The New Yorker announced today that on the program at its festival next month would be Steve Bannon, interviewed by editor David Remnick. Others scheduled to be at the festival started bailing out, and some of his staff were protesting publicly, so Remnick cut Bannon loose. Remnick said in a public statement:
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.
I think this is pretty awful. I’m not a big Steve Bannon fan, but I would love to watch Remnick grill him about populism, race, migration, and other hot-button issues. You don’t have to admire Bannon to recognize that he understands something about the world of 2018 that typically eludes The New Yorker crowd (which I guess includes me, as I have been a subscriber for a couple of decades). I’m not sure if Remnick had much choice but to back down if his festival was going to be boycotted, but this looks bad for the magazine. I suppose New Yorker festivalgoers only want to hear from people who agree with them, or who don’t seriously challenge their worldview.
UPDATE: An elegant burn from one of the magazine’s stars:
Huh. Call me old-fashioned. But I would have thought that the point of a festival of ideas was to expose the audience to ideas. If you only invite your friends over, it’s called a dinner party. https://t.co/VwkL4zOrbX
— Malcolm Gladwell (@Gladwell) September 4, 2018