This post has been updated, 5:20 p.m., Sept. 4.
Updated to note that Remnick, after hearing the backlash, has reconsidered his decision and proposes to interview Bannon in a non-festival setting.
David Remnick, the top editor of the New Yorker, seems to have anticipated the backlash that would stem from inviting Stephen K. Bannon to the magazine’s prestigious fall festival. “I have every intention of asking him difficult questions and engaging in a serious and even combative conversation,” Remnick told the New York Times. “The audience itself, by its presence, puts a certain pressure on a conversation that an interview alone doesn’t do,” he added. “You can’t jump on and off the record.”
The message: Yes, liberal readers, we’re inviting a loathsome former White House aide to the New Yorker Festival, but only to beat him up.
Not good enough for many New Yorker faithful, including at least one staff member. Kathryn Schulz, a New Yorker writer who won a Pulitzer Prize for an astounding earthquake story on the Pacific Northwest, tweeted her disapproval thusly:
And many like-minded folks used Labor Day to do the work of protest:
There are many accurate characterizations of Bannon in the protest tweets. As Joshua Green wrote in his book “Devil’s Bargain,” Bannon was raised in Richmond and is a career opportunist with stops in the Navy, on Wall Street, in Hollywood, in publishing and in national politics. In his capacity as executive chairman of Breitbart, Bannon turned the website into a clickbaity Trump cheerleading team with a solid following from the far-right, including white nationalists. In August 2016, Bannon bolted from Breitbart and joined the Trump campaign, where he took the let-Trump-be-Trump doctrine to extremes. He also held faith throughout the “Access Hollywood” episode that Trump’s voters would stick with him. He was dead-on.
In transitioning from campaigning to governing, Bannon faltered. He advocated for Trump’s dreadful travel ban and other populist measures that Trump promised at his roaring rallies, but he didn’t last. After a half-year or so of infighting, Bannon bolted with a pledge to help Trump from the outside, as he re-assumed his old post at Breitbart. He failed at that as well: His strong advocacy of Roy Moore’s candidacy for a vacant Alabama Senate seat helped to produce a rare Democratic victory in that state, as Democrat Doug Jones prevailed in the polls.
Such a streak of embarrassments didn’t diminish Bannon’s appeal as an interviewee. Weeks after his exit from the White House, Charlie Rose — then with “60 Minutes,” now with himself — gave him ample air time to look back on the rise of Trump, not to mention to rail against the Republican establishment: “They do not want Donald Trump’s populist, economic, nationalist agenda to be implemented. It’s very obvious.”
Even back then, the interview felt weak. What did this washed-up blowhard have to offer, anyway? Hadn’t we heard enough of his rat-a-tat-tat political pronouncements about the media elite, the forgotten and the promise of Trumpian politics? Apparently not: Bannon gets quoted here and there on the issues of the day. Just last week, for instance, CNN asked for Bannon’s thoughts on Trump’s impromptu war on big tech. He said stuff like, “These are run by sociopaths. These people are complete narcissists. These people ought to be controlled, they ought to be regulated,” said the former White House adviser.
Anger toward the New Yorker fits with a more protracted pattern of disgust. There are many folks who feel that the media should boycott the White House press briefings on the rationale that the president’s reps lie too frequently. Some people want to see the cable networks disinvite Kellyanne Conway, who obfuscates and dissembles with an expertise that surely impresses her boss. And how about banning Trump from Twitter?
Why on earth give these people — and Bannon, and Sean Spicer, and Sebastian Gorka — a platform, goes the objection. For that matter, why did NBC News’s Megyn Kelly give Alex Jones of Infowars a platform? The answer is that journalists interview people on all sides of a topic, even when some of them are liars and worse.
Challenging them — rather than ignoring them — is what a guy like Remnick does. Watch the interview before deciding to end your New Yorker subscription.
UPDATE: In a prolonged statement, Remnick argues:
In 2016, Steve Bannon played a critical role in electing the current President of the United States. On Election Night I wrote a piece for our website that this event represented “a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism.” Unfortunately, this was, if anything, an understatement of what was to come.
Today, The New Yorker announced that, as part of our annual Festival, I would conduct an interview with Bannon. The reaction on social media was critical and a lot of the dismay and anger was directed at me and my decision to engage him. Some members of the staff, too, reached out to say that they objected to the invitation, particularly the forum of the festival.
The effort to interview Bannon at length began many months ago. I originally reached out to him to do a lengthy interview with “The New Yorker Radio Hour.” He knew that our politics could not be more at odds—he reads The New Yorker—but he said he would do it when he had a chance. It was only later that the idea arose of doing that interview in front of an audience.
The main argument for not engaging someone like Bannon is that we are giving him a platform and that he will use it, unfiltered, to propel further the “ideas” of white nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, and illiberalism. But to interview Bannon is not to endorse him. By conducting an interview with one of Trumpism’s leading creators and organizers, we are hardly pulling him out of obscurity. Ahead of the mid-term elections and with 2020 in sight, we’d be taking the opportunity to question someone who helped assemble Trumpism. Early this year, Michael Lewis interviewed Bannon, who made it plain how he viewed his work in the campaign. “We got elected on Drain the Swamp, Lock Her Up, Build a Wall,” Bannon said. “This was pure anger. Anger and fear is what gets people to the polls.” To hear this was valuable, as it revealed something about the nature of the speaker and the campaign he helped to lead.
The point of an interview, a rigorous interview, particularly in a case like this, is to put pressure on the views of the person being questioned.
There’s no illusion here. It’s obvious that no matter how tough the questioning, Bannon is not going to burst into tears and change his view of the world. He believes he is right and that his ideological opponents are mere “snowflakes.” The question is whether an interview has value in terms of fact, argument, or even exposure, whether it has value to a reader or an audience. Which is why Dick Cavett, in his time, chose to interview Lester Maddox and George Wallace. Or it’s why Oriana Fallaci, in “Interview with History,” a series of question-and-answer meetings with Henry Kissinger and Ayatollah Khomeini and others, contributed something to our understanding of those figures. Fallaci hardly changed the minds of her subjects, but she did add something to our understanding of who they were. This isn’t a First Amendment question; it’s a question of putting pressure on a set of arguments and prejudices that have influenced our politics and a President still in office.
Some on social media have said that there is no point in talking to Bannon because he is no longer in the White House. But Bannon has already exerted enormous impact on Trump; his rhetoric, ideas, and tactics are evident in much of what this President does and says and intends. We heard Bannon in the inaugural address, which announced this Presidency’s divisiveness, in the Muslim ban, and in Trump’s reaction to Charlottesville. What’s more, Bannon has not retired. His attempt to get Roy Moore elected in Alabama failed but he has gone on to help further the trend of illiberal, nationalist movements around the country and abroad.
There are many ways for a publication like ours to do its job: investigative reporting; pointed, well-argued opinion pieces; Profiles; reporting from all over the country and around the world; radio and video interviews; even live interviews. At the same time, many of our readers, including some colleagues, have said that the Festival is different, a different kind of forum. It’s also true that we pay an honorarium, that we pay for travel and lodging. (Which does not happen, of course, when we interview someone for an article or for the radio.) I don’t want well-meaning readers and staff members to think that I’ve ignored their concerns. I’ve thought this through and talked to colleagues—and I’ve re-considered. I’ve changed my mind. There is a better way to do this. Our writers have interviewed Steve Bannon for The New Yorker before, and if the opportunity presents itself I’ll interview him in a more traditionally journalistic setting as we first discussed, and not on stage.