The Impact Of Big Tech On Free Speech And US Elections : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders How much has Big Tech changed since the 2016 election? Sam is joined by Washington Post tech reporters Elizabeth Dwoskin and Tony Romm. They chat about Facebook and Twitter and how their platforms and views on free speech have evolved since the last presidential election. Sam also chats with Washington Post columnist and satirist Alexandra Petri about her book of essays Nothing Is Wrong and Here Is Why and how she uses humor to uncover bigger truths.
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How Much Have Facebook And Twitter Changed Since 2016?

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How Much Have Facebook And Twitter Changed Since 2016?

How Much Have Facebook And Twitter Changed Since 2016?

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AUNT BETTY: Hey, y'all. This is Sam's Aunt Betty. This week on the show, the role of Big Tech in 2020. All right, let's start the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SAM SANDERS, HOST:

Hey, y'all. From NPR, I'm Sam Sanders. IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. As my Aunt Betty said, this week we're talking tech. I have been thinking something for a while. Every big conversation we're having right now in 2020 - the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, election 2020 - what is shaping all those conversations? Facebook and Twitter. For better and for worse, those are the spaces that we're going to to talk all this stuff out, even as we are still being manipulated on these platforms in 2020 as much as we were in 2016.

I've been obsessed with what these companies have been doing recently to take a stand, or not, on any number of issues. Twitter is now labeling President Trump's tweets for threatening harm or for spreading misinformation. It's led to several prominent conservatives leaving Twitter over the last few weeks. Facebook is kind of doing the opposite. They aren't really censoring Trump, and that's led to a boycott of the company. Big advertisers, like REI and Verizon, have said this month that they will no longer buy ads on Facebook. So we're going to take some time on the show this week to talk about Facebook and Twitter and how different and harder life for those two companies is in 2020 compared to 2016 or really any other year.

To do that, I'm joined by two all-star panelists, Tony Romm and Lizza Dwoskin. They both cover tech for The Washington Post. I love a good Washington Post takeover.

Welcome to you both. Hi.

ELIZABETH DWOSKIN: Hey.

TONY ROMM: Hey, Sam. How you doing?

SANDERS: I'm pretty good. I'm so glad that on this show this week democracy will not die in darkness. Thank y'all for being here.

ROMM: (Laughter) Yeah.

SANDERS: Anyhoo, before we talk more about tech, I just want to emotionally check in with you both. We are now almost halfway through 2020. How long has this half-year felt for both of y'all on a scale of nanoseconds to eon?

ROMM: Oh, God. I didn't realize it had been a half-year until you had said that. Oh, now it feels like eons. Jeez.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Sorry.

ROMM: It all feels like one giant day.

SANDERS: Yeah, sadly.

DWOSKIN: I just had - I had a baby. I'm like, when did I have that baby? Last August. And, like, everything has felt like one giant day since then. And then sort of the world became the cave that I was already in.

SANDERS: Wow. The world became the cave I was already in. Wow.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: I love it. I love it. Realness. Realness. Or what my editor says, I feel her (laughter).

ROMM: Should I go get - like, go get a glass of wine or something right now? Like, my goodness.

DWOSKIN: Yeah, let's start. You know, it's 10 a.m. Who cares? You're in California, at least.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Exactly. So I want to talk tech right now. You both cover tech, and tech is very important, obviously. But I feel like I'm hearing less about it systemically these days. And I feel like we are thinking about tech differently than we were a few years ago. So I want to take some time now to talk about where Big Tech stands in 2020, particularly compared to 2016.

And I'm really not talking about all tech. I'm talking about, this week at least, Twitter and Facebook. These are two platforms that in many ways drive a national conversation. And, I mean, Tony confirmed. Like, after 2016, a lot of folks on both sides of the aisle said Big Tech is kind of bad, kind of a hot mess. Let's fix it. And now, four years after that, a few months away from the next big election, there's been no major regulation of either Twitter or Facebook. And it seems that neither of these platforms have actually lost a lot of users. What's up with that, Tony?

