Does The Economist really think Steve Bannon can help define an “open future”?
On September 15, The Economist inaugurated its Open Future festival, a global media event linking Hong Kong, London and New York. Its announced, noble intention was “to grapple with the most urgent issues of our time” and “to remake the case for liberal values.” The respected journal took the bold step of inviting the controversial Steve Bannon, former adviser to Donald Trump, to address a debate held in New York and broadcast simultaneously to a live audience in London. The presence of Bannon, whom The Economist itself calls a racist populist, drew protesters in front of the journal’s offices in New York.
The Economist claims to have invited “many different kinds of people” in the interest of promoting debate. But some of those “different kinds” chose to withdraw from the event when they learned about Bannon’s participation, provoking another debate about the meaning of free speech and the notion of what constitutes an open debate.
Andrew Stroehlein, European media director of Human Rights Watch, made what was perhaps the most pertinent remark: “Of course media have to interview odious figures sometimes, and if it’s done with critical skill, that’s simply normal journalism. But media do not have to put an odious figure on stage, advertise him, & sell tickets to see him. @TheEconomist’s #OpenFuture is the latter. In short, white nationalism is not entertainment.””
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A thriving industrial sector that has gradually phagocytized and taken over what is still called “the news,” formerly an area of investigation and expression dedicated to presenting and eventually analyzing information not necessarily linked to the personality of celebrities
The Economist is a global brand, admired for its consistent quality, highlighted by admirers such as Bannon himself or the economist and social critic Umair Haque. Like all modern enterprises, The Economist is committed to exploiting the immense value that its prestigious brand represents.
The law of entertainment tells us that when a brand puts on a show, it needs a headliner, a marquee attraction. As every Hollywood producer knows, a headliner may or may not have talent or be best choice for the role. What counts is name recognition, star value. Bannon has few talents as a political or economic thinker or public speaker. What he has achieved over the past two years, of course, is name recognition.
The journal’s argument that “Bannon stands for a worldview that is antithetical to the liberal values The Economist has always espoused” and that the forum of the Open Future provides an opportunity to confront those two points of view sounds attractive and legitimate. But Stroehlein was right. The Economist fell into the same trap as the rest of the news media: sacrificing public information and debate for entertainment.
Of course, media have to interview odious figures sometimes, and if it’s done with critical skill, that’s simply normal journalism.
— Andrew Stroehlein (@astroehlein) September 15, 2018
The result was embarrassing, or would have been if anyone actually watched it. While adhering to an entirely incoherent ideological discourse and denying the obvious racism of his “economic nationalism,” Bannon awkwardly succeeded in exposing some of the flaws in The Economist’s “liberal” worldview (one of which may also be racism, though that doesn’t bother Bannon). Bannon played his role and got the job done, effectively drawing attention to the event. But at what cost? Zanny Minton Beddoes, editor-in-chief of The Economist, provided the populist ideologue with a platform that allowed him to insistently develop an utterly simplistic thesis that’s even more embarrassing to the extent that it contains a grain of truth.
Steve Bannon believes that the world is divided into two opposed interest groups, the “workers” (Bannon’s people), who are excluded from power, and the Davos elite (Beddoes’ people), who run the entire show. But there neither party demonstrated either an ability or an inclination to debate. While Bannon spoke like a latter-day Marxist implicitly imploring the “workers of the world” to “unite” (as economic nationalists), Beddoes stuck to her game plan of remaking “the case for liberal values,” while making no case at all other than accusing Bannon of extremism.
The debate rapidly came down to a simple contradiction about the meaning of history, or rather about the confrontation of two imaginary visions of history. On the one hand, Bannon claimed — bizarrely and counterfactually — that the US economy had been propelled forward by workers in the 19th century who “had a lot more power and freedom,” while Beddoes invoked “the history of trade over the past 175 years,” which in her eyes has been nothing but positive.
The Open Future Festival might have had less star power but been more entertaining and instructive had they invited someone like Umair Haque, the fan cited above, an economist himself, who now has his own online platform where he expresses a heavily reasoned point of view about economic and political systems — in stark contrast with both Bannon and The Economist.
How open is The Economist’s vision of an open future if it is content to present the essential choice of society before us as one between high tariffs and free trade? Aren’t there other angles to explore? And isn’t there a better approach to exploring them than to have two people on a stage doing nothing but contradicting each other?
Or is that just the new law of entertainment? All that really counts is keeping one’s brand in the limelight.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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