the most patriotic Russians.
One of the things that surprised me about going and talking to these people was that they weren’t entirely anti-government and that they were extremely patriotic Russians. That seemed to me to be something that was really important to let Americans know about. People who are identified as opposition are not by any means anti-Russian. They’re anti-the government right now.
Would you put Pussy Riot in that category? Did you notice a discrepancy between Russian attitudes towards protest artists, people that seem to have embraced Western values, and the portrayal of these artists in our media?
I was probably the second foreign reporter to interview them, very early on, in January of the year that they were arrested in [Christ the Saviour Cathedral]. They had been making and posting these videos of themselves performing various places in Moscow, including Red Square.
I interviewed Maria Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova. They refused to speak to me in English, although they both knew English quite well, and they insisted on wearing their balaclavas. They both come from this very radical, anarchist art collective. They are – were then, at least – really hard-core anarchists. I think, had people in the West known what they were about or what their history was, I think they would have been a little bit more hesitant to embrace them. It wasn’t a simple matter of them being opposed to the Russian government. They were opposed to the establishment in general. That taught me you really have to know your subjects.
Lots of journalism is about nuance. In turn, how do you balance conveying the complexities of a story while maintaining its cohesiveness?
The stories that I did about Pussy Riot always included some of their performance to let people know what the stuff was really about. With the “Punk Prayer” for example, it was an attack on Putin, but also an attack on the church. They weren’t just in there because this was a nice space, because the acoustics were good.
What’s the best advice you received as a young journalist?
Don’t believe ‘em. Don’t allow yourself to be seduced by charming and friendly interview subjects. Most politicians you meet will be charming and friendly. They’ll offer you what seem to be deep personal insights, but a lot of that is designed to make you give them favorable coverage.