Early on Monday, September 3, the New Yorker Festival announced that Steve Bannon, former White House Chief Strategist for President Donald Trump and ex-chairman of Breitbart News, would be interviewed by the New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, as part of the event in October. By day’s end, things had changed: Bannon’s invite was rescinded, the result of pushback from some high-profile guests at the event as well as a Twitter storm.
The decision to schedule the Bannon interview was denounced by Roxane Gay, Jessica Valenti, and Patton Oswalt, among many others, as reported by the Associated Press. And within 30 minutes of one another, John Mulaney, Judd Apatow, Jack Antonoff, and Jim Carrey threatened to pull out of scheduled events at the festival, the New York Times reported.
Remnick told AP he had changed his mind and rescinded his invite to Bannon due to the controversy. The New Yorker posted a statement from Remnick on Twitter explaining his decision: “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.”
Remnick noted that the “main argument” for not interviewing Bannon at the event is that the New Yorker Festival is giving him a platform “and that he will use it, unfiltered, to propel further the ‘ideas’ of white nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, and illiberalism. But to interview Bannon is not to endorse him.”
In response to the cancellation, David Grogan, director of the American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE), said that Remnick’s decision was disappointing. “The New Yorker Festival is renowned for celebrating in-depth conversations and a free exchange of ideas, so it is unfortunate that they have made this change in the face of complaints from those who apparently would rather shut down speech than engage in dialogue,” Grogan said. “While the New Yorker Festival certainly has a right to do what it thinks is best, this sets a very unfortunate precedent for anyone concerned about our right to free expression. Our society as a whole loses when those who would silence an exchange of ideas are successful. Intimidation and threats are not the way to convince others of your point of view, counterspeak is.”
"The effort to 'de-platform' speakers with offensive views is a growing threat to free speech, but it is nothing new," said Chris Finan, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. "Booksellers have often faced demands that they cancel an event with a controversial author. They have refused because the issue is not whether the speaker has a right to be heard. Canceling an event denies people the right to listen. I am sure many people wanted to hear a skilled interviewer like David Remnick take on Steve Bannon. They are the losers."
Bannon, for his part, called Remnick “gutless” for rescinding the invite.
Several authors chastised Remnick for his decision. In a tweet on Monday, Malcom Gladwell wrote: “Huh. Call me old-fashioned. But I would have thought that the point of a festival of ideas was to expose the audience to ideas. If you only invite your friends over, it’s called a dinner party.”
After countless Twitter users lambasted Gladwell for his defense of free speech, he tweeted: “Joe McCarthy was done in when he was confronted by someone with intelligence and guts, before a live audience. Sometimes a platform is actually a gallows.”