Taibbi: David Remnick’s Steve Bannon Flop Was a Journalistic Embarrassment

The ‘New Yorker’ editor backed himself into a corner and inadvertently legitimized Bannon (and Trumpism) for years to come

If last week you didn’t know there was such a thing as a “New Yorker Festival,” you probably do now, after former Trump Svengali and alt-right Lenin Steve Bannon was booted from the lineup. New Yorker editor David Remnick announced the un-vitation to staff Monday, after a slew of celebrities pulled out of the event in protest of Bannon’s presence, including comedians Judd Apatow and Jim Carrey.

“I don’t want well-meaning readers and staff members to think that I’ve ignored their concerns,” Remnick wrote.

My first thought was, yay team! You just removed, from the interview stage, one of the few people in the country that a) knows some of Donald Trump’s darkest secrets, and b) might have an inclination to talk about them.

Remember Fire and Fury, the odd and controversial Michael Wolff book about the Trump White House? Below is from a scene in which Bannon, who at the time was feuding with Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, explodes in mirth at the news that Robert Mueller had brought in money-laundering expert Andrew Weismann to his team:

“You’ve got the LeBron James of money laundering investigations on you, Jarvanka. My asshole just got so tight!” 

Bannon quite literally slapped his sides… “You realize where this is going,” Bannon continued. “This is all about money laundering. It goes through Deutsche Bank and all the Kushner shit. The Kushner shit is greasy. They’re going to go right through that. They’re going to roll those two guys up and say play me or trade me…They’re sitting on a beach trying to stop a Category Five.”

Any sane journalist would give a right leg to follow up on that outburst. But the man who’s overseen eleven pages worth of tagged stories about the Mueller investigation just punted on the chance. Apparently, it’s more important to play party host to Hollywood stars than to follow through with an interview that reportedly took two months to arrange.

That Remnick really wanted a chance to engage Bannon seemed clear by the correspondence with the former Trump strategist that made its way into print with amusing alacrity after the disinvite. Remnick paid a high psychic price to get Bannon in his lineup, even abasing himself at one point with the salutation, “We would be honored to have you.”

Steve Bannon is a lot of things — a lot of disreputable and dangerous things — but an intellectual coward he is not. Don’t take that as praise: it’s actually a flaw. He’s not as smart as he thinks, but seems consistently over-anxious to show off his superior brainpower. This is exactly the kind of person you want onstage in an on-the-record setting, babbling extemporaneously.

And he was willing to do it. He was willing to walk into a hot box of sneering liberalism, be hissed at and take questions from people who consider themselves some of the fourth estate’s fiercest interrogators.

Maybe he agreed out of hubris, or maybe, despite his post-dismissal tilt back Trumpward (after vowing vengeance), he still has scores to settle with old White House cohorts. Maybe he mischievously figured the New Yorker festival was a good place to do it.

Instead of letting Bannon come and perhaps talk himself into a jam, Remnick just handed him an all-time talking point.

“The reason for my acceptance was simple: I would be facing one of the most fearless journalists of his generation,” Bannon told The New York Times. “In what I would call a defining moment, David Remnick showed he was gutless when confronted by the howling online mob.”

Now, for all time, Bannon gets to beat his chest about what a self-abnegating weenie David Remnick is, how he prostrated himself before Bannon in emails, before chickening out of an interview because, what, he was afraid of Judd Apatow not returning his calls?

This episode probably rankles journalists more than outsiders because it’s David Remnick. The New Yorker chief won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for his book Lenin’s Tomb and has cultivated an image as a “journalist’s journalist,” the rare editor who never left the trenches, pursuing “dangerous” editing even from one of the catbird seats of New York society. Whereas other ex-reporters like Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter cheerfully became flesh-pressing publishing moguls without pretending to be embarrassed about it.

The whole idea of a “New Yorker Festival” is an abomination that no working journalist could be involved in without puking. I had to have it explained to me twice. It’s basically a horrifically overpriced intellectual amusement park, where you get to pay $79 to watch Andy Borowitz genuflect before Adam Schiff, and another $79 to watch Jeffrey Toobin do the same with Sally Yates — probably talking all about Trump, of course, which is ironic, because for $79, you can attend a panel called “Trump, Inc.” that stars Felix Sater and Michael Avenatti talking about “the man and his money.” A lunch tour with Calvin Trillin costs you $249, while “making sense of the madness” with poor Chris Hayes is a bleacher seat at $59.

A bunch of people agreeing with each other, over food. As even New Yorker staffer Malcolm Gladwell noted, that’s not an ideas festival, it’s a dinner party.

It’s a naked money-suck and an admirably transparent effort to turn Manhattanite Trump anxiety into lots of cash. In this context, the recruitment of the hated Bannon as one of these overpriced bearded-lady booths feels a lot less like journalism and a lot more like a particularly revolting new form of commerce.

