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Interview With Bard College President Leon Botstein; Interview With Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. Aired 2-3p ET
Aired November 23, 2020 - 14:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN INTERNATIONAL HOST: Hello, everyone, and welcome to AMANPOUR.
Here's what's coming up.
AMANPOUR (voice-over): With more vaccines coming online, what's the moral duty to the most needy? I will talk to the archbishop of Canterbury, the
head of the Anglican Church, Justin Welby.
Then: Can a private education be for the public good? I ask conductor and longtime Bard College president Leon Botstein.
NICHOLAS THOMPSON, EDITOR IN CHIEF, "WIRED": If technology had functioned ideally during this pandemic, we would have had a whole lot of truthful,
trusted information spreading from the very beginning. We wouldn't have had the bad information. And we would have had a contact tracing system that
AMANPOUR: How big tech dropped the ball throughout the pandemic? Nicholas Thompson, the editor-in-chief of "Wired-," speaks to our Walter Isaacson.
AMANPOUR: Welcome to the program, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.
Another coronavirus vaccine appears on the horizon. The University of Oxford/AstraZeneca candidate is described as highly effective. And the
pharmaceutical giant is now seeking emergency use listing from the World Health Organization, something that would speed up the availability in low-
The result comes just as the world's G20 economies pledge to fairly share any vaccine and ensure that they are affordable and accessible to all. And
this is what major philanthropists like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as faith leaders, have called for.
Joining us now for an exclusive interview is the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who is head of the worldwide Anglican community.
Archbishop Welby, welcome to the program. Very good to see you again.
JUSTIN WELBY, ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY: It's very nice to see you, Christiane. It's a great privilege to be with you.
AMANPOUR: So, let me ask you, because you have come out and publicly chastised the British government, along with Bill Gates and others, for
seeking, effectively, to hurt people in the lowest-income countries in the world, in other words, by slashing foreign aid, the British international
Tell me why you decided to make a pretty unusual, but significant intervention in government policy on this issue.
WELBY: Well, I think, to be fair, they weren't seeking to hurt people abroad, if they are really concerned about the budget deficit.
But one of the things we know is that one of the great moral and ethical achievements of this country and cross-party over the last 10 years has
been the commitment to 0.7 percent of gross national income in giving in international development.
Cutting back from that, when 150 million are falling into poverty around the world, where the economic pandemic is as bad as the COVID pandemic and
is killing as many people, just goes straight against the things we believe and the things that really matter to us.
And it goes straight against our Christian heritage, the teaching of Jesus Christ, that your neighbor is the one whose needs you know, that you can
reach out and help. We know these needs. We're one of the best in the world in meeting them. It's not a moment to cut.
AMANPOUR: So, we are talking, of course, the week where the chancellor of the exchequer is going to have his spending review. As you say, it's about
a budget deficit.
AMANPOUR: And you're talking -- yes, and you're talking about the moral imperative at stake here.
So, look, I'm not trying to throw you into a political debate, but just a few days ago, this very same government announced that it was going to
increase the defense budget by some 16.5 billion pounds over a period of a few years.
At the same time, as you have just mentioned, and the World Bank has said up, to you know, 115 million people around the world can be pushed by this
pandemic this year alone into extreme poverty. That's less than $1.90 a day. Just talk to us about that.
WELBY: Forgive me if I don't take you entirely serious when you say you're not trying to get me into politics here.
The two are not connected.
WELBY: Defense -- defense budget -- I'm not an expert on defense budgets. They come out, I'm sure, of the defense review. They are what they are.
But this is something completely different. The 0.7 percent is right, in and of itself. It also is right in dealing with COVID, because we won't
deal with COVID anywhere unless we deal with it everywhere.
And, therefore, the ability for vaccines to be distributed, for nutrition, for education, for communication, which our international aid effort is so
good at, those are things that are in our own interest as well.
And it's also a way of firming up the international order, the rule-based order, and of confirming us as a reliable long-term partner and friend who
should be traded with, worked with, who can be trusted.
Everything is both in our interest and in the interest of the most needy. And for that reason, it's bad for us, it's bad for them. The only -- the
severe cutbacks will only benefit one living thing. And that's the COVID virus.
AMANPOUR: So, let me ask you, because just this weekend, at the same time as you made your statement, the G20 economy is in a virtual summit. They
pledged, as I said, to make any vaccine available free and equitably around the world.
I just want to just say -- or, rather, put to you -- what Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, has said about -- she doesn't see the actual
mechanisms put in place to ensure that any vaccine is rolled out in an effective way. Let's just air what she said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ANGELA MERKEL, GERMAN CHANCELLOR (through translator): We will speak with the global Vaccine Alliance group about when the negotiations are actually
due to start, because I'm a bit concerned that nothing has been done yet.
It is not enough to just have money in the bank. Something has to actually be done for the developing countries.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: You know, Angela Merkel has always been very, very strong on need to help developing countries.
