Gary Pruitt

Informing the World

Air Date: July 4, 2015

Associated Press CEO and President Gary Pruitt talks with Alexander Heffner about safeguarding journalists as the ‘eyewitnesses to history,” as more and more journalists are killed in the line of duty.


I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

The gold standard of journalism is the Associated Press. And in every corner of the planet there is life, this international news cooperative is wired and wiring us. If you could download one free app, dare I say the AP’s is the most complete source of news.

On today’s show we are lucky to have Gary Pruitt the AP C.E.O. and president and the former chief of the McClatchy newspaper company.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 61 reporters were killed last year in the line of duty, including 4 of the AP’s own, and to combat the increased violence Pruitt has suggested that the Geneva Convention take on new meaning to make the killing of a journalist a war crime.

He said it used to be that when media wore “press” emblazoned on their vehicle or vest, it gave them a degree of protection. But that labeling now is more likely to make them a target. He said this in a speech at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club. And there are three particular subjects I’m hoping to explore with Gary today.

First, this very topic of a new war on journalism and journalists: How do we protect reporters in regions like Nigeria and Yemen.

Second, the business model of the AP that has survived amid a shift to online social aggregation. How can we learn from the Associated Press and its valuation of journalism.

And finally and maybe most significant the public’s right to know. Why is the AP leading an effort to force a release of Secretary of State (former Secretary of State) Clinton’s e-mails … and Gary it’s a pleasure to have you here.

PRUITT: I’m delighted to be here, Alexander, thank you.
HEFFNER: It’s really an honor for us. Let’s start backwards with that third question. Why the suit.

PRUITT: The AP … files thousands of Freedom … Freedom of Information requests to the U.S. government every year. Often we learn valuable information, and look, and report stories. Occasionally we are denied access and then sometimes we’re just stalled and stiff armed completely and that’s what happened with the Department of State. We had some requests that were pending for five years and we weren’t … we were not getting any responses. They dealt with Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, but they were broad based searches well before the current controversy related to her private e-mail server and we were not getting a response from the secretary … from the State Department. Ultimately, we felt we had no choice but to go to federal court in Washington and sue for access. It’s not something we do lightly, but we do it occasionally when we feel we are being …road blocked on getting information that’s important in public.

HEFFNER: Your argument fundamentally is that the public has a right to Secretary of State Clinton’s e-mails.

PRUITT: If the public does. It’s clear in the law that the public has a right to e-mails that don’t create national security risks or other … or privacy invasions. But, the white the great swath of information requested …is …the public has a right to know and we need to know how our public servants are serving the public need.

HEFFNER: Secretary Clinton has said that it’s incumbent upon the elected official, or the senior level person in government to put forward the emails that they find relevant to the public’s knowledge — the work of the people that is. And in many states the onus is on the government officials because there aren’t laws that mandate the federal scrutiny that has been established now. Are you going to wage a campaign from state house to the executive branch to ensure that here in New York for example when Governor Cuomo enforced a automatically deleted e-mail policy, that what applies to Secretary Clinton applies to every governor.

PRUITT: Well AP does do a survey of fifty states in what we call Sunshine Week every year, evaluating all the states and their work and …and what we have found most recently … is a disturbing trend by the states where they are, in effect, getting around public access laws by charging so much for their time or copies that it’s tantamount to denying access. Charging thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars … for records that they even acknowledge are public, but would be expensive to produce. And that in effect shuts down the access of the public. So there are various ways of getting around it, and AP likes to keep the spotlight on the public officials and the laws that … so as to act as a surrogate for the people, so that we can get this public knowledge.

HEFFNER: The fact that Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State and the fact that she operated her server privately. Those factors complicate it presumably in a way that a situation with the governor of the state would not. So, I don’t take issue at all with your grievance that these records ought to be public and that she should not have operated that account out of her Westchester home. But the one thing I want you to consider and I’m curious is … imagine a scenario and this goes to another point that I hope we discussed later on … in which an AP reporter’s life is in jeopardy. The National Security risk is there and your diplomatic channels have to be secret and the negotiation that leads you to free a … an imprisoned prison photographer reporter, a source on the ground, those channels, in order to protect lives for a year, for two years, for five years moving forward. They have to remain private secret classified so we can be more effective winning this …this suit, if you stipulate that per the National Records Administration these e-mails like the e-mails of the president … imagine F.D.R., J.F.K., and F.D.R. fighting World War Two, J.F.K. during the Cuban Missile Crisis and imagine the immediate necessity to release the telegraphs of the correspondence with Churchill. Are you going to win this argument if you if you acknowledge that there is historical perspective in that Secretary of State Clinton’s e-mails all of them should be released, but not immediately.