ROMM: Right. In so many ways, a lot has changed and nothing has changed. I mean, on one hand, we're now talking about these issues in a way that we weren't four years ago. And even the companies are talking about them in different ways. We saw just this week and then last week that companies like Facebook and Twitter are actually beginning to do something about all of those things the president says that a lot of his critics find repugnant or controversial.

But at the same time, you're right. Nothing has happened here really in terms of regulation. You know, we've had hearings. We've had demands for documents. We've had investigations that might sooner than later result in something, but that'll also depend on the willingness of regulators to put the money where their mouth is. And so it almost feels, I think, in the eyes of some of the people who wanted to see tech change most that it was a squandered opportunity over the past few years.

SANDERS: Yeah. So then for you both, it's hard to forecast to three months from now, let alone three hours, but is there any way of knowing whether all the bad, weird things that happened on these platforms last election will be kept from happening again? I mean, is it going to be 2016 all over again?

DWOSKIN: I mean, I think it's going to be - first of all, I think it's going to be harder to know. Two, though, I think they've gotten better at getting that rush, like, the outs, like, spotting out, like, foreign interference. I think they've gotten better at that because they literally - the bar was so low in 2016 when Russians were paying in rubles, you know. They've gotten a lot more sophisticated, but the stuff that's really, really complicated, as you can see during the pandemic, as you can see during the protests, is really just misinformation and abusive comments and hate speech or what you might call hate speech, you know, comments that tow the line by politicians, by political leaders. And so that's a much, much more fraught kind of issue.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. Tony, you have any thoughts on that?

ROMM: Yeah. I mean, you're right. It's hard to predict, you know, what we might see come the 2020 election. But I would actually turn the question on his head a little bit and say that it kind of doesn't matter in some respect. I mean, like, yes, it does for the future of democracy. I don't want to diminish that. But, you know, Facebook was...

(LAUGHTER)

DWOSKIN: You know that thing.

ROMM: It does die in darkness after all. But, you know, I mean to say that, like, Facebook felt like a cesspool to a lot of people, like, prior to the 2016 election. But just to go back to something you said earlier, Sam, like, people are still using this stuff.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ROMM: You know, we're all sort of doom-scrolling through our feeds anyway. We know it's bad for us, but it still is our drug. Like, we're still using social media and still sharing on social media no matter how many bad things may actually happen there.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. You know, we've pretty much laid out the way that Americans and politicians feel about these platforms. We don't really like them anymore, but we still use them. I want to talk for a second about how these companies view themselves now versus four years ago or when they started.

Let's start with Facebook because I feel like Facebook is in this mode now where they've really kind of become a libertarian platform, and they want to just say, we are open for whoever wants to say whatever, and it's not our job to monitor, which is different from where they were a few years ago. And it's different from this kind of mission they had for a while, where they wanted to connect the world and bring positivity and unity to the whole globe. Like, do they see themselves differently now than they did maybe a few years ago?

DWOSKIN: It's so funny you say libertarian because, you know, there was a moment where Zuckerberg himself, especially with the rise of Trump, was - this shouldn't be permitted on our platform. And it doesn't mean that he wasn't very pro-free speech. He always was. But he had this instinct to rein it in, that he felt it was offensive, according to sources that we have. And then he's moved into this, like, much more hard-line position on free speech that I think in some ways was always there. But now the company has just boldly articulated as this is where we're going to go. And it's so in the opposite direction of the other tech companies because, like, you see Twitter had this really interesting transformation because Twitter used to be called the free speech wing of the free speech party and...

SANDERS: I remember.

DWOSKIN: Right? So, like, that company especially was founded by people who largely had come from Google. And their whole ethos, the world they came up in was, we need to protect the Internet because the Internet can be shut down in other countries. So it's like the Internet was their ideology. And so that led them to become, like, you know, kind of to use an intellectual term, but, like, free speech maximalists. Like, we need to protect what can be said. The platform itself has to be protected. But now Twitter has - the pendulum has swung in the other way for Twitter.