You know, the U.S. has already started mass purchasing for itself. Rich countries, like the U.S., like Britain has already started making big
What do you think of what Merkel said? And have you heard, maybe from your church community around the world in some of the most deprived areas, how
it is -- how it's going for them in this moment?
WELBY: Well, we have heard very, very recently.
A couple weeks back, we had a meeting with the -- almost all of the major leaders of our provinces around the world, obviously remotely. And the most
distinctive thing was the economic hardship in so many places. Even those that don't have COVID rampant in their countries are suffering the knock-on
And it is leading to starvation. It means the child soldier can't be rescued. It means the things I have seen being done in refugee camps in
Northern Uganda, in schools in South Sudan, in the protection of women from sexual violence and conflict, all these things are being impacted by the
collapse of the global economy.
And Angela Merkel is absolutely right. We need both the money and the delivery systems. As the Anglican Communion, we have in other areas, for
instance, working with the Gates Foundation, been involved in the distribution of vaccines. The Roman Catholic Church, much bigger than us,
much better spread than us, has been doing the same.
The networks exist. The money exists. The expertise exists. They just need to be put in the same pot, and we will see a really rapid improvement. And,
as I said earlier, and I was quoting the World Health Organization there, and they dialogued with us with all the heads of our provinces a couple of
weeks back. And we had a really good partnership dialogue.
They were the ones who said, if we don't solve this virus everywhere, we won't solve it anywhere. So, the interest is there to serve of and love the
poorest. Archbishop Tutu in South Africa, who I'm sure you interviewed, said, a promise to the poor is especially sacred. We have made those
AMANPOUR: Indeed. Yes, indeed.
And this is...
WELBY: We have made those promises.
WELBY: We have made -- the Commons here -- they have been made by the government in the Commons and the Lords. We must keep our word. We are the
kind of country that should do that.
AMANPOUR: So, I'm just going to play -- I mean, it backs you up, but what Melinda Gates told me about the perils of if this thing is not rolled out
equitably and properly, as you mentioned.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MELINDA GATES, CO-FOUNDER, BILL AND MELINDA GATES FOUNDATION: One of the things we know is that, for instance, if the first set of vaccine dosage,
the first two billion doses -- there's good modeling that says, if it only goes to rich world countries, you are going to have twice as much death
around the world.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, I mean, that's pretty stark, twice as much death.
And, as you said, this -- it will never be contained if it's not contained everywhere.
What are you actually asking the British government to do? What do you want to see them walk back?
WELBY: I -- well, they haven't made a decision yet.
So, I am asking them to stick to what's in the law, the 0.7 percent of gross national income going to the international development budget, to use
our immense expertise, to use our distribution networks that come from our soft networks around the world, to us all of those to get the vaccine
distributed around the world, as well as to the most needy in this country.
This Oxford vaccine, AstraZeneca, is really good news, because it does not need to be kept at minus-60 degrees Celsius. It can be kept in a normal
refrigerator, and that means it's much easier to distribute in the global South.
We are developing the means. We're doing extraordinary work through our pharmacists and our scientists. Let's use our skills, which are equally
extraordinary, and our networks, including the Anglicans and the churches and the faith groups, which are equally extraordinary, and stop this
vaccine -- stop this virus.
If we stop the virus, it will also inject a vaccine of hope into the global economy.
AMANPOUR: Let me ask you to just focus on Britain for a moment, the -- and about Brexit, because that, many economists say, could deliver a double
blow, a double economic blow.
And we have seen a rise in homeless, a rise in poverty here in the U.K. as well. And the recent report from the London School of Economics in
September found the economic fallout from a no-deal Brexit could be two or three times as bad as the impact of COVID.
You know, you have warned many times that the most vulnerable British communities will be the hardest-hit. What are you feeling at the moment? I
mean, do you think that -- again, I mean, it's political, but do you think that there will be a deal? And, if not, what about the vulnerable
WELBY: I have no idea whether there will be a deal. I have no inside information. You would probably know better than I would.
What I do know is that, whether there's a deal or not, the vulnerable communities are going to be there. And Brexit, politically, is decided. You
know, that's -- we had the referendum. Then we had had the election. It's decided.
The question is, what kind of society do we want to be through that? It's very hard in the present circumstances to forecast economics. Nobody really
knows. There is obviously a significant burden for some people and some places and advantages for others.
Those with the broadest shoulders are going to have to carry that burden for those who can't bear the weight. And I think that one of the things we
want to see as a society for the common good, where there's solidarity and care for one another, that wants to have hope for the future for all our
communities, especially the most deprived in the coastal areas and so on, is that there is a clear government policy on homes, education, health
differentials that gives equal opportunity across our entire society.
Now, those are essentials. Those are the things that have changed our century after the Second World War, in the 19th century, during the
Industrial Revolution. These are the things where we make the difference.
AMANPOUR: Can I ask you about just the church in general?
It was extraordinary to see, in the early days of the pandemic, the sort of kind of argument about whether churches should be open, closed, whether
they were super-spreading locations or not. And it was -- whether it's the United States or here or in other faiths around the world.
