Retired Rear Admiral John Kirby On Government and Media Relations in the Era of Trump

Man speaks to crowd of students

Ret. Rear Admiral John Kirby speaks with SFS Graduate Students

November 10, 2017
by Lindsay Swisher

On Tuesday, November 7th, 2017, retired Rear Admiral John Kirby of the US Navy spoke with SFS graduate students about government and media relations in the current political climate. Kirby currently works as a military and diplomatic analyst for CNN, and previously served as Spokesperson and Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs for Secretary of State John Kerry.

According to Kirby, there are currently three aspects of media and government relations that are concerning. The first is media consolidation. Kirby said, “When I joined the Navy in 1986, 90% of the media in this country was owned by 50 companies.” Today that number stands at 5. “You have a smaller number of executives on any given day deciding what is and what isn’t news.”

The second aspect is information technology. Changes in information technology have created what Kirby calls “prosumerism”. This is the idea that, “audiences are no longer just consuming news and information but you are producing news and information,” Kirby explained. This leads to convergence journalism, he said, where there is more competition among a smaller number of journalists to find unique stories.

The last big change in media is the concept of fake news. “Contrary to what some people believe, fake news is not news you don’t like. It’s actual fake news. It’s disinformation,” Kirby emphasized. Fake news can come from three sources: nation states using fake news for political purposes, citizens who just want to shake things up for fun, and most importantly, independent contractors who are paid to propagate fake news.

Kirby loved his job at the podium, but he acknowledged how difficult the media climate is today. “Aside from the politics of it, I can’t imagine how much more difficult it is to be a government spokesman today dealing with these dynamics, because you’re always going to be, to some degree, chasing your tail, trying to refute bad news, rather than just being able to put out your message and narrative,” Kirby said.

Regardless, he said, “over time, with facts and being truthful, holding yourself to a high accountability for what really did or didn’t happen,” is the best way we can counter lies and fake news.

Graduate students then took the opportunity to ask Kirby questions about media culture today. When asked about how government spokespeople seem to maintain their credibility even when lying to the public, Kirby was very clear. “Credibility, just like your personal integrity, takes a lifetime to build and a nano-second to lose. I was always very cognizant of that as I mounted the podium, both at Pentagon and at the State Department, and I never ever, not once was asked to go out there and lie,” Kirby said.

His key antidote to countering all these changes – media literacy.  “We have to be more media literate. We have to be more discerning as a public in how we get news and information and what we’re gonna believe,” Kirby implored.