SANDERS: They're, like, labeling Trump tweets, which surprised me when it began to happen a few weeks ago.

ROMM: Yeah. I mean, just to go back to your original question about, like, these companies and their world views and stuff, I - you know, often, you hear this comment from Mark at Facebook and Jack Dorsey of Twitter about, you know, their interest in free speech. But often, critics are quick to point out that sometimes it feels like it's less a commitment to free speech as it is a desire to get out of responsibility. You know, if you say that you believe in giving people the right to express themselves, I think the concern on Capitol Hill and elsewhere is that what you're really saying is you don't want to do the work of moderating. And there have actually been times where Facebook has indicated that its views on these things have changed as it's become a bigger platform. You know, I sat down with Mark Zuckerberg a few months ago, well before the pandemic and so forth, when he had delivered that speech that kind of made it look like he was, like, running for president or something at Georgetown last year.

SANDERS: I remember that.

ROMM: And, you know, and the whole point of that was free speech, right? He was defending the fact that Facebook had chosen not to do anything about the fact that Trump was lying in his advertisements. And in the course of that, Mark said, you know, we didn't believe it was our responsibility to stand in the way of what an elected official is trying to say. And in the course of doing that, one of the things that Mark pointed out was that, you know, he had created Facebook in large parts because he felt that people needed a place to share their views and vent politically about things, including the first Iraq War, which was funny because I sort of remember Facebook as the thing that came about as a way for college students to find who was hot or not.

SANDERS: Exactly.

ROMM: And, you know, it had one of those makings of...

DWOSKIN: Like, he actually rewrote the origin story of Facebook as a political protest?

ROMM: Yeah. He said it was a driving force behind it. He took a whole lot of criticism.

SANDERS: Wow. I watched "The Social Network." I know it was about hot or not and all that stuff - who was hot.

ROMM: (Laughter).

DWOSKIN: Tony, on what you're saying, like, one of things I actually learned recently from a source - we haven't published this, but...

SANDERS: Uh-oh.

DWOSKIN: Oh, no. Oh, no. No, it's not, like, salacious or anything. It just really kind of, like, opened my eyes to - you guys remember the Arab Spring. And we remember that one big kind of force in the Arab Spring was when the Google engineer created a Facebook page to protest the government. So ever - a lot of people associate it with that Google engineer Wael Ghonim. But what he did was he created a Facebook page.

And the person I spoke with told me that at the time, like, Facebook really didn't even want to take credit for that. Like, people were like, oh, my God. You're helping democracy. Like, you're doing this. And they were kind of just like, oh, no. Like, we're just a platform. Like, you know, here you go. Like, they - later, they did end up taking credit for it and kind of fits into what Mark is saying now. But at the time, they weren't - you know, they were more fearful of kind of getting involved in politics in that way.

SANDERS: Yeah. Is this reckoning for Big Tech just the nature of industries that have a moment? Like, at some point, the mood changes and how we see these sectors change. Like, you can't always love the Wall Street bros, and you can't always love the tech bros.

ROMM: Yeah. But remember that those perceptions change because bad stuff happens, right? It's not just that, like, these positions fall out of vogue because there's another cooler industry that comes along. It's because for the Wall Street bros, they tanked an economy. And for the oil bros...

SANDERS: More than once.

ROMM: Yeah, right. I don't know if there are oil bros, but, like, if there are, then perhaps they tank the environment. And now in the context of the tech companies we're talking about them, you know, lighting democracy on fire, at least according to some of the folks that we talked to, in the way that they've allowed foreign interference to affect elections and in the falsehoods they allow to spread on a daily basis. And you even see that among the people who currently work at these companies, as they change positions, as they get frustrated with their leaders or as they begin to speak out more in organizing protests and rallies of their own companies. And they often happen in a way that you don't see in other industries. I think we're beginning to kind of see that within Silicon Valley itself.