There was criticism, I guess, when you and other leaders closed down the church -- well, wouldn't have them open for formal service. And now you're
considering changing that directive, and it's still a high COVID right here. Obviously, it's coming down in some areas, and the government is
considering lifting lockdown in a week or 10 days.
Do you -- I mean, have you sort of been able to think about the role of the church in these situations, whether they could have been spreading or
whether they would have been better to keep them open for mental health, compassion, all the kinds of things, the moral sort of leadership that
would be required there?
I mean, what are your thoughts nine months into this?
WELBY: Well, it's a really tough question.
I think, funnily enough, I have just come from our General Synod, where we were discussing this and debating this.
I -- with the knowledge we have now, personally, I think I was too strict. I think I'm not convinced I got that one right, with the knowledge I have
At the time, we were working in March on the precautionary principle. What is absolutely clear -- and we have been a lot more forthright with the
government about asking for places of worship to be open. You will probably have seen this afternoon has announced that they will be open. And we
really welcome that. And we thank him for that.
They are amongst the most COVID-safe places in this land. They were in the summer. They remain that. I have seen the statistics, negligible infection
in churches, absolutely negligible.
And so I -- the other point is that worship is the very fuel that enables the church to reach out into its communities, to run its 35,000 social
projects. It's to be involved in 2,500 food banks. That comes from our meeting with Jesus Christ in worship. Take the worship away, it's like
taking the fuel out of a car and then wondering why it doesn't go.
And so I am really pleased that we can reopen. We will be ultra-cautious. Nobody is going to be forced to reopen. Where people are at risk, we will
continue to have wonderful online worship, which has multiplied the number of people involved significantly.
But, praise God, we will be reopening. And I'm pleased about that. We can do it well. And my honest answer -- I have tried to be honest. I'll pay for
this, I suspect. My really honest answer is, with the knowledge I have now, I think I -- I am not talking, blaming anyone else. I think I was
overcautious earlier in the year.
AMANPOUR: Well, I think a lot of people did try to err on the side of caution.
But let me ask you another really important issue. And it's not just about caution. It's about accountability. As you well know, the official inquiry
report into child sexual abuse in the church came out in October. And it concluded that the Church of England didn't protect children, and created a
culture -- quote -- "where abusers could hide," and that from -- 390 clergy members and church leaders were convicted from '40 to 2018 and that --
quote -- "The church neglected the physical, emotional and spiritual well- being of children in favor of protecting its reputation."
Obviously, your church, obviously, the Catholic Church, I mean, it's been a terrible, terrible 20-odd years for this. What do you -- what is being
done? And what do you say to this massive failure of moral standing by the church and the massive failure to protect the most vulnerable?
WELBY: Well, I think you understate the level of the shame.
It's not just a problem of the last 20 years. It's a problem of the last 80 years and probably long before that.
I -- what has been done, I can quote all kinds of statistics which show -- but, basically, we have increased 30-fold our resources for safeguarding.
We now have safeguarding officers in every parish. We have safeguarding officers, paid professionals in every diocese and at the central church.
It's -- where people go wrong on this, they're out. We do not cover up. And where you cover up, you're out for covering up. There's a zero tolerance
culture. That's -- we do our best on that. We will make mistakes, I fear, because we're human and there's 800,000 people going to church and all
But how should we react? I cannot tell you the shame that I feel, that so many around me feel, and horror, even for those of us who were ordained
recently enough that it -- it's our institution. We failed.
What are we doing? We're setting up independent -- we have committed to setting up an independent safeguarding system that doesn't rely, as IICSA
put it, on marking our own homework.
It -- we ask -- we have begun the process of reparations. And we're working hard on that. We educate and train people as their top priority.
When you're interviewing someone to be a bishop, if they don't pass the safeguarding question, they fail. It doesn't matter how good they are on
anything else. It's a pass/fail issue.
And so we're doing everything we know how to do. I'm meeting survivors and victims, listening to them. We have got them involved in everything
weathering. Is it enough? Not yet. Are we -- have we covered it? Not yet enough?
We need to repent, to change, to be a place not only that safe for ourselves, but where people know they can go to find safety when they're
abused at home, when they're abused elsewhere.
AMANPOUR: Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, thank you so much for joining us on this day.
And now from faith to education. My next guest believes that private schools can work for the common good.
Leon Botstein is president of the private liberal arts Bard College, a positions he's held for 45 years. He is a real renaissance man, also a
music director and principal conductor for the American Symphony Orchestra. His approach to the common good at Bard College has seen the school extend
educational opportunities to disadvantaged youth around the world and to inmates inside America's sprawling prison system.
And he's joining me now from New York.
Leon, Leon Botstein, welcome to the program.
I wonder if...
AMANPOUR: I wonder if I could start by asking you actually about COVID, because, as you know better than I do, many higher education institutions
in the United States have had -- particularly public ones, have had -- well, many of them have had kids do their university online.
