In both cases, however, the reason for the Bannon backlash is pretty straightforward: Around the world, he is widely regarded as a populist ideologue with ties to white nationalists and neo-Nazis who propelled his brand of so-called alt-right politics into Washington—a feat Bannon is now trying to replicate in Europe. Within hours of The New Yorker’s announcement, a number of its high-profile participants warned that if Bannon was attending, they wouldn’t be. The director Judd Apatow said in a tweet that he would “not take part in an event that normalizes hate.” Other attendees including Jimmy Fallon, Jim Carrey, Patton Oswalt, and Bo Burnham followed. Around the same time, The Economist began facing its own threats of dropouts, including from the writer Laurie Penny and the activists Blair Imani and Ally Fogg.
Steve Bannon and Colin Kaepernick share little in common, but the backlash each faces is rooted in a common rage.
Remnick, in his statement for The New Yorker, insisted that Bannon’s invitation did not constitute an elevation or endorsement of his illiberal views, as many critics suggested, and that Bannon remains a newsworthy figure as an architect of Trumpism. “By conducting an interview with one of Trumpism’s leading creators and organizers, we are hardly pulling him out of obscurity,” Remnick wrote. He added: “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.” Minton Beddoes, in her statement for The Economist, offered a similar rationale. “The future of open societies will not be secured by like-minded people speaking to each other in an echo chamber, but by subjecting ideas and individuals from all sides to rigorous questioning and debate.”
The issue has surfaced before for media organizations on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, the political commentator Bill Maher stoked controversy for his decision to interview the former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos on his show. In Britain, the BBC Today program faced backlash for giving airtime to the former Breitbart London editor and Bannon ally Raheem Kassam.
And it’s surfaced for the case of Bannon himself. In Britain, the Financial Times hosted Bannon at its “Future of News” event last March, where he was interviewed by the newspaper’s editor, Lionel Barber. In a reflection defending the move, Barber wrote: “In my near-40 years in journalism, I have interviewed many people of questionable character … At no point have I applied a political litmus test to potential interviewees. It would never have occurred to me. But these are extraordinary times, when polarization has reached new heights and liberal democracy itself appears to be under siege.”
The New Yorker ultimately ended up in a different place, despite starting from similar principles. Remnick concluded his statement by noting that The New Yorker Festival was “a different kind of forum” than, say, an investigative piece or a profile, not least because speakers get an honorarium “which does not happen, of course, when we interview someone for an article or for the radio.”