DWOSKIN: It's just weird if you think about, like, all the reading you do about millennials is that - and, you know, and younger workers, they really want to work for places that have values. And Silicon Valley, you know, still employs a lot of younger workers. So they have that idealism about their workplace. I just wonder - you know, I feel like there still is that craving among workers for values. But as Tony said, like, they're losing that sense of values, which was always kind of the marketing edge that the tech companies had.

SANDERS: One thing I also wonder about is the public's relationship to these companies. We've talked about what their leaders think, you know, Jack and Mark and what Trump thinks. But I am really perplexed by the ways in which America still embraces these two platforms, Facebook and Twitter, which we all seem to hate. And it's really weird to watch this happen in 2020 because if you think of - I don't know - the organizing around this new surge of Black Lives Matter protests, it's happening on Twitter. It's happening on Facebook. But those are the same platforms that are often full of white supremacist posts and abuse for those very activists of color. It just feels like now there's no way to live in this world without them. Like, it is inconceivable to imagine life as we know it without platforms like these. Like, whether we love it or not, this is our reality now.

ROMM: Right. And it's also hard to imagine writing about it in the context of isolation. You know, too often I think when we were discussing tech companies for a long time we did it by thinking of tech as its own discrete industry. And that's true, right? You know, Facebook is not the same as Ford. But it is impossible to talk about democracy and elections and race without also talking about tech. And it's impossible to talk about tech without also discussing elections and race and so forth. Like, because there's no such thing as online and offline. It's one world. It's just bleeding into each other. I think for too long we sort of treated them as isolated in our thinking and in some cases in our writing.

SANDERS: Yeah. I think, Tony Romm, you have given us the perfect toss to break. What a wonderful concluding thought.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: We're going to take a break right now, but when we come back, I will play my favorite game with these two all-stars. The game is called Who Said That. We'll be right back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROMM: My favorite story involving Mark and Jack - there was a period of time where Mark was only eating meat that he had killed himself and, like, served Jack Dorsey raw goat.

SANDERS: What?

DWOSKIN: (Laughter).

ROMM: And Jack was, like, asked about this. I actually can't remember who the reporter was who, like, interviewed Jack about it. And Jack was asked about it. He was like, yeah, it was weird.

SANDERS: Oh, my God. They are not just like us.

We are back. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. As I said earlier, this episode is a Washington Post takeover. I'm joined by Tony Romm and Lizza Dwoskin. They both cover tech for The Washington Post. We're talking tech this episode. And because life is funny, we actually had a tech hiccup while taping this next segment. I will not go into details, but Lizza might sound a bit different than Tony and I. It's fine. It is fine. Keep listening. OK, now we're going to play my favorite game, Who Said That.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE REAL HOUSEWIVES OF ATLANTA")

KANDI BURRUSS: Who had been saying that?

PORSHA WILLIAMS: Who said that?

KENYA MOORE: Who said that?

SANDERS: So Who Said That is the simplest game. I share three quotes from the week of news. You've got to guess who said that. I might give you a clue. I might just give you a point. The winner gets nothing. Everyone can feel good about this game, I promise.

Right, Tony?

ROMM: Yeah. I mean, although every time I do it, my friends listen, and they're like, do you live in a cave? What is wrong with you, you dumpster fire?

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: All right. Let's go. You ready for the first quote? There's no buzzers, so just yell out your answer whenever you have an answer.

ROMM: Let's do it.

SANDERS: All right. Here's the first quote - "this year is going to be different. It will not be like the past, where there's one big, giant show. We do not want a lot of people out watching. The idea is very brief bursts - brief but mighty."

ROMM: Is that me going to the gym?

(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZER)

SANDERS: (Laughter) This guy.

DWOSKIN: That was good (laughter).

ROMM: I actually don't know.

SANDERS: This is from a local official talking about something that usually just happens on the fourth, but it's been happening...

DWOSKIN: Fireworks.

ROMM: Oh, the fireworks.

SANDERS: Yes. Which local official?