But you were determined to have them come to the university to do them in person. Tell me how that's -- how it's gone. And what made you take that
quite brave step, when everybody, many, many people were seeking to take the safer option?
LEON BOTSTEIN, PRESIDENT, BARD COLLEGE: We were lucky.
First of all, our location is not in an urban areas. So we don't have high- rise buildings. The buildings are spread apart. We could erect tents for teaching outside. And the way the campus is organized, we have 1,000 acres
on the Hudson, made it possible to run an on-campus curriculum teaching more easily.
The other is that we wanted to make the point that, before the pandemic, there was a lot of utopian talk that online education would replace
classrooms. There was a kind of easy fix for the failures of education by seeing if technology would come to the rescue as a kind of white knight.
And we have never believed this. And the one lesson from the pandemic is that there's no replacement for teaching and learning in real time, in real
place, with fellow students and with the faculty.
So, we also are in a region of the country that had a relatively low infection rate. We have done very well. I mean, we have had one positive
case of -- in a very elaborate testing and tracing mechanism. And that is as a result of the very careful behavior by students.
Our culture on our campus is not particularly party culture of the conventional kind. It's a little bit more pretentious, probably. But, for
us, it's a good thing. And so we have gotten very lucky.
But we took the risk, in defense of the tradition of learning that we cherish, which actually is descended from the traditions of Oxford and
Cambridge and from learning with another individual, both your fellow student and your teacher.
AMANPOUR: So, before I get to what's an informal motto for you -- I don't think it's the college's motto, but private education for the public or the
common good, I just want to ask you, because you know that New York City, which is I think the biggest public school system in the country, has now
closed down schools.
So, more than a million kids are going to have to be online. I mean, from what you know and what you -- well, what do you think might happen?
Because, as you have just said, the opportunities at home are not equal. The access to Internet or property connections or proper laptops, et
cetera, are not equal.
What might happen?
BOTSTEIN: Well, it's a catastrophe.
We run, Bard runs two public high schools in New York City. So we're actually directly affected. We have the Bard High School Early College in
Queens and one in happening.
I would have opposed the closing of the schools. I think it was gratuitous. Of all the various issues, both for the economy of the very poor and the
disadvantaged, schools are essential. And they're not actually known to be super-spreaders.
And the alternative, the other thing, is that the online education that the public institutions can provide is not good. And, as you say, there's an
unequal distribution. The income distribution parallels the technology gap.
So, those single-family homes, poor homes, crowded spaces, it's impossible to provide a high-quality online education. We do it for the high schools
that we run because we can feed into the higher-quality content that we have been able to develop on the university campus, because they're the
beneficiaries of an early college education.
But, by and large, the online experience is catastrophically poor, and to further deepen the impact of the pandemic on the poor by depriving their
children of an education, even though in the competitive risks, there's a risk involved, with the exception of a complete lockdown.
But, of the choices, I think the schools were the wrong choice.
AMANPOUR: It's interesting you say that. I don't know whether you were able to listen, but the archbishop of Canterbury also said that he felt
that maybe he had been too strict at the beginning, because churches also were not super-spreaders.
And you're saying that schools are pretty much safer than other locations. So, how does this, how does this and the risk it put these kids at for the
future, how do you think about your -- as I said, your idea of a private education for the common good, for the public good?
How does what you do, in other words, compensate for a great deal of trouble and pain and lack that these kids are going to go through?
BOTSTEIN: Well, we think -- I mean, we think, we believe, against the evidence in some cases, that there's a integral link between the quality of
education and democracy.
And, in that sense, America has failed itself, the political situation we're in and of the last four years, the fantastic idea that a high
percentage of Americans who have been to school don't understand science, don't understand -- I heard your discussion about the vaccination issue --
that why a privileged person who thinks of themselves as superior resents the idea that the poor might actually get what they get, without realizing
that, without vaccinating everyone, you're at risk.
The idea that democracy and citizenship involves recognizing your dependence on your neighbor, and, therefore, helping your neighbor helps
yourself. And I don't want to defend our belief in freedom and justice simply on self-interest.
But the fact is that education has failed democracy. America is a good example of the democratic conversation falling to the lowest common
denominator, represented by our outgoing president, who -- whose mixture of cruelty and ignorance and willfulness has made our political culture worse
than it need be.
But we're responsible as well. I can't blame it on him. The fact is that we have a situation where people do not want to listen to the evidence, don't
want to listen to the other point of view, are unsympathetic to hearing the other view, and that the conversation has broken down.
So, if you're a university in the United States, whether you're a public or private, first of all, we are all chartered by the state. The same way
that, let's say, Oxford and Cambridge or any private university in England is recognized by the state, we are recognized by the state of New York in
And we have a public obligation. And that public obligation is to do what hasn't been done. And what hasn't been done is to create a real link
between learning and democracy. People have a lot of degrees out there, but if that is the cause or that is a correlation to the quality of our
political conversation, we haven't done the job.
And I think we need to start doing it.
