The PEN Pod: On Vaccine Misinformation, the Capitol Insurrection, and Crackdowns on Journalists in Russia
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 delved into Mitch McConnell’s comments on the role of misinformation in vaccine hesitancy, the January 6 insurrection public hearings, and continued crackdowns on journalists in Russia. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Suzanne begins at the 8:40 mark).
On Mitch McConnell’s Comments Regarding Vaccine Misinformation
“On the one hand, it’s heartening for someone like McConnell to perhaps ‘get religion’ and see that people in his district are continuing to get sick and die, and that doctors are once again in emergency rooms and hospitals feeling overwhelmed, and that their facilities are jam-packed in certain parts of the country. If that can wake anyone up to the reality, that’s a positive thing, but this is certainly nothing like the kind of leadership that Americans need and deserve amidst a health crisis.
“I always think back to our work in 2017, documenting the impact of fake news on the presidential elections in 2016, and our analysis of why fake news posed a threat to free expression. It’s not that obvious, in a certain sense, because overwhelmingly, misinformation is protected free speech under the First Amendment, but what was laid bare even back then was what a danger this posed to our democracy and society and to the most basic functions of government—for example, being able to handle a health crisis. That was something that we spotlighted way back then as being at stake, if disinformation were allowed to course freely through our discourse. . . . It’s very much too little and too late, and it also doesn’t represent a concerted government response to the threat. [McConnell] may feel at this moment it makes him sound good and responsible to be speaking out in this way, but the real question is what action is going to be taken.”
On the Public Hearings around January 6th
“I think it’s an important step, because it is creating a historical record in an official way that, yes, is opposed and contested, but that nonetheless is going to have the stamp of the congressional investigation. When historians and future politicians and philosophers want to try to make sense of this incident, or use it to fuel their own narratives or interpretations of American history or politics, they’re going to have to contend with this testimony and the revelations that we’ve all been exposed to in confronting this week. . . . I think it’s extremely important to get this down as a first draft of history that cannot be wished away or ignored.
“We’ve seen these incidences—for example, the reckoning over the Tulsa Race Massacre. If there had been a big investigation of that incident. . . and that had all been recorded and made publicly available at the time, I think the historical memory of that incident would have been radically different, and it would have been something that we all learned about in school and that the city of Tulsa reckoned with over the years, instead of burying it for nearly a century.”
On Crackdowns on Journalists in Russia
“It’s really incredibly difficult and dangerous [for investigative journalists to operate in Russia]. Russia adopted this foreign agent legislation back in 2012—it’s continued to update and stiffen it. It requires all organizations that receive foreign assistance, and that the government decides are somehow engaged in politically related activity or work, to register as foreign agents, to submit to regular audits, to label all of the content that they produce—whether it’s podcasts or broadcasts or news articles—with this very boldface label saying, ‘This is the work of a foreign agent,’ which raises all sorts of questions about who’s behind it, and is intended to undercut the credibility of the information in the eyes of the Russian news readership. That has been a steady and intensifying effort.
“What we saw this week is that any effort to defy it—Roman Dobrokhotov, editor of The Insider, which is an investigative website based in Latvia that’s done a lot of pathbreaking work on exposing Russia’s Secret Service activities, incidents of targeting dissidents, the Navalny case—they have come into the crosshairs. They were refusing to comply with all the terms of the foreign agent legislation. Human rights organizations and even international bodies have called out that legislation as infringing upon free expression and press freedom rights. They were in a posture of resistance, and Russia is making clear that will not be tolerated.
“And of course, it’s incredibly dangerous for Russian news outlets and journalists to do this sort of work, because Russia won’t just tag them with this label or even shut them out of the country—they often target them, and in some cases, kill them. It really is the pulling of a shroud over what is happening in Russia, at a time when Putin is clearly feeling vulnerable, Alexei Navalny is viewed as this existential threat—I fear we will see continued escalation here.”