“We Should Be Unrelenting”

New Yorker editor David Remnick on journalism in the era of Trump and the internet.

David Remnick attends The Hollywood Reporter 35 Most Powerful People In Media 2017 at The Pool on April 13, 2017 in New York City.
David Remnick on April 13 in New York City.

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for the Hollywood Reporter

On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke with David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker. This is the second part of that interview. (Read the first part here.) Remnick began editing the magazine in 1998; before then, he was a staff writer for the magazine and a Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post. His coverage of the fall of communism later became the book Lenin’s Tomb, which won the Pulitzer Prize. In addition to editing the magazine, Remnick, now 58, continues to write frequently on Russia, Israel, music, and Donald Trump. He also hosts the New Yorker Radio Hour. His most recent piece was a long profile of Hillary Clinton.

Below is an edited transcript of part of the show. In it, we discuss Colin Kaepernick’s protest and the problems in the NFL, whether the New Yorker will ever go web-only, and how much Trump has affected the magazine’s mission.

You can find links to every episode here, and the second half of the interview is also below, in audio form. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.

Isaac Chotiner: How do you think the magazine has changed since Trump came on the scene, if you think it has changed? I know I’ve read other interviews with you, and the thing you always say is that no matter what’s happening in the world, you want to be sure that there’s an article on knitting. Not knitting, but whatever.

David Remnick: Great idea.

I meant to pitch that to you.

Speed knitting.

Speed knitting—that’s just not on politics and so on, but it also seems to me that the magazine has changed. Someone very smart to me said they thought that the magazine had ditched a certain detachment that the New Yorker always prided itself on.

I wouldn’t have called Jonathan Shell’s writing on Watergate detached. Maybe more Olympian in tone than we hear in 2016 or 2017, but it was deeply engaged. Same on Vietnam and many other subjects in between.

This is the nature of the political moment we’re in. I do feel, particularly online, because you’re reacting on a daily basis, that we have to recognize that writing over and over again, every day, “Trump is terrible”—it doesn’t lose its efficacy or truth, necessarily, but it loses its effect.

Certainly not its truth.

Yeah, I’m aware of that, but I think the opposite reaction, which is to say, “We said this already. It’s boring. Let’s move onto oceanography or more detached topics”—I think that’s a sin. This is an emergency. I really believe that. It’s not the first emergency American politics has ever experienced. There are times we probably should have treated something more as an emergency, even in recent history, but this is a bona fide emergency in which a demagogue of only the worst skill and motives—a dishonest businessman, to say the least—is in power. To treat it as just another episode, as if Mitt Romney had edged out Barack Obama or something like that, would be a mistake.

On the other hand, I do think it’s important to keep your cool when it comes to investigative reporting. We’ve had a lot of that: Adam Davidson’s work on Trump’s consorting with money-launderers in his foreign businesses or Patrick Keefe’s recent piece on Carl Icahn and his shenanigans as an insider in the Trump administration also reaping business benefits from it. There, the pitch is different. There are different forms of writing and different forms of engagement with politics, and tone is going to differ.

Is there any aspect that you feel like you haven’t covered or that you haven’t done—

Enough? I don’t think anything is enough. To use the journalism word for it, the story is so protean. What does it not involve? His dismantling of—

Pee tapes in a Moscow hotel?

No. That was somebody else’s story. It just ranges from his own past, his business practices, which we still don’t know anything about because the sins are so protean. We’ve tried to get to a lot of places. I’m also aware that I’m not publishing into a vacuum. There are other publications that do a different kind of thing and have different equipment to go at it—the Washington Post, the New York Times most prominently these days. I think we should be unrelenting on this story.

You said a couple minutes ago that you wanted to avoid hyperventilating. I don’t think that’s the word—

No, I didn’t use that word, but I think just jumping up and down and saying, “This is awful. We feel terrible”—I think you also have to engage with why this happened, which is still something we need to grapple with because it has to do not just with the past but what the future is, whether it’s about the political parties involved or any number of other questions. To understand what has happened is the only way to also understand what’s needed to avoid further disaster.

