Last night a star-studded panel featuring PrezBo, David Ignatius, Salman Rushdie, Michael Schudson and Michael Doyle, convened in the Rotunda for a discussion titled “Free Speech in a Globalized World,” which focused on PrezBo’s lastest book, “Uninhibited, Robust and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century.” Ridiculously-famous-academic-to-be Sam Schube gives us the low down from Low.
When you’re President Lee Bollinger, life is good. To wit: when you write a book on free speech in a globalized world, your university hosts a panel discussion on—you guessed it—“Free Speech in a Globalized World,” and you get to engage in repartee with your cool and famous friends. The talk, moderated by CU SIPA professor Michael Doyle, saw Bollinger, Big Deal Novelist Salman Rushdie, Washington Post columnist and associate editor David Ignatius, and J-School professor Michael Schudson hold forth on the importance and dangerously nebulous future of the free press in today’s capital-M Modern world.
PrezBo led the evening off with a brief summary of the aforementioned book, Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century. Bollinger stuck to two main talking points. First, while the speed and breadth with which information is gathered, distributed, and consumed means that we’re operating in a global public forum, a massively expanded marketplace of ideas, it also means “censorship anywhere can be censorship everywhere.” While the Internet allows for unprecedented access to world news, it also means that web-based news can be a target of censorship by other governments, or the basis for international legal action.
Photo via Wikimedia
Second, he noted that the American press’s capacity to distribute world news, something he repeatedly called a “public good,” has shrunk in the face of mounting financial difficulties. Framing an expanding free press as a moral question—“We need to project onto the world stage…it is right and sound and good”—Bollinger sketched a world in which government-subsidized news organizations promote the First Amendment as a universal ideal.
It’s safe to say a good portion of the crowd showed up to hear Mr. Rushdie speak, and the man has all-too-personal experience on the front lines of the global free speech battle. “Well, I had a little free speech issue myself, at one point,” he remarked, referring to the late-80s fatwa issued on his life by the Ayatollah and drawing giggles from the crowd. With that in mind, Rushdie was admittedly pessimistic on the matter. He posited a changing ideological definition of “respect”—where engaging with someone’s ideas was once considered respectful, even socially encouraged, it is now widely frowned upon—and a growing worldwide sense of the “right not to be offended.”
Rushdie also commented on Bollinger’s zesty global First Amendment: while he called the amendment “possibly the greatest gift this country has given the world,” he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of simply exporting it, the kind of act that breeds immediate dissent. Instead, he suggested, we ought to ground American free speech laws in similar ideas within foreign traditions: the Natya Shastra, a formative Hindu text, establishes the sacredness, and even the free speech-ness, of the tradition.
Washington Post columnist and associate editor David Ignatius followed. He praised Bollinger’s book for making journalism “sound so sexy,” and proposed a few alternate (and more realistic) titles: Nervous, Broke, and Hunkered Down, or Cold, Cavernous, and Increasingly Lonely. Shifting gears, he attacked the modern press’s reliance on embedded journalism, especially in warzones, calling it too dangerous, as well as breeding a sort of ideological embedding. Ignatius tempered Bollinger’s ideal subsidized free press, too, and suggested a more careful method of dialogue with foreign and suppressed media colleagues.
Journalism School professor Michael Schudson rounded out the group, and described the criticism he received for suggesting the importance of government-funded media. Using a whole bunch of statistics, he attempted to show that perhaps the American free press could benefit from being more like Sweden, say, and expand utilities like NPR and PBS. Instead of exporting the First Amendment, he said, perhaps we could instead export the investigative newsroom that characterizes American journalism.
Rushdie closed the evening by describing one of the curiosities of promoting free speech. “You often find yourself defending people you don’t like,” he said. In an increasingly connected world in which free speech has never been more important, content takes a back seat to freedom of expression: “I promised myself I would make no Dan Brown jokes, so I will not.”