ROMM: Oh, which local official. Is it the mayor?

DWOSKIN: Oakland, Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZER)

SANDERS: It's a mayor. Which city has had it worse - the worst?

DWOSKIN: Not Oakland and Boston? I live in Oakland. I hear them all night.

ROMM: Like, literally, it's all night outside my apartment. I'm sort of surprised it's not D.C.

SANDERS: What city would always say that it has everything the worst 'cause that's their thing?

DWOSKIN: New York.

SANDERS: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Who is the mayor of New York?

ROMM: We've already said.

SANDERS: Now say the name of the mayor.

ROMM: Bill de Blasio.

(SOUNDBITE OF VICTORY TUNE)

SANDERS: There we go. There we go. We got there. Congratulations, Tony. So that was New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announcing this week that in spite of cities like New York and others being overwhelmed by nighttime fireworks the last few weeks, the city will still have a Fourth of July fireworks celebration with help from Macy's. Why are they still doing this? We've seen reports across the country for a few weeks now of an uptick in illegal fireworks being set off in major cities all across the country. Some folks have gone so far as to suggest that, like, the government or the authorities are involved. Everyone seems to hate it. And in spite of that national mood, Bill de Blasio, per usual, doesn't read the room and says, no, we're still going to have more fireworks sponsored by the city on the Fourth of July.

Anyhoo, with a lot of help, Tony, you got that point.

DWOSKIN: I let him win.

ROMM: (Laughter).

SANDERS: This next quote is a movie quote.

ROMM: Oh, God.

SANDERS: And I'm giving you this movie quote because, surprisingly, last weekend, this old movie was No. 1 at the U.S. box office. Here's a quote. Name the film - "your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn't stop to think if they should." Oh, come on.

ROMM: I haven't been to a movie theater in, like, years. I don't even know (laughter).

SANDERS: This is one of the better Spielberg films.

DWOSKIN: I...

ROMM: (Laughter).

SANDERS: It's a movie with - y'all really need help. OK. It's a movie with dinosaurs.

DWOSKIN: "Jurassic Park"?

(SOUNDBITE OF VICTORY TUNE)

SANDERS: Yes. Yeah, "Jurassic Park," strangely enough, was the No. 1 film at the box office this past weekend.

ROMM: Why?

DWOSKIN: I thought it was going to be something pandemic-related.

SANDERS: No, because the only theaters that can really function right now are drive-in theaters.

ROMM: Oh.

SANDERS: And they specialize in showing older, classic titles.

DWOSKIN: That's a good one. That's interesting.

SANDERS: Right? So last weekend, "Jurassic Park" made a little over half a million dollars at the U.S. box office.

ROMM: OK. I have to admit I've never seen a "Jurassic Park" movie.

DWOSKIN: Well, Tony, you're talking about things to do during the pandemic. Now is the time.

SANDERS: Now is the time.

ROMM: Yeah, there we go.

SANDERS: Last quote. The quote is from a famous rapper who had his heyday many, many years ago but manages to still pop up in the news every year, so it seems. This is for an ad he did for Papa Cristo's Greek Grill in Los Angeles. The quote is, "you can't even pronounce the food it's so g**damn good."

DWOSKIN: Snoop?

(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZER)

SANDERS: What rapper who peaked when we were in high school still manages to pop up in weird business schemes all the time?

DWOSKIN: OK. I feel like Ja Rule, but, like...

(SOUNDBITE OF VICTORY TUNE)

SANDERS: Yes, you got it.

ROMM: It is?

SANDERS: It's Ja Rule. It is Ja Rule. So there is this lovely commercial out this week featuring Ja Rule...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JA RULE: Papa Cristo pitas.

SANDERS: ...Plugging Papa Cristo's Greek Grill in Los Angeles. He mispronounces several Greek dishes...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JA RULE: Ock (ph) - oh, hold on. Oktapodakia - whatever. But it's good.

SANDERS: ...Before saying...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JA RULE: You can't even pronounce the food it's so ***damn good.

