President Trump “has right to call out unfair and inaccurate news”. It is up to Americans to decide and have “a healthy debate”
At the recent 2018 East-West Center International Media Conference held at the Singapore Management University, Michelle Giuda, Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, at the U.S. Department of State sat down with Donna Leinwand Leger, Past President of the National Press Club in a panel titled ‘US government efforts to tackle disinformation at home and abroad’. Here is the transcript of the panel featuring questions from the audience consisting of international journalists.
DLL: With President Trump, we have him calling the media “the enemy of the people”. He often denounces coverage he doesn’t like as fake news. It’s not the message you are bringing here. It’s a tactic that has been used in this region to squelch the press. How can the State Department continue bringing its message [for a free and fair press] when the President is setting a bit of a poor example?
MG: One of the great things and most powerful things about the United States is that we can have this debate. The President has been very clear in calling out unfair and inaccurate news as he sees it, as is his right to do, as it is the right of every United States citizen. It’s a debate that’s held in public, and now it’s up to the American people to decide, it’s for the media to report on. It’s out there and we’re having a conversation about it, a healthy dialogue about it.
At the end of the day, White House press briefings still go on. The Department of State still has press briefings. We talk to the press 24 hours a day, seven days a week like I said. We hold press conferences. We’re on social media. Journalists still have access to the United States government and we don’t inhibit them in any way.
It’s up to the American people to decide. But it’s a healthy debate that we’re having. The American people is my customer. It’s a customer of the United States, and it’s a customer of American news outlets too. As long as the power lies with them to decide as we have this debate, then we’ll end up in good shape.
DLL: It does have reverberations around the world. Recently, Malaysia, for example, passed a law banning fake news and disinformation with criminal penalties. The new Prime Minister said that he’s going to revoke that. But during the time the law was in place, it was used to squelch opposition. When you have the government in the United States acting in this way, does it not seem that it empowers other leaders to act the same way and expose press freedom?
MG: We were very clear in calling out for freedom of the press in Malaysia. I was talking to one of the reporters in Malaysia about the dynamics that are happening there. Again, we don’t have laws to regulate fake news. Our laws uphold and defend the freedom of the press and freedom of speech. If you’re looking at it from what we value and what we codify, our laws protect speech and they protect the press. We’re not regulating fake news.
Again, it’s a debate that we’re having. It’s a conversation and we’re allowed to have that conversation. It’s a great conversation. It’s healthy and I think it will help us get to a solution much faster. But we’ve been clear in calling out, in speaking to other governments, for them to uphold the same things in their countries.
DLL: Let’s open up the floor for questions.
Q: What do you do when people in government are purveyors of fake news or disinformation?
MG: What should I do? Or what should one do?
Q: What the government and people in government like yourself should do?
MG: It’s about empowering individuals, be they citizens or consumers etc. to make that decision, to have the power to call that out. We as a government aren’t going to solve it; we know that. We can do our best to defend and advance certain values. As in that Reuters institute study [Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2017], most people don’t think that government is going to be the solution.
The evolution that is happening in digital social media came from the private sector, it came from civil society, it came from innovation, it came from creativity; that’s where the solutions are going to come from. How are we from the State Department creating an environment to help that thrive and flourish so that individuals, journalists and media consumers are coming up with the solutions to this problem?
Q: How important is it for politicians to not slander media outlets by calling them fake news so that people are not encouraged to lose faith in media outlets without reason? Is there also a need for a certain mechanism or institution to hold government accountable if they are caught propagating disinformation?
MG: The American people are the mechanism that holds us accountable. They are our customer. They’re the ones, at the end of that day, who because they have free speech can voice their opinion. They can also go vote. They are also the customers of the news media. So it’s out there for them to decide.
DLL: I would also add that the American press also holds the government accountable.
Q: I just want to extend the discussion on the inherent contradiction that has been mentioned. I’m wondering: How do you do media literacy training when you have this contradiction where the President discredits the established media? You said it’s a healthy debate but doesn’t the [President’s behaviour] create a kind of confusion in the readership and public as such?
MG: There is no contradiction. The President of the United States has been clear in calling out unfair and inaccurate news when he believes it to be so, as is his right. It’s then out there for the American public to listen to and decide on. They also have access to news that they can listen to and decide on. We have a fair and open market of information, if you will.
There’s a conversation that’s happening but at the end of the day, it’s the American media consumer, it’s the American citizen that has access to information coming from the news, coming from their friends in social media; they are the ones making the decision.
DLL: We have often referred to the Presidential power of speech as the ‘Bully pulpit’. The President wields that power, and when he discredits the media, it’s going to have a very powerful effect particularly on his supporters. How do you overcome that when you are teaching media literacy?
