February 28, 2017—Rick Stengel, Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellow, discussed the differences between working in media and government, the Trump administration’s relationship with the press and how terrorist groups use social media, among other topics at the Shorenstein Center.
Stengel served as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs from 2014-2016, and is former managing editor for Time magazine. He is currently an advisor to Snapchat. Below are some highlights from the discussion, as well as the full audio recording.
Communication norms in media versus government
“When I was in the press, I didn’t know all that much about things and I tried to be as controversial as possible, and then when I was in government, I actually knew a lot about things and tried to be as uncontroversial as possible…it took me a while having been in the media for so many years to learn to do government speak, not that I wanted to completely do it, but it’s a very different way of speaking. It’s a much more careful way of speaking, it’s a much more purely fact-based way of speaking. That’s one reason that the campaign, and even the nascent presidency of Donald Trump, is so alarming in so many ways, because the use of language is so out of proportion, it’s so non-normative.”
The Trump administration and the press
“I think there’s a tremendous similarity…between what the Trump administration and the president in particular is doing, and what autocrats and dictators have done through a lot of the 20th and 21st centuries, and what Vladimir Putin does, which is to try to delegitimize the opposition. Bannon has said the press is the opposition, Trump has used that incredibly odious phrase, ‘enemy of the people,’ a Stalinesque phrase. What it is is in some ways even more pernicious—which is to try to eliminate dissent, eliminate criticism.”
Media coverage of Trump during the campaign
I think that the press was in many ways, and in some ways unconsciously so, a handmaiden to Trump’s victory.
“I think that the press was in many ways, and in some ways unconsciously so, a handmaiden to Trump’s victory… CNN and other media organizations gave a disproportionate amount of attention to Donald Trump, a lot of it unmediated by filming his rallies. What it said to viewers was, ‘this is important, pay attention’…he was a non-serious candidate that was made more serious by press coverage.”
“One of the problems is the structure of how we cover campaigns… it was always equal, like the Super Bowl. But what do you have when one party is 17 rungs on the ladder below the other in terms of qualifications for the job, understanding of the system, plans?…What happened during the campaign was this automatic equivalency between the two because they are the two nominees of the two parties—and I think it did [Clinton] a gigantic disservice and it helped Trump by giving him the same equivalency as the most qualified person to ever run for president. So I think the press has some liability there too.”
Post-election media coverage
The media can be patting itself on the back—‘we’ve exposed these lies’—but if half the people don’t feel they were lies to begin with, is that a success?
“Post-election, I think the press has been vigilant—the embrace of fact-based reporting, investigative reporting and criticism, and learning to be able to start saying in real time, ‘that’s not correct’…so much news now is tracked and annotated in real time—you can’t just wait until the next morning to make the correction.”
“I do think the press can be too self-congratulatory. We’re living in an era of media confirmation bias… The media can be patting itself on the back—‘we’ve exposed these lies’—but if half the people don’t feel they were lies to begin with, is that a success?”
Communication at the State Department
“One of the big revelations for me in government was that we’re not the best messenger for our message. There are so many people around the world, because of Russian disinformation and all other kinds, who are disposed to take anything that comes from the U.S. government as a falsehood and lie. Traditionally, people in government thought government needs to message directly to people, and we can do that now on social media…but other than saying ‘this is what our policy is,’ I actually think it’s very hard for the U.S. government to persuade people on a point of view, or persuade them that our policy is good…how do you use third party credible voices who you can optimize and give platforms to that would help tell America’s story in a way that was persuasive to foreign audiences?”
Social media and terrorism
“What’s different now is you have these non-state actors, who are terrorist groups, and you have a new delivery system, social media, that obliterates all of the barriers to communication. It’s the many-to-many model rather than the one-to-many model.”
“Terrorist groups have been able to create content that terrorizes people. ISIL was a niche brand that turned into a global brand because of the messaging, and their messaging was those violent beheadings…They used social media to recruit foreign fighters…social media helps rectify the asymmetry of power between state actors and non-state actors, and that helps terrorist groups.”
Digital platforms and the future of journalism
There’s a transition from a more analytical take on news and events to a more experiential one, which I think is changing journalism.
“Digital companies are going to reinvent media and journalism, and are already…what we’ve seen over the past 20-25 years are regular people prizing the opinions of peers over experts, and journalists are experts…fact-based information seems elitist to a lot of people now. If people trust the peer reviews on Amazon more than a New York Times book critic who’s been reviewing books for 20 years, I think there’s some adaptation that has to happen.”
“One of the things that I think Snapchat has been a leader on is aggregating user-generated content…it has a resonance with people that sometimes traditional, third person journalism doesn’t have. There’s a transition from a more analytical take on news and events to a more experiential one, which I think is changing journalism. And people find that experience not only more interesting, but more persuasive and more honest…that can be exploited for ill as well as good.”
Article by Nilagia McCoy of the Shorenstein Center.