Democracy, Populism, & Domestic Politics, Media & Journalism, The Global Cable The Corruption of Truth with Trudy Rubin

December 13, 2019
By Perry World House | The Global Cable

This week on The Global Cable, John Gans talks to Trudy Rubin, legendary foreign affairs columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer and one of our Visiting Fellows at Perry World House. She has spent her career reporting on the world's biggest stories, from the breakdown of the Soviet Union to the Iraq War.

Trudy shares her experiences with protestors on a recent reporting trip to Hong Kong; how the concept of truth is being corrupted; and what that means for democracy; and how she finds the facts in complex situations.

The Global Cable is taking a break over the holidays, and we'll see you next month!

Music & Produced by Tre Hester.

Listen now.


Trudy Rubin [00:00:09] The decline or even deaths of truth as a concept is terrifying to me, and I think about it all the time because I just do not believe that a democracy can survive if there is no accepted basis on which a majority of the public can receive information and trust.

John Gans [00:00:37] Welcome to The Global Cable, a podcast from Perry World House at the Universe Pennsylvania, where we discuss the world's most pressing issues with people who work and report on them.

[00:00:48] I'm John Gans, the Director of Communications and Research here at Perry World House. This week, I talked with Trudy Rubin, legendary foreign affairs columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and a visiting fellow this year at Perry World House. Trudy spent her career reporting on some of the biggest stories in history and interviewing some of the biggest names in world affairs. Today, Trudy talks to us about her remarkable career, her recent reporting trip to Hong Kong, and worries about the corruption of truth and what it means for the news business, democracy and the future of the world order. Trudy Rubin, welcome to The Global Cable.

[00:01:24] So I thought I would start off by saying you've had a decades-long career writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer and elsewhere. And I thought you have covered the world and I think we always try to say, and people tend to say that today is the most complicated time in the world ever. But I thought you could bring some real perspective, and I thought I would ask you what was the most interesting story you've covered in your career?

Trudy Rubin [00:01:48] Well, you know, it's gone in arcs. I covered the East European revolutions, I was in the Soviet Union for a year as an exchange journalist in 1990. Since then, I've spent a lot of time in places like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan.

[00:02:05] But when I look back to that year in the Soviet Union, when everything was breaking up. When there was the glimmer of free media, which existed for several years after that in Russia. It makes me think that I was at a seminal moment when hope really existed. When the East Europeans thought they were going to become like the West.

[00:02:31] And when people in Russia were trying to learn how to be Democrats, and what is so fascinating is to try to look back at why it all failed. And I think this is a moment when we have to look back at that, because the problems we're having here resonate all around the world where people have tried to come out of autocracies or dictatorships and established democracy. Same thing happened in Iraq, where in 2003, when I spent months there, people were so enthusiastic. I was in Tahrir Square; people were so excited. And we're really at a moment in history where we have to figure out what went wrong.

John Gans [00:03:18] That's right. So you were just on a trip to Hong Kong, China and Taiwan and trying to figure out what's gone wrong over there. What were your impressions before you visited, before you sort of took off and and what how were they challenged? How were your assumptions and sort of understanding about the situation in Hong Kong in particular? Challenged by being on the ground there and then what was confirmed?

Trudy Rubin [00:03:43] Well, going to China at this point is like, you know, going to the big text book for where history is turning towards for the next decades. I had been in China last year and in 2016 and had already sense the growing repression. And this year confirmed it overwhelmingly. It actually was quite startling to see on the ground, because it always has more reality when you're on the ground the way Xi is building a cult of personality, Xi Jinping. And that is a huge museum on Tiananmen Square, which was renovated for the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic which just took place in October. Half of the museum is dedicated to everything from the mid eighteen hundreds when China was occupied to the last president before Xi, and the other half of the museum is Xi Jinping. Xi Jinping, Xi Jinping and more Xi Jinping. You get the message. And the message also is, "we are going to move ahead of you in technology and economy.".

[00:05:00] And when you see the dynamism prodded by the state, prodded by money provided by the state, and of course, prodded by the stealing of technology. But China has moved beyond that. And that is what strikes you. They are moving forward. The U.S. could compete, but in many ways we're not even trying. China is moving ahead with 5G, with artificial intelligence. And we here do not have a focused government program to advance research and development to help universities. And we have a sort of war between Silicon Valley and the Pentagon. And in the middle of all this confusion, we have no 5G. China is just chugging along, and it hits you right between the eyes.