Do you feel like some of the reporting has gone too far, or it’s more just the opinion can be too hyper, but—

No, I’m just saying this is a thing that should be in an editor’s mind. I’m not scolding us, and I’m not saying I’m sorry I published X, Y, or Z—not for one minute. Look, the little writing I do do began on election night. I’ll tell you a story. Like most publications—and I would guess Slate is one of them—we expected Hillary Clinton to win. Obviously it takes place on a Tuesday, the website had a whole bunch of pieces ready to go that you would press “post” as soon as the Associated Press or whatever declared her victor.

My contribution was to write a piece about the first woman president, and it was historical in nature and it was about Seneca Falls. I still have this piece somewhere on my desktop. I went to an election night party where people watch TV and schmooze and eat and feel self-important because they absolutely know what’s going to happen. I happen to bring my laptop with me, which is a rarity. I, unlike a lot of people, don’t schlep a laptop around all the time.

Is that a shot at me for bringing the laptop?

Not at all. Not at all. At around, I don’t know, Isaac, I can’t quite remember the time, but obviously—

Nine Eastern?

Something like that. It was going south. I went into the kitchen area at this friend of mine’s house and started tapping away and wrote this pretty angry piece called “An American Tragedy” about what was taking place. It was done before I finished this thing in a kind of—not in a haze but in a kind of sprint. It was done hours before they really even called the election. Then, we pressed send. Every day should not be that kind of piece, but in the moment and for many moments thereafter, I think it was perfectly legitimate.

One critique of the media that we’ve heard is that we’re in a bubble. You talked about diversity of one sort at the magazine. I don’t think anyone voted for Trump. I’ve never read a pro-Trump piece. I think the same is true at Slate—we actually publish a list of who we vote for. I don’t think anybody on staff voted for Trump.

I happen to know it’s tiny in number but not a unanimous thing here.

OK. Adam Gopnik. I got it.

[Laughs.] But you’re right.

It doesn’t bother me that I work for a publication where nobody voted for Donald Trump, but do you sometimes think you should have a conservative columnist?

It’s a different form. This is a discussion that I have. I’m probably more pro- this than some. We have certainly written about Trump voters. The automatic, “We never sent anybody in the middle of the country to write this”—this is, in our case, not true.

Do you mean a David Frum–type figure, like at the Atlantic?

David Frum is an anti-Trump figure.

This is the point I’m trying to make. I went on TV in the transition period not long after the election. It was on Fareed Zakaria’s show. I expected the usual kind of panel where there’s going to be left, right, center. There was a Clinton person: Neera Tanden was there. There was Dan Senor, who’s kind of a Romney Republican. I thought, “Where’s the pro-Trump person?” I said this to Fareed before we went on the air. He said, “The bookers have tried like crazy. There is no pro-Trump intelligentsia. There’s talking heads. There are people who are on CNN 24 hours a day putting forward that point of view, but in terms of people who were not in the campaign, it’s a much harder go.” I said, “So, who’s the pro-Trump person?” He said, “Wait.” On the screen comes up Conrad Black.

Oh no. From his prison cell?

He’s no longer in prison, but he’s not in this country. If he comes back in this country, he’s in legal trouble again. It was being broadcast from Canada. I’ll never forget it: He starts going on and on about how people like me are just insane to think that race or misogyny played any role in this. I can’t repeat his aria, but it was in that vein that we were just being terribly unfair and Trump is so wonderful. I said, “I feel like I’m hallucinating listening to you.” But that’s not to say that there aren’t millions of people who voted for Trump and continue to support him. Again, part of the problem is this reflexivity of partisanship: I’m a Republican. I’m a Democrat. That carves up a lot of the country.

Then ideologically should there be more diversity at places like Slate and the New Yorker?

I don’t think there’s any lacking of ideological diversity overall. In other words, if you’re going on social media or have the good sense to read not just a so-called liberal newspaper but also a more conservative one, then you can achieve that pretty easily. I do that. I read lots of conservatives. Have we achieved it at the New Yorker or should we achieve it at the New Yorker is a kind of question we’re debating. We certainly report about it and try to be very, very fair about it.

That said, do I individually live in a bubble? Yeah. I live in Manhattan. I’m in this building. On the other hand, I have a complex family. I don’t live entirely in a bubble.

Rolling Stone is undergoing some changes. Graydon Carter, who is at Vanity Fair, a fellow Condé Nast magazine, is stepping down. What do you see as the role of the editor in chief of a magazine in 2017, and how is it different from 1998, when you took over the New Yorker?

