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 the White House briefings, the threat that the pandemic poses to our civil liberties, and Liberty University’s issuing of warrants for reporters from The New York Times and ProPublica after both publications wrote stories that criticized the institution’s decision to partially open the college.
Let’s start with what we’ve actually been calling President Trump’s meltdown on Monday, in which he asserted full authority over state and local governments about reopening the economy, screened a bizarre campaign video, and of course, berated reporters. What do you make of his current use of these press briefings? Are they even worth tuning into at this point?
It really depends why you’re tuning in. I think for people who are trying to understand how this president is playing his role, look at his relationship with the media, and evaluate his credibility, they’re eye-opening because he shows his real self. He’s unscripted. He’s often spreading misinformation or information about treatments that have not been validated, or setting false expectations about how quickly we’re going to reopen the economy. If you’re a student of that, which we are at PEN America, because we care about our democracy and the rule of law, it can be worth checking it out firsthand, just to see the extent to which he is busting norms, whether it’s the treatment of the press, the truth, or scientific experts.
On the other hand, if your goal is to get credible, actionable information about the pandemic and how to navigate it and know what you can expect about the timing of the reopening of the economy, then you have to take everything he says with a huge grain of salt and recognize that these briefings are about burnishing his image and deflecting blame by trying to position himself for re-election. This blame game has gone on steroids this week with his attacks on individual journalists who asked difficult questions, really needling them and belittling them, his withdrawal of funding summarily from the World Health Organization—he’s trying to point in every direction, save his own White House, in terms of who bears responsibility for the gravity of the pandemic.
I think on the one hand, we have a responsibility to tune in and understand what our president is doing and how he is behaving in this moment. But the real risk here is that people take those briefings at face value, and they don’t see through it. And I think that’s a real danger. He’s always had that power over his base to get them fully enamored and onboard with his own perspective, no matter how loose a relationship it may have with the facts.
“If your goal is to get credible, actionable information about the pandemic and how to navigate it and know what you can expect about the timing of the reopening of the economy, then you have to take everything [the president] says with a huge grain of salt and recognize that these briefings are about burnishing his image and deflecting blame by trying to position himself for re-election.”
You wrote in Foreign Policy this week about the manifold threats that the pandemic poses to civil liberties in particular. You warned that the threat doesn’t just come from governments, but it could also be coming from private businesses who might be using this time to increase surveillance or curtail free speech rights in other ways for an indefinite period. How do we protect against that?
I always think back to this famous Rahm Emanuel phase, “Never waste a crisis”—it’s sort of the idea that in crisis, there lies opportunity. We have seen governments and private businesses seizing the opportunity of the COVID crisis to advance goals that they’ve had for a long time. In the case of authoritarian governments like Victor Orbán’s in Hungary—to enact an emergency decree, in a country that’s had relatively few cases of COVID, to seize sweeping powers that allow him to abridge civil liberties and press freedom and to rule by decree. And some modified versions of that really all over the world—in Iran, the complete shutdown of print newspapers; similarly in Egypt; in our own country, whether it’s healthcare authorities or the governor of Florida excluding people from press briefings.
There’s the sense that in a moment of pandemic and crisis, people are going to accept these kinds of measures. I think one of the real risks here is that this becomes the new “forever war.” We have always talked about Afghanistan and Iraq as these forever wars. But we can really see how the pandemic takes on that character, because we’re already hearing a lot about how, even if we get this under control, it could come back seasonally or there could be other coronaviruses or other types of viruses that resurge. So you can already see the groundwork being laid for how governments will encroach upon civil liberties in the long run in the name of putting public health first or preventing pandemics.
On the tech side, it’s interesting because the social media companies have gotten a fair amount of credit for curbing aggressively virus-related misinformation and being quite active on their platforms in terms of flagging it and taking it down in some cases. Facebook just announced they’re notifying people if you’ve seen inaccurate information. So these are new steps that I think are reassuring to a lot of people. But there also is this other side to how we get back the economy. Some of the proposals really involve very invasive tracking and surveillance of individual movements and communications to see who you’ve come in contact with. It’s an enormous amount of information that could fall into the hands of tech companies that enable these technologies. We all want it in one sense, because we want to get back to normal, and I think people would be quite willing to surrender their privacy in the name of that. But what are the long-term risks if they can track whether I’ve been in contact with somebody who has the virus? They can also track whether I’ve been in contact with a journalist or a dissident, or somebody they consider unsavory. And so, that’s quite worrying.
“I always think back to this famous Rahm Emanuel phase, ‘Never waste a crisis’—it’s sort of the idea that in crisis, there lies opportunity. We have seen governments and private businesses seizing the opportunity of the COVID crisis to advance goals that they’ve had for a long time.”
Last week, Liberty University in Virginia obtained arrest warrants against two journalists, ostensibly for trespassing, because they were reporting on the campus decision to reopen amid the pandemic. It seems like a sinister blend of things that we work on—it’s both a risk to the press, but also, there’s a dimension here about free speech on our campuses and what’s happening there.
I think you have to recognize Liberty University is not just any university. This is not an institution that subscribes to the precepts of open discourse and academic freedom that most U.S. universities bind themselves to, even private universities. Public universities, of course, are bound by the First Amendment, but most private universities embrace those values in a very active, visible way—Liberty University, not so much. This is a religious institution.
What we really see is this Trumpian influence where, if you come under fire, as Liberty did, for bringing students back to campus very quickly, or keeping the campus open at a time where virtually every other university in the country was shut down, they come under criticism, they come under press scrutiny, and instead of defending their decision, they go after the messenger. That’s exactly what Trump does. They try to attack the press; they’ve got these crazy criminal warrants issued by campus police—this is not the police in Lynchburg, Virginia, the municipality where Liberty operates. It’s just the campus police that have issued these warrants.
It’s not clear what actual legal standing or credibility they have, but it’s just a way of trying to menace the press and strike back, and that’s Trump’s approach. I think we see some of his followers adopting the same thing, which is instead of having reasoned discourse about your decision, defending yourself in the public realm, you just relentlessly attack those who even simply report on what you’re doing. It’s aggressive, inappropriate, and a betrayal of academic values, but unfortunately, it has become par for the course for a group of Trump supporters who follow in his footsteps.
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