As a child, Richard Gingras, Google’s Vice President of News, used to visit his father at the printing press where he worked in Providence, Rhode Island. He was tasked with keeping the presses running for the Providence Journal, the local daily newspaper.
“I was quickly addicted to the smell of the ink and the paper,” Gingras said. “I was enthralled with the noisy rhythm of presses. Newspapers found their way into my blood well before I was able to read one.”
For Gingras, this early love for news and the way people consume information turned into a career spanning four decades. Before becoming the Google VP of news, he served as a CEO for the Salon Media Group.
Gingras, along with Google’s VP of Global Communications and Public Affairs, Corey duBrowa, spoke to students and faculty in the EMU’s Redwood auditorium on Tuesday as part of the annuel Robert and Mabel Ruhl Lecture series. Together, they touched on Google’s role in shaping the news we see, and the responsibility that comes with it.
“Google started back in the nineties, with a unique vision and a mission to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful,” duBrowa said. “Technology and its advancement and development are influencing society and the ways and means by which we consume news.”
The annual Ruhl lecture has taken place at the University of Oregon since 1979. It honors Robert W. Ruhl who was an editor for a small Oregon newspaper in Medford. His editorial battle against the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s helped earn him a Pulitzer Prize in 1934.
Past speakers at the Ruhl lecture include author Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2017, NBC Correspondent and UO graduate Ann Curry and the Editor of the Los Angeles Times, John Carroll, among many others.
UO President Michael Schill opened up the lecture, outlining the importance of ethical decision making from technological leaders like Google.
“We're going to hear about the intersection of media and technology from the perspective of a company that continues to trail blaze in this area,” Schill said.
As Gingras begun his speech, he noted that the accessibility of the internet acts as a double-edged sword.
“Unfettered free expression has changed the nature of public discourse and political engagement,” Gingras said. “The Internet can elevate nobel speech that appeals to our better angels and allows us to find consensus, but it also enables heinous speech where anger, outrage or self righteousness can be turned into a divisive hatred of others.”
The struggle, says Gingras, lies in Google’s ability to harness the possibilities of free expression, while responsibly limiting disinformation and hate speech.
“Is the Internet to the First Amendment, what the AK-47 is to the Second?” Gringas asks. “In other words, how do we manage the legal freedoms that enable us to do wonderful things and also harmful things?”
Google’s track record of transparency was questioned by lawmakers last year, with a record-setting $5 billion fine issued by the European Commission for breaching antitrust laws. Google allegedly forced manufacturers of Android phones to install the Google search app and the Chrome web browser.
This follows a 2017 fine, also issued by European antitrust officials, alleging Google unfairly favored some of its own services over their rivals, according to a NY Times article.
UO junior Cynthia Aguilar stood up during the question and answer portion of the lecture and asked both Gingras and duBrowa how they plan to avoid further antitrust fines.
“Those are under appeal, we don’t agree with those [fines],” Gingras said. “But I don’t want to say that and then step aside from the fact that it is indeed our ongoing responsibility to monitor our own behavior, be forefront with our own principles internally and externally and do a far better job than we have in explaining ourselves to the outside world.”
Aguilar, who’s majoring in public relations, says that her appreciation of Google as a company drove her to ask the questions she did.
“I believe in the idea that if you love something enough, you should also want to criticize it and make it better,” Aguilar said. “So a part of me is wondering about the motive behind the appeal. Are they denying that it’s happening? Or are they appealing it because they believe that it goes against your company’s values?”
By the end of the lecture, Gingras remained optimistic, putting faith in the current generation of student journalists.
“I choose to believe that our institutions can evolve,” Gingras said. “That we can create new journalistic models that can help leaders separate fact from fiction and wisdom from spin. That we can help journalism regain the trust of readers and maintain it's crucial role in open societies.”