MG: The question about whether it undermines the media is, again, up to the American people. If, in their minds, as they listen to conversations that the President and media is having, they decide on its impact on their understanding of and trust in news, or news that’s coming from their friends on social media. It’s an open market of information, and at the end of the day they are the ones with the power to decide if in fact it impacts their decision.
Right now President Trump is enjoying a very high favourability rating from the American people, one that matches Ronald Reagan and President Obama. Again, it’s codified in our Bill of Rights: Freedom of speech and freedom of the press. As long as we’re having a debate around that, and the American people are making their decisions at the end of the day, we’re in good shape.
DLL: Would you say it’s a fair fight?
MG: Sure! How many of you have a smartphone? How many of you right now could tweet? Of course it’s fair! Everybody can do that in the United States because of the freedom of speech. You can say anything you want. You can have any conversation you want. That’s incredibly powerful!
Whether it’s in government, whether it’s in media, whether it’s individual citizens, we’re all having a conversation. We all have an equal voice.
Q: Nobody has done more damage to press freedom globally than the current administration. You get the same question quite a lot but how would you define ‘fake news’?
MG: Fake news is misinformation and disinformation.
Q: You talk about there being a ‘healthy dialogue’ and debate in the U.S. but it seems like a lot of the fake news is simply news that Donald Trump doesn’t like.
MG: I’ll say this again: President Trump has been clear in calling out unfair and inaccurate information when he believes it to be so. It is up to the American people to have a conversation about it. It’s up to the news media to have a conversation about it, and they are. Look at the conversation we’re having now. And there’s no limit on it. The Bill of Rights are laws protecting freedom of the press, and free speech codify and protect our ability to have that conversation.
Q: China offers a different model. It believes in guiding public policy. It controls dissent. It believes in censorship. It is increasingly active internationally in promoting its policies in other countries. Has U.S. policy adjusted to this? In addition to the [media literacy programmes] the U.S. State Department already carries out, are there other programmes in light of what the Chinese are doing with regard to training other countries?
MG: One of the programmes we have is a U.S.-China journalistic exchange. We have some colleagues in Beijing. We participate in journalistic exchanges. In journalistic exchanges, we make clear our positions on the press there and the protection of journalists.
Q: I’d like to return to the previous topic for a minute. In addition to the criticism we’ve seen from President Trump for the news media, he has also repeatedly perpetrated his own disinformation, including a recent tweet about crime in Germany which has no sources and which is completely untrue. I believe there are people in the State Department and the Administration who sincerely want to tackle these issues abroad but how much credibility do you have when you are coming from an administration where the President is a source of disinformation?
MG: I don’t agree with your assertion. As I mentioned earlier, we engage with and invite the press into the State Department every day. They sit and work on the second floor of the State Department. We are having a conversation, we bring them into the press briefing room, we bring them into the foreign press centre in New York, in D.C., in places across the world to have a dialogue with the press. We give them access to our assistant secretaries, to our under-secretaries, to our ambassadors, so that they can have a fair and open conversation with the press. Our credibility and transparency speak to the degree in which we value our relationship with the press.
Q: I just want to clarify something. You keep saying, “We’re having this healthy debate and people have the power to believe whether what the media says is true.” I just want to make sure that you are saying that it’s ok that President Trump debates facts and introduces alternative versions of reality into the dialogue. That’s part of the debate we’re having and you’re ok with that?
MG: I’m saying he has been clear in calling out unfair and inaccurate information. Again it’s up to our public and news consumers and citizens to decide.
Q: The United States has long been a beacon of open democracy to countries around the world. What is the State Department saying now? What is it allowed to say to countries where democracy is in retreat?
MG: We work across all levels, be it the media or government-to-government conversations in promoting shared values. Number one, and the President has consistently talked about this, is human dignity and how you create opportunities for every individual to unlock their full potential. How do we create opportunities for people to achieve shared dreams together; to have a free and open press; to engage in careers and education paths that they want. That happens on a government-to-government level. It guides how we communicate on social media, from the podium, and to the press.
Q: You work on a day-to-day basis with publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. These are publications that the President calls fake news. As an individual, do you believe that The New York Times and The Washington Post are fake news?
MG: I'm not here speaking on behalf of my personal opinions. I’m here speaking on behalf of The United States State Department…
Q:…Does the State Department believe those publications to be fake news?
MG: The State Department engages with The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Bloomberg, Politico, CNN, and other media outlets on a day-to-day basis to have a healthy conversation and be transparent and clear about our policies and values.
Q: Are you saying you’re unwilling to supprt the President fully on that?
MG: I support the President fully. I also support the people I work for – the citizens of the United States. Ultimately they have the power to decide what they think is fair and accurate.
Follow us on Twitter (@sgsmuperspectiv) or like us on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/PerspectivesAtSMU)
Last updated on 10 Jul 2018 .