We just received your latest piece at the Department of Corrections office and I understand you need my notes back right away. I would appreciate some advance notice in the future as your columns tend to require considerable effort to correct. Working through lunch here so you’ll forgive me if I write in some haste. Let’s just dive right in.
Now Twitter Edits The New Yorker
The venerable magazine hands the reins to the digital mob.
As a professional fact checker it’s part of my training to recognize both satire and attempts at satire, and I realize that this falls into the latter category. But I would advise you to exercise a bit more caution. If the implications of your satirical depiction fail to correspond to the facts of the matter, the result is less satire than it is self-parody. Does this really line up with the actual series of events regarding Steve Bannon’s cancelled appearance at the New Yorker “Festival of Ideas,” or is it just a personal bête noire?
A common complaint of liberal journalists about conservative politicians is that the latter lack for courage. As in: Paul Ryan knows that Donald Trump is a bigot and a danger, but the House speaker lacks the courage to stand up to the president. Or: Some congressional Republicans understand that the tax bill will increase the deficit, but they lack the courage to resist their donor base.
These statements are generally correct — good start!
Even conservatives who do the right thing can be criticized for insufficient courage. After Jeff Flake denounced Trump from the floor of the Senate and announced his retirement, The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson Sorkin faulted him for having “raised a call to arms — and then sounded the retreat.”
Can you clarify your objection to Amy Davidson Sorkin’s description? It seems to fit pretty literally.
I thought of that line on Monday while reading an excruciating statement from another New Yorker, editor David Remnick, explaining why he had extended, and then quickly rescinded, an invitation to former presidential adviser Stephen K. Bannon to be interviewed on a public stage.
“Today, The New Yorker announced that, as part of our annual festival, I would conduct an interview with Bannon,” Remnick wrote, in a manner reminiscent of a hostage letter. “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.”
I realize I’m not your editor, but this column makes it hard to distinguish between your treatment of facts and your writing style. I’d just like to suggest you think through the comparison here. In what sense does Remnick’s prose remind you of a hostage letter? It appears to describe an open discussion rather than a kidnapping. It does not include any reassurances that Remnick is being well-fed and still has all his toes. Nor does it include an endorsement of a hostile organization’s political program. It’s clear that this is intended as a withering aside, but it sheds no light on the quotation itself. It really only serves to show which side you’re on when you haven’t even begun to make your case.
What followed was a lengthy, and wholly persuasive, explanation of why Bannon was in fact worth inviting in the first place. True, Bannon was no longer in the White House, and his bid to get Roy Moore elected in Alabama had failed.
Is a sentence missing here? Was there supposed to be some evidence of why Bannon was worth inviting?
Nevertheless, Bannon remains among the most outspoken impresarios of nationalist, illiberal politics in an age when such politics are sweeping the globe. If high-profile interviews with a racist like George Wallace or a theocrat like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini were worth doing by a past generation of journalists, Remnick reasoned, why not one with Bannon?
This is an interesting comparison. Again, it’s not my business to decide whether it’s legitimate to invite racists or theocrats to appear at an “Ideas Festival.” But I’m not sure “outspoken” is quite enough to convince your reader.
I also feel a sense of obligation to warn you that you may run into some trouble if you open this door. In 2007, you wrote a column at the Wall Street Journal regarding Columbia University’s decision to host a speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. You used the same rhetorical tactic and came to the opposite conclusion. There you argued that it was not a merely neutral question of confronting a range of ideas, but of “how Columbia defines the set of ideas it believes are worth ‘confronting,’ whether its confidence in ‘dialogue and reason’ is well placed and, finally, whether confronting ideas is a sufficient condition for understanding the world.”
This would be a fair question to pose to you here, especially since your conclusion is that “to suggest that such an event amounts to a confrontation, or offers a perspective on reality, is a bit like suggesting that one ‘confronts’ a wild animal by staring at it through its cage at a zoo.”
Nor would the interview be an easy one for Bannon, Remnick insisted. This was not going to be a matter of rewarding Bannon with praise in front of a friendly audience (which, as I’ve written elsewhere, really would be disgraceful), but of subjecting him to potentially brutal scrutiny.
“I have every intention of asking him difficult questions and engaging in a serious and even combative conversation,” Remnick told The Times in an interview conducted before he withdrew the invitation. “The audience itself, by its presence, puts a certain pressure on a conversation that an interview alone doesn’t do. You can’t jump on and off the record.”
I hate to harp on this, but in your Wall Street Journal piece you directly contradict Remnick’s thesis about the audience. You specifically point to Europeans who tried to debate fascists in the early 20th century, and conclude that “the fact that their ideas were finer and better than Hitler’s will have done nothing to keep them and millions of their countrymen from harm, and nothing to get them out of its way.”
Do you have a response to your own argument? Completely understood if you’ve changed your mind, and would now be open to an “Ideas Festival” panel including Remnick and Bannon alongside Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but you would have to make the case for it.
But none of that mattered because — well, Twitter.
Following news of the invitation, other high-profile festival invitees, including producer Judd Apatow and actor Jim Carrey, tweeted that they would pull out if Bannon remained on the program. That helped start an online wave that crested with Remnick’s abrupt sounding of the retreat, based, he said, on not wanting “well-meaning readers and staff members to think that I’ve ignored their concerns.”