PRUITT: Well, the law covers this. And so, AP is not in the business of endangering people’s lives or national security. So that certainly is a valid exception to hold back e-mails and records.

There’s no doubt about that the law makes that clear. But, the records requested are clearly within the Freedom of Information Act and public records that the public has a right to know, especially as evaluating a potential presidential candidate that this value is great. It will be valuable to historians, decades later, no doubt, as well.

But it’s important also for voters in making a decision and evaluating candidates now, and we’re not asking for records that would endanger people’s lives or endanger national security, but merely the… the pursuit of her job and the records that the public has a right to know. We have not even heard from the State Department saying here’s what we think these records are public, these records are private. In some cases, in five years: nothing. So that is an untenable situation and a flat denial of the public’s right to know. That’s why we challenged.

HEFFNER: And would you say an extension of the endangerment. , if you will, would be the Iranian nuclear negotiation or the detente with Cuba or the cooling of relations e-mails that would show that these relationships are being built under circumstances of trust. Is… is that is that a balance too.

PRUITT: Absolutely, I mean look. As I said, this is this involves sorting out which records are public or not and they redact a lot of documents and so we get documents that are blacked out and we understand there are certain requirements for secrecy and in sensitive international relations. We’re not even getting to that level. We’re not even getting to that position. We’re … just being stalled out right.

And what about those who break the rules, I mean they break the law in pursuit of what they think is a higher moral ground.
Wiki Leaks for example

PRUITT: AP doesn’t take editorial positions. So, it’s not as if we’ve opined on what we think of Edward Snowden or Wiki Leaks or any other case like that.

The AP is in favor broadly of the public right to know and free expression and free press rights, but we have not expressed opinions on Wiki Leaks or … really any other editorial matter for that sake.

HEFFNER: Well, you may not express opinions but… but because you abide by the letter of the law in pursuit of journalistic freedom it’s … it’s a way that you differentiate your organization from others that … that may have similar goals.

PRUITT: Yes, I mean, everyone has to make their own decisions, I suppose. The Associated Press is a worldwide news organization and we … we abide by the law.

We challenge laws when we feel they have … when they’re impinging on the free press rights.

When the Justice Department took our phone records secretly in 2013, we challenged the Justice Department, feeling that their actions didn’t even, you know, didn’t comply with their own rules and were so far overreaching as to be unconstitutional.

We engaged with the Justice Department. To their credit, they changed the rules so that journalists now have greater protections when the federal government is seeking records. So, yeah … the AP is always active in this area, always active in working to improve the laws so that free expression and free press rights in the United States and worldwide can be fully exercised.

HEFFNER: So, you though have made a strong statement in condemning the violence against journalists. And that’s a position that the global community shares largely. But in deeming violence or the murder of journalists a war crime, you think Gary that it will establish a protection that’s been lost.

PRUITT: I think so. I mean there are two … two trends going on here one is that more and more journalists are being killed. And if you look over a multi-decade history you can see that in the past twenty years the numbers have exploded. You mentioned 61 journalists killed last year. Over a thousand have been killed since the early 90’s and the numbers are growing and we see it at AP too.

HEFFNER: And to what do you attribute that increase.

PRUITT: I think there are a few things going on. I mean there are many conflict zones. Also, it used to be that the press did have a degree of freedom when they had “press” emblazoned on their vest or on their vehicle. But it is more likely to make them a target now. Extremist groups don’t need media to tell their story anymore. They can go directly to the public through social media and other technology.

So the press can be seen as an impediment or a critical filter for their story, and so they don’t need them. Secondly, kidnapping and holding journalists for ransom is a business model now for many groups.

