I must confess error. It was Stephens, not Weiss, who drew the inevitable “the Twitter MOBS violated Stephen Bannon’s free speech” assignment. It starts off on an irrelevant but inadvertently comic note:
Even conservatives who do the right thing can be criticized for insufficient courage. After Jeff Flake denounced Trump from the floor of the Senate and announced his retirement, The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson Sorkin faulted him for having “raised a call to arms — and then sounded the retreat.”
Mysteriously, liberals don’t think a United States Senator criticizing Trump in speeches, resigning, and not using any of their powers to actually conduct oversight into or constrain Trump is an act of courage! What could possibly explain it? Anyway, to the main event:
“I have every intention of asking him difficult questions and engaging in a serious and even combative conversation,” Remnick told The Times in an interview conducted before he withdrew the invitation. “The audience itself, by its presence, puts a certain pressure on a conversation that an interview alone doesn’t do. You can’t jump on and off the record.”
But none of that mattered because — well, Twitter.
Following news of the invitation, other high-profile festival invitees, including producer Judd Apatow and actor Jim Carrey, tweeted that they would pull out if Bannon remained on the program. That helped start an online wave that crested with Remnick’s abrupt sounding of the retreat, based, he said, on not wanting “well-meaning readers and staff members to think that I’ve ignored their concerns.”
That’s nice, and possibly sincere. But as a friend recently remarked with respect to another publication that quickly capitulated to online furies, what this really means is that Remnick is no longer the editor of The New Yorker. Twitter is. Social media doesn’t just get a voice. Now it wields a veto. What used to be thought of as adult supervision yields — as it already has in Congress and at universities — to the itch of the crowd.
And not just the crowd. As Remnick acknowledged, members of his own staff also revolted at the invitation. One of his writers, Kathryn Schulz, took to Twitter to say she was “beyond appalled” and invited readers to write Remnick in order to add their voices to the pressure.
Stpehens’s argument, at least from any free speech perspective, is immediately and fatally incoherent. Reminick deciding that Bannon should be the headliner of his profit-taking ideas festival is an act of speech. Just like…other invitees announcing they don’t want to participate in an event being headlined by a white nationalist, just like other New Yorker writers criticizing Remnick’s decision, and people on Twitter criticizing Remnick’s decision. “Social media” doesn’t “wield a veto” unless you think speech criticizing the ideas and actions of elite journalists is permitted only if it’s ineffectual. And, of course, when the subject was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being invited to Columbia, Stephens had no trouble understanding why giving people like Bannon a platform was a terrible idea.
But, of course, this isn’t really about free speech at all:
That’s an astonishing statement coming from any journalist who believes that the vocation should largely be about putting tough questions to influential people, particularly bad people. If speaking truth to power isn’t the ultimate task of publications such as The New Yorker, they’re on the road to their own left-wing version of “Fox & Friends.”
Not long ago, a public challenge such as Schulz’s would have been a firing offense. But the gradual degradation of editorial authority is another depressing feature of our digital age, as supposedly neutral reporters use social media to opine freely, ferociously and very publicly about whatever they please, not least their own colleagues and employers. That the targets of these opinions are, like Remnick, themselves conventional liberals ought to be a warning to newsroom chiefs about the risks of employing progressive bullies.
Ah, yes, nothing says “free and open discourse” like “New Yorker writers should be fired for questioning their editor” and (implicitly) “it’s bad when Paul Krugman subtweets my terrible columns.” This has always been Stephens’s real point: elite journalists like him should be free to PROVOKE and CHALLENGE THEIR AUDIENCES free of criticism from the rabble, and the job of the rabble is to shut up and listen and not be SPECIAL SNOWFLAKES. It’s about hierarchy, not free speech.