The PEN Pod: Unpacking the Presidential Debate and Disinformation with Suzanne Nossel
Every Friday, we discuss tricky questions about free speech and expression with our CEO Suzanne Nossel, author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, in our weekly PEN Pod segment “Tough Questions.” In this week’s episode, we’re discussing the disastrous first presidential debate, Donald Trump’s constant disinformation, and PEN America’s efforts to help people prepare for the fast-approaching election. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Suzanne begins at the 18:40 mark).
Let’s start with the presidential debate on Tuesday night wherein President Trump bullied, steamrolled, and lied his way through 90 hard-to-watch minutes. I’m wondering, is free speech and open dialogue best served by these kinds of debates, and what could we be doing differently?
Look, I think everybody acknowledges that the debate was a rolling disaster. Now we have the Presidential Debate Commission looking into rule changes that could potentially pave the way for a more civil discourse. But we know what’s at the root of this, which is a president who does his business through bullying, denigrating, and steamrolling. We’ve been pointing that out for many years, beginning with his attacks on the press in the 2016 campaign, his menacing of journalists at press conferences, and his denigrating the media as the enemy of the American people. That was on full display and, at some level, perhaps there is a bright side in that Americans saw him for who he was. I think a lot of people were pretty disgusted—maybe not in all quarters—but people recognized that this is not someone who came to discuss issues, to enlighten voters about substantive differences, to bore into the details of policy or even character, but rather to make ad hominem attacks. I think it was a very unfortunate display.
“There is this very uneasy, stomach-turning sense that this is what is being modeled from the highest levels of our government, and it’s undignified and unreasoned, and it’s not the kind of example we want to set for how people from different parties and ideologies can come together in discussion. I contrast it with debates that I’ve watched and judged for students—there, you see people taking staunchly opposing positions, and often you’re having a tough discussion that goes back and forth, but it doesn’t descend into interruption, obfuscation, and just raw nastiness, which is what we saw the other night.”
My children were watching, and a lot of other people have told me about their children watching. There is this very uneasy, stomach-turning sense that this is what is being modeled from the highest levels of our government, and it’s undignified and unreasoned, and it’s not the kind of example we want to set for how people from different parties and ideologies can come together in discussion. I contrast it with debates that I’ve watched and judged for students—there, you see people taking staunchly opposing positions, and often you’re having a tough discussion that goes back and forth, but it doesn’t descend into interruption, obfuscation, and just raw nastiness, which is what we saw the other night. So, it’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out in future rounds. Is there a different Donald Trump that can come to the foreground? What does that man look like and sound like? I’m not sure we’ve seen him really be able to put a lid on this in any kind of sustained way. I think there’s also a genuine debate on the part of the debate organizers. Is it appropriate for the moderator to have the power to turn off the mic of the president of the United States or the Democratic nominee? Is that going to be construed as silencing and shutting down, and interfering with free speech rights? I expect that to be an issue that arises in the next round.
“The worst thing in the world would be for the president to say something that would be disproven later on—that would be considered absolutely discrediting. That has just been lost in this administration, and I think there’s a big question about whether and how we can get it back.”
The president spent a good portion of the debate, again, talking to tens of millions of people, and basically delegitimizing perfectly secure ways to vote, including mail-in and absentee balloting. When you have the president of the United States making comments like this, truly being an agent of disinformation, how are we supposed to fight back against that?
It’s interesting, because Chris Wallace, the moderator, made the decision and announced ahead of time that he was not going to be fact-checking the candidates. He did not come in to rebut or refute any of this. Joe Biden, I think, while he was very strong, cogent, and clear with his own answers, really couldn’t do it for him. It would have taken up all of his time if he had to rebut these falsehoods one by one. So, he understandably didn’t do that. However, the net result was, if you watched it, the president’s portrayal of an election system with the wheels coming off—and all these ballot stuffing and illegitimate ballots being cast and counted—would stand. I think that’s very dangerous. It goes to the problem that the social media platforms have been grappling with for years, which is what to do when the vector of disinformation is the president of the United States. The media—the mainstream media as well—can’t not cover him. If ABC and CNN had shut off the television when he started to say this sort of stuff, there would have been an absolute uproar and outrage because he is the president, and he has that pulpit, and with that comes an entitlement to the platform and the audience. Yet, he uses it to purvey information that, if somebody else put it out, would be discredited at this point on social media and flagged as misinformation. They are now doing that more even with statements from the president, but I think we’re in a very dangerous moment.
Ultimately, curbing disinformation depends upon leadership. When the rot goes to the core, and the problem is coming from inside the house, it’s difficult to root out. We’re doing a lot of work at PEN America on what I think is the ultimate solution to this problem, which is to inoculate the public so that they are more discerning in terms of what to believe. Now, you wouldn’t think you’d have to teach children in American schools that, when it comes to the president of the United States, they need to fact-check his every statement. That didn’t used to be true. What a president would say in a speech, or a press conference, or at a debate would be carefully vetted. They’d have the best research, it would be all up-to-date, they’d have staff members who are ensuring it. The worst thing in the world would be for the president to say something that would be disproven later on—that would be considered absolutely discrediting. That has just been lost in this administration, and I think there’s a big question about whether and how we can get it back.
“Why do we defend free speech in the first place? It’s because we believe that an open environment for ideas is going to help truth, innovation, and the best ideas rise to the foreground. However, when that environment is flooded with disinformation, that function is impaired. So, we see it as a real threat to free expression, and we feel like that has come to full bloom over the last four years.”
Let’s talk about that inoculation. This week, we kicked off #WhatToExpect2020—our big push between now and Election Day. What are we as PEN America up to in the weeks ahead, and how can our Members, our supporters, and our friends be involved?
We just launched this campaign officially this week, under the banner of “What to Expect When You’re Electing,” and it builds on work we’ve been doing for years on disinformation in the political context. We did a report back in 2017 that really set out why it is that—even though so much disinformation is protected by the First Amendment—the First Amendment really doesn’t help us when it comes to combating this problem, that it nonetheless constitutes a grave threat to free expression and civic discourse. The right to free speech is more than just being able to say whatever comes to mind—it is the right to be able to persuade and engage with others. I talk about this in my book, Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All. Why do we defend free speech in the first place? It’s because we believe that an open environment for ideas is going to help truth, innovation, and the best ideas rise to the foreground. However, when that environment is flooded with disinformation, that function is impaired. So, we see it as a real threat to free expression, and we feel like that has come to full bloom over the last four years.
In the run-up to the election, we’re doing a whole series of things. We put together a fantastic video on disinformation that I hope everybody watches, with John Lithgow, Alan Cumming, Anita Hill, Brit Bennett, and others. It’s funny, it’s witty, it’s short, and you can find it on our website. We’ve done this whole series of events, including a closed-door meeting with senior people from different news organizations to talk about how they’re going to cover this election like no other, and avoid themselves becoming vectors for disinformation. We’ve provided tip sheets to individuals, including on how to talk to your friends and family about disinformation—it’s an awkward topic to bring up, to tell someone that something they’ve shared is false. Yet, we have to gently call one another in and out on this, or otherwise it’s going to continue to spread unfettered.
We also have a whole series of live events with The Washington Post that we’re doing—we started on September 30—that are reaching a mass audience, to help people understand the ways in which this election is going to be different from all others. Our premise here is that the more informed people are, the better they know what to expect, the less vulnerable they’ll be to disinformation and conspiracy theories. So, it’s an all-out effort, over the next month, to try and get that message across.