AMANPOUR: So, I'm really fascinated to hear you go straight into the idea of democracy, because, clearly, that's been on display in a not-very-good
way by, as you say, the current incumbent denigrating the democratic institutions, refusing publicly to do what is long tradition in America,
and that is a peaceful transition.
So, I want to the ask can you what you think, because you also expand your educational opportunities around the world, in some of the most, frankly,
undemocratic parts of the world. You're trying to teach people how to be good citizens. So I wonder what the lesson you see happening in the White
House, which is apparently the highest level of democracy in the world and what impact you think that might be happening in places not just in the
non-democratic places but even in the illiberal so-called democracies of Europe, whether it's Hungary or Poland or whatever it might be.
BOTSTEIN: Yes. We are active in Kyrgyzstan, in Russia, on West Bank in Palestine, and those are examples of places that do not have the same self-
important image as democratic countries. But what we do there is the belief that what is a serious university education in the liberal arts, for
example, and we speak about that in the United States, is actually if you succeed in doing it teaches the following virtues. First of all, belief in
reason and the rules of evidence.
The worst thing about our president is a disregard of science, the disregard of facts, the obliteration of truth. If you don't have a
conversation based on some common agreement of what is true, the archbishop of Canterbury has a problem because he is contingent on the belief in the
divine, about which truth doesn't come into play. Either you believe it or you don't. There's -- I can't come up with some evidence about the presence
of a divine. People try to do that, but I don't think that's entirely necessary.
But for most of the things we deal in life, which are the economy, climate, the things in the world, law, these are things, you know, there are facts,
there are rules, there are things we can debate and change, and we don't know how to respect that conduct of thought, we're not going to have a
functioning democracy, and that was the problem of the current president. And in the current generation, social media, and this has often been said,
is a kind of a strange platform by which we are manipulated and controlled, in some way, by these very large entities into conducting our lives in a
kind of narrow pathway and reinforcing our own beliefs.
So, social media, which has reduced the conversation to Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, that mode of communication and the lockdown and the
pandemic has accelerated this process is a process of depoliticization, of isolation. Politics is conducted in real life and real place that's why the
opening churches is important, schools as well and public culture also needs to reopen because as we live in an isolated situation we see that in
undergraduates and university students, they have a lot of fear, and there's kind of a paralysis of communication, and also anger which leads to
people believing what they want to believe and not necessarily what they should be the case.
AMANPOUR: Let me ask you about a program that you initiated, the Bard Prison Initiative, which -- you can tell me about it, but clearly, you're
taking your classes into prisons, and you seem to have had a pretty remarkable effect on recidivism and just general educating a prison
population that in America I don't think rehabilitation is the main aim of prison.
BOTSTEIN: No. America is totally hypocritical. It calls itself a Christian nation and doesn't recognize either forgiveness, redemption or
reconciliation, all Christian virtues, and so it's ironic. We have a terrible incarceration system, but we did pioneer in bringing our education
into prisons, and the results are now after more than a decade, 15 years of experience, is tragic in a way, that these prisoners are best prepared and
most ambitious and idealistic students. The deprivation of their freedom of movement taught them that the real freedom is the freedom of the mind and
the freedom of the spirit, the thing that the jailer can't take with keys.
And so, what we've learned is that by giving them a sense of pride in their own ability to reason, this is a very rigorous liberal arts education, and
they write a senior thesis for the B.A. level and they do the same program we require of non-incarcerated students, and our experience has shown the
power of education, the power of the study of mathematics, philosophy, economics, the arts. These are not degrees in practical -- so-called
practical professions. They don't become pharmacists. But they do then really -- even if they are not released, many of them get their degrees
while they are still serving their sentence, that we can transform people, their ambitions and their behavior, which is why the recidivism is so low.
We could do this.
Now, the prisoners are our best advertisement as well. You know, any people will go to university with the kind of flippant attitude, but they have
learned the hard way how powerful and important education is. And so, that has given us a great deal of hope.
AMANPOUR: I want to play a little soundbite. This is from one of your students in -- well, he graduated in 2017 and he was the subject of your
program but done by the great documentarian, Ken Burns. Let's just play this little soundbite.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RODNEY SPIVEY-JONES, INMATE, BARD COLLEGE GRADUATE: I've been incarcerated for 13 years. And from my experience I can tell you, prison is here to
punish us. It's here to warehouse us, but it's not about rehabilitating. It's not about creating productive beings. It just isn't.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, Mr. Botstein, I want to ask you because clearly, you know, President Obama brought back some of the money, the funding for this
program, and it looks like the Trump administration along with the education secretary, you know, supported it even more. They put it in the
sort of a Christian term of redemption. How solid is this program now? Do you think the funding is there to stay?
