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January 14, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 9:55am

Interview: Associated Press CEO Gary Pruitt on US Capitol riot attack on photographer, ‘quite vile’ threats and the loss of a ‘common sense of reality’

By William Turvill

“Get the f*** out of here!”

These words, spat at an Associated Press photographer last week as he was shoved over a ledge outside the US Capitol building, illustrate the level of contempt felt towards journalists by sections of the American public today.

“He could have been badly hurt from a fall like that,” Associated Press CEO Gary Pruitt tells Press Gazette. “Fortunately, he was not. But it was a scary video.”

It was an AP photographer on this occasion, but the victim of this attack could easily have been a different journalist from a different news outlet.

“From what I could tell, it appeared to be a general attack on the media,” says Pruitt. “I don’t think they were specifically targeting AP. I think it was the media generally. We happened to be available.”

In addition to attacking one of his journalists, rioters also “smashed and destroyed” thousands of dollars worth of AP video equipment (apparently while chanting “CNN sucks”).

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Pruitt, who left regional press giant McClatchy to become president and chief executive of the AP in 2012, is troubled not just by behaviour of the protestors, but also by the cause of their actions.

“This attack on the Capitol was inspired by people who believe the election was stolen,” he says. “Even though there’s no evidence that the election was stolen.

“That shows you how dangerous and deadly it can be when there are alternative views of the facts of important events like elections.”

Pruitt and his journalists receiving ‘quite vile’ threats

Pruitt originally spoke to Press Gazette in mid-December for this interview, which was to reflect on 2020, Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House and the future under Joe Biden as president. But he agreed to speak again this week after pro-Trump protestors stormed the US Capitol.

In our original discussion, Pruitt spoke of how we as a society “we seem to be losing a common sense of reality, of facts”. This feeling appears to have been vindicated by the attacks on the US Capitol.

He also spoke of how his journalists have been on the receiving end of “ugly” threats.

Asked this week whether the level of threats has intensified over the past month – a period in which many Trump supporters have refused to accept the result of November’s election – Pruitt said: “It has. In the past week, there have been numerous threats on social media and emails threatening AP staff. Some quite vile.

“We’re not intimidated by it. We’ll continue to report the truth. But we do care greatly about journalistic safety and we’re taking all the necessary steps to protect our journalists.”

Is Pruitt himself ever the target of these threats? “It’s mainly the journalists. But it certainly includes others. Including me. But it’s mainly the journalists because they’re more conspicuous or higher profile with their bylines or on video or their voices. So they’re the ones who get more than anyone else.”

In spite of these threats, and the dangers presented to his journalists in Washington, Pruitt speaks proudly of AP’s coverage of the protests.

“We will take all steps to keep our journalists safe, but we’re not going to be intimidated by this,” Pruitt says. “Nor will we be provoked to enter the fray and take positions in this fraught time. Rather, we’ll just continue to report the news.”

He adds: “It was definitely risky for our journalists but important coverage to get. And if anything I thought it was a reminder that our mission and our role is even more important in times like these. And more important to be fact-based, non-partisan and to have our customers and readers, viewers, rely on us for the facts.”

2020 a ‘stressful’ year for AP

Gary Pruitt (credit: Associated Press)

Founded in 1846 by five New York City newspapers, AP is a not-for-profit cooperative news agency that produces around 2,000 stories a day, as well as an estimated 70,000 videos and one million photos every year.

The group, which employs thousands of journalists across around 250 bureaux in 100 countries, today has several businesses in addition to its news-gathering operation, including a photo archive, video archive, production businesses and a news production system called ENPS.

In total, AP has an estimated 10,000 customers – around two-thirds of whom are in the US – in the media, government, technology and other sectors. It last year generated revenues of approximately $500m.

At the heart of its business, AP has around 1,200 news organisation ‘members’ who receive content and also share their content with other members through AP distribution platforms. AP’s newspaper members appoint the group’s board of directors, which is currently chaired by Hearst president and chief executive Steven R Swartz.

