What is different about interviewing Steve Bannon then say, Sarah Huckabee Sanders or Ivanka Trump? It’s a question that media outlets and platforms are grappling with in real time. The most recent example of this was The New Yorker’s recently reversed decision to have former Trump adviser Steve Bannon headline the magazine's annual festival in October.
The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, initially defended the invitation by saying that he had “every intention of asking [Bannon] difficult questions and engaging in a serious and even combative conversation.” But that’s not enough anymore.
For a long time, the media was allegedly tasked with showing “both sides” of issues. This meant that if you interviewed a conservative politician about something, you were also supposed to interview a liberal one as well. Unfortunately, this often well-meaning attempt at evenhandedness has increasingly resulted in false equivalency. Because not all opinions are created equal. And not everyone deserves a platform.
Steve Bannon equates visibility with credibility and, like the president of the United States, prioritizes rhetorical bombast and confrontation over substance.
The reality in this case is that Steve Bannon equates visibility with credibility and, like the president of the United States, prioritizes rhetorical bombast and confrontation over substance. Importantly, Bannon is no longer a member of the administration and can offer little insight into the workings of the White House, or for that matter the president. What he can do, however, is make himself seem more important than he actually is and then use that perception to accrue wealth and power.
From Bannon’s vantage point he can, on one hand, openly rail against the “fake news” media and on the other, use them to maintain his exposure. His ultimate goal is to capitalize on the credibility media outlets like the New Yorker can provide him and use it as currency to increase his influence. More importantly, such currency helps him gain access to the capital he needs to fund his projects.
The backlash to the New Yorker’s initial announcement clearly put pressure on the magazine.
Kathryn Schulz, a staff writer for the New Yorker, tweeted, “I love working for @NewYorker, but I’m beyond appalled by this.” Roxane Gay pulled an essay she was writing for the publication because she could not “wrap my mind around this Bannon thing.” Other festival participants like John Mulaney, Judd Apatow and Jim Carey threatened to boycott the event if Bannon were a part of the program.
By Monday night, Remnick released a statement announcing that he had “changed his mind” and would no longer feature Bannon at the festival.
I have never met Remnick and I have zero reasons to doubt his intentions or character. I am off the mindset that it is never too late to do the right thing. After all, I consulted for Breitbart and Bannon for more than two years before listening to my own conscience and undergoing my own political and ideological evolution. The fact that it took Remnick less than a day to respond and change course is admirable, especially in a time when so many are so unwilling to acknowledge mistakes.
But to be clear, Remnick and the New Yorker are not alone in the mainstream media’s continuing fascination with Bannon.
On June 1, CNN gave Fareed Zakaria prime-time special devoted entirely to a conversation with Bannon that was really nothing more than a one-hour infomercial showcasing Bannon’s desire to get back in Trump’s good graces.
On June 10, ABC’s “This Week” with Jonathan Karl interviewed Bannon in his first Sunday show interview ever where he proceeded to justify the separation of parents and children at the border by declaring undocumented immigrants “criminals” and boasting that he was “proud to be a deplorable.”
On August 16, Bannon gave Axios’ Mike Allen and Jonathan Swan the “exclusive” on the release of his new “film” called “Trump @ War.”
On August 18, Ari Melber interviewed Bannon in what was billed as his “first ever interview on MSNBC.” What we got was more of the same, with Bannon defending Trump and even declaring that Trump was “absolutely correct” when he said there was “blame on both sides” in Charlottesville.
In the interviews Bannon has given to ABC, CNN, MSNBC, etc. has he really shared anything of substance that is that different from what he has already said before?
Bannon is even scheduled to participate in a “Fireside Chat” with The Economists’ editor-in-chief Zanny Minton Beddoes at the magazine’s “Open Future Festival” on September 15th.
The rationale for providing Bannon with these types of national and prestigious forums was well argued by Remnick: “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…the point of an interview, a rigorous interview, particularly in a case like this, is to put pressure on the views of the person being questioned.”
But again, when it comes to Bannon, I don’t think it’s that simple. What Remnick and others in the media need to ask themselves is if they believe getting Bannon to regurgitate the same talking points he has been using since 2016 has tangible news value — and then they need to weight that news value against the fact that Bannon is going to his media appearances to enrich himself while normalizing abhorrent beliefs. Is the trade-off worth it? In the interviews Bannon has given to ABC, CNN, MSNBC, etc. has he really shared anything of substance that is that different from what he has already said before? Because if the goal is to interview a hardcore Trump voter they can find far more interesting supporters than a Beltway multi-millionaire.
Going forward, I hope every news producer, booker, anchor, reporter, editor and publisher asks themselves if Bannon really has anything else to offer other than the same tired, white nationalistic rhetoric that is dividing Americans and undermining American values. Because maybe it’s just me, but his toxic circus is becoming pretty boring.