And then finally, and most perniciously, killing a journalist isn’t necessarily to stop a news story, but to create a news story almost of a bloody press release. And so, we see all these factors and a violent world — huge number a huge increase in the number of journalists killed. You mentioned AP lost 4 journalists last year: 3 in conflict zones, 1 assassinated by a police commander in Afghanistan, charged with protecting her, and two in Gaza when an unexploded missile went off. So, even when you do everything right, there are circumstances that can go wrong. We understand that.

But, what’s going on at the same time that journalists face more and more danger is…. there’s a breakdown of prosecution of the killers, of the murderers. In fewer than 10 percent of the cases of journalists being killed, is there any investigation whatsoever. The investigation and prosecution is left to the nation state, to the countries that are often in disarray and can’t handle it and don’t pursue it. In fewer than 5 percent of the cases is there ever a prosecution or a conviction. So, at the same time more journalists are being killed, fewer and fewer investigations and prosecutions are being brought. The system has broken down so I think what we need to do is elevate the system beyond the country level to the International Criminal Court — to an international body. Now, I’m not naive. I do understand that the Islamic state group is flaunting international law currently and this will not probably change their behavior.

But, I do think it will influence others, in other areas, at other times, and especially over time.

And I think also, it will help with future prosecutions, because it will give another … another … path for prosecutions … because it is the impunity of the killers that empowers them, and emboldens them and that’s dangerous.

Now that’s dangerous for journalists. And we can all feel sorry for journalists. But it’s broader than that because the journalists are the eyewitnesses to history and are there, reporting in some of the dangerous … most dangerous places in the world, and some of the most important stories in the world. And they’re telling the story to the rest of the world so we can understand it, so we can understand what the situation is. We need them there. If it’s so dangerous that they can’t be there, then we lose that picture — that window of that story and the world is poorer. So, we need to offer greater protection by making it a war crime if journalists are killed. It won’t solve all the problems. There will still be major issues but I think it will help. And I think it will help over time. It’s a step that we can take by changing Geneva Accords or increasing another treaty, or adding it to the international criminal courts. I think those steps would be helpful for journalists and for all of us in the world over time,

HEFFNER: From your bureaus across the country and correspondents … in situations where a particular photographer or reporter was either kidnapped or murdered, in your contact with the kinds of groups that don’t …would not respect the authority of a Geneva convention for journalists. Any take away what they want.

PRUITT: The first AP journalists killed covering the news died at the Battle of Little Big Horn – covering Custer in 1876. He said, “I go with Custer” and he did. And we’ve had 35 journalists killed covering the news, 4 last year and the numbers have increased in recent years. Fortunately, we don’t have anyone being held currently. But Terry Anderson was a prominent AP reporter who was held, not for ransom, but ultimately released. And I would say the circumstances are very different depending on the conflict … depending on the situation …depending upon the …the people involved. Last year, we had a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer covering the Afghan election. And, as I said, a police commander charged with protecting her convoy turned his gun on her at point blank range, threw it down on the ground and said “Allahu Akbar, God is great.” Well, God may be great, but you’ve just killed one of the world’s greatest photographers, and that person turned himself in and was prosecuted. There was no protection against that when a security person turns … when an unexploded missile went off in Gaza and killed two of our staffers and blew off the leg of a photographer, there was nothing that could be done there.

AP never sends anyone in to a conflict zone unless he or she volunteers, that they’ve had hostile environment training. They have the best equipment, protective equipment, communications equipment. They’ve …they’ve experience … they have experience in covering conflicts or they’re part of an experienced team, and of course they have a big news organization standing behind them. But even then, problems … problems occur. One of the things that I think all media can do is … agree on principles, common principles, that they have.. Of how they will protect their journalists and treat their journalists if they’re taken hostage, whether they are an employee or an independent contractor, because there are more and more freelancers out there.

And we don’t want any media organization to take the position that, well, if a freelancer gets kidnapped, you know, that’s his problem, or her problem.

HEFFNER: Are there common rules by which …

PRUITT: There are government guidelines that have that many news organizations, including the AP have come together and signed and supported, just earlier this year, and we want all media organizations to agree to them and abide by them because we think that’s what media organizations can do to protect journalists. And then we think … adding it is a war crime can help over time.

