The PEN Pod: Tough Questions with Suzanne Nossel
The coronavirus pandemic is not only a health crisis, but a crisis of governance, the economy, and free speech and expression—from reporters being threatened, to doctors getting fired for speaking out. In response to this, Suzanne Nossel, PEN America CEO and author of the upcoming book, Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, will be joining us on The PEN Pod each Friday to answer our questions about free speech, free expression, and the coronavirus.
In this week’s episode, we discuss the rights of medical professionals to share potentially sensitive information with the public, the decision of major media outlets to skip presidential briefings, and the problems with imposing criminal penalties on those who spread misinformation about the virus.
Let’s start with a free speech issue from Washington state, where a doctor was reportedly fired for saying his staff at his hospital didn’t have adequate protective gear. What’s your take on this?
It’s understandable that hospital management is on tenterhooks right now. There’s a sense that they need unity and loyalty, and the idea of an employee speaking to the public about the problems that they’re encountering in relation to personal protective equipment or other issues breaches that. At the same time, firing a doctor for speaking publicly about genuine dilemmas and problems being encountered is the wrong solution. They’ve got to create channels internally where one can blow a whistle or articulate issues that are being confronted. At a point where our healthcare workers are on the frontlines in the middle of a crisis pandemic, to add to the load that they’re bearing—having to worry about if they say the wrong thing to the wrong person they could face termination—is just the wrong approach. We don’t want to see our hospitals censoring medical personnel with threats of discipline and being fired. Medical professionals are professionals. They should act within that capacity and be mindful of the authority that they command and be measured in what they say publicly. But the answer is not threats and intimidation.
“At a point where our healthcare workers are on the frontlines in the middle of a crisis pandemic, to add to the load that they’re bearing—having to worry about if they say the wrong thing to the wrong person they could face termination—is just the wrong approach.”
This week, reporters in D.C. said it wasn’t worth the risk of exposing themselves if the briefings themselves weren’t newsworthy. In your piece on Medium, you wrote that the networks shouldn’t be airing these press conferences, or at least not in their entirety. But what about the president’s right to speak? How is that in play?
The president has the right to speak. He’s also got his own channels of outreach—he’s got his Twitter account and WhiteHouse.gov, where they livestream these press briefings every day. So there’s no question he has the bully pulpit and can reach an audience. The issue is whether mainstream news organizations should devote prominence to these briefings when we know that they contain lies, that he uses his platform to intimidate journalists, that he grandstands, that he’s constantly patting himself on the back and promulgating a false narrative of the handling of this pandemic. And it’s disturbing to see CEOs come up to the podium and lavish praise on the president before they begin their remarks, and to watch the top health experts, Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci, measuring their words so that they can remain in the president’s good graces and continue to have his ear in terms of the management of this pandemic. If you want to see the briefing, you should be able to access it, but you can on C-SPAN, Twitter, and WhiteHouse.gov. We don’t need CNN, The New York Times, MSNBC, and all of the other news outlets broadcasting this so that it becomes the only version of the pandemic story that so many Americans hear and see. Before people hear them, they should know, is this true? Is it factually accurate that we’re doing the most testing, that everybody has the protective gear they need, that anyone who wants a test can get a test? With that kind of cascade of falsehoods, I think the media has to take a restrained approach.
“The issue is whether mainstream news organizations should devote prominence to [the president’s] briefings when we know that they contain lies, that he uses his platform to intimidate journalists, that he grandstands, that he’s constantly patting himself on the back and promulgating a false narrative of the handling of this pandemic.”
Some cities have threatened to fine, and in at least one case, arrest people for spreading disinformation about the virus. Can’t people say what they want?
This is one of the worrying things that we are seeing all over the world: this phenomenon that leaders with authoritarian impulses look at a crisis, like this one, as a window of opportunity where they can expand their power in ways that would be totally unacceptable under regular circumstances. Punishing individuals for lying or misinforming about the virus, except under very limited circumstances, would violate the First Amendment. If it’s a doctor who is practicing quackery by promulgating treatments that are unproven or that don’t work, that could be medical malpractice. If it’s a commercial firm that’s advertising a spurious cure, that may violate FDA laws or advertising laws. So we have exceptions to the First Amendment that can address misinformation at a certain level.
It’s very valid that we’re having an avid debate right now over the roles and responsibilities of social media platforms, which are the purveyors of so much of this information. Those platforms have taken the position that they don‘t want to be conduits for misinformation. I do think there can be a risk, and we’ve seen this now, of going too far. We’ve seen instances where people share legitimate information, a story from a mainstream news outlet like The Atlantic, and then they all of a sudden see their Facebook post has been taken down. Facebook said that was due to a glitch that’s been corrected; they’re over-relying right now on artificial intelligence during the pandemic to moderate content, and that system is problematic and unprotected. So I do think we need more channels of appeal. If you believe your post is legitimate information that you should be able to share, if you have a solid argument about why it doesn’t violate terms of service, there should be easy ways to question the deletion of that post and to make sure that it can be restored.
“What we’re seeing amidst this pandemic is an incredible premium on accurate, factual, unadulterated, unskewed information that people need as a matter of life and death.”
What we’re seeing amidst this pandemic is an incredible premium on accurate, factual, unadulterated, unskewed information that people need as a matter of life and death. We’ve seen instances in which lives have been lost when people go off of faulty, spurious information. You know, in one case purveyed by the president when he started talking about hydroxychloroquine. We’ve heard the FDA had approved it and people didn’t understand where to access it, accessed it in the wrong way, and then, in one case, that ended in death. So the stakes are very high in terms of controlling misinformation, but the answer is not to throw the First Amendment out of the window, but rather to rely on the mechanisms that we have to contain it.
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