The media loves sensationalism as much as they love objective facts. If you have a problem with that assertion, explain to me how this happened.
Plenty of ink has been spilled as to who is the culprit most responsible for President Donald Trump, but let's cut to the chase: The mainstream media gave Trump $2 billion in free air time because he's a carnival barker who for his infinite amount of faults, does a great job of keeping people tuned into their TVs. If the media had treated Trump like a normal candidate instead of offering up a de facto endorsement with their never-ending coverage, perhaps we are not living in our present hellscape.
Which brings me to Steve Bannon. At one point, Bannon was an important player in American politics. He was one of the top voices in the president's ear, and it was important to know what the most powerful man in the world may be thinking. However, as Bannon was jettisoned from the White House and excommunicated by his own financial backers, even Republicans decided that he was irrelevant. Too bad the media didn't get the memo.
Eight months after the Mercers pulled the plug on Steve Bannon and sentenced him to a life of Skyping with Hungarian far-right politicians/outright Nazis, yesterday, The New Yorker invited him to headline their ideas festival. This was met with outrage by not just “the online mob” as the American right is fond of calling any principled opposition to figures like Bannon, but The New Yorker's own staffers. Hours after announcing Bannon's gig, The New Yorker pulled the plug, giving Bannon another unearned victory over the news cycle, and the utterly predictable takes from Very Serious People in the media began pouring in.
Malcolm Gladwell, a major media darling who began his career shilling for Big Tobacco before moving on to do PR for big pharma, summarized most of the objections to The New Yorker's decision to deplatform Steve Bannon.
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. https://t.co/VwkL4zOrbX— Malcolm Gladwell (@Gladwell) September 4, 2018
One of the biggest problems that intelligent people have is that they assume that everything can be explained away with logic. If that truly were the case, Donald Trump wouldn't be president. I used to have this blind spot too, but then I spent nearly a decade doing sales, and I learned the hard way (through reduced paychecks) that you do not win people over by beating them over the head with logic. Guys like Gladwell believe that they could convince anyone on the fence of Nazism that it's a bad idea, but that's simply not how our brains operate. Perhaps Gladwell should spend 10,000 hours learning who Steve Bannon is before so snidely offering his opinion.
You see this strategy fail all the time on cable news. MSNBC brought right-wing propagandist Candace Owens on in a clear ploy to “out-logic” her, and she spent the entire time filibustering. What the Malcolm Gladwells of the world don't understand is that the Steve Bannons of the world are not playing the same game as they are. While Gladwell and his ilk believe that we are having a “debate of ideas,” Bannon and his kind use any platform they can find to spread their ideas. It's not about winning the argument, but disseminating their bankrupt worldview to as many people as possible. When major outlets like The New Yorker invite Bannon on to their turf, what they're really doing is giving Bannon a wider audience to speak to than if they otherwise had not handed him their megaphone.
Again, it's not about winning the argument for these folks. It's sales, and what I was taught to do over my 10,000+ hours in sales is to bombard customers with the same talking points over and over until they internalize them, and once they do, that means they're operating under the conditions you set—not under logical pretenses. Besides, Steve Bannon's fascism is not an “idea” in the same way that traditional conservatism is. There is no mystery to what fascism wants to accomplish. Bannon and his kind have been very clear that their ideal world is a lot whiter than the one that we presently occupy, and if you can't figure out how they plan to get there, well, open a history book. Literally any one.
Deplatforming Nazis works. Look at the case of one of Steve Bannon's Breitbart proteges—Milo Yiannopoulos, the white nationalist firebrand who captivated media attention for the better part of two years. At one point, he was one of the most recognizable figures on the right thanks to the endless amount of media attention directed his way. Milo said incendiary things while proudly proclaiming his homosexuality, and this seeming contradiction enchanted major media. Ultimately, his rant defending pedophilia emerged, and Milo began losing gig after gig. He tried speaking at colleges, but campus activists protested and removed that platform, and the result is Milo's irrelevance. That's not me making that direct connection between de-platforming and insignificance. That's Milo saying it. Per Yiannopoulos on his Facebook page:
Over the past three years, I have spent literally millions of dollars trying to do talks, speeches, events, rallies and protests, to say nothing of the stuff I do behind the scenes that I can never tell you about. A lot of that money was my own wealth, from before I even started in journalism. My events almost never happen. It's protests, or sabotage from Republican competitors or social media outcries. Every time, it costs me tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. And when I get dumped from conferences, BARELY ANYONE makes a sound about it — not my fellow conservative media figures and not even, in many cases, you guys. When was the last time any of you protested in the street at the treatment meted out to me or Pamela Gellar or Alex Jones?
Milo's rant goes on a lot longer than that, and he admits that he has “lost everything standing up for the truth in America, spent all my savings, destroyed all my friendships and ruined my whole life.” He states that “at some point, you realize it's occasionally better to spend the money on crabs and cocktails.” It's indisputable that if the goal is to reduce the influence that white nationalists have on our discourse, it's better to de-platform them than to debate them. When The New Yorker puts Steve Bannon on stage with their editor-in-chief, they're literally equating the two. Bannon scored a victory before even beginning the “debate.”
But that doesn't fit into the paradigm of the Malcolm Gladwells of the world. All ideas are supposedly equal until they meet on the battlefield of debate, and then meritocracy is supposed to take over. If that were the case, Hillary Clinton's logical victories over Donald Trump in every single presidential debate would have propelled her to the White House. But again, people are not won over solely by logic. It sure would be nice if that were the case, but that's not the world we live in. Propaganda works, and the best way to fight it is to reduce the number of people it reaches.
All that said, the cynic in me has a point it desperately wants to raise, and it's related to the free media chart embedded at the top of this story. Malcolm Gladwell may want a war of ideas, but that's not how our media operates. Sensationalism dictates what makes it on TV news, and Vice President of the advertising platform true[X], Caroline McCarthy, highlighted the issue at hand perfectly.
The Bannon fiasco shows, among other things, that it can be very difficult to assess where a public figure's actual relevance ends and where being an attention-monger fueled by excess media exposure begins.— Caroline McCarthy (@caro) September 4, 2018
The mainstream media’s inability to see how they fuel these “debates” through a negative feedback loop will end as soon as they accept their culpability in aiding the rise of white supremacy in America. It’s not that these ideas can’t exist without the media’s help—America has always been a country built on the foundation of white supremacy—but that there is far less of a market for them when this poisonous ideology has a smaller platform to disseminate their horrid beliefs.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.