The PEN Pod: Tough Questions with Suzanne Nossel
Every Friday, we discuss tricky questions about free speech and expression with our CEO Suzanne Nossel, author of the forthcoming Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, in our weekly PEN Pod segment “Tough Questions.” In this week’s episode, we talk about how colleges should respond to incoming students using hate speech, what’s happening at Voice of America, and whether we will know election results on Election Night this year. Listen below for our full conversation (our interview with Suzanne is up until the 11:20 mark).
We saw another instance this week of a university withdrawing an admissions offer over the use of a racial slur, this time at Cornell. An incoming freshman used a slur on a Snapchat video, and the university rescinded that student’s offer of admission. Shouldn’t students face consequences like this for using hateful speech?
It’s a good thing that universities are becoming more attuned to addressing hateful attitudes that may infect the campus, and that’s essential in terms of making the campus a truly welcoming, inclusive, and equal environment. If you’re a student of color, transgender, or part of another minority group and you’re going to be faced with hateful expression from your classmates, that can really undercut your opportunity to get an equal education.
On the other hand, I think some of these incidents where the expression is isolated—somebody who’s caught on video in a very brief, singular episode, as far as we know, using a slur or otherwise doing something offensive—I think there can be a risk of an overly punitive approach where it’s draconian and absolute. That offer of admission withdrawn in one fell swoop can backfire. I say that because these are young people, and we all acknowledge that we’ve been educated and forced to focus over the last few months on the fact that we have a deep legacy of racism that affects and infects all of us, that all of us are racist at some level, that it takes an enormous amount of work to confront that and become anti-racist. And so, for kids who have not grown up in a background where they have been attuned to that, where they’ve been taught why that’s wrong, where they’ve been brought forward to a different way and learn how to fight racism and why that’s so important—for them to express these things, at some level, is a product of the society.
“Ultimately, we need to route these [racist] attitudes out from our society, and simply slapping on a punishment may or may not achieve that.”
It’s not to say they shouldn’t be held accountable. Nor should we drop the obligation to ensure that those attitudes don’t infect and manifest on campus, but I think approaches like education—perhaps delaying the admissions offer for a year so that the person can examine their attitudes, do something else for a while, and then perhaps be interviewed to see whether they’ve taken the issue seriously, they’ve adjusted their views, they understand what was wrong, they’ve taken the time to learn something about the group that they were denigrating—I think there should be opportunities for rehabilitation, in at least some of these cases.
Ultimately, we need to route these attitudes out from our society, and simply slapping on a punishment may or may not achieve that. It also can have the effect of alienating that person. Perhaps it makes them think the better of what they said and come to realize the error of their ways, but perhaps it just becomes a kind of scarring experience where they feel they were treated unfairly and given no opportunity to defend themselves, and they walk away embittered, and perhaps those bigoted attitudes even deepen and intensify, out of a sense that they’ve been themselves wronged or victimized in some way. So I think universities need to be careful in how they handle this and create some pathway for redemption, at least in cases where it’s not a pervasive attitude, where the evidence is really limited to an isolated instance.
I want to turn now to the turmoil that we’ve seen this week at the government-funded broadcaster Voice of America and the network of U.S.-funded media outlets. This started brewing a few weeks ago as the Senate pushed through President Trump’s nominee for CEO of the umbrella organization that oversees those media outlets. Now, one of those agencies is suing the Trump-appointed CEO for firing a number of agency leads. The agency head has also said he’s bringing back so-called VOA editorials that speak for the U.S. position on global opinions. What is happening at VOA and its sister networks? And why should we be paying attention?
It’s essentially a coup d’etat, where the leadership of the agency was held over from the previous administration, the Obama administration, and consisted of credible, serious journalists. Amanda Bennett, who had had a long career, including at Bloomberg News, was at the helm, and VOA was looked at as a pretty serious news organization with professional journalists. They broadcast to a huge worldwide audience.