[00:05:55] In Hong Kong, what you see is a fight by 7.5 Million people, the bulk of them, not all, to keep their rudimentary democracy and rule of law, against 1.4 Billion who are told by their leaders that the Hong Kong democracy uprising is simply a bunch of criminally minded young people who want to destroy things, who are lawbreakers, and who are unhappy because they can't afford apartments. Rather than that, it is young people who know the law, who believe in the law, who can quote you from their basic law. And I could think of when I had 15 year olds talk to me in detail about rule of law, was how many people on the Penn campus could quote from the Constitution, because these are young people who really believe in democracy and it's like a last gasp in the Chinese empire. It was extremely moving to be there and hear it. And it made one think a lot about what's going on in the U.S. today.

John Gans [00:07:05] So I guess that's a good question just to tease out a little bit what you're talking about. This cult of personality that's being developed around Xi Jinping and around the broader Communist Party. How in terms of that communications message in that sort of cult of personality, what they're communicating, what they're selling, how is what is the reaction to it on the ground in Hong Kong? How are those kids reacting to this thing that is basically being forced upon them from what feels like abroad to them in some ways?

Trudy Rubin [00:07:41] Well, what the young people in Hong Kong are fighting against is having it forced upon them. Even though much of the media in Hong Kong is now pro-Beijing, and even though the South China Morning Post, which was the jewel of newspapers there, is much more cautious than it used to be because of a change of ownership. You can still get a lot of information about what's going on and the young people are fully informed. South China Morning Post has good coverage. You can see coverage on TV of the demonstrations as they're happening. The Internet is not blocked as it is in China. And you have to remember that Hong Kong is sort of a greater city area, a city with territory around it. So in that microcosm, people are very well-informed about what's going on.

[00:08:37] But what they also know is that Beijing is telling its own people, through heavily censored media and blockage of the Internet, that the Hong Kong uprising has nothing to do with anything but criminality, and that criminality must be crushed and that it is a black hand, meaning the United States, Britain, that are stirring this up and making it happen. So for the young people, their mind is not so much on Chinese repressing their own media as it is on preventing their city from becoming like China with closed off Internet and no access to information.

John Gans [00:09:24] So I think you've traveled the world for the Inquierer and been in a lot of situations where there's been protests and things along those lines. What's it like being a foreign correspondent in the middle of that in Hong Kong? You've given us a good overview of where young people are and even the older people in Hong Kong. So this is it seems to us from abroad like this is a place where facts that are so important to what's happening. These are people making decisions about the fate of the city. They are being debated, but also so divisive. How do you make connections? How do you get to know people on the ground? But then also, how do you look for the ground truth of what's going on?

Trudy Rubin [00:10:08] Well, it's very different obviously doing this in China than it is in Hong Kong. And it's very different being a full time correspondent in China than it is coming in for a couple of weeks. People who are based there have to deal with the visa issue; they have to reapply every year. When The New York Times does big expose, as they did on criminality amongst red princes, children of high communist officials and relatives. Then they have people whose visas aren't renewed. Or even in Hong Kong it started with a Financial Times reporter, a correspondent getting kicked out, which was unprecedented. So when I come in as a short timer, you know, Hong Kong is relatively easy.

[00:10:59] First of all, the pro-democracy people are eager to talk. I got the full Chinese government position when I was in Beijing. The foreign ministry is happy to lay it out for you. And I also talked, in Shanghai to think tank experts from their perspective on Taiwan, where I also went, and Hong Kong. So I knew the Chinese government position. It helps to have been doing this for a while. I have contacts from before, Joshua Wong who was the leader of the Umbrella Movement in 2014, I've known for some years. Martin Lee, who is I think is pushing 80, and he has been promoting rule of law in Hong Kong since the turn of her and helped write the basic law. So it helps to have known people from the past.

[00:11:54] But really one of the most moving things is to talk to the young people. And for that, you know, you find a student who knows his way, you go with him. You find your way, you make your way, you snake your way into one of these campuses. And that's the most exciting to actually talk to young people and hear what they have to say, and confirm what was already my impression was that these kids and many of them were high school kids. They are there because they understand that China wants to take away their rule of law and they appreciate what that means, which I think a lot of people in the United States and especially young people don't appreciate because they've lived all their life with it and they don't understand, although maybe some are starting to, what it would mean if officials no longer paid attention to rule of law.

John Gans [00:12:47] So here's a question. You're sort of having to explain this to Americans and those here in Philadelphia and beyond who read you, sort of what's going on on the ground. And so I think, you know, the Hong Kong story is a good example of this. How do you think people are doing covering this story and how do you think people are doing consuming this story? And how can journalists do a better job perhaps explaining complicated events like the Hong Kong protest?

