MEMBERS ONLY: Steve Bannon And The Paradoxes Of Tolerance

Why Left-Leaning Media Rejects Conservatives

Since the election of Donald Trump, mainstream news publications have tried to include conservative voices in their lineups to rectify their perceived left-wing biases. If they got it so badly wrong in the 2016 election, surely it was because they were not listening to the ‘real America’ represented by Fox News and Breitbart?

The decisions to include what now constitutes ‘conservative’ (read: far right) voices on their publications have unfortunately, yielded disastrous results.

This winter, The New York Times hired tech reporter Quinn Norton to join their op-ed team, only to fire her shortly after it was revealed she had called people “fag” and bragged about being friends with Neo-Nazis on Twitter.  In the spring,  conservative columnist Kevin Williamson was hired by The Atlantic despite his history of racist and misogynist sentiments. At first, editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg defended him, but fired him shortly after realizing he wasn’t joking when he said he believed women should receive the death penalty for abortions.

Following the controversy, Goldberg said in an “Atlantic University” staff meeting:

“Why can’t a journalism institution that is diversifying…in terms of gender, ethnicity, race…also continue to develop in an ideologically diverse way? And maybe there’s some questions that are no longer on the table because of that, but there’s got to be a whole bunch of questions that we could still disagree about without touching the third rails of gender and abortion and race and all these other things…do have to become what a lot of the world wants us to be, which is a stay-in-you[r]-lane, center-left publication?

I bring all this up only to contextualize the furor that surrounded The New Yorker’s decision to invite alt-right maven and Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon to speak at their festival this October, a decision which reminds all journalists of an essential question: can an institution value ideological diversity while also drawing lines in the sand as to what they will not tolerate?

The New Yorker’s Recent History

The New Yorker has been responsible for some of the most important reporting of the Trump era, from Jane Mayer’s profile of Christopher Steele to Ronan Farrow’s #MeToo exposes. If you took a poll of the staff’s politics, they would almost certainly lean towards the left.

That said, The New Yorker has also had immense value in helping us understand the ethical and moral dilemmas of today’s conservatives. I encourage all reading this to check out Patrick Radden Keefe’s piece on former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster for a look into the mind of one of the Trump Administration’s most complex players. The magazine does not pander to conservative thought – you won’t see any “Trump voters still like Trump” puff pieces in their pages – but they do a great job at explaining the reasons why people would believe such ideas.

Ideological diversity already exists in the pages of The New Yorker, and if editor-in-chief David Remnick wanted it to exist within the context of his magazine’s festival, there are a number of conservatives he could have invited. For example, if he had announced a conversation with David Frum, no one would have objected, because while one might disagree with Frum on many things, he is aware of the rot at the heart of the conservative movement, and has insight as to whether it can ever move past the white nationalists holding it captive. Besides, Frum has already appeared on Remnick’s New Yorker podcast without objection. Instead, Remnick offered up white nationalist in chief Steve Bannon.

Within hours of the announcement, several of the festival’s guests – Jimmy Fallon, Patton Oswalt, John Mulaney, Judd Apatow, Bo Bunrham, Boots Riley, and Jim Carrey – dropped out, refusing to appear in a lineup that included the architect of the Alt-Right. Succumbing to the pressure, Remnick disinvited him, and it remains to be seen whether those who pulled out will return now that he’s gone. In a statement released last night, Remnick outlined his reasons for wanting to interview Bannon, which he did not mean as an endorsement, but rather, “the opportunity to question someone who helped assemble Trumpism.” He continued:

“It’s obvious that…Bannon is not going to…change his view of the world.  He believes he is right and that his ideological opponents are mere ‘snowflakes.’ The question is whether an interview has value in terms of fact, argument, or even exposure…it’s why Oriana Fallaci, in ‘Interview with History,’ a series of question-and-answer meetings with Henry Kissinger [among others], contributed something to our understanding of those figures. Fallaci hardly changed the minds of her subjects, but she did add something to our understanding of who they were.”

Inviting Bannon Offers No Positives

While Remnick is right that no interview could get Bannon to change his mind, he is wrong to suggest that interviewing him is the same as Fallaci’s famous interview with Henry Kissinger, a man so cloaked in secrecy that interview him is a noble attempt at learning more about his decisions. The same goes for Roots author Alex Haley’s famous interview with avowed Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell, which Haley, an African-American, risked his life to conduct (Rockwell had a gun on the table throughout the whole interview).

Fallaci and Haley knew that sunlight was the best disinfectant for these men, and in conducting these interviews, they allowed their subjects to expose themselves in ways that degraded their ideology.

Steve Bannon differs from these men in that he is all transparency. We already know who he is: a xenophobe, an anti-Semite, accused wife-beater, architect of Donald Trump’s victory, and supporter of the second-most despicable Republican behind the president, former Senate candidate Roy Moore. There is little to be gained from interviewing him in a public forum for a paid audience, especially a liberal New York City one. What is the purpose of talking to him if we aren’t going to learn anything we don’t already know?

Takeaway

This brings me back to the notion of ideological diversity in the media. A journalist friend of mine told me that we lost the election because we didn’t talk to the other side enough. While she may have a point, it has been lost amidst the overcompensation that left-leaning outlets have engaged in by giving Trump’s lackeys, and conservative hate-mongers, the opportunity to lie to their audience. Any time Steve Bannon gets invited to speak by a left-leaning outlet, whether it’s MSNBC or The New Yorker Festival, it’s the left’s way of saying, “See? We’re not all stuck-up coastal elites!” It toxifies the notion of ideological diversity because it presents all viewpoints as equal, when paradoxically, some viewpoints, and those who express them, must be shunned to the margins of society in order for tolerance to flourish.

If the Left recognizes and owns up to this paradox, it can avoid making mistakes like this in the future. Instead, The New Yorker’s fiasco allows us to see just how successful the Right’s smear campaign against “the liberal media” has been, in that it has sent them into a self-loathing tailspin in pursuit of an impractical ideal that demands we treat all viewpoints, no matter how heinous as equal.

Note: This article originally misidentified H.R. McMaster as Chief of Staff, not National Security Adviser. We have since corrected this error.

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