BOTSTEIN: Well, most of the funding has been private. So, the government did under Obama begin to roll out on a tentative basis some public support
for this, but the only way we were able to get this into New York state prisons and are very grateful to the government of the City of New York for
letting us do that, very far-sighted by the Cuomo administration and the corrections commissioner, Annucci, that we had to provide the funding
Whether there is public funding for it is, I think, an open question despite some bipartisan support, and the problem is simply this, helping
prisoners is part of the problem of our conversation in democracy. People think that if you help someone who is in need, you're taking away from
yourself. There's a strange way we talk about equity as if it is taking something away from me. I'm a privileged person, and I'm comfortable and I
can barely, you know, provide for my family and myself. And now, the government comes along and says, you have to help someone who is less well
off than yourself, and they couch it in terms as if taking away from me.
So, in the prison circumstance, for example, there is some reason why you get resistance, the guards, the connections officers, are often have -- has
as few opportunities as the prisoners. I remember in the first graduation when we gave degrees to the prisoners, the warder of the prison, we're in
six prisons, sat next to me on the platform, and he said to me, you know, it's funny. I'm sitting here watching these prisoners get a degree who have
been convicted of very serious crimes, I didn't have the opportunity to go to college.
AMANPOUR: Wow. You know --
BOTSTEIN: Now --
AMANPOUR: -- that's a great way to end. I wish I could have more of this conversation with you and will do more of it, but that is a really hopeful
way to end.
BOTSTEIN: Yes. We need to support public support by making sure that everybody thinks they benefit, and they do benefit.
AMANPOUR: That's right. Leon Botstein, thank you so much for sharing this with us.
So, now, while technology and social media have kept us connected throughout the pandemic, they have also caused damage. Nicholas Thompson is
editor-in-chief of "WIRED" magazine and he argues that to prevent the spread of harmful information, sites like Facebook need to change their
algorithms. And here he is talking to our Walter Isaacson about how certain stories get distorted and how we remain trapped in our echo chambers.
WALTER ISAACSON, CNNI HOST: Thank you, Christiane. And, Nick Thompson, welcome to the show.
NICHOLAS THOMPSON, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, WIRED MAGAZINE: Hi, Walter. It is a great pleasure to be here.
ISAACSON: "WIRED" recently featured a story about a small town in Washington State that feared antifa was coming in, and it was about the
whole spread of misinformation. Tell me about that story.
THOMPSON: Yes. It's one of the most compelling, small stories that illuminates this huge issue in American life, and it's a town Forks,
Washington where the residents were convinced that this bus was full of antifa protests and, you know, riot were going to come, horrible things
were going to happen. And it was just a couple of people going camping.
And what's illuminating considering and we live in these little filter bubbles where tiny bits of misinformation appear and then spread, and
inside of the bubbles we become completely convinced of totally different realities and it is part of the nature of how social media works and it can
have real consequences.
Fortunately, the story in Forks, Washington ended up without anyone getting hurt. Scary moments. But they got through it, but who knows what happens
ISAACSON: Do you think that Facebook has some responsibility with the information that they amplify to try to do more to make sure it's correct?
THOMPSON: That is one of the great questions of American civic life right now. I mean, I think, first off, absolutely, yes. Facebook does have a
responsibility, both to its business model, right. I think Facebook would be a better business were it more true to the people who have put their
trust in Facebook, and Facebook is a company founded in the United States. It does have a responsibility to have -- to play a positive role in
democracy as opposed to a negligent role in democracy.
The hard question then is what exactly should they do? The approach they have taken is to label misinformation and lies, to remove some of the
people who spread misinformation and lies to sometimes swat out groups, but my fundamental critique of Facebook is that the core problem is the way the
algorithm works and the way the algorithm has been trained over the last decade, the core news feed algorithm, and they need to fundamentally change
the way they think about it and the signals that feed into it so that it doesn't have all these consequences. Right now, they are sticking band aids
on the problems caused by the core algorithm and they need to completely rejigger it.
ISAACSON: You know Mark Zuckerberg as well as any other journalist, you've covered him lots and then interviewed him for years. What do you think he
really a feels about this problem?
THOMPSON: I think that he doesn't think that Facebook is causing as much harm as I do. I think that there are -- he probably weighs -- each of the
solutions that I would propose has trade-offs, right. There are always trade-offs between keeping Facebook -- having a Facebook that supports
democracy, but to do that you may push back on some idealism about free speech, right. And so, there may be some moments where he weighs free
speech over safety, where I would weigh safety over free speech, right. There may be points where there are some points shift in values.
But I think the fundamental difference would be I think that he may be in a filter bubble of his own where he doesn't see some of the danger that's
been created and where he believes that Facebook doesn't bear as much responsibility as I think it does for some of these problems.
ISAACSON: But do you think Facebook has about harmful to American democracy?
THOMPSON: Yes, I do think Facebook has been harmful to American democracy. Yes.
ISAACSON: Compare the way it works with Reddit.
THOMPSON: OK. So, there's some data, some very interesting data. And the data suggests that on Facebook people are more likely to become more
partisan, right. The more time they spend on Facebook, the more likely they are to become extra partisan. If you go in and you're moderately
conservative, you spend 10 hours on Facebook, you will come out extremely conservative.
