Monday, December 5, 2016

Department of Editorial Suggestions

Publisher's Weekly, 11/25/16:

Words matter. We must protect them.

A few weeks ago, our country elected as president a man whose campaign rhetoric and actions evinced unprecedented hostility toward press freedoms and free expression in the United States. Out on the campaign trail, president-elect Donald Trump verbally attacked the mainstream media, blacklisted reputable media organizations, insulted individual journalists based on race, gender, and disability, and threatened to expand U.S. libel laws.

Trump also proposed policies that would underscore divisions within our society along lines of ethnicity, race, and religion and further marginalize the voices of immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and the LGBTQ community, among others. Trump has also demonstrated a persistent indifference to the culture of vitriol, hatred, and abuse that some of his most ardent backers have cultivated online. Repeated pleas for Trump to disavow trolling, anti-Semitism, racism, and misogyny were consistently ignored and denied.

Over the past week many have questioned to what degree Trump’s presidency will hew to the declarations of his campaign. Many commentators have ruminated that his rhetoric on the stump was deliberately hyperbolic or even fanciful, calculated only to win an election. Working on behalf of an organization of writers, I cannot be so quick to dismiss Trump’s campaign fulminations as empty words. If we believe that Trump was willing to say just about anything to be elected, what would stop him now from offering equally empty correctives?

Moreover, even if these words had meaning only in the form of campaign threats and promises, they have already had consequences. They have fueled a climate of surging public distrust of the media and sparked fear among individuals who worry that they are no longer safe in America. They have undercut the power of U.S. constitutional values in the eyes of a world that has now witnessed these principles being openly denigrated by a presidential candidate. Words do matter, and Trump’s approach on the stump could have grave and dangerous consequences if it carries over to the bully pulpit of the U.S. presidency.

For PEN America, with a mission that encompasses safeguarding free expression, amplifying less-heard voices, and fostering dialogue that bridges divisions, many of Trump’s campaign messages came across as menacing. Ahead of the political party conventions in July, we sent an open letter—signed by more than 20,000 people—to both Trump and Hillary Clinton, articulating our concerns and asking them both to respect and protect the role of the press.

Trump’s early actions during the transition have not been comforting. He broke with long-standing precedent in refusing to allow a press corps to accompany him to his first meeting with President Obama. Possible cabinet appointees, as secretary of state, include former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has been quoted as saying,:“Freedom is not a concept in which people can do anything they want, be anything they can be. Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do.”

For those who share PEN America’s commitment to free expression, we hope that you will join us in a rolling series of powerful statements and actions in the coming weeks aimed at safeguarding the freedoms that make great writing possible. Sign up for our daily alert on rights and expression. Watch for petitions and tool kits that will help arm you to defend free speech. Join us as we stand with artists and writers who speak their minds despite fear of reprisal. Share and forward our efforts to prevent marginalized voices from being silenced.

At PEN America’s annual gala in May, author J.K. Rowling railed against some in the government of the United Kingdom who had called for Trump to be banned from entering that country. Trump’s “freedom to speak protects my freedom to call him a bigot,” Rowling explained. “His freedom guarantees mine.” Trump has used his freedom to speak to become the president of the U.S. It’s high time we used ours.

Suzanne Nossel is the executive director of PEN America.

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