“I do think in a new administration, a reexamination of the role of VOA is probably in order, but this is just yet another embarrassing intrusion on the independence of what has been an important arm of government, that is viewed as having integrity. And now, that integrity has been fundamentally undercut. It’s of a piece with Trump’s house cleaning of the inspectors general, the firing of the attorney general here in New York City, sweeping away these journalists and editors from Voice of America—that is the way that this administration operates.”
They were kind of operating on borrowed time. It was clear that eventually, the Trump administration was going to put their stamp on this agency, and it took a long time for them to turn to it. And then, the nominee that they designated—Michael Pack, who has a very checkered background so his confirmation ride was bumpy, but he finally now is in office and has just embarked on this very broad house cleaning, where he swept away everybody from the prior regime in one fell swoop. And that’s not normally how it’s done. It’s usually that some people are asked to stay on as holdovers while there’s a transition, and new people are brought in and they get trained, and it’s just a more gradual process. But he made clear he is engineering an abrupt transformation of this news outlet in the interests of the Trump administration, and they’re going to be doing more editorializing, and you can imagine how they will become essentially a mouthpiece of the White House.
While there are incidents historically—during the Iraq War, the Vietnam War—where Voice of America pretty clearly was pushing a government line that may have departed from completely objective news coverage, for the most part, this has been seen as a quite credible media organization, not just a propaganda mouthpiece. So this raises real questions about what damage will be done to the institution and its legitimacy. The only good fortune is, perhaps, the fact that an election is coming up and Michael Pack may not have a lot of time to implement his vision. It does raise broader questions about how we need to update an agency like this, which really grew out during the Cold War, with an explicit purpose.
And now, obviously our communications landscape is so much more global. So much more is happening on social media. The news landscape has been transformed. I do think in a new administration, a reexamination of the role of VOA is probably in order, but this is just yet another embarrassing intrusion on the independence of what has been an important arm of government, that is viewed as having integrity. And now, that integrity has been fundamentally undercut. It’s of a piece with Trump’s house cleaning of the inspectors general, the firing of the attorney general here in New York City, sweeping away these journalists and editors from Voice of America—that is the way that this administration operates.
“It’s extremely important that the public understand how that [electoral] process works and have faith in it, so that we don’t get into a situation where things are polarized, where people feel they’re being cheated, or someone’s being politically robbed, just because we have to wait a little longer for the final result.”
This week, there were a number of primaries, with races not being called immediately because of the volume of mail-in ballots, meaning that we’re not getting results on Election Night like we’re used to. What do you think that portends for the election this fall, and how can we get other citizens—and others around the world even—ready for the fact that we might not know the outcome of the presidential election that night or even that week?
It’s pretty clear that President Trump is now laying the groundwork in a series of tweets and statements for calling into question the results of the election. He suggested repeatedly that mail-in ballots are subject to fraud when the data really does not bear that out. There are states that have been using mail-in ballots for years, and the rates of fraud are incredibly low, but he wants to put down this predicate so that in the event that he doesn’t like the election results, he has the ability to call them into question.
So I think this poses a real danger to our democracy. It is a form of disinformation, and it’s extremely important to message out to the American public that our electoral system is carefully safeguarded, that mail-in ballots themselves involve a number of precautions that ensure their legitimacy, and that they’re not subject to fraud—to let people know what to expect in terms of Election Night, that we may not have the results right on time as we’re used to. It may be more than just a matter of, as we’ve done in some recent years, having to stay up ’til midnight or two in the morning. It could conceivably go on for days, if the election turns out to be close.
We need to regard that not as a disaster. When it happened, the Iowa Caucus was a number of slip-ups on the part of the Democratic Party in that instance. But in other cases, like right now with some of the primaries in New York, it’s simply these mail-in ballots. People had the right to postmark them up until Election Day, there was a high volume of those ballots, the races are close, and it’s just going to take a little bit of time to do the counting. And I think it’s extremely important that the public understand how that process works and have faith in it, so that we don’t get into a situation where things are polarized, where people feel they’re being cheated, or someone’s being politically robbed, just because we have to wait a little longer for the final result.
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