The PEN Pod: Tough Questions with Suzanne Nossel
Every Friday, we discuss tricky questions about free speech and expression 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 false rumors of anti-fascist riots, the dismissal of editors at major publications, condemnation of attacks on the press, as well as debates over who gets adequately compensated for their work in the literary sector to help us navigate all of these big stories.
From where we stood a week ago to where we are this week, where do you think issues of free speech and free expression are right now in this country? And do you feel like we’re back on our heels?
It’s complicated because, on the one hand we have this explosion of free expression and people taking to the streets—some of them for the first time—so forcefully and making their message heard reverberating around the world, catalyzing action in state houses in Congress. It’s quite extraordinary how this explosion of protests has really driven forward our public and policy debates. So that is a great stride for free expression and should be recognized as such. At the same time though, we also can see plainly that free expression is under grave threat in this country, and from multiple sides. From President Trump, we’ve been talking about this for years. He likes to throw around the First Amendment, and he’ll complain when Twitter contextualizes his posts as misleading people about mail-in ballots, saying his free speech has been impinged upon and comes out swinging with an executive order to defend himself. He’s gone after what he sees as threats to free speech on college campuses, he’s defended gun-toting protestors in Charlottesville—so he likes to invoke the First Amendment when it serves him.
But at the same time, he’s waged war on it. We’ve been, for years, pushing back against his threats and acts of retaliation against the media. We just issued, two weeks ago, our report on the more than a hundred proposals, mostly by Republican-led State houses, to curtail protest rights. So he’s waging this campaign—not alone by any means—but a conservative campaign to suppress speech that they disagree with and find to be unfavorable. It’s blatantly one-sided. When he issued his executive order on campus speech, he was flanked by conservative activists and just made clear that it was their speech that he was worried about, not all speech. So free speech is under threat on that side.
But we also see, coming from the left, when people are really hopeful of driving forward a sea change in the handling of issues of racial justice here in the United States, in some instances, it’s turning into—and it’s a pattern that we’ve seen before a lot, in our work on college campuses—the impulse that in order to realize that promise, you need to impose moral limitations on speech, that part of the way that we’re going to achieve a more equal, inclusive, and just society is by curtailing harmful, noxious, and offensive speech. The impetus to do that is understandable. That speech can genuinely hurt people. It’s inconsistent with the ideals of a more equal society, but where I take issue with it, is asking, whether it’s the state or a newsroom or a university, to clamp down on offensive speech. You’re empowering them to clamp down on speech, period. And very often, that power can be turned in other directions and used to suppress dissent.
“It’s quite extraordinary how this explosion of protests has really driven forward our public and policy debates. So that is a great stride for free expression and should be recognized as such. At the same time though, we can also see plainly that free speech is under grave threat in this country, and from multiple sides.”
Obviously, we saw this playing out at The New York Times, and at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Journalism is an interesting way of looking at a lot of these issues. What do you make of both sides of that, with editors falling for making these judgment calls, but also reporters stepping up and exercising their free expression rights?
It goes back to a phenomenon that I wrote about a couple of years ago, where I think that in a world where people feel hateful speech and ideas are running amok and being enabled and egged on by the White House, the impulse to more aggressively police speech in smaller spaces—a given newsroom, magazine, community, or Facebook page intensifies. You feel like you may be powerless to deal with what’s happening in society at large, but in the realms where you can have a voice and an influence, you’re going to make it heard.
I think we saw that at work at The New York Times where people were very disturbed by this op-ed piece, by Tom Cotton. It came out at a moment where things were at a feverish pitch. It seemed like we were really teetering toward something terrifying and unseen in our country to date, possibly with military troops being sent out to American main streets. But it seemed like as much as people were upset by the argument and the risks that are represented, The Times’s decision to publish that argument became the crux of the dispute. And even though nobody thought the editors who were in charge of it agreed with that argument or were remotely sympathetic with that argument, their failure to recognize the sensitivity of the moment became insurmountable. There was also the opinion editor, James Bennet, admitting that he had actually not read the piece. To me, that was concerning because it suggested that on the page, they didn’t quite realize what they had their hands on, and the significance of running a piece like that in that moment, and that the decision didn’t rise to the level of scrutiny that perhaps it should have.
“If we want editors to give reporters the widest berth at both carrying out their work and also expressing themselves, including in some nontraditional ways, then I think they need to feel like the editors are going to have their backs. Moving away from that, even if it’s in the name of fighting for a good cause or drawing out dangers that are not adequately understood, or speaking for populations and audiences whose needs need to be more adequately addressed—there’s a risk when that’s communicated through draconian results for seemingly isolated and unintentional offenses. I think that has a chilling effect.”
But I think the end result is pretty concerning here. A mistake was made. There was an apology. Originally, the publisher stood by Bennet and the page, but the clamor was so deafening, particularly with people saying that this piece put them into danger. My read of it was that the paper felt like they just had no choice. The only way they could get past this episode was for Bennet to depart. It seems like it was a pretty similar situation at The Inquirer. I won’t pretend to know all the details of that story. In both instances, there were references to other patterns and incidents of conduct that had played a role in leading to these rather drastic outcomes of respected editors summarily leaving in the wake of what seems like one instance of egregious lapses. And I think that gives other editors and reporters pause. We’re seeing now this debate about how the protests are being covered, and how much leeway is being given to journalists who are bringing new perspectives, or are perhaps closer to the subject matter that they are covering, departing from traditional norms of journalistic objectivity.
We also see issues in terms of journalists’ social media. There was an interesting column by The New York Times media columnist, Ben Smith, where he unspools the story of Wesley Lowery who made his name covering the protests in Ferguson and has been at The Washington Post, and essentially tells the story of how Lowery ended up leaving the post, under pressure because of his tweets and expression in a personal capacity, but touching on issues that arose in his reporting. If we want editors to give reporters the widest berth at both carrying out their work and also expressing themselves, including in some nontraditional ways, then I think they need to feel like the editors are going to have their backs. Moving away from that, even if it’s in the name of fighting for a good cause or drawing out dangers that are not adequately understood, or speaking for populations and audiences whose needs need to be more adequately addressed—there’s a risk when that’s communicated through draconian results for seemingly isolated and unintentional offenses. I think that has a chilling effect.
“My hope is that there will be concrete, practical dialogue that leads to steps that actually crack this issue open, because it is pretty clear that the incremental pace of change is not going to go far or fast enough for the ways in which our society is moving.”
A similar reckoning happened in the literary world. We saw a number of writers take to social media, under a campaign called #PublishingPaidMe, and this was effectively writers, mostly of color, disclosing what they received in advances for books, comparing that to what white writers who get paid much more in advance for their publications. How do you think this could either positively or negatively impact making sure that the literary space is a diverse one?
This is a long-standing issue in publishing. It’s very much a historically white industry, with the numbers of authors being published has been documented for years by a couple of different outlets, and the progress has been very slow. I think there is a feeling that a reckoning is overdue, and I think, frankly, the external pressure is often necessary. We’ve had it in the arts and culture sector from some of the foundations and the cities really pushing organizations, including PEN America, to be more deliberate, more results-oriented, have more to show when it comes to diversifying staff and board and programs, and that has catalyzed change. I think we’re seeing something similar arise in the publishing sector, where people are using data, information, disclosure, and campaigning. There was a major campaign waged against the Poetry Foundation, which led the president of that organization to resign this week. My hope is that there will be concrete, practical dialogue that leads to steps that actually crack this issue open, because it is pretty clear that the incremental pace of change is not going to go far or fast enough for the ways in which our society is moving.
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