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Writers Especially Concerned About NSA Actions


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Revelations about the massive size and extent of the NSA surveillance practices have reignited the debate over how to balance security needs with privacy rights. Some writers feel those privacy concerns more acutely. A new report from the PEN American Center, a membership organization of writers, finds that a large majority of its members say they have, quote, "never been as worried about privacy rights and freedom of the press as they are today." Some of those respondents say it's changing the way they work.

Joining me now is Suzanne Nossel. She's the executive director of the PEN American Center. Suzanne, welcome.

SUZANNE NOSSEL: Thank you for having me.

RATH: So, first, let's talk about the survey a little bit. What were you looking to find out?

NOSSEL: Well, when the Snowden revelations first broke over the summer, we saw some Pew polls that showed that many Americans were essentially shrugging their shoulders, not too concerned. And so we wondered whether writers felt the same way or whether they rely on free expression for their craft, their livelihood, we might get a different response.

And what we saw and got back is that they are far more alarmed about these revelations than the general public. Sixty-six percent of writers who responded to our survey said that they disapproved of the government's collection of telephone and Internet data as part of antiterrorism efforts compared to just 44 percent of the general public.

RATH: So writers, or at least this group of PEN writers, they're more bothered by the surveillance. But in terms of doing their work, are they frightened?

NOSSEL: Some of them are. We asked people to report on the degree to which they've actually modified their behavior in response to these revelations, and significant proportions said that they are. About 28 percent said that they had curtailed or avoided social media activities. Twenty-four percent said that they're avoiding certain subjects in telephone or email conversations. And 16 percent said that they'd actually steered away from tackling particular topics in their writing because of concern of government surveillance.

RATH: Now, I know myself, being brown and having a funny name, when I've covered national security stories, I've wondered am I drawing attention to myself in a way that might not be great. But I just go ahead and do it. Are you saying that people are having that same thought and just thinking, I'm not going to research this at all?

NOSSEL: Some are. In some cases, it was coverage of the military, coverage of national security issues, communications with people overseas, particularly in certain countries, covering mass incarceration, in one case covering abortion issues. So I think it is distressing to see that significant proportions of writers are thinking about this, it's weighing on them. They're actually modifying their behavior.

Maybe they need to, maybe they don't. But the fact that they're doing it means that we're not hearing, reading, learning of some of the ideas and stories that they might otherwise be writing.

RATH: There was another reaction - you may have seen it. This is from David Ulin, the book critic for the L.A. Times who - his reaction was basically, what's wrong with the writers? Why are they cowing so quickly? Why are they being so fast to self-censor?

NOSSEL: Well, some writers did say, absolutely not. They wrote back to us and said, you know, there's no way that I would refrain from taking on a topic, and I'm not afraid of this. But at the same time, when you look at what's happened in certain quarters of our community - I mean, I'll give the example of investigative journalists and people who've been on the receiving end of some of the leaks who the government, the Obama administration has gone after, has in some cases prosecuted. And so it's hard to say that everybody who's worried is worried needlessly.

RATH: Suzanne Nossel is executive director of the PEN American Center. Suzanne, thank you.

NOSSEL: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.