This month Rachell Arteaga interviewed Laura Macomber, Journalism and Press Freedom Project Manager for NAMLE Org Partner, Pen America.
When did your organization launch and why?
PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. Founded in 1922, PEN America has been working for over 90 years to ensure that people everywhere have the freedom to create literature, to convey information and ideas, and to make it possible for everyone to access the views, ideas, and literature of others. In doing so, we are building on a tradition begun in the decade following World War I and carried forward by thousands of American writers to this day. Our nationwide community of novelists, journalists, editors, poets, essayists, playwrights, publishers, and other professionals, along with our even larger network of devoted readers and supporters, join together to carry out PEN America’s mission of defending the liberties that make open expression possible.
What does your organization do? What are its main goals? Main projects?
PEN America counts more than 5,700 members and is the largest of more than 100 centers of PEN International. Our mission of celebrating and defending creative expression is carried out through a number of diverse and engaging programs, including:
- Free Expression Programs. PEN America’s Free Expression Programs defend writers and protect open expression in the U.S. and abroad. Our efforts encompass individual casework for writers at risk or in prison, as well as research and policy work on critical free expression issues like net neutrality, surveillance, campus speech, and online hate speech. Through in-depth reports, priority campaigns, and focused advocacy our Free Expression initiatives examine and seek solutions to many of the most pressing issues of our time.
- Activism. Working with PEN members across the country, PEN America takes action on critical free expression issues by organizing protests, launching petitions, and hosting convenings dedicated to elevating underrepresented voices and communities and tackling policy issues that directly impact press freedom, privacy, the freedom to create, access to information, and so much more. Our Press Freedom Incentive Fund offers funding and resources to communities across the U.S. to support activities that bolster support for freedom of the press.
- Young Readers Initiatives. PEN America oversees a number of programs related to youth readers and authors of YA literature, including the Children’s/YA Book Authors Committee, which supports authors whose books have been challenged and administers PEN’s awards program for children’s and YA literature; Writers in the Schools, a program that places PEN America members in high schools across New York City to work as mentors and assist students with their creative and academic work; and the PEN World Voices Festival special youth programming, forthcoming in 2018, which will feature an array of enriching programs meant to instill in young people an appreciation of the values that make creativity possible, including the rewarding and diverse world in which they’re able to think, write, and create. PEN America also undertakes advocacy work related to of-the-moment issues, such as the banning of books in schools and the representation of underrepresented groups in children’s literature.
- World Voices Festival. For fourteen years, the PEN World Voices Festival has showcased the work of writers and thinkers from around the world in a cross-cultural celebration of the written word. The Festival has featured such luminaries as Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, Orhan Pamuk, Umberto Eco, Ian McEwan, and Mario Vargas Llosa. The Festival produces a lively and engaging program of events, drawing a vibrant and diverse crowd that is socially engaged, intellectually curious, and eager to be challenged, inspired and entertained.
- Literary Awards. PEN confers over $350,000 to writers in the fields of fiction, science writing, essays, sports writing, biography, children’s literature, translation, drama, or poetry.
- Prison Writing. The Prison Writing Program sponsors an annual writing contest, publishes a free handbook for prisoners, and provides one-on-one mentoring to inmates in an effort to promote creative expression for incarcerated men and women.
What makes your organization stand out? What would you say is the most unique thing about your organization?
PEN America is a nationwide, membership-based organization, which means we have a unique ability to unite writers and their allies across the U.S., from our headquarters in New York and office n D.C., to small southern and midwestern locales, to hubs like Detroit, Cincinnati, and Tucson, to cities and towns along the west coast. Such a geographically diverse community allows us to engage with and galvanize writers and communities that have been historically isolated from the coastal enclaves where most major publishing houses and news organizations are headquartered. With such widespread and passionate support, PEN America is able to speak out on issues of free expression not just with our own organizational voice, but with the strength of our membership as well.
What are the connections between the work of your organization and media literacy?
This past October, PEN America released a report entitled Faking News: Fraudulent News and the Fight for Truth, in which we warn that the spread of “fake news” is reaching a crisis point, and offer an evaluation of the strategies that technology companies, newsrooms, and civil society actors are undertaking to address the problem. As a free expression organization, PEN America is concerned about the threat that fraudulent news poses to a robust and independent media, and to informed, democratic dialogue. Because free expression also encompasses the right to receive and share information, we see the spread of fraudulent news as a threat to the issue that is at the heart of our organizational mission. At the same time, because we work to protect and preserve space for free expression, we are also particularly interested in stressing solutions that empower news consumers while vigilantly avoiding new infringements on free speech. Our “News Consumers Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” outlines what consumers should expect from news outlets and social media platforms and how they can protect themselves and others.
Faking News finds that media literacy programs are among the most promising approaches to addressing the long-term harms posed by fraudulent news, because they hold the potential to reshape Americans’ attitude toward, and evaluation of, the news media. News literacy skills can teach news consumers how to distinguish between fact and fiction, and how to resist falling victim to predatory actors motivated to publish fraudulent information solely for profit or ideology. There will always be efforts to spread false news online as long as there is financial or political gain to be had from doing so. But if there is a concerted, widespread, systematic effort to educate people, especially younger generations, about how to be savvy and responsible news consumers, the toxic effects of fraudulent news may be substantially lessened.
What are recent projects or new resources that your organization would like to share with other NAMLE members?
This fall, in addition to publishing our in-depth fraudulent news report, PEN America was proud to launch our Press Freedom Incentive Fund (PFIF). Established to support PEN America members, writers, and allies to mobilize their local communities in support of freedom of the press, PFIF’s goal is to strengthen a national constituency behind this critical cause. We’re especially calling on members outside the major coastal cities to join in this effort, devising ways to activate and engage local communities to take action, in order to increase news consumers’ understanding of news production, to promote values of news literacy and fact-based reporting, and to empower news consumers to demand accountability and transparency from the sources of information they consume.
Why is media literacy important to you?
Studies show that media literacy courses not only help news consumers to effectively distinguish between accurate and inaccurate information, they also increase news consumers’ appreciation for the role of the press in civil society. Right now Americans’ trust in the news media is alarmingly low, yet no healthy democracy can thrive without a robust free press to hold powerful institutions and people accountable. As “fake news” continues to spread across social media platforms, solutions that privilege content removal or censorship must be treated with skepticism and concern. News literacy offers us all a free expression-friendly method for effectively combating fraudulent news. The goal of local communities, school districts, state legislatures and technology companies across the U.S. should be to learn more about the efficacy of media literacy, and to find effective ways to incorporate it into school curricula, community events, and when possible, the social media interfaces through which fraudulent news continues to thrive.
CONTACT INFORMATION FOR
PEN America: The Freedom to Write