That didn’t prevent the “dangerous” editor from insisting otherwise. Here’s Remnick’s letter to staff about his change of heart:

“The main argument for not engaging someone like Bannon is that we are giving him a platform and that he will use it, unfiltered, to propel further the ideas of white nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, and illiberalism.”

Fair enough. But Remnick went on:

“But to interview Bannon is not to endorse him,” he said, and then proceeded to make basically every argument any journalist would make about a real interview: they’re undertaken in search of important revelations, to put pressure on people, to learn things and for a million other legitimate reasons.

He noted the examples of Dick Cavett interviewing Lester Maddox and George Wallace, or Oriana Fallaci interviewing likely cellmates-in-hell Henry Kissinger and the Ayatollah Khomeni.

Remnick argued passionately that it’s important for reporters to engage subjects like Bannon, and hinted strongly that failing to do so would represent a significant departure from a storied practice long embraced by his own publication. The part of Remnick that is still a journalist probably even believes all this. Just, not enough to risk a bad meeting with Conde CEO Bob Sauerberg, or whatever else he’s worried about. After a couple of windy pages of protestations, Remnick curtly announced he’s wimping out and, uh, maybe we can do another interview with Bannon some other time?

When I first heard about his episode, I thought it was a pathetic example of a journalist caving to public pressure. I assumed his motive in inviting Bannon was the same dumb curiosity most reporters have. But in the context of the ludicrous festival, it was really just a crass attempt to monetize the Trump phenomenon, followed by Remnick chickening out and draping himself in the cloak of journalistic martyrdom when he got called on it.

For years now, thanks to people like CBS dolt Les Moonves bragging about his great ratings, the press has taken heat for how it’s dealt with the Trump phenomenon. The big crime was the billions in free coverage at the beginning of the campaign, when Trump otherwise would have been more or less boxed out, as is usually the case with politicians the press deems unsuited for office — pacifists and the like.

Despite the criticism, we never took the step of turning the cameras off. In fact, if anything, the media has covered Trump more since the Moonves outburst.

The networks gleefully sell both sides of this insanity, hoovering audiences with Trump-themed entertainment like Roseanne (soon to be The Conners) and Trump-themed magazine specials like the George Stephanopoulos interview of James Comey, the highest-rated ABC News telecast since the Caitlyn Jenner interview three years ago.

Try being a journalist these days and pitching any news story that doesn’t have a Trump angle. A school bus of massacred kids might, might, get a few minutes on CNN in between the endless outrage-a-thons we air every time our idiot president tweets anything at all.

In March, a leaked Pentagon document explained that the United States is now at war in seven countries. Can you name them? Most Americans would tap out before they got to the African conflicts. How many Americans can even identify where Niger is, much less explain why our military is responding “in self-defense” there?

But we all sure as hell know what Trump is tweeting about Colin Kaepernick or Bob Woodward, because we’re told about it every 10 seconds, in between the ads we obediently watch to help the Les Moonveses of the world buy more yachts.

Since covering Trump less has from the start been excluded as a solution, the press made other changes. The ingenious reform was “10 million hours of Trump” turning into “10 million hours of Trump … is bad!” It was basically the same thing, since we always thought the guy was a shithead, but in the face of public criticism, we leaned into the negativity a little for marketing purposes, and man, has it worked.

Remember how pissed everyone was at Moonves for bragging about the CBS ratings? Those same people tuned in to CBS to watch the Stormy Daniels interview in record numbers — 22 million of them, the most to watch 60 Minutes since the first presidential interview of the Obamas 10 years ago.

As a reporter, I absolutely want to interview Steve Bannon. I’ve got questions about a lot of the stuff in the Wolff book, and then also about how he conned reporters like me into thinking Trump was actually courting black voters in August and September of 2016, when what he was actually doing was baiting us into ridiculing the idea that Republican voters were interested in racial reconciliation.

Bannon understood that there was a big chunk of voters out there who would be more annoyed by East Coast press caricatures of them as racist hicks than they would be concerned about Trump’s actual racism. The plan worked, and Trump recovered in the polls during the widely panned tour.

I’d love to ask about that, to get some insight into how easy they thought it would be to use me and my colleagues. I might learn a painful lesson. But something tells me that kind of questioning wasn’t what Remnick had in mind.

The plan was probably for some cheesy J’accuse! –style setup in search of a few red meat sound bites, and both sides would have gotten some pub out of it, especially with all those celebs around to help pump up the wattage. It’d be a few more tons of Trump (is bad) vs. Trump (is not).

Does the world need more of that? No, probably not. Apatow and Carrey are right. It’s bad enough to live in the Trump era. Do we have to keep selling it?