Now, I don’t use Twitter, but I’ve seen the effect it has on my teenage son. I hardly know what he’s talking about anymore — just this morning he said my shoes “look like a fam” and laughed to himself cryptically. Guys our age are bound to be skeptical of social media. But it strikes me as a causal fallacy to attribute this outcome to Twitter, or the “social media mob” you and your colleagues often invoke. What does “Twitter” represent here? Is it the users of the platform? Is it the platform itself? Either way, it is a little too vague to pass muster. It’s a little like if someone disagreed with your column, and instead of saying “I hate Bret Stephens” were to say “I hate newsprint.”
You bring up the actual chain of events yourself — Apatow and Carrey, as well as Patton Oswalt, John Mulaney and Jack Antonoff, were all booked speakers at the festival. They refused to attend when they heard that Steve Bannon would be present. It’s true that most of them announced this on Twitter, but how meaningful is that? Perhaps in the past they would have taken out an ad in the paper, or appeared on the evening news. You’re also leaving out a fact you mentioned above, in the quote from Remnick’s statement: members of the New Yorker staff also registered their objections. So the participants in the event and the staff of the company all gave input. Unless you’re arguing that Remnick should be entitled to rule the New Yorker under a sovereign state of exception, this seems like exactly the kind of exchange of ideas you appear to be defending.
That’s nice, and possibly sincere. But as a friend recently remarked with respect to another publication that quickly capitulated to online furies, what this really means is that Remnick is no longer the editor of The New Yorker. Twitter is. Social media doesn’t just get a voice. Now it wields a veto. What used to be thought of as adult supervision yields — as it already has in Congress and at universities — to the itch of the crowd.
Can you give a citation of how editing a magazine “used to be thought of as adult supervision”? This is another one of those attempted withering asides that is just going to cause distraction because it doesn’t make sense.
And not just the crowd. As Remnick acknowledged, members of his own staff also revolted at the invitation. One of his writers, Kathryn Schulz, took to Twitter to say she was “beyond appalled” and invited readers to write Remnick in order to add their voices to the pressure.
That’s an astonishing statement coming from any journalist who believes that the vocation should largely be about putting tough questions to influential people, particularly bad people. If speaking truth to power isn’t the ultimate task of publications such as The New Yorker, they’re on the road to their own left-wing version of “Fox & Friends.”
Let’s get a little more specific about how you’re interpreting Schulz’s remarks. It almost reads like you think she doesn’t have the right to publicly dispute one of her boss’s decisions, which couldn’t be what you mean, right? You’re also not really drawing a distinction between a journalist asking a question of someone with political power, and inviting someone to appear at a festival for a literary magazine — someone who you’ve conceded no longer holds political power, at that. So your objection appears to be that Schulz thinks Bannon in particular is not worth engaging with, like you said about Ahmadinejad. Can you be a little more clear about why journalists should apply this standard to one of them and not the other, and how it applies to a festival as well as to reporting?
Not long ago, a public challenge such as Schulz’s would have been a firing offense. But the gradual degradation of editorial authority is another depressing feature of our digital age, as supposedly neutral reporters use social media to opine freely, ferociously and very publicly about whatever they please, not least their own colleagues and employers. That the targets of these opinions are, like Remnick, themselves conventional liberals ought to be a warning to newsroom chiefs about the risks of employing progressive bullies.
Okay my mistake — you do think employees shouldn’t have the right to challenge their boss. So your piece is less about Twitter and more about your belief in the absolute authority of magazine editors. Is there a particular reason that Mr. Bennet should allow you to continue to “use social media to opine freely, ferociously and very publicly” and Schulz should be prohibited? Perhaps you consider yourself a commentator, and not a journalist? If so, maybe make that clear.
In the meantime, it’s worth considering what Remnick’s disinvitation has actually achieved. Here’s my list:
It has kept Bannon’s name prominently in the news, no doubt to his considerable delight. It has turned a nativist bigot into a victim of liberal censorship. It has lent credence to the belief that journalists are, as Bannon said of Remnick, “gutless.” It has corroborated the view that the news media is a collection of left-wing group thinkers who, if they aren’t quite peddling “fake news,” are mainly interested in advancing only their own truths. It has kept readers of The New Yorker locked in their usual echo chamber. It has strengthened the belief that vulnerable institutions can be hounded into submitting to the irascible (and unappeasable) demands of social media mobs. Above all, it has foreclosed an opportunity to submit Bannon to the kind of probing examination that Remnick had initially promised, and that is journalism at its best.
There are a number of claims here that are outside the realm of fact checking, and that’s fine — you’re certainly entitled to your opinions, and it’s fair to include them in an opinion column. But be careful you’re not making dubious factual claims in the process. For instance, you seem to have defined “censorship” as “not being invited to a festival,” which, to my knowledge, is not a matter John Stuart Mill or Thomas Paine addressed. I’d also like to suggest this thought experiment: if you were to replace “Bannon” with “Ahmadinejad,” would you still agree with your own words? Finally, wouldn’t it be fair to begin this litany by saying it’s the result of Remnick’s initial invitation, rather than his eventual disinvitation?
The next time we journalists demand “courage” of the politicians, let’s first take care to prove that we know what the word means, and to exhibit some courage ourselves.
My mistake again. You do consider yourself a journalist. I would rewrite this bearing one question in mind: am I meeting the standards I advocate for the profession?
Department of Corrections