SANDERS: The ad is actually for a new TBS reality TV show called "Celebrity Show-Off."

ROMM: Oh, no.

SANDERS: On this show, celebrities compete to see who can make the best content to get YouTube views. And, of course, Ja Rule did this because Ja Rule. I will say, though, like, Ja Rule is my favorite kind of celebrity because he just has no shame. He is there to make money and use his fame to make money, and that's it.

DWOSKIN: Right.

SANDERS: Give us all the candor of Ja Rule.

ROMM: (Laughter) I'll also take the money of Ja Rule, although I don't really know how he's doing financially.

SANDERS: Well, he didn't have to pay anything out for that Fyre Festival debacle, so he always lands up. He has nine lives, it seems. Here's to you, Ja.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: On that note, congratulations to you both for playing the game and for being good sports and for teaching me a lot about tech this week. Lizza Dwoskin, Tony Romm, two tech reporters for The Washington Post, I'm so glad y'all both were here this weekend. Let's do it again soon.

DWOSKIN: Yeah, this was fun. Thanks.

ROMM: See you, Sam.

SANDERS: All right, listeners, this might be the last week I ask you this for a while, but I'm going to ask you again. We're pushing the show hard this month, and we need you to help us out and do a little bit of work. If you go over to Apple Podcasts, rate or review the show. I know. No one wants to do that. You know, you got other things to do. But when you do that, it helps other folks find this show, and I think that's nice. Hook us up. We'll be forever grateful. Thank you. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. We'll be right back.

We are back. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders, and we're talking this episode about Big Tech and social media and how platforms like Twitter and Facebook keep having an outsized influence on all of our lives, and they're kind of the epicenters of all the big conversations we're having right now in 2020.

My next guest has some experience with those two platforms and the way that her work can be understood and misunderstood, often through social media. Alexandra Petri is a columnist for The Washington Post. See? I told you - Washington Post takeover this episode. She writes satire for the Post, a genre with a long history. But in today's social media ecosystem, a lot of her jokes can sometimes be lost on people, even people in the White House.

Let's flash back right now to March 2017. Alexandra had just written a column titled "Trump's Budget Makes Perfect Sense And Will Fix America, And I Will Tell You Why."

ALEXANDRA PETRI: So I wrote it, and I thought, well, it's going to be pretty clear, given that, like, the second sentence is something about you punching people in the face with an eagle, that it should be - like, it's not the most subtle satire I've ever written.

SANDERS: But she woke up to an email telling her that the same column - again, a satire column - was on a list of real news articles that the White House recommended at an official, like, White House event - a list of articles they thought were actually praising the Trump White House budget.

PETRI: Usually, I'm consigned to being fake news. But for that one beautiful, blissful day, I got to be real news, which was very exciting and on a whole different plane.

SANDERS: This strange experience did not stop Alexandra from writing satire. In fact, she is out now with a new book of essays called "Nothing Is Wrong And Here Is Why." It's mostly a compilation of her columns, including that one.

This kind of, you know, makes the case for, like - I don't know - why your voice is important right now, because we live in a moment where we need to find ways to laugh about the absurdity of everything more than ever before. But we also live in this moment where you really can't tell what the joke is or isn't, which is I guess why it's good folks like you are out there to help us figure that out. I mean, what is it like to write satire in a political climate where you know that some folks will see it as truth?

PETRI: It's tough 'cause I know - there's this thing called Poe's law, where they say, like, any sufficiently sincere expression of your opinion on the Internet is indistinguishable from advanced satire and sort of vice versa. So you have to - like, the worst thing that ever happens to me when I write something is I get an email from somebody like, finally, somebody gets it. And I hate those. I'm like, no...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

PETRI: ...I didn't do it right 'cause I always try to make it so, like, if you read to the end of it, you'll - there's sort of a turn where I sort of pop out of it like, you know, the cuckoo in the clock and say, hey, like, here's what I'm trying to say here. I hope you notice. And then I pop back in, and, like, we keep going around and the figurines dance and the metaphor continues to overtake the sentence. But a lot of stuff gets swept under the rug as satire that's just people being like, well, if I state something that's untrue, I can get lots of clicks. And that's still continuing. And sometimes it's identified...

