New Yorker editor David Remnick justifies his about-face on Steve Bannon

David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, agreed to interview former Breitbart leader and Trump advisor Steve Bannon on stage at The New Yorker Festival. Then, on second thought, he decided not to. Changing your mind is hard; justifying it is even harder.

The challenge here is that Bannon is the self-acknowledged leader of the alt-right movement and the strategist (at least for a while) behind Trump’s arguably racist anti-immigrant policies. He is the prince of the demons that liberals see in the Trump White House. Inviting him was sure to create backlash, and it did: many other guests backed out, and The New Yorker’s own writers, with the notable exception of Malcolm Gladwell, criticized their boss. So Remnick thought better of it and dumped Bannon. This, of course, energized Bannon’s supporters; Bannon himself called Remnick “gutless.”

Analyzing the David Remnick statement on The New Yorker decision and reversal

I think Remnick made a mistake in inviting Bannon to speak, even if he planned to “expose” the bankruptcy of Bannon’s ideas on stage. But by uninviting him, Remnick managed to at best assuage a few of his early detractors and enrage everyone else. Let’s take a look at his letter to New Yorker staff after the incident and see how he justifies his actions. (Disclosure: I have met privately with Remnick in a strategy session when I was a Forrester analyst and respect him; I’m not close to him now.) Commentary here is mine.

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.

Commentary: It’s a fact, not in dispute, that Remnick and The New Yorker have been implacable opponents of Trump and Bannon since both became prominent in American politics.

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.

Commentary: The historical context for the relationship isn’t really relevant here, but Remnick wants to justify how he got here.

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.

Commentary: This lays out the issue clearly. On one side are those who say that some speakers are so offensive that merely allowing them to speak is harmful. On the other are those like Gladwell and Remnick, who think that challenging their ideas on stage is a better way to reveal what’s wrong with them. There is a line here somewhere: No one would suggest that bomber Timothy McVeigh deserves a platform, and most would agree that listening to conservative voices like George W. Bush, Paul Ryan, or Mitt Romney is worthwhile. But where is the line? Should the New Yorker invite Henry Kissinger to speak? What about Ted Cruz? Or Joe Arpaio?

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.

Commentary: I don’t think anyone thought the point of the interview was to change Bannon’s mind. We know it was to put pressure on Bannon’s worldview.

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.

Commentary: Yes, Bannon’s view is still relevant. I don’t think that’s the source of the objections.

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.

Commentary: No regrets, just “there is a better way to do this.”

What’s missing from the Remnick statement

When you make statement about a change, you owe the audience a clear exposition of the reasons for the change. Here are some obvious reasons that Remnick might have changed his mind:

  • He regretted allowing an alt-right leader to participate in his forum, and took responsibility for making an error. If this were actually true, Remnick would have apologized. He didn’t.
  • He bowed to pressure from social media and other participants and made the decision to save the festival and his respect as the leader of a liberal media organization. While Remnick cites the pressure, the closest he gets to acknowledging that it changed his mind is to say that he’s talked this through with colleagues before reversing himself.
  • He stepped into a huge pile of crap and was looking for a way out. In the absence of a clearer explanation, this seems the most plausible.

Having observed Remnick and his leadership at The New Yorker for two decades, I know he is a man of integrity, a great writer and editor, and an implacable voice for liberal thinking. After speaking to his colleagues, he probably realized that he’d made a mistake in offering to put Bannon on his stage. It would have been more honest to just say so.

In a situation like this, where you make an unpopular decision and then reverse it, you’re going to get criticism from both sides no matter what. Once you’ve accepted that, you may as well apologize for making a mistake. It’s better than saying you were pressured into changing your mind, which robs you of agency and leadership.

If you have a choice to make, make it proudly. There’s no escaping the consequences anyway.

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One Comment

  1. Last night Downunder, our ABC (a kind of cross between the BBC and your PBS) screened a 45-minute-long interview with Bannon on its prestigious political magazine programme Four Corners.

    Bizarrely, this is been criticised as an example of the ABC’s left-wing bias, right-wing critics alleging that putting a repellent individual of Bannon’s obvious monstrosity up as a spokesman for populist politics is just a ruse to discredit the Right.

    As you said, you can’t win…