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 talk about disinformation, the coronavirus stimulus package, and the increasing threat of the White House muzzling scientists and public health experts.
Let’s start with Diamond and Silk, the pro-Trump sisters who this week were temporarily locked out of Twitter for spreading misinformation about the coronavirus. Do you think Twitter was right in this case?
I think their position was justified. They have promulgated a very thorough set of user guidelines in terms of COVID-19 and the types of content that they bar from the platform, and the emphasis is really on elevating and amplifying credible, legitimate sources of health information, whether that’s the World Health Organization or the CDC or state boards of health, and where people contravene that advice directly.
Particularly in this case, the tweet in question from Diamond and Silk told people that quarantining was going to hurt them, that their immune systems would thrive if they went outside and interacted with others, and that staying at home was dangerous, so this is in direct contravention of all the advice that we are receiving in terms of lockdown, shelter in place, stay at home. I think they were within their rights in terms of policing their platform, trying to make sure that it’s a place where you can find truthful information, where you’re not going to be misled, where there is not a risk that you’re going to be relying on something that is spurious and that could actually endanger you. I don’t see a situation here where this was politically motivated. I know we recognize Diamond and Silk are close to President Trump; they’ve hobnobbed at the White House. And so, you know, is this a way of indirectly getting at him? I don’t think so. They’ve taken down thousands of posts of spurious content related to COVID-19, and for the most part, have gotten high marks in terms of how they’ve done it.
“It was clear to us that every solution in the book would have to be brought to bear in order to address this very grave risk, that local news in communities is just drying up entirely, so we do think public funding is part of the solution.”
This week, we sent a letter to Congress asking for additional funds in whatever the next stimulus package looks like to be directed to local news outlets. It’s something that we recommended in a report we put out last year. Do you think it’s wise to put the financial future of local news in the hands of Congress, and by extension, potentially President Trump?
It goes back, for me, to how we got into this focus on the local news crisis in the first place, which grew out of an effort that we made back in 2017, after the 2016 election. We had been a somewhat New York-centric, small organization. We always had Members across the country, but when we went to engage those Members who live between the coasts and began to talk to them about the press freedom concerns that are uppermost for them, what really came to the foreground was this issue of the decimation of local news. People told us that newsrooms had been slashed, that reporting staffs were a kind of skeleton crew, that their once robust newspaper that they would spend a whole Sunday morning poring over had been reduced to a shred of its former self, and that this was having grave consequences in terms of the role of the local press in holding officials accountable, keeping people informed, and broadening community life.
And so we decided to take a look at the problem comprehensively. We did a major report that we released last November called Losing the News. We looked at three in-depth case studies—one in Denver, one in Detroit, one in the Greensboro region in North Carolina. We examined every facet of what has happened to the business models for local news and how philanthropy has come to step in and fund small green shoots news organizations that are keeping journalism alive and innovating. We really scratched our heads to ask, “What is the solution here?” Because the display advertising that was the lifeblood of the local news industry for so many decades has largely evaporated. People just don’t advertise in newspapers. That’s not the prime vehicle to reach an audience, and the philanthropic contribution amounts to about $300 million a year against a revenue loss of $35 billion.
So when we saw that gulf, it was clear to us that every solution in the book would have to be brought to bear in order to address this very grave risk, that local news in communities is just drying up entirely, so we do think public funding is part of the solution. We came to that reluctantly—we’re a free expression organization; we don’t really want the government having its fingers in journalism. But we examined models in other democracies where there is more robust public funding for news, and there are gating mechanisms and oversight mechanisms that ensure that political influence is kept out of it. There are also models here in the U.S. in terms of funding for science, and the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities—that are government sources of funding—but so many universities take that money, and they don’t feel necessarily that they’re under Donald Trump’s thumb. So I’d say it’s a conclusion that we reached reluctantly, but we do think this is part of the picture, and that’s why we’re calling for a hard look at how to support local news organizations through the stimulus package.
The Knight First Amendment Institute said last week it was going to sue the CDC to get more information about how it might be restricting the ability of public health officials to communicate with reporters. And just this week, we saw the White House threatened to withhold public health officials from going on CNN because CNN is not airing the White House briefings in their entirety. What are your concerns here about the White House potentially muzzling scientists, especially right now?
This administration has a long track record of retribution toward people, whether it’s journalists or officials who divulge information that doesn’t cast the administration in the light that they’d like to be seen in. When it comes to the scientists, in the middle of a pandemic, this really is a matter of life and death. We talked a few minutes ago about the waves of misinformation that are flowing all across social media and the internet when it comes to COVID-19, and in that realm, it really can be deadly if you’re told that a certain cure might work, or you should try a particular drug, or you can expect to be able to go outside and consort with people as soon as next week. That information is not valid; you could be putting yourself at direct risk.
“This administration has a long track record of retribution toward people, whether it’s journalists or officials who divulge information that doesn’t cast the administration in the light that they’d like to be seen in. When it comes to the scientists, in the middle of a pandemic, this really is a matter of life and death.”
So the role of the scientists telling us what is true, what we can expect, and what treatments have been validated is essential. And to see politicians going out and muzzling them—whether it’s President Trump stepping forward to prevent Dr. Fauci from answering a question at a briefing, or these directives that scientists must not speak to the public unless their comments are vetted through the White House, or this latest revelation that Drs. Fauci and Burke are being blocked from speaking on CNN and being interviewed as a way to hold leverage over the network to cover the White House briefings in full—these are ways of keeping credible, informed, expert information away from the American public, and that’s exactly the opposite of what we need. We should have our politicians vetting their statements through the scientists, not the scientists getting their statements through the politicians.
It’s dangerous, and it’s creating an environment in this country where I think it’s very hard for people to know who they can believe and what they can believe. The president’s bully pulpit used to be the most credible platform in the world. The statement that was made out of the White House by the president was so carefully vetted and fact-checked. It was the gold standard in veracity for Americans and around the world, and it would be repeated in transcripts and circulated. And now, that has been just sort of dragged down to the point where everyone knows that when he gets up there night after night, that there’s going to have to be an extensive fact-checking and that he’s likely to repeat claims that have been, time and again, discredited and disproven.
It’s very disturbing to see the denigration of the truth and the dismissal of science, and these poor doctors who are in this position. It’s almost as if the American people are the hostages, and they are hostage negotiators. They’re the ones who can talk with the president and sometimes have his ear and convince him to do the right thing. We need them to keep that channel connection alive so that they remain within his confidence, and I understand why they’re very, very careful, because they want to continue to influence him. But, you know, the cost of their doing so is high.
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