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US secretary of state emphasizes value of a free press at ASU-hosted event

Blinken spoke to journalists as part of the Media Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles


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June 09, 2022

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told an Arizona State University audience that a strong press is the cornerstone of democracy and that the U.S. is working to ease the threats faced by journalists around the world.

Blinken spoke Tuesday at the ASU California Center in downtown Los Angeles, where the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication hosted the first Media Summit of the Americas, in partnership with the Equis Institute. Blinken’s talk capped the daylong event attended by dozens of journalists from Latin America, which was devoted to fighting disinformation. The Media Summit was part of the weeklong Summit of the Americas hosted by the Department of State.

“In every country in the hemisphere, for every goal that we want to achieve, for every problem affecting the lives of our people, a free, independent press is essential,” Blinken said.

“And at its core is the idea that accurate information is a public good — one that helps people understand the events and forces shaping their lives; spotlights problems and solutions that they otherwise might not see; and, fundamentally, empowers citizens to engage meaningfully in their communities, their countries, and the world.

“In democracies, we often look to the media to provide this public good.”

RELATED: Cronkite School hosts 1st Media Summit of the Americas

Blinken discussed three major threats facing journalists now and how the U.S. is addressing them.

The first challenge is disinformation.

“We’ve seen how these falsehoods can polarize communities, poison the public square, undermine people’s trust in health systems, government institutions, in democracy itself,” he said.

Blinken said the U.S. is launching the Digital Communication Network of the Americas. The network was created in 2015 in Africa and Europe as a way for journalists, educators, communicators, media professionals and public officials to combat disinformation and propaganda.

During the pandemic, the network helped journalists, data scientists and public health officials share strategies on how to counter myths on social media that were designed to stoke doubt about vaccines and — ultimately — erode trust in democracy.

The second challenge is the threats, harassment and violence faced by many journalists around the world.

“Even as we take steps to counter disinformation, we have to always guard against measures that give governments overly broad powers to criminalize, to censor or otherwise quash freedom of expression, as we’ve seen in the rash of so-called ‘fake news’ laws passed by governments, some of which have been abused to harass or lock up journalists whose critical reporting the governments didn’t like.

“You all know this because many of you are living it,” he told the audience.

Blinken said that least 17 journalists have been killed in the Western Hemisphere this year.

“No region in the world is more dangerous for journalists,” he said.

“In Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, the simple act of carrying out investigative journalism is a crime.”

The U.S. is working to strengthen the rule of law by training judges and prosecutors to investigate and prosecute such attacks, he said.

In addition, the U.S. Agency for International Development will spend $9 million to support a global Defamation Defense Fund for Journalists, which will offer liability coverage for journalists and news organizations targeted with litigation. 

The third challenge is the business model of journalism.

“Put simply, we will not have a vibrant, independent press if more and more outlets are shutting down because they can’t find a viable business model,” he said.

The U.S. is providing direct financial assistance to some at-risk publications and will give $30 million to the International Fund for Public Interest Media.

Video by Media Relations and Strategic Communications

Blinken was interrupted twice by shouting protesters, one of whom criticized the invitation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry of Haiti to the Summit of the Americas and one who criticized the U.S. government’s response to the murders of journalists in Saudi Arabia and Palestine.

Blinken responded to both that the U.S. is supporting independent investigations, including into the killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Palestine.

“I deplore the loss of Shireen,” Blinken said. “She was a remarkable journalist and an American citizen.”

After his remarks, Blinken participated in a Q&A session with two students and one alumna from the Cronkite School at ASU.

He asked the young women if they worried about their safety while doing their jobs.

Madison Thomas, a senior at the Cronkite School, said that it’s a concern.

“Even here in the U.S., when there have been different protests in the last several years, you see videos surface of stuff that happens to journalists,” she said.

“So me seeing that as someone who’s entering this career field, that’s something that scares me. You can go out and cover something, emotions are high and something can happen here or abroad.”

Thomas said she knows the industry has shifted from years ago, when her grandfather would read the print newspaper every day. He told her how everyone trusted Walter Cronkite.

“Now I feel like we’ve lost so much trust as journalists,” she said. “In the past few years, people in power say things about journalists and others believe it. How can we rebuild that trust?”

Blinken said that years ago, the news was curated by a small group of gatekeepers at the television networks and newspapers, and Walter Cronkite was one of them.

“In many ways, there was an expectation that the democratization of information we’ve seen over the last 25 years would be a good thing,” he said.

“We’ve lost those trusted media curators. Now everyone is a publisher.

“As a result, we have an incredible ecosystem of information that many people, including myself, have a hard time deciphering.”

Andrea Villalobos, a senior at the Cronkite School, asked Blinken how he deals with the information overload.

“How do you personally sift through your social media feed and everything? Sometimes your own face pops up on there,” she said.

Blinken said that years ago, there was a time lag between when the news appeared and when the public reacted.

“Now it’s instantaneous. That puts pressure on the government to react responsibly and do something immediately,” he said.

Villalobos asked Blinken about “clickbait” culture.

“There’s so many things that can go wrong when there is more drive for engagement in the headline rather than actual content in that headline,” she said.

Blinken said that’s why supporting news organizations financially is important.

“One of the reasons we’re trying to look for ways to build support for independent media is to help take some of that pressure off, and at least create a space where journalism is not motivated by that necessity,” he said.

Blinken told them that they, as young journalists, face the burden of these challenges.

“Here’s the hard truth. We’re looking to you and your generation for the answers. You’re the ones who need to figure that out,” he said.

Marcella Baietto graduated from the Cronkite School in 2020 and works as a weekend anchor and reporter at a TV station in Illinois.

“I started J-schooljournalism school in 2016, the year we saw a huge shift in trusting the media. This is all I’ve ever known,” she said.

“I’ve only known that people don’t like and don’t trust us,” she told Blinken. “I think if I’ve been able to navigate how to ethically and successfully report during this tough time, I’m ready for whatever is ahead.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken shakes hands with Andrea Villalobos, a senior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, before participating in an interview with her and Madison Thomas (center), also a senior at the Cronkite School. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU News

The three women told ASU News that they had little time to prepare for the event with Blinken. They knew only that they would be interviewing a top government official.

“I didn’t know who I was interviewing until a couple of days before, for security reasons,” Villalobos said. 

“We decided together, along with his staff, what topics would pertain to the summit as well as what we were really interested in talking to him about.

“We brainstormed together. Even last night, we scrapped everything we had written before and just wrote questions 10 minutes before in a room and put them on notecards, and that’s what we ended up going with.”

Baietto watched previous interviews with Blinken to prepare for the interview, which she said went by quickly.

“It was very (off) the cuff and you try to prepare so much for it, and once you get there in person, there are follow-up questions and people in the audience who want to ask questions as well and you just have to go with the flow,” she said.

Thomas watched Blinken’s appearances on late-night talk shows to prepare.

“I found out he likes to play guitar, but he’s not that great at it,” she said. “I also listened to podcasts so I had as much knowledge as I could.”

Villalobos said that her studies at Cronkite have prepared her to face the tough world of journalism.

“When you’re in Cronkite News, you’re already telling such important stories,” said Villalobos, who interviewed people at the U.S.-Mexico border as a student reporter.

“And it’s just amazing to go out into the real world and have all of these stories under your belt and meet such amazing people.”

Top image: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken addresses a crowd at the ASU California Center in downtown Los Angeles. After the event, he participated in an interview with Marcella Baietto (far left) who graduated from ASU's Cronkite School in 2020, and current Cronkite students Madison Thomas (center) and Andrea Villalobos. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU News

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