Thomas Friedman Evaluates Freedom in a Digital World

Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist discusses the implications of technology during Kalb Report.

Thomas Friedman joins Marvin Kalb
Thomas Friedman joins Marvin Kalb in a discussion on freedom.
February 12, 2014

By Julyssa Lopez

Three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman brought his expansive overseas experience as a New York Times foreign correspondent, best-selling book author and documentary host to Monday’s episode of the Kalb Report, in which he shared his perspective on freedom, technology and the press today.

Mr. Friedman answered host Marvin Kalb’s questions of what freedom means in its broadest sense, explaining he pondered its universal definition while reporting on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Mr. Friedman said he believes the concept evokes a deep emotion applicable to people from all around the world.

“Freedom is the ability, desire and aspiration to live in a context where I can realize my full potential as a human being,” he said. “What Tahrir Square was about, at its very root, was apolitical aspiration—young people living in a world where they could see how everybody else was living and wanting to realize their full potential."

But the ubiquitous nature of modern technology may have an effect on personal freedoms or, at the very least, individual privacy because it constantly puts people in contact with one another. Mr. Friedman told an anecdote about getting breakfast with a Middle Eastern diplomat once, only to find a photo and a story retold out of context on a blog the next day. He explained he edits and restrains his opinions often, and has “given up” on much of his personal privacy.

The discussion of technology and privacy led the panelists to broach the subject of Edward Snowden. Mr. Friedman had an ambivalent opinion—on one hand, the former government contractor exposed how technological developments might limit personal freedom; on the other, Mr. Friedman said he did not uncover specific cases of abuse. But Mr. Friedman believes the leaked information will lead to an inevitable and necessary trial and debate in America.

“I think that this trial could be a huge teaching moment and one that would trigger, I think, healthy debate and reform,” he said.

Technological developments in his 20-year career as a columnist haven’t changed his writing craft, but Mr. Friedman said they have expanded the size and scope of his audience. Attributes like commenting sections have altered the conversation. Mr. Friedman joked he often feels he has 70 million competitors.

He also shared that when he was reporting in China, his litmus test for writing a column was to question if his mother-in-law—who had never been to the country—would understand the topic. Because his stories today have an international presence, his methodology has been complicated: He has to write stories people living in China don’t know about.

“I'm keenly aware that when I'm writing about China now, I'm being read, not just by my mother-in-law in Chicago, but by Chinese. And I think that does raise your game,” Mr. Friedman said.

He compared today’s “hyper-connected” media world to Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. News publications like the New York Times now have the ability to use big data to track story analytics—a double-edged sword for foreign affairs columnists because some international issues may not be as popular as more salacious news. He added that the advent of digital media has also made the news space more “noisy” and created immediate feedback loops for writers who may be critiqued for their content. Mr. Friedman said that he has more sympathy for politicians, who face intense levels of scrutiny and constant tracking in media.

Mr. Kalb recalled that in Mr. Friedman’s most recent book, “That Used to Be Us,” he might be perceived as pessimistic about the state of global affairs and the challenges the U.S. faces in order to preserve its power in the world. Mr. Friedman said that he sees a clear line between skepticism and cynicism as a journalist. He considers himself optimistic—something he attributes to growing up in Minnesota, where politicians work together to solve problems of the state. He explained he is constantly "looking for Minnesota, in some way" in his journalism.

He also said that the U.S. must question how it emulates its values of freedom, pluralism and opportunity for the sake of future generations.

“That’s why I invest so much of my time writing about America, because I do believe it is the most amazing country in the world. And the world will be a very different place if we cannot be all we need to be,” Mr. Friedman said.

The Kalb Report series, moderated by Mr. Kalb, is jointly produced by the National Press Club Journalism Institute, the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University, Harvard University, University of Maryland University College and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. The series is underwritten by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.