I think some of that is a personal decision: how you chose to organize your magazine website title, call it what you will. My feeling is that although my job in many ways has to do with yes and no, let’s do this but not that, let’s hire this one, not that. To do that in isolation or in some self-regard as a kind of editorial super person is a delusion, especially with something that is publishing 15 things a day and then a big magazine with long, long pieces every week, to say nothing of the other activities that we have going. I don’t know a quarter as much about, say, science as Henry Finder and Daniel Zalewski. I don’t know nearly as much about show business or architecture or music as name this writer or that editor.

Yes, I have this position, and it’s not a constitutional democracy, but it is a team. A lot of people—editors and also writers—are empowered to affect what we do by winning the day, winning the argument, being convincing. The only true figure that probably was like this is Bob Silvers at the New York Review of Books. For many, many years, the majority of his career, he was sharing it with Barbara Epstein, a figure who I think is a little overlooked in the recent, legitimate celebration of Bob’s life after he died some months ago.

I just read a biography that’s going to be published in a while of Jann Wenner. Jann Wenner clearly had a great idea in the beginning to make rock ’n’ roll counterculture the culture and cover it that way, but if I’m reading that biography right, he’s not putting out the magazine every week. Sometimes, when he did, it wasn’t always to the best result.

What about the public face of a magazine in 2017 versus 1998?

It’s different. I think it be naïve or lying to yourself if you thought you could just assume everybody would beat a path to your door, particularly new readers. [Former New Yorker editor] William Shawn probably didn’t go on the Today show, and God bless him. He didn’t even have a table of contents. For many years—decades—the New Yorker had either no table of contents or this tiny little box that just named the departments, theater, whatever it was.

Asked about this, Shawn very wryly said, “It’s none of their business.” In other words, he wanted the reader to have the leisurely experience of leafing through the gazillion ads that the postwar industrial boom and consumerist boom provided. The New Yorker was, by the way, in addition to its editorial virtues, a brilliant business idea, especially coming out of the war. It appealed to a certain fairly affluent person who not only wanted to read about what was in the magazine but was very happy to see the ads for travel agents that were going to wherever and Teacher’s scotch and all these things. It’s a different world.

People don’t put up with that anymore, though.

The ads?

They don’t put up with not having a table of contents and flipping though every—

No, they don’t. I think you can make it over. For me, I think there are limits. I don’t think you need to hold the reader’s hand at every moment and point and scream and explain all the time. I don’t think that the lead of a piece has to tell you everything in the first paragraph. I don’t think you necessarily need pull quotes so that I’m giving you all the best little bits so that you read the whole thing, but yes, I think you do have to struggle for your space more than you did in 1961.

What percentage of your job is editorial, and what percent is the New Yorker as a brand, business meetings? How would you divide that up?

There’s a deputy editor named Pamela McCarthy who is concentrated on questions of editorial business almost all the time, and she’s a very good editorial brain as such for the magazine and website and all the rest, but her head for business is really way better than mine.*

My job in this moment of history is to get the New Yorker from a pre-internet weekly print magazine that did that thing and did it well and knows what it’s doing. It could argue with this piece or that piece, but it set a certain standard, and to get it to the other side in which it has its soul intact and its integrity intact, so that it’s not just a banner on the cover that says the New Yorker and assumes the reader will think it’s just as good as it was at its very best in earlier days.

It’s, yes—to be a success economically, which is tough, but to also have an internet version of itself and a daily version of itself that’s worthy of the name journalistically, ethically, morally.

Can you envision a time where it’s not a print publication?

What I know now is that it’s a kind of aberration—certainly in the newspaper world, where I think it’s pretty obvious to see that the vast, vast majority of readers will read it on their phones or the rest. The vast majority of our readers still want it in print. Where that will go X years from now, I don’t know, but the trick is you have to pay attention and be where your reader wants you to be.

If I produce something beautiful in print, and they only want it in digital form, that’s a reality to grapple with, but that’s not a reality that exists now. But I’m not naïve about these questions. We’re thinking about them and discussing them all the time.

I think a magazine of the New Yorker kind is still in print a pretty good technology. The Sunday Times is not a great technology, certainly for young people. They look at it. It looks like a sprawling dead animal. It’s just stuff coming out of it, and it’s hard to handle. The reason it exists is because it’s still handling the display advertising. There’s no question about that.