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

PETRI: ...As satire, and sometimes it's just, like, a dude with a computer - like, the proverbial guy in a basement doing his thing.

SANDERS: They have multiplied in the last few years, I tell you (laughter). I want you, if you're cool with it, to pick one of the shorter essays from the book, read it or read a snippet of it and then kind of talk through your process of making it and what you want people to take from it.

PETRI: Ooh. I'm open to suggestions on this 'cause I...

SANDERS: Can I have you read a bit of "Famous Quotes The Way A Woman Ought To Say Them In A Meeting" (ph)?

PETRI: Oh, yeah. In this one, I took the liberty of translating some famous sentences into the way a woman would have to say them during a meeting to avoid being perceived as angry, threatening or bitchy. And so you start with your thought, and then you say it as though you're offering a groveling apology for an unspecified error. (Reading) Give me liberty or give me death. Dave, if I could - if I could just - I just really feel like if we had liberty, it would be terrific, and the alternative would just be terrible (ph), you know? That's just how it strikes me. I don't know.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

PETRI: Or I have a dream today would become, (reading) I'm sorry. I just had this idea. It's probably crazy. But, look; just as long as we're throwing things out here, I had sort of an idea or vision about maybe the future.

Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. I'm sorry, Mikhail, if I could? I didn't mean to cut you off there. Can we agree that this wall maybe isn't quite doing what it should be doing? Just looking at everything everyone's been saying, it seems like we could consider removing it possibly. I don't know. What does the room feel?

SANDERS: I love it. So hearing you read this, it's hilarious, and it's also kind of sad 'cause it's true. And it's also a thing that you've touched on in your writing for many, many years now. When you hear yourself reading out loud a piece like that that you've written, knowing that it still might be true in a certain way five or 10 years from now, does it make you a little sad (laughter)?

PETRI: Every time one of these stays relevant, it does make me - it makes me sad. And I feel like one of the things that's both inspiring when you're a writer and depressing is you have this sort of sustaining, hopefully not all of the time delusion, but sometimes delusion that by writing about something, you've done something about it. And so you think, no, I wrote about this. Didn't we fix it?

SANDERS: It'll get better, yeah.

PETRI: Yeah. And it's sad you have to keep writing about the same things over and over again. And it's like, no, I'm out of jokes. Now we just have this unpleasant reality and I've reached my limit of humorous remarks to toss in its direction in the hope that one of them will really whack it on the jaw and knock it over.

SANDERS: When you're in those moments, how do you keep writing?

PETRI: I mean, sometimes you don't. Sometimes you just say, well, I'm going to go take a walk or, in this case, a turn around the room in these times.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

PETRI: I don't know. 'Cause I was - you think, well, I can't write any jokes about this, but I still have to say something about it. And so you wind up writing something that isn't humorous but is still like, hey, I didn't want to let this go by without remarking on it.

SANDERS: Yeah. A thing you have said before in interviews and written before really sticks with me. You said, quote, "every joke is sort of an argument where you're trying to connect a line to what people think is true from something that they may have not made up their mind about." Explain that.

PETRI: Humor is sort of - is based on, like, the recognition of things that are true. And it's like you're in this moment of making eye contact with somebody where you're thinking, hey, I see you in there. Like, I get it. And, often, there are things where people - like, they just don't think they can be swayed on. But sometimes you think, well, if I could just find a crack in this argument and sort of push my way in there, maybe then you'll recognize that this thing is sort of absurd.

Like, one of my favorite things to do is when you have somebody and they've got this worldview where - like, people were like, oh, crisis actors definitely came in after Sandy Hook and they were all crisis actors and, like, don't worry about it. I'm like, so, well, there had to be some sort of, like, audition process, then. Like, let's imagine what that would look like. And sort of try to find the part where you sort of stick your wedge in there and you pop - hopefully pop something open and they'll say, well, I can't actually imagine that audition process now that you mention it. Maybe I'm just trying to...

