Former White House counselor Steve Bannon is out at the New Yorker Festival after several high-profile speakers threatened to drop out following his headlining announcement.
The three-day event brings together cultural figures, writers, thinkers and activists in conversation with reporters from the New Yorker.
The New Yorker’s editor-in-chief David Remnick announced on Monday night that the festival had disinvited Bannon. After Bannon was initially announced, other participants, including Judd Apatow, Jim Carrey, Jimmy Fallon, Patton Oswalt, Jack Antonoff, and John Mulaney, all said on Twitter that they would not be at the festival with Bannon as a headliner.
I’m out. I genuinely support public intellectual debate, and have paid to see people speak with whom I strongly disagree. But this isn’t James Baldwin vs William F Buckley. This is PT Barnum level horseshit. And it was announced on a weekend just before tix went on sale. https://t.co/oYk1llNgvV
— John Mulaney (@mulaney) September 3, 2018
If Steve Bannon is at the New Yorker festival I am out. I will not take part in an event that normalizes hate. I hope the @NewYorker will do the right thing and cancel the Steve Bannon event. Maybe they should read their own reporting about his ideology.
— Judd Apatow (@JuddApatow) September 3, 2018
I’m out. https://t.co/JkIOGqCxaM
— jimmy fallon (@jimmyfallon) September 3, 2018
Bannon? And me? On the same program?
Could never happen.
— Jim Carrey (@JimCarrey) September 3, 2018
i’m no longer going to be speaking/performing at the new yorker festival as long as steve bannon is there
— jackantonoff (@jackantonoff) September 3, 2018
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) September 3, 2018
Bannon has repeatedly been public about his most odious views. He campaigned for Roy Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate who faced numerous accusations of pedophilia. He was considered the architect of Trump’s initial Muslim ban, encouraged the racist policies of France’s National Front party, and allowed hate to run rampant online when he headed Breitbart.
Staff at the New Yorker, including Pulitzer Prize winner Kathryn Schultz, and readers alike, were appalled at the decision when it was first announced.
— Kathryn Schulz (@kathrynschulz) September 3, 2018
Faced with so many defections from the festival, which is still a month off, Remnick ultimately decided to pull the plug on his talk with Bannon.
“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,” Remnick said in a statement released Monday.
Whether it was a business decision (tickets to certain New Yorker Festival events can run as much as $259), an ethical one, or a mixture of the two isn’t clear. At any rate, the pushback on Twitter—not just from Carrey and Fallon, but from New Yorker readers, political pundits, reporters, and others—was too loud to ignore.
Although the New Yorker has covered Bannon several times before, Remnick said that the festival setting would be different; the audience would be participating in the interview, and Bannon wouldn’t have the opportunity to go off the record.
The decision to give air time or a platform to any former Trump official, particularly one that has been such a hard-core proponent of white nationalism, is bound to stir up controversy.
When Sean Spicer appeared at the Emmy Awards, it was as though Hollywood forgot how he lied about nearly everything: from crowd size to Hitler using chemical weapons against his people. People posed for photos; James Corden planted a big fat kiss on him. And last month Spicer’s book hit number 13 on the New York Times bestseller list.
Does Bannon, who had a much stronger hand in Trump’s policies, deserve an audience in the same way?
It is appropriate for journalists to interview someone whose ideas people find despicable, especially if they’ve influenced the thinking of people in power and shaped the national conversation. But that isn’t what’s happening here.
Bannon got kicked out of the White House, and he’s lost his platform at Breitbart. Roy Moore lost in Alabama and Marine Le Pen in France. It’s worth taking a step back and asking, really, how influential and how powerful he still is?
True, Bannon’s ideas still trickle through the White House, and he’s fought to keep himself relevant throughout his career—one could argue that he’ll crop up again one way or another. But the New Yorker is certainly not obligated to speed up the process.
Then why does it try?
The media elite treat Bannon and his ilk with a certain intellectual curiosity. It’s on full display during White House press briefings—this quixotic belief that the right question or proof of harm will make Sarah Huckabee Sanders toss aside her notes and admit she’s been lying all along and she just can’t do it anymore. Did Remnick think that by asking Bannon “hard questions” he’d somehow get Bannon to change his mind, or catch him in a logical fallacy?
Although Bannon said he was looking forward to the conversation with Remnick, it likely wouldn’t have changed his worldview. And given the types of people who attend the New Yorker Festival, it likely wouldn’t change anyone’s ideas about Bannon.
There’s not a simple answer for how to treat the castoffs of the Trump administration. White nationalists are running for office at an increasing rate. Does interviewing their Svengali help media members learn how to better cover noxious politicians, or just normalize Bannon and his racist ideas?
Bannon may have changed the political dynamic in the country through his involvement with Breitbart, the Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica, and the hateful policies of which he was a primary architect that continue to affect people today. Sure, it makes sense to talk about Steve Bannon. But at this point, talking to Steve Bannon is not going to add anything new to the conversation.
We’ll never know what would have happened at The New Yorker Festival. But the conversation about Trump and the people in his orbit is going to go on for a long time.
Sean Spicer is still a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy Institute, Corey Lewandowski is still a Fox News talking head, and Anthony Scaramucci is going to be talking at Forbes’ Under 30 Summit in Boston this year.
And one day, Trump will be a former president. Should he be afforded the same statesman-like role that has been granted to every past president, no matter how egregious his behavior? Will Trump spend the rest of his life the way George W. Bush does now, painting dog portraits, forgotten for his sins and remembered for his service to America?
If the media fawning over Bannon is any indication, those sins will easily be forgotten.
Perhaps the blowback against Bannon is the right first step in a different kind of future—one in which we’re in a less forgiving mood.