HEFFNER: A united front.

PRUITT: Yes, basically that’s right.

HEFFNER: And how does that united front interact with the State Department which, in some instances, may want to act in opposition to the way that you want to, potentially for your reporter or correct something that’s gone terribly wrong.

PRUITT: Right. Well the U.S. State Department does recognize that this is a major problem. The safety of journalists and killing and it’s … it’s become so dangerous that there are very few journalists now covering the Syrian civil war.

We used to have reporters in rebel held territory and in Damascus and it’s become so dangerous it’s difficult to have any journalists there. The US State Department understands that this is a major issue. But … and we’ve… and they’ve asked for our input in this area and we’ve provided it. But, nothing really beyond that.

HEFFNER: I think this very much ties into the valuation of monetization of news, which was the third topic that I was hoping to explore. And that is the AP is indispensable, and I think, even this next generation is beginning to see in the local papers that are still thriving — that subscribe to the wire service, that you have eyes and ears around the world. I just want to ask you plain and simple: How can you afford to have a free app.

PRUITT: Yeah, that’s a good question. Well the AP is a different breed of cat. So, it’s important to think about that. The AP has been around since 1846. It was founded by five New York newspapers who wanted to find a more efficient way to cover the Mexican-American war. So they all got together and hired a reporter to go to the western deserts to cover that war. AP…still exists. It’s the largest news organization in the world now those five New York newspapers are long gone.

It’s an improbable story and it happened, I think, because AP is different than other news organizations. We’ve been solely focused on news from our beginning; never anything else. That’s our “True North” undiluted. We strive to be objective. We take no editorial stance. We never endorse candidates. We …we want to be objective as we possibly can. It was AP’s reporter in the civil war that introduced the idea and the ideal of objectivity in reporting. We’re a nonprofit. We don’t have owners. We’re a nonprofit news organization and we don’t have the same market pressures. We have to be viable.

HEFFNER: I asked Bill Keller at the same table if he thought that it was essential for these emerging media outlets to be nonprofits and he was mum — but I want to ask you the same question in order to succeed as a model.

PRUITT: I think I think what Bill Keller was probably talking about were foundation funded news organizations. AP’s not that. AP is a business. We have to be viable but we don’t have owners. And so, what we are, we have a structure where we are what business people call “b-to-b.” — business to business. We take our content, and license it to other media; television stations … TV stations, newspapers, and digital companies, and we do not go directly to consumers, except with our app which is a limited, but still very good app and … and highly rated. I appreciate the plug you gave us. But most of our revenue comes from other media subscribing to AP content and using it. AP’s producing over 2,000 tech stories every day 3 to 4 thousand photos every day, and 150 video news stories every day going out around the world, and with and through other media reaching over half the world’s population every day. No media organization in the world, perhaps no entity in the world has a bigger reach than the Associated Press every day. We’re not the most glamorous. We don’t have the … the Vanity Fair or … we don’t have the Academy Award parties. We’re not the most well known because we’re behind the scenes with b-to-b. We’re not the most profitable; we’re a nonprofit. But, I think in terms of reach, you could argue –and being everywhere — that we are the most important news organization in the world. At least I’d like to think that.

Mark Twain in 1907 said, “There are only two forces that bring light to the all corners of the globe, the sun in the heavens and the Associated Press down here.” and that was 1907. Our reach is far greater now, in over 100 countries where … we have bureaus in Havana, in Tehran, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Only AP

HEFFNER: The only one.

PRUITT: The only one. Only AP is in all those places

HEFFNER: And I think your pitch to consumers as we wrap up here is important to get them to realize that they are the… quiet treasure in the fourth estate.

PRUITT: It’s the reason we do it all. When I became president of AP, I said our mission is to inform the world, so young people today growing up get a chance to go to school, get a chance to fall in love, and get a chance to be cool. Borrowing from Neil Young’s “Rockin in the Free World.” But there can be no higher calling.

HEFFNER: Gary Pruitt, C.E.O. and president of the Associated Press, thanks so much for joining me on The Open Mind today.

PRUITT: Thank you Alexander. I appreciate it.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.

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