The Slatest

Why the New Yorker Didn’t See Its Steve Bannon Debacle Coming

Steve Bannon speaking into a microphone.
Steve Bannon speaks at a debate with Lanny Davis, former special counsel to Bill Clinton, at Zofin Palace on May 22 in Prague.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

On Monday morning, the New Yorker Festival announced the lineup for its annual weekend of live cultural events in October. The schedule included a conversation between former Trump strategist Steve Bannon and the magazine’s editor in chief, David Remnick. By midafternoon, high-profile festival participants including Jim Carrey, Judd Apatow, and Patton Oswalt had publicly pulled out, citing their objection to taking part in an event that “normalizes hate,” as Apatow put it. By dinnertime, Remnick issued a lengthy statement explaining that Bannon had been disinvited. Our short national nightmare was over.

The New York Times, whose story about Bannon’s appearance kicked off the outrage cycle, did not appear to view it as a major piece of news. The story quoted only Remnick and was essentially a warmed-over press release.

The reaction to Bannon’s appearance clearly took the magazine off guard, too. In his interview with the Times, Remnick portrayed the event’s structure as one that might elicit a purer grade of frankness from Bannon than a traditional magazine interview. “The audience itself, by its presence, puts a certain pressure on a conversation that an interview alone doesn’t do,” he told the paper. “You can’t jump on and off the record.”

Remnick wrote that he first reached out to Bannon months ago to sit for a lengthy interview for The New Yorker Radio Hour. (Bannon has been featured in the magazine itself numerous times.) Bannon agreed, but they apparently didn’t set a date, and later, Remnick added, the idea “arose” (how?) of doing the interview in front of a live audience. In his statement on Monday evening, Remnick made a robust and convincing argument for the general idea of interviewing Bannon. “The point of an interview, a rigorous interview,” he wrote, “is to put pressure on the views of the person being questioned.” A few years ago, that would have been too obvious to state. But one gets the feeling Remnick was addressing that part of his statement toward the alarming number of news consumers who view any airtime or page space as the gift of a “platform,” making little distinction between sunlight and free publicity.

But the event’s many vociferous critics sensed what Remnick apparently did not: Sitting onstage at a festival is different from sitting for a profile or a radio interview. Remnick, a sharp critic of the president, would surely not have treated the supposed architect of Trumpism gently. But in a way, it wouldn’t have mattered. Remnick would be sitting across from Bannon in a lushly appointed theater that would have conveyed all the institutional credibility of the New Yorker upon the man onstage. The questions might have been unsparing, even aggressive, but the packaging would be unavoidably friendly. It would be like running a tough piece of investigative reporting with a slobbering headline and a sexy photo.

Canceling Bannon’s event solved the immediate problem for the magazine: The rest of October’s events seem to be back on. (Though comedian Hasan Minhaj said Monday night that he will not participate despite the cancellation.) The deeper problem for the New Yorker and other publications (including Slate) is that live events are an increasingly important income stream for many of them. In an era of shrinking revenues from traditional journalism, ticket sales and sponsorships for festivals, conferences, panels, performances, and meet-and-greets are boosting profits for many a legacy brand. Of course, the risk of featuring only like-minded thinkers is that the events become boring. But if these events cloak their participants in the credibility of the host institution, then media brands will have to think hard about whether the same kind of people who belong in their pages belong on their stages.

Meanwhile, the man who has successfully fomented a particular brand of populist fury toward Wall Street and the press has plenty of time for them himself. Bannon sat for an onstage interview at CNBC’s “Delivering Alpha” conference in July, for example, and is still scheduled to appear at something called the “Open Future Festival,” hosted by the Economist, on Sept. 15. Neither of those events have made the kind of headlines the New Yorker debacle has generated.

Late on Monday evening, Bannon released his own statement to CNBC, in which he said he had responded to the New Yorker’s “seven weeks of continual requests” for the event “with no thought of an honorarium.” He did it, he wrote, because he wanted to face Remnick, “one of the most fearless journalists of his generation.” In rescinding the invitation, Remnick “showed he was gutless when confronted by the howling online mob.” The statement lays bare the fact that every step of Monday’s tempest was as good as foreordained: the backlash, the cancellation, the dueling statements, the reference to “the mob,” the think pieces. Bannon arguably got everything he needed out of the magazine just by being invited. The disinvitation may have been even sweeter.