Do you worry about the degree to which things are written for one company: Facebook?

I think it damn well better be a concern at Facebook. I think Facebook has to wake up, and it seems to be waking up to the fact that whether it likes it or not, whether it’s set out to be this or not, it is in some sense the most important media and even news company in the country, if not the world. With that comes a set of concerns and responsibility that it has to pay much closer attention to. Do we sit down and write something so that it’ll do well on Facebook? No. No one talks about that.

Andy Borowitz?

No. No. No. Look, shot received, Isaac, and not for the first time, but not everything is for everybody. Not everybody is reading fiction every week, but it plays an important role in the New Yorker and who we are. I don’t know what it is that everybody reads.

There are two reasons Andy does well. I think he’s really funny, and he came to the New Yorker with a social media presence that doesn’t hurt. I wish we all had it.

You don’t have a social media presence.

I look and I use it and I watch, but Twitter is not going to work for me because I look at people who have jobs like mine, and they do one of two things. They either become promotional, which is really boring: “We have a really great piece on this. We have a really great piece on that.” That’s a bore. Or one night at 1 o’clock in the morning, they get pissed and they say something absolutely ridiculous or stupid. They spend the next week cleaning up after themselves. [Slate Group chairman] Jacob Weisberg may be the only person on Twitter who has a job similar to mine who’s actually terrific at it and doesn’t seem to step in the mud.

This is my boss, so I have no comment on that.

You’ve written a lot about sports, and it seems like we’re at a pretty interesting moment in American professional sports.

I couldn’t agree more, and I have to say—

I didn’t even say anything yet.

I have thoughts about this. I’m not even waiting.

OK. Go for it.

As I get older and I have less time on this Earth, I diminish the amount of time I spend watching on sports in general, because I feel, “Really? I’m going to see another great catch in the outfield or a 30-foot jumper,” or whatever. But some sports have announced themselves as possibly untenable, the most prominent of which is professional football. I think the contrast between the way the NBA behaves in the world and the way the leadership of the NFL behaves in the world is really telling. The evidence that has accumulated about the harm of football is so overwhelming that I don’t see how it’s tenable. I wrote a book about boxing, but I really wrote a book about Muhammad Ali. I am not naïve about the effect on boxers, having interviewed more brain-damaged boxers than I care to count. I think pro football may be finished. It’s the most popular entertainment in this country.

What about the confluence of race and sports and politics that we’ve seen?

Look how much better the NBA handles it than professional football.

Do you think that’s because of Adam Silver versus Roger Goodell?

It’s part of it.

Or do you think it’s because of who the audience is for college and professional football?

I think a lot of African Americans watch football as well as basketball.

Sure, but—

I don’t think so. I think part of it is leadership. The NFL leadership behavior when it comes to concussions and the rest has, over time, has been reprehensible, inexcusable. The NBA is blessed with a game where, for the most part, the worst that’s going to happen to you is your knee’s going to get blown out. It’s not fun, but it’s not endemic to the game that you’re going to retire and have brain damage.

The charms and thrills of professional football have not been lost to me over time. I’ve watched my share of games. I don’t know how you solve this. I certainly don’t know how you excuse it. Just as boxing has become a marginal endeavor, that may happen to football. It’s hard to us to imagine because it’s such a central part of the American weekend and imagination and fall and all the rest. In the ’50s in this country, if you were a sports writer, the three prestige beats were baseball, boxing, and horse racing. No one wants to cover horse racing. Boxing barely gets covered, and baseball’s getting older. I think whoever’s in the leadership of the NBA is sitting pretty, both internationally and in terms of the way it comports itself.

How do you think [Colin] Kaepernick has comported of himself compared to—it must remind you of Ali in certain ways. Obviously, he’s a less skilled athlete but—

What complicates it for Kaepernick is the question of whether he’s in the top rank of quarterbacks. For better, for worse, that’s a vague line, but as a human being, I can do nothing but admire him. I think it’s incredibly lonely for a figure like that. It has been in sports before and self-isolating.

*Correction, Oct. 2, 2017: Due to a transcription error, a previous version of this sentence referred to “reign” rather than “brain.” (Return.)