Trudy Rubin [00:13:14] I think the Hong Kong protest is not hard to explain because, yes, there is a temptation to just describe it in black and white terms that kids are good in and the police are bad. And it is true that there is violence among young people, has been. But I think also if you parse that closely, you see that it's really a very small amount of people that have done just egregious violence.

[00:13:51] There has been a trashing of shops whose owners are pro-protest, although no looting, which is very interesting because the trashing has been a message. But the leaders of the Hong Kong movement are trying to turn that into a boycott rather than violence. So I think if you want to write about the Hong Kong issue, you can get to the sources and it's not so difficult. I think the more difficult part is getting an audience interested back in the United States. I was talking about rule of law. Of course, we're confronting rule of law issues here up the wazoo right now. And people are mesmerized by impeachment.

[00:14:36] So when I was writing about Hong Kong and on the besieged campus, yes, I got a fair amount of clicks. But when I came back and wrote a column about the laughter at Trump at NATO is not a laughing matter. I got 25,000 hits. So the interest here is not focused on what's going on in the world. And that's a little unnerving because the world is really cracking up in many ways as the US withdraws and it is going to rebound here. And I think, you know, many people are turned off on foreign news, but the foreign news is going to come back and hit them between the eyes.

John Gans [00:15:22] So you mentioned clicks just a second ago in terms of getting reads. And I think the state of the news business isn't really news at this point. You know, it's a struggling business and looking for a business model and looking for ways to sort of get people to both consume news, but also pay for it as well. So how related is the state of the news business in the United States and the sort of corrupting of truth and fact and and sort of a ground truth in the United States. Are those related problems? And to a degree, I think the corruption of the idea of truth is probably one of the defining issues of our times or something you've been dealing with over the course of your career in different places. But it's something that's happening here in the United States, but also happening in China and elsewhere. So how are those two dynamics sort of running, which is the sort of decline of the news business and the rise of fiction as a business model and business and what people are consuming.

Trudy Rubin [00:16:25] I'm lucky that I still get to write it twice a week column on international affairs, because I'm probably the only columnist outside of The New York Times and The Wash Post and maybe what's left of Time magazine that do that. The decline or even death of truth as a concept is terrifying to me and I think about it all the time because I just do not believe that a democracy can survive if there is no accepted basis on which a majority of the public can receive information and trust.

[00:17:09] I just wrote a column in which I said that for years I covered places like Egypt and Pakistan, where there is no trusted source of news, so people make up things so that they can have a framework for their world view. And often this in Pakistan, they are fed conspiracy theories by their intelligence service. So those go out over the state controlled media and they absorb them. So you can have a conspiracy theory. This wasn't just a rose or maybe it's fed by terrorist groups, that polio vaccine is a plot by the West to sterilize Muslim men. And now polio is coming back and back to Pakistan because people are killing vaccination workers.

[00:17:57] So you flash back to the United States. I wrote a column just last week in which I brought up this example and I talked about the conviction by so many people that the Russia investigation is a hoax. It doesn't matter who clarifies that Russia did it. It doesn't matter who states that the Ukraine theory of the missing server is a hoax. I will get an e-mail endorsing the missing server is truth and the Russian inquiry is a hoax. And it will come from educated people. So if there cannot continue to be fact based media and as you said, print media is in deep difficulty and digital, the magic formula has not been found to make it pay economically, except by a couple of outlets like The Times and The Post. And they are on a different scale than regional papers.

[00:19:02] I'm not sure what we do and I am not sure that young people even believe in truth because, you know, even on campuses, I'd love to take a poll here and see whether people believe you can get facts anywhere and where they think you can find them. And without that grounding, that to me is sacred ground democracy. And I don't have the answer as to how you refurbish a  belief in truth, in how you finance news outlets that can continue to seek truth as best as you can find it. There's no perfect truth. You report on something today, it may shift tomorrow, but you can pursue truth as best as it can be discovered. And I think the question of our times is how do you continue to do that? And. How would do you solidify an audience that understands how important that is and continues to pay for it?

John Gans [00:20:09] Well, almost 300 years ago, one of Penn's first trustees, Ben Franklin, who knew a thing or two about the journalism business, developed a questionnaire he used for conversations among fellow Philadelphians interested in current and global affairs. We've updated it for use today and anchor our Global Cable podcast. These are short questions, they can have short answers or long answers, depending what you're in the mood for. So I thought I would sort of lead off with who would you most like to meet today and interview, and why?

