If you blinked, you might have missed the media flutter about the New Yorker magazine reversing its decision to invite Stephen Bannon, one-time Svengali to Donald Trump, to be interviewed at its festival. The reversal was caused because editor David Remnick received a lot of criticism and pressure, with other invited celebrities such as Judd Apatow and Jim Carrey saying they would not attend if Bannon was there. Of course, this has resulted in the usual right-wing whining about the ‘intolerant left’, that they are being ‘de-platformed’ and denied the chance to voice their views.
Remnick issued a lengthy statement explaining why he invited Bannon and then reversed course, which did not satisfy anyone, In it, Remnick defended the invitation by saying that Bannon was a newsworthy person and that it was necessary to engage with people of having different views. But it is clear that the event that Bannon was invited to was unlikely to result in a tough interview because it was not your standard interview setting, with the reporter and subject going one-one. The whole ‘festival’ is more like a party. Matt Taibbi explains that while interviewing Bannon could be a worthwhile exercise, this was not the place.
The whole idea of a “New Yorker Festival” is an abomination that no working journalist could be involved in without puking. I had to have it explained to me twice. It’s basically a horrifically overpriced intellectual amusement park, where you get to pay $79 to watch Andy Borowitz genuflect before Adam Schiff, and another $79 to watch Jeffrey Toobin do the same with Sally Yates — probably talking all about Trump, of course, which is ironic, because for $79, you can attend a panel called “Trump, Inc.” that stars Felix Sater and Michael Avenatti talking about “the man and his money.” A lunch tour with Calvin Trillin costs you $249, while “making sense of the madness” with poor Chris Hayes is a bleacher seat at $59.
A bunch of people agreeing with each other, over food. As even New Yorker staffer Malcolm Gladwell noted, that’s not an ideas festival, it’s a dinner party.
It’s a naked money-suck and an admirably transparent effort to turn Manhattanite Trump anxiety into lots of cash. In this context, the recruitment of the hated Bannon as one of these overpriced bearded-lady booths feels a lot less like journalism and a lot more like a particularly revolting new form of commerce.
As a reporter, I absolutely want to interview Steve Bannon. I’ve got questions about a lot of the stuff in the Wolff book, and then also about how he conned reporters like me into thinking Trump was actually courting black voters in August and September of 2016, when what he was actually doing was baiting us into ridiculing the idea that Republican voters were interested in racial reconciliation.
Bannon understood that there was a big chunk of voters out there who would be more annoyed by East Coast press caricatures of them as racist hicks than they would be concerned about Trump’s actual racism. The plan worked, and Trump recovered in the polls during the widely panned tour.
I’d love to ask about that, to get some insight into how easy they thought it would be to use me and my colleagues. I might learn a painful lesson. But something tells me that kind of questioning wasn’t what Remnick had in mind.
Natasha Lennard argues against Taibbi’s position, saying that interviewing Bannon and others like him in any setting is not worth it.
The New Yorker’s decision to invite Bannon in the first place — let alone giving him a headline position — was either a cynical bid for attention through controversy or an ignorant commitment to the idea that Bannon’s neo-fascism can be best challenged through debate. Either way, it was a disgrace worthy of the boycotts it earned.
Yet Remnick’s response made clear that his decision to disinvite Bannon was merely one of crisis management. His two-page statement revealed a rationale that runs through much of the liberal media when it comes to engaging with the far right.
THE IDEA OF Bannon receiving the honorarium and travel expenses of a festival speaker was no doubt galling. But the real problem lies in the continued insistence by journalists like Remnick that there is merit to discovering something about Bannon and men like him directly via the words from their own mouths. It’s not that there is nothing to be gained from a journalist speaking to someone like Bannon: Though he is no longer an administration official and remains in the public sphere only to promote racist populism around the world, he did once serve at the highest levels of government and might be privy to certain facts that can only be gleaned from being in the room.
Bannon’s ethnonationalism is not a mystery: His ideas have been well-aired through participation in countless interviews and debates, including a recent forum with the Financial Times
Bannon’s arguments and prejudices are immune to pressure. There is no internal flaw waiting to be discovered in his racist worldview because its core principle is racism. Bannon has acknowledged as much himself. “Let them call you racists. Let them call you xenophobes,” Bannon told members of the far-right French party, National Front, in March. “Let them call you nativist. Wear it as a badge of honor. Because every day, we get stronger and they get weaker.”
Those compelled by Bannon and company’s hateful worldview were not led to it by reasoned argument; pressure on the demagogue’s rationale won’t dissuade potential supporters.
In my mind, these interviews with fascistic celebrities neither dissuade people from joining white supremacists nor does the far right gain much recruiting leverage from the pages of places like the New Yorker. Instead, these pieces serve as a reassuring pantomime for liberals — the presumed New Yorker readership. The Trumpian baddies, according to this fanciful reading, are revealed and then eviscerated. If this is what Remnick meant by “value to a reader,” he made a depressing point.
I have written before about the almost daily charade that we see of right-wingers being invited on supposedly liberal programs and then being ‘obliterated’, ‘eviscerated’, ‘destroyed’, and similar descriptions. And yet, there they are the following day, popping up again like whack-a-moles, saying the same things as before. I have actually stopped reading stories with such headlines.