SANDERS: Yeah.

PETRI: ...Hide from myself the fact that something horrible happened.

SANDERS: Yeah, trying to complicate the narrative, I guess.

PETRI: Yeah, try to be like, well, here's what follows from that.

SANDERS: Yeah. A lot of folks hearing this conversation have heard you and I laugh for the last six minutes. You are a humor writer for people who are like, I don't want to laugh right now. Everything is bad. Make a 20-second elevator pitch, if not for your book, for laughter itself.

PETRI: Laughing doesn't necessarily mean you're not taking things seriously. It could also mean that you're a hyena, for instance.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

PETRI: And just laughter in general - I feel like, yeah, well, why deny yourself? It's like trying to argue on behalf of, you know, eating a good meal or, like, having the companionship of friends. It's like, well, if I can't explain to you...

SANDERS: Yeah.

PETRI: ...Why it's positive to have...

SANDERS: It's like, of course these are good things to do.

PETRI: ...The companionship of friends, maybe I'm pitching the wrong person. Maybe you really are a hyena.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Thanks again to Alexandra Petri. Her book is called "Nothing Is Wrong And Here Is Why." It's in stores right now.

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AUNT BETTY: Now it's time to end the show as we always do. Every week, listeners share the best thing that happened to them all week. We encourage folks to brag, and they do. Let's hear a few of those submissions.

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MICHELLE #1: Hi, Sam. This is Michelle (ph) in Oakland, Calif., and the best part of my week was my husband teaching me how to back into a parking spot in our brand-new car. It's a little embarrassing that I don't know how to do that at this point in my life, but he talked me through it. At no point did we yell or raise our voices at each other, so I think this whole coronavirus thing has been good. It's taught us how to be a little more patient with each other, which is a good thing 'cause we're about to be first-time parents.

MICHELLE #2: Hi, Sam. This is Michelle (ph) from Lititz, Pa., and the best part of my week was completing the Loyalsock Trail, which is in north central PA. It was a 5-day, 59.21-mile backpacking trip with my cousin.

JUSTINA: I became an aunt. My nephew was born a month and a half premature. And today, I got to hold him for the first time.

BEN: My name is Ben (ph), and I'm a teacher in the Twin Cities. And the best part of my week was that after months of electronic check-ins and pleading, we got to spend time with students and their families at a socially distanced graduation event today. I'm overflowing with gratitude for the 10 boys I've been honored to know throughout their high school careers and honored to be able to call students - Jesus (ph) and Diego (ph) and Chris (ph) and Brian (ph) and Ben (ph) and Alex (ph) and John (ph) and Edwin (ph) and Andy (ph) and Sergio (ph). I love them, and I'm so proud of what they've done. I'm overflowing.

DANI: Hey, Sam. This is Dani (ph). Two and a half months ago, I lost my boyfriend Jack (ph) to cancer. It's been a really hard year, but this week, I was finally able to acknowledge and seek help for my depression. I know it's early in this journey, but today I was able to eat well, go for a walk and listen to your podcast. That felt actually impossible seven days ago, so I think that's a pretty great first step. Thanks for being there. Bye.

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SANDERS: Thanks to all those listeners - Dani, Ben, Justina (ph), Michelle and Michelle - two Michelles. Listeners, you can be a part of this segment any week. Just record yourself sharing the best part of your week and email that file to me at samsanders@npr.org - samsanders@npr.org.

All right. This week, IT'S BEEN A MINUTE was produced by Jinae West, Anjuli Sastry and Andrea Gutierrez. Our fearless editor is Jordana Hochman. Our director of programming is Steve Nelson. Our big boss is NPR's senior VP of programming, Anya Grundmann. All right, listeners, till next time, thank you so much for listening. I'm Sam Sanders. We'll talk soon.

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