Trudy Rubin [00:20:39] There's a couple of people, and I'll try to be brief. I actually would like to meet Emmanuel Macron. And why is that? Because there are no more leaders left in Europe. The United States is going through what we know we are and leadership is absent. And Macron is the only one who seems to have the talent and the capacity. And yet he alienates his own public. And I would love to ask him why he has not figured out a way to relate to people at large, because I think he's a very important figure right now in Europe. And if he fails, there is an enormous vacuum. And not one leader that I could cite since Angela Merkel is on her way out, who could sort of stand up and lead Western democracies if they had a better personality and ability to show empathy.

[00:21:39] And the other person I'd like to meet right now, it was Barham Salih, who's the president of Iraq. He's Western educated, he lived in the US as an exile for years, he's a Kurd, he's super bright. And he understands that right now there's huge demonstrations in Iraq, which Americans aren't paying attention to. And these are by young people who don't want sectarian, religious based government. Most of them are Shiites. They don't want to be dominated by Iran and they don't want to be dominated by ayatollahs or religious clerics in Iraq. It's so moving. And is it going to end like Tahrir Square in Egypt ended? Barham's side is trying to put forward a formula to revamp the Iraq government from what we set up in 2003. I don't know if he has a snowball's chance in hell or maybe I do, but I would love to talk to him. I've known him for years, but I can't get through to him right now. I'd love to ask him, "Barham, do you see any chance and what can the Americans do to help you?"

John Gans [00:22:47] That's great. Well, have you recently read any books, articles, seen any documentaries or movies or listen any podcasts or music, related to world affairs or not, that the listeners might be interested in?

Trudy Rubin [00:23:02] Yeah, you know, for books, I would suggest something that sounds like it would be technical, but it isn't. It's an easy read. And everybody really needs to read it. It's a book by Kai-Fu Lee. He is Chinese, I don't know if he has American citizenship, but he's lived here for years. And it's AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order. It is a lucid and fascinating and easy to read book about why China is charging ahead of us in the key technological areas that will dominate the world in the coming decade. And I really think everyone needs to read it because they will understand why we need a policy in the White House that we don't have for a new Sputnik moment. Documentary, I'd suggest American Factory, which the Obamas were involved in. It's about a factory that's bought by Chinese in the middle of the country and middle of the U.S. and what happens. And I think it's a very telling look at what's happening right now and people need to be aware of.

John Gans [00:24:18] Do you know of any individuals in the United States or elsewhere who has recently done something that deserves praise or imitation, anybody that we haven't heard of that we should have?

Trudy Rubin [00:24:28] Well, I'm going to cite someone that we've all heard of, but it's so moving to me, as it has been to many other people that I have to do it. And that's Fiona Hill and Colonel Vindman and testifying in the impeachment hearings. Not only were they concise and brilliant and factual, but as many have pointed out, they are both immigrants. And Fiona Hill, so brilliantly said, even though she was British born, she was born to a poor coal mining family in the North. And as she said, she never could have achieved what she achieved in Britain if she hadn't come here. And as for Col. Vindmand, we know his story. Ukrainian. I've spent time in Ukraine, in Russia. His family got out and he and his twin brother made it in the military. And instead of being proud of them. To me, they should be on stamps or silver dollar. They have been defamed by critics on the far right. But they to me, are the people who are the individuals in the U.S. who deserve imitation right now.

John Gans [00:25:41] All right. So last question. Do you think there's anything in particular right now in which Penn and Penn students can be of service to the country and to the world?

Trudy Rubin [00:25:51] Yes, in a broad sense, I think it is imperative that students somehow be made aware of the bigger world outside of the campus. I don't know whether it should be through compulsory constitutional law course. Something that makes them think more broadly than some of the narrow issues which seem to be absorbing campuses now. I think democracy has to be discussed, and I often wonder whether young people are too cynical about democracy to defend it, not understanding or having had the chance to see, as I am, what it's like to live in a dictatorship or an authoritarian country, a totalitarian system.

[00:26:41] The other thing is that I would hope that young people would be encouraged to vote and to work in elections in the coming year, because I think that does give them a sense of the importance of the institution of voting. And somehow, I think young people have to be made more aware both of the risks that democracy will be lost in their lifetime, and the risk of the destruction of truth, which we've been discussing.

John Gans [00:27:13] Absolutely, that sounds good. Well, thank you so much for joining us on The Global Cable. Thanks so much for being here this year, Trudy Rubin, and thanks so much for all your work to find the truth in the United States and elsewhere.