New Yorker editor David Remnick giving the keynote address during Princeton's Class Day ceremonies in Princeton, N.J. in June 2013

New Yorker editor David Remnick giving the keynote address during Princeton's Class Day ceremonies in Princeton, N.J. in June 2013

We are amid another shallow media debate, this time triggered by the New Yorker’s decision to first invite, then disinvite Steve Bannon from The New Yorker Festival.

Very Serious and Very Concerned People are up in arms that we won’t get to see Bannon’s mug and hear his thoughts during a festival designed to discuss ideas. The Very Serious and Very Concerned People are upset that the move means people will remain in their echo chambers, and that some speech has been deemed out of bounds. They fret for journalism, given the New Yorker’s high profile, and weep for our nation, whose foundation is built upon the First Amendment and the free exchange of ideas.

Their view can be most easily summed up by author, podcaster and former Washington Post reporter Malcolm Gladwell and New York Times columnist Bret Stephens.

Gladwell on Twitter: “Huh. Call me old-fashioned. But I would have though 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.”

Stephens in a column: “It has kept Bannon’s name prominently in the news, no doubt to his considerable delight. It has turned a nativist bigot into a victim of liberal censorship. It has lent credence to the belief that journalists are, as Bannon said of Remnick, ‘gutless.’ It has corroborated the view that the news media is a collection of left-wing group thinkers who, if they aren’t quite peddling ‘fake news,’ are mainly interested in advancing only their own truths.”       

These two esteemed journalists have fallen into the trap many media outlets have, confusing our habit of providing multiple platforms to a few high-profile people for a real, robust exchange of ideas. They are so concerned that Bannon was denied yet another high-profile platform they didn’t have any time to wonder what kinds of important voices have never been given a single high-profile platform.

Who has the media been ignoring because it has spent so much air time and ink and online space to Bannon and others who think like him?

It’s a particularly egregious error by Stephens, Gladwell and other journalists who have co-signed their critique, given that the media has spent much of its time the past couple of years amplifying the voices of Trump supporters – like Bannon – so much that it has essentially become a cottage industry.

At some point, you’d think smart men like Stephens and Gladwell would begin asking their fellow journalists why media isn’t giving more air time to other kinds of voices, such as people of color who live in Trump Country. But it doesn’t even cross their minds because once we advance narratives, it’s hard to break free from the kind of groupthink they are engaging in without even knowing it.

Also, tellingly, they seem to believe Bannon was disinvited because of a “mob,” not appreciating, or caring, that New Yorker journalists who happen to be women and people of color also believed Bannon should not have been granted such a prominent space at such an important conference. Are they, too, just part of the mob? Or are they serious journalists who understand their craft, assessed the situation and concluded that Bannon’s appearance would not advance the cause of journalism?

The real question is why didn’t David Remnick consult with them before he made the decision to include Bannon. Did he not care about what they would think? Did he not believe their voices mattered? Remnick has a well-deserved, stellar reputation as an editor. If a journalist as plugged-in as he is can make this kind of mistake, by forgetting to consult with the very talented journalists he is surrounded by, how many other well-meaning editors at various newsrooms throughout the country are making similar mistakes on a daily basis?

Imagine Louis Farrakhan had been invited. Would we really have lost anything significant if “the mob” rose up and pressured the New Yorker to disinvite him as well?

More revealingly, why is Bannon more likely to get these kinds of invites than Farrakhan? Even when we consider which extremists to invite on our shows or in our pages, we prefer white ones to black ones. Why?

Finally, since Stephens and Gladwell seem to believe Bannon deserves a platform to provide us his invaluable view of the world, I’ll leave them this:

Huh. Call me old-fashioned. But I would have thought it would not be cause for concern among thinking journalists that a man whose views and face have been prominently featured around the world by some of the most high-profile media outlets in existence was denied yet another prominent platform.

Call me old-fashioned, but I happen to believe examining the thinking and influence of a man who proudly touted his role in amplifying the views of the alt-right (read white supremacists and nationalists) is a worthwhile journalistic endeavor – until overkill turns it into something much more disturbing.

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