Reddit seems to have the opposite effect. Now, I haven't looked at all of the data that happened in 20 studies, but this seems to match what one
would think would happen because Reddit is just a list of information, and stories get voted up and they get voted down based on a user's sense of
In Facebook, there's a much more complicated algorithm that guides you into a graph of information based on the people you know and the people you
interact with. So, what happens on Facebook is you're more likely to start to get pushed in a bubble of, OK, these people think the same way, so you
interact with them more often. OK, and that bubble will become a little more extreme and a little tighter. On Reddit, it's more of a list, you're
more likely to confront counter information.
ISAACSON: And so, Facebook could solve its problem by -- instead of just trying to play whack a troll and fixing this post or that post by having
algorithms that did not nudge us towards more and more like-mined and more and more extreme people.
THOMPSON: Right. And the beauty is Facebook with its infinitely complex algorithm could nudge us in the opposite direction. If Facebook said
tomorrow, you know what, we really think filter bubbles are a terrible problem. We're going to start showing you more information from people you
disagree with as opposed to people you agree with, that would profoundly change the nature of conversations on Facebook. They haven't made that
choice to do that, but it would be a good thing to try.
ISAACSON: Why haven't they made that choice?
THOMPSON: Well, I would say two reasons. The fundamental one is, through my conversations with executives at Facebook is they don't believe the
supposition that I'm basing some of my arguments on. They don't believe that Facebook puts you into filter bubbles. They think Facebook introduces
you to more conflicting information or information that challenges your prior assumption. They think it does a better job of that than say cable
news does, and they have -- they will site surveys that show that people who get their news from, cable TV are more partisan than people who get it
from Facebook. I don't believe that. There's information that counters it. But I think the top executives genuinely don't think that there is a big
Secondly, Facebook is a huge company with a lot of different problems and a lot of different priorities, and I don't think that they have settled on
this approach to solving this particular problem as a top priority.
ISAACSON: As you know, Section 230 is a part of the law that "WIRED" has written about quite often that sort of inoculates all social media
platforms from being responsible for what people post there. Do you think there should be a fundamental change in that law?
ISAACSON: Actually, no. So, you know, the beauty of Section 230 is it has two parts. The first is that it says every internet provider has a certain
shield from most of the content that people post on it, right. So, I'm the editor of "Wired." If someone posts a comment on wired.com, I am not
legally liable for it. If I was legally liable for it, it would be a world of hurt. I don't know if I could run comments on wired.com.
It's a much bigger problem at Facebook, right. People are posting stuff all the time. And anything that created a legal liability for Facebook, this
company could be sued for, you couldn't possibly run that company. So, that's part one of the law.
Part two of the law is that the company can take good-faith efforts to remove content from its platform without removing the -- without losing the
protective shield. So, they can go and they can say, hey, we don't want pornography, right. We're going to remove all the pornography. We're going
to remove all the terror content, and maybe we're going to remove some lies about, you know, information about the election, and they are allowed to do
that under Section 230.
So, I actually think Section 230 is a good law. I think it's well structured. I think changing it would create huge problems. I want Facebook
to behave differently, but I want to force them to do that by changing a law which whose existence, I think, is part of the reason why these big
tech companies are based in the United States and not elsewhere.
ISAACSON: But when I was at "Time" magazine we used to have to take responsibility even for the letters to the editor or the posts that were on
"Time's'" website. And you go all the way back to the 1960s, the great case of Times v. Sullivan, the "New York Times" had to take responsibility for
an advertisement that people bought in the "New York Times." Why do people who disseminate and then amplify information have to take no
responsibility? Shouldn't there be some way to tweak the law so that there is at least some vestige of responsibility that you have?
THOMPSON: Well, there is some vestige of responsibility. There are some categories where they can get into trouble. But I think the better parallel
to "Time" magazine would be you bore responsibility for any letter that was sent in that you published, but imagine if you bore a legal responsibility
for every letter that was sent to you, right, the thousands of letters that came in, some of which may have revealed personal information that violated
somebody's legal rights.
The problem with Facebook is all of this information can be posted by anybody, that there's no editorial decision and Facebook couldn't implement
a review team, right. At "Time," you would read every letter, you would make a decision which of the two, four, 10, I don't remember how many
letters were run, how many letters would appear, and then the ones that, you know, were slanderous or broke the rules, you wouldn't run.
Facebook, by building this giant platform, there's no way to have a human review everything. So, it's a slightly different situation.
ISAACSON: And so, do you see any solution?
THOMPSON: I see -- well, I see lots of solutions, right. So, there are a bunch of solutions to solve this problem. One, there is Facebook takes
greater responsibility, changes its algorithms by changing the guts of Facebook, you reduce all the downstream problems. Two, you can bring
antitrust regulation against Facebook. You could conceivably break Facebook into multiple companies, you could split off WhatsApp and Instagram.
Maybe by doing that you create a competitive marketplace where different social networks have different priorities and they compete against each
other and that leads to higher quality information streams, right. One of the problems with monopolies is they can offer low quality products. Maybe
if there's more competition.
