'New Yorker' Editor Explains Why Steve Bannon Was Dropped From Festival

Sep 4, 2018
Originally published on September 4, 2018 1:25 pm

The New Yorker has disinvited Steve Bannon from the magazine's upcoming annual festival, after several high-profile celebrities balked at the idea of appearing alongside the man credited with many of the divisive strategies that propelled Donald Trump's presidential campaign.

Explaining the decision, New Yorker editor David Remnick said that "to interview Bannon is not to endorse him." But less than 12 hours after announcing Bannon as a headliner for the Oct. 5-7 festival, Remnick canceled his plan to interview 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," Remnick wrote Monday night.

Several participants who balked at Bannon's inclusion also said they hadn't known that he was part of the lineup until it was published on Labor Day. Comedian and actor John Mulaney withdrew, as did Jimmy Fallon, Patton Oswalt, Jim Carrey and director Judd Apatow.

"I genuinely support public intellectual debate, and have paid to see people speak with whom I strongly disagree," Mulaney said on Twitter. "But this isn't James Baldwin vs William F Buckley. This is PT Barnum level horse****. And it was announced on a weekend just before tix went on sale."

One of the most vocal critics was Apatow, whose Twitter feed also became a site for debate over the invitation to Bannon.

"I will not take part in an event that normalizes hate," Apatow said via Twitter, calling on the magazine to cancel Bannon's portion of the event. He added, "Maybe they should read their own reporting about his ideology."

Carrey simply wrote, "Bannon? And me? On the same program? Could never happen."

On Twitter, many praised the Hollywood figures and others — including New Yorker staffers — for rejecting the plan to include Bannon. But others said the reversal was a failure to encourage free speech. The importance of hearing the views of someone linked to America's current political moment should outweigh the revulsion some might have for those views, those critics said.

To that idea, Apatow said in a tweet that Bannon is allowed to speak "as much as he likes." He added, "I have the freedom to refuse to share a festival with him."

And when New Yorker staff writer Alexandra Schwartz tweeted, "I am hugely relieved that the event will not happen," economist and author Malcolm Gladwell replied, "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."

Steve Huff of Maxim retorted, "Hi Malcolm, we were exposed to this set of ideas in 1933 and they were in German. They aren't new or particularly well-hidden today."

It's likely that Bannon will treat the New Yorker decision as a victory, said columnist Nesrine Malik of The Guardian. "The moment he was invited he won, whatever the outcome," she said, noting that Bannon can now "add a point to his culture war scoreboard."

In his statement, Remnick said the point of an interview like the one planned with Bannon was "to put pressure" on the conservative strategist's views. He compared it to historic and revealing interviews of controversial figures ranging from Lester Maddox and George Wallace to Ayatollah Khomeini and Henry Kissinger — while acknowledging that even under rigorous questioning, "Bannon is not going to burst into tears and change his view of the world."

Bannon has been accused of embracing racism and encouraging white nationalism, and of using those ideas to galvanize political support behind far-right political candidates. The consultant and media figure hasn't shied away from such accusations.

"Let them call you racists. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor," Bannon told an enthusiastic crowd at a meeting of France's far-right National Front in March.

"The main argument for not engaging with 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," Remnick wrote. "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."

That notion had been echoed by Recode journalist Kara Swisher, who said she has considered interviewing Bannon about technology — and who applauded Remnick's goal of conducting the interview "in a fully on the record setting."

In the end, though, Remnick said the outcry led him to conclude there were better ways to engage with Bannon — who would have been paid an honorarium and other fees for taking part in the festival.

"I don't want well-meaning readers and staff members to think that I've ignored their concerns," Remnick said. "I've thought this through and talked to colleagues — and I've re-considered. I've changed my mind."

News of Bannon's role sparked "a day of thoughtful, open, angry conversations" among The New Yorker's staff, according to the magazine's Adam Davidson, who said that while he agreed with the decision to yank Bannon from the program, "it has been painful, even maddening, to see the personalized outrage at David."

Davidson said that Remnick "spent all day today on the phone with writers and staffers telling him he's wrong. He listened, he heard."

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