As a global news agency with thousands of customers across the world, AP is well used to being at the heart of major news events. But Pruitt admits that 2020 proved especially “stressful” when reflecting on it during our first interview in December.

An “intense news year” comprising coronavirus, Black Lives Matter protests and the US election was “made all the more challenging by being remote”. “I feel good about AP and how we performed [in 2020],” he adds. “But I don’t want to necessarily relive it.”

‘We seem to be losing a common sense of reality’

Press Gazette last week asked a host of the most influential news leaders to identify the biggest challenges for journalism in 2021.

Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron said the “biggest challenge for journalism is that facts aren’t accepted as facts any longer”, while Insider editor-in-chief Nicholas Carlson said: “The truth is not dead but it’s been beaten to a pulp by politicians, media personalities, and grifters – all for mere power and profit.”

Pruitt, during our interview in December, identified approximately the same issue.

“We seem to have lost, at least to a certain degree, a common understanding of some underlying facts,” he says. “Different people have different views on reality. And that is more challenging for all media, but especially for an organisation like AP because it is fact-based journalism.

“So we will be attacked by people who say something isn’t factual. There are so many conspiracy theories and false information out in the media world, not just on social media but other media outlets. We will be attacked or criticised if it doesn’t comply with somebody’s world view.

“And we’ve seen a greater degree of that, up to and including threats that can be ugly. It’s a challenging time, and I think that the most troubling piece is that we, as a society, not just in the United States but globally, we need to have a common base of facts.

“People can disagree about policy approaches or how to handle something. That’s fine. But we seem to be losing a common sense of reality, of facts. And that can be a very troubling thing. And that’s why we feel our role is more important than ever. But it is more difficult than ever.”

Pruitt suggests the solution to this problem is for news organisations to continue reporting facts without “being intimidated by external forces – governments or otherwise. But also not being provoked to be… part of that partisan fight, but to provide the facts and context for society. And ultimately that’s our most powerful weapon, and we plan to assert it.”

Will it work? “I think the jury is out,” says Pruitt. “I think we can play a constructive role, but technological innovations have led to a splintering of media outlets so various audiences can hear just one message that may not always be accurate. And so I think that it will be a continuing problem. I remain optimistic that ultimately facts will prevail. But it can be a turbulent time getting to that conclusion.”

What does the end of President Trump mean for AP?

In our December conversation, when asked what the change of US president would mean for AP, Pruitt suggested that it would be simpler for his journalists to cover a leader who does not make major announcements on Twitter.

“It’s not just reporting what the tweet says, but reporting the context of the tweet and even fact-checking the tweet,” he says of the Trump White House era. “And that became part of the very process of AP.”

He adds: “I think Biden has said he’s not going to do policy announcements by tweet, or words akin to that.

“And so I think we can expect there will be some more predictability to it. And that might make it less stressful than knowing there could be a substantial tweet at 2.30 in the morning that you have to do reporting on, to get it out and put it in context.

“So there’s a non-stop nature to that. And while we’re a 24-7 news service, that was different in terms of a presidential administration for sure.”

Since Pruitt’s first conversation with Press Gazette in December, it has become more apparent that Trump intends to remain in the limelight after he leaves the White House (albeit possibly without a Twitter account).

How will AP cover Trump stories after he formally vacates the White House?  By the time of our second conversation this week, Pruitt still isn’t quite sure.

“It remains to be seen how relevant Donald Trump will be,” he says. “To the extent that he remains an important political actor, it will be incumbent on AP to cover him.

“We don’t know what that will be exactly. Everybody has their guesses and their predictions, but we’re not in that business.

“We will just cover him to the extent that it is newsworthy, that it is important and relevant to the news of the day and the policy of the country. But we don’t know what that will be exactly.

“He may be an important force or he may not be. We’re not sure.”

Picture: Alex Gakos/ Shutterstock

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