Third approach, which is what they're doing in Europe, is you pass a bunch of laws that regulate their behavior. You don't necessarily remove their
liability shield but you make them do certain things that lead to more competitive marketplaces, better user rights. So, those different
approaches can all be taken.
ISAACSON: We hear a lot these days about how the pandemic is accelerating technology, but I have a counter question to ask. We know so little still
about how COVID spreads, what are the exact places that it happens, why hasn't technology been able to help us trace epidemic, trace how people get
things, know how this virus works?
THOMPSON: Well, I would respond by saying there are ways where technology has helped, right. We all have become fluent in our knot (ph), right. My
12-year-old son has learned how to go onto the internet and find the infection rate in every county in America, which he delightfully reports
back to us at the dinner table.
So, the amount of information available and the presentation of it has been extraordinary. Also, this virus came at us very quickly. It's been a
relatively short amount of time during which we have a number of vaccine candidates. So, there has been real technological progress. But your
question is right because we have had also massive information failures because of Facebook, because of Twitter, because of the way that
misinformation can spread, because of the filter bubbles and partisanship that turn a scientific issue into a political issue and made large portion
of America for political reasons take a different approach to the virus than the scientific community would have said.
So, I think that underlying information failure with coronavirus is the same problem underlying the democratic failure that has happened and that
we talked about earlier.
ISAACSON: In other words, technology and data mining could have been used to figure out how effective mask-wearing is just by looking at hundreds of
thousands of cases, and instead, technology has been used to confuse us and spread misinformation about mask-wearing.
THOMPSON: Yes, that's absolutely true. If technology had functioned ideally during this pandemic, we would have had a whole lot of truthful
trusted information spreading from the very beginning, we wouldn't have had the bad information and we would have had a contact tracing system that
works. One of the great mysteries is why don't we have a good contact tracing system, why I can't get an alert on my phone if I've been near
someone that's tested positive.
I've installed the New York Contract Tracing app but it only came out in, what, September. Very few people have installed them. A lot of people don't
trust them. There was an element of the response to this pandemic that the tech industry could have and should have solved, but it didn't really. And
why not? Well, it's hard to communicate across states, across tech companies, privacy concerns, there are a lot of reasons. But given the
tragedy that we've been through, one has to say we could have done better.
ISAACSON: "WIRED" magazine writes a lot about artificial intelligence especially during the four years you've been the editor. Do you think China
is about to move ahead of us in artificial intelligence and does that worry you?
THOMPSON: Yes and yes, I do worry a lot about that. It's a little hard to define who is ahead but it's unquestionably true that China as a nation has
prioritized education in A.I., has provided a lot of infrastructure to A.I. companies and the country takes A.I. much more seriously than we do.
So, why does that matter? Well, it matters because the nature of. A.I. will be defined partly by the countries that shape it, right. If China is the
pioneer in. A.I. there will be fewer concerns about privacy, more of a focus you see, for example, face recognition tech is booming in China. And
so, in some ways the value of the system that builds the tech are baked into the tech. So, that's worrisome. It's also worrisome militarily, right.
They end up in a conflict with China, the country that has better A.I. in its military will have a huge advantage.
So, I have, I guess, a two-part answer. One is, I am worried. I do think they are sort of advancing very quickly. I also hope that the policy
response isn't to push China further apart but to try to pull China closer in, which is a complicated, complicated dance.
ISAACSON: Beside editing "WIRED" you occasionally write some wonderful stories, and the one that struck me the most in the past few months was
about this hitch-hiker that went off the grid, disappeared but had run into a whole lot of people and nobody can figure out who he was. Tell me about
THOMPSON: Oh, it's an incredible story. So, there's a guy. And in 2017, he starts to hike the Appalachian Trail, and he hikes all the way down to
Florida over the course of the next year and some months. He meets hundreds of people, has his photographs taken. And then in July of 2018 he's found
dead in his tent in Florida, he seems to have just sort of starved to death there. We're not quite sure why he died.
And then the crazy thing, the crazy thing is that despite all these photographs being on the internet, despite thousands of people trying to
identify who he was, no one can figure out his name. They used facial recognition technology, compared his DNA to known DNA databases, he had no
I.D. with him, he had no phone with him. A million and half people have read this story that I wrote in "WIRED" and not one of them, as far as I
know, recognized him had. Certainly, I got lots of tips, none of which panned out.
In this age of surveillance and the internet, this is why I was drawn to the story, the age of surveillance and the internet, you sort of think that
when somebody's picture is put online, the hivemind of the internet will find him in about two minutes, and we're two years and four months into
this and no one knows who this guy was.
ISAACSON: Nick Thompson, it's always fascinating. Thanks for joining us.
THOMPSON: Oh, it's so much fun to talk to you, Walter. Thank you so much for having me on.
AMANPOUR: That was quite a story. And that's it for now. Thank you for watching, and good-bye from London.