The PEN Pod: Tough Questions with Suzanne Nossel
Every Friday, we discuss tricky questions about free speech and expression as they pertain to the ongoing pandemic 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 discuss a New York Times opinion writer and editor stepping down, the head of the White House Correspondents’ Association calling press briefings now purely political, and disinformation on the horizon.
This week, New York Times opinion editor and writer Bari Weiss resigned, citing bullying by her colleagues and an illiberal environment in what she penned as an open letter. She wasn’t forced to step down, though there have been consistent calls for her to resign by outsiders, specifically for pieces that were viewed as tone-deaf at best. What do you make of all this?
I feel like it’s sort of a perfect illustration of why I wrote Dare To Speak: Defending Free Speech for All. The arguments that I make in the book are really about how we can live together in our diverse, digitized, and divided society without curbing free speech. I think the Bari Weiss resignation is just illustrative of this kind of combustible situation in this country. It comes on top of a heap of similar controversies, many of them at the Times—though not exclusively at the Times—the Tom Cotton op-ed, the Harper’s letter that we talked about last week, huge controversy over Steven Pinker at Harvard and tweets that he has put out over the years, people wanting to push him out of an academic organization; there are just throngs of others.
I was talking to somebody at an organization who said that they have received, essentially over the last two months, a comparable number of queries from professors who are being targeted for speech in that two-month period than they’ve had over the previous year. So there’s an intensification and we understand why, because we’re in this moment of reckoning where I think people are coming to grips with the legacy of racism in profound ways. And it’s forcing this examination of what kinds of speech are appropriate, and what we ought to do with speech that seems to go against that grain, undercut it, or question it.
“We’re in this moment of reckoning where I think people are coming to grips with the legacy of racism in profound ways. And it’s forcing this examination of what kinds of speech are appropriate, and what we ought to do with speech that seems to go against that grain, undercut it, or question it.”
What I argue in the book is that there are really a whole series of things that we need to do at one time in order to work through this moment and drive forward a more equal, inclusive, and just society, while sustaining robust protections for free speech. So, I think about Bari Weiss—my first chapter is about conscientiousness with language and an effort that I think we have to make to be aware of our audiences, and to try to avoid gratuitous provocation, and try to show sensitivity to the diversity of audiences and how words may land differently, depending on who is hearing them out.
The provocative mode of commentary—I frankly hope we don’t lose that because I think it keeps our discourse interesting, but I also think there needs to be real thoughtfulness and forethought and examination of ways of wording things, looking at and considering different points of view as you write and speak. It’s more work, and it can cross a line into self-censorship at times—I think that’s one of the dangers of it—but that’s one of the points I make. I also make a point about the duty of care that you have as somebody who holds a large platform and great influence, that you’re kind of appropriately held to a higher standard in terms of that level of cognizance and forethought. So in my view, some of those principles then make possible other principles that I also touch on in the book, including the importance of defending the right to express unpopular speech, the right and the necessity of talking about controversial ideas, and how to protest speech without silencing it.
I think we have to learn as a society how to pursue open discourse in these ways. I think some people really do exemplify it, and I try to give a lot of examples in the book. Scientists were talking about really sticky and sensitive issues in a rational fact-based way that makes clear that whatever nefarious implications their research might have about racial differences or gender differences, that that’s not where they’re going, that’s not what they’re about. There are people who have begun to figure out how to do this, and I think we need to take a page from them.
“The provocative mode of commentary—I frankly hope we don’t lose that because I think it keeps our discourse interesting, but I also think there needs to be real thoughtfulness and forethought and examination of ways of wording things, looking at and considering different points of view as you write and speak. It’s more work, and it can cross a line into self-censorship at times—I think that’s one of the dangers of it—but that’s one of the points I make. I also make a point about the duty of care that you have as somebody who holds a large platform and great influence, that you’re kind of appropriately held to a higher standard in terms of that level of cognizance and forethought.”
And among all of us, we need to have more discussion about conservative columnists at The New York Times, and how can we make that work, and how can the audience also be brought to understand the importance of having ideological diversity on an opinion page like that. The stuff that Bari brought up about how she’s been personally treated by colleagues, I think, is just unfortunate. We do a lot of work at PEN America on issues of online harassment and documenting the effect it can have, and it can really be devastating and undermining. So I think that’s another piece of this.
The White House Correspondents’ Association this week criticized the now more regular White House briefings, saying that they’ve become purely political. It came as the president gave what was basically a campaign speech in the middle of the Rose Garden this week. What are the norms here about how much a president and his government-paid staff can campaign using the platform in the White House, and what does it say about the news value of what’s coming out of the White House right now?
Look, that news conference was just rambling and all over the map, almost ranting and raving if you read the transcript or listen to it. And I think that’s a bit of a reflection of where we are. I think, as we look forward, you want to restore the tradition of a healthy give and take between the White House Press Corps and the president, one where journalists don’t have to worry about being punished for asking tough questions, something that we know has happened repeatedly with the Trump White House. That’s why PEN America is suing and pursuing our case in federal court to prove that that violates the First Amendment. I also think those conferences need to be a vehicle for transparency and accountability so that issues that are on the minds of the public can be raised by media organizations, and they can press for an answer and watch how a leader reacts. We’ve had some moments like that—some really telling moments in the course of the coronavirus, like President Trump’s encounter with a Chinese American journalist, and the dismissiveness toward her.
So I think those encounters can be really revealing and important, and I hope we can get back, going forward, to a more regular and normal give and take. Not that it’s going to be easy. There’s a natural tension between the White House and the Press Corps that’s really gotten out of hand. And then you see other kinds of examples of the way that this White House is using its platform for campaign purposes. I know there’ve been a lot of concerns about, of all things, Goya Beans this week—the president and Ivanka Trump being photographed plugging Goya Beans because the CEO is a fan of the president and spoke out on behalf of the president, and now his business is now being targeted. I’m no ethics expert, but I think these steps cross lines in terms of the prohibitions on federal employees engaging in campaign activity, especially at the workplace. I don’t think the president is per se subject to that, but it certainly goes beyond norms, and Ivanka Trump is a federal employee.
“I think as civil society organizations, PEN America and other nongovernmental organizations—even universities and corporations—I think we have to plot a really steady course here to message out to the country that look, this is going to be an election unlike any other in that a great portion of the ballots are going to be submitted by mail.”
It’s been almost a week since New Jersey had its presidential primary, and 60 percent of the returns have been counted so far. What’s going to happen on Election Day? Combined with the president sowing doubts about mail-in and absentee ballots, it seems like there’s this perfect storm brewing of bad and misleading information that could repress turnout and confuse people. What should we be doing, and what can PEN America be doing in the months ahead?
I think it is a very fraught situation—of course, it’s all driven by the pandemic, but also coming on top of the anxiety that the pandemic is causing. I think as civil society organizations, PEN America and other nongovernmental organizations—even universities and corporations—I think we have to plot a really steady course here to message out to the country that look, this is going to be an election unlike any other in that a great portion of the ballots are going to be submitted by mail. It is going to take a long time to count and declare the winner of various statewide races.
Who knows about the presidency, depending on whether it’s close, and we need to settle down, know it’s coming, not worry too much, and not be vulnerable to conspiracy theories or disinformation. We know to expect something different, that this is not going to be a situation where all the races are called by 11 o’clock at night and you see that map lighting up with exactly how things turned out and you can go to bed and sleep well. It’s not going to be that way, I don’t think this time around, and there are reasons for that. We have to go about it carefully. It does take longer to count mail and absentee ballots. So I think there’s a really important piece of preparation and expectation setting for the American public that we need to undertake.
Send a message to The PEN Pod
We’d like to know what books you’re reading and how you’re staying connected in the literary community. Click here to leave a voicemail for us. Your message could end up on a future episode of this podcast!