David Remnick, editor of ‘The New Yorker’: ‘Is the gigantic tidal wave of crap we see online the alternative to traditional media? I don’t think so’

The journalist, who has been at the helm of the magazine for a quarter of a century, has published ‘Holding the Note,’ which offers portraits of music legends, from Bruce Springsteen and Aretha Franklin to Leonard Cohen and Keith Richards

Iker Seisdedos
David Remnick entrevista
David Remnick, seen by Sciammarella.

The large windows of David Remnick’s New York office offer the best views of the city over the void left by the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11. On the 23rd floor of One World Trade Center, the tallest building in Manhattan, Remnick edits The New Yorker, the official source of quality liberal journalism in the United States. Now nearly a century old (the magazine, not him; he was born in neighboring New Jersey 65 years ago), while perhaps it is no longer the most surprising publication on the newsstand, it still has no rival in its commitment to in-depth reporting, quality writing, fiction, criticism and cartoons.

On the Wednesday in late April when the interview took place, the newsroom was half empty because, Remnick said, since the Covid pandemic, office attendance has become elastic and unpredictable. He goes in four days a week, although he says he works seven days a week, adding, “I’m not showing off.”

In addition to editing, he produces articles, columns and podcasts nonstop and he still has, as he always has had, time to publish books. To his compilations of profiles, his monographs on Muhammad Ali and Obama and his essay on the end of communism in Russia — the result of his years as a correspondent for The Washington Post in Moscow (The Tomb of Lenin, which earned him a Pulitzer) — he has added Holding the Note: Profiles in Popular Music, a collection of portraits of popular music legends previously published in The New Yorker, which he has helmed for 26 years. Through its pages parade characters such as Bruce Springsteen, Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin and Leonard Cohen, dissected with the reflexive meticulousness of somebody who defines himself in the introduction as “a weekend naturalist of the Anthropocene feverishly trying to catch a last glimpse at some glorious species”.

David Remnick
David Remnick.Brigitte Lacombe

Question. Is it possible to keep a publication like yours relevant in the world we live in today?

Answer. It has to be, because what else is there? TikTok? YouTube? They have their place. But... has something come along that’s better, with all its flaws, than The New York Times, The Washington Post or EL PAÍS in terms of news gathering? No, it hasn’t.

Q. Our last conversation was in 2010, at the magazine’s former headquarters in Midtown. Back then, you said that you weren’t afraid of formats, that if you had to print your stories on a soda can, you could. Can a 10,000-word report be told in a TikTok video?

A. A little bit, yes. It is clear that people become aware of what is happening in the world in different ways. In these 14 years, a lot has happened. Before we only made a magazine. Now we release a lot of content daily on the web, we record five or six podcasts, videos... And the business climate is much more complicated, advertising drops, the reader’s attention is increasingly volatile. It is not an easy job, but it’s a joyful one.

Q. Many of these things are done by you personally... Being a more productive boss than most of your employees is not likely to do much for your popularity among staff members.

A. It’s not that big of a deal. It’s just that I like my job; putting out a good magazine every day, every week, and also making sure that that magazine, which is about to turn a century old, will continue to be vital for another 100 years.

Q. In the 1990s, you wrote that The New Yorker had become a “a humorless, genteel museum piece of middlebrow culture living off the literary capital accumulated in the days of [co-founder] Harold Ross.”

A. That’s not true. What I was doing was citing the criticism aimed at The New Yorker at the time. That’s a big difference. And I know what you’re going ask me next, and the answer is no: I’m not walking out the door. I’m very happy here. I know there is a lot of talk about my retirement, because I turned 65, but media gossip is just that: gossip...

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan in a double bill with Neil Young on July 12, 2019 in Hyde Park, London. (Photo converted to black and white).Dave J Hogan (Getty Images for A

Q. Actually, my next question was something else: Will you be able to recognize when the time comes when The New Yorker becomes a “a humorless, genteel museum piece...?”

A. Look around [he says, pointing to the other side of the office windows]. Everyone you see there, copy editors, assistants, fact-checkers, are about 27 years old. It’s enough just to listen to what interests them, to take their advice. But yes, that is an essential question. The fundamental thing is not to isolate yourself. Don’t rule like a king. I publish a lot of things that interest me only moderately. And I listen when something interesting is brought to my attention. Editors have successes and failures, and you don’t always know what they are until 20 years later. I often think of The New Yorker from the 1960s. They didn’t publish a good profile on the Beatles! They missed that boat...

Q. But they did one on Bob Dylan.

A. And a very good one, too, in 1964, by Nat Hentoff. I think there is a golden rule in music, especially in pop: you will never love anything as passionately in pop music as what you loved when you were 18 years old. It has to do with youth and sex and becoming and all that kind of stuff. I can learn to like new things, and I certainly love Bach or John Coltrane more now than when I was a teenager. But in short: will I ever love Taylor Swift as much as Bob Dylan? No.

Q. That means that you do love her a little...

A. I find her interesting. I find the phenomenon moving and I think some of the songs are good, but it’s not my thing. Frankly, when I see some people pretending to love it just to pretend they’re hip, I find it quite ridiculous. Like those 65-year-olds who dress in hoodies. Although look at me, I don’t know if I’m the one to talk [that day, he was wearing a jacket, t-shirt, jeans and sneakers].

Q. I was wondering if it would be possible to have this conversation without talking about Taylor Swift, considering how much space in culture she occupies right now. I see that it’s not.

A. Writing about Taylor Swift is someone else’s job. In this book, I try to talk not only about those old musicians, but also about age, what comes after age and where that fits into music. It talks about aging, death, and, I hope, life itself. Do you know I play the guitar? I do it very badly...

Q. Did you have a band when you were a teenager?

A. Yes, a rock’n’roll band... I grew up in New Jersey, in a town called Hillsdale, a boring place. Kind of Springsteen, with no ocean.

Q. Were you never interested in what was happening in New York at that time: punk, no-wave, the downtown scene?

A. The downtown scene? I’m afraid I was a modest boy with no money to come to the big city... From time to time I went with my father to see concerts by people who were already older by then: Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald... My father was a modest dentist. Instead of Muzak, he played classic jazz in the consultation.

Q. I would say that your book is also a book about the baby boomer generation. And that the history of the United States can be told through some of those characters. The civil rights era, through Aretha Franklin or Mavis Staples. The Great Migration, with Buddy Guy. The gentrification of New York: Patti Smith. The disenchantment of the working classes through Springsteen…

A. I’m very flattered that you would see that...

Beyoncé at a concert on her 'Renaissance World Tour', in October 2023 in Kansas City.Kevin Mazur (WireImage for Parkw

Q. Do you think it will be possible to tell the present from today’s great pop stars, or will their lives only serve to talk about the culture of fame and social media?

A. It’s partly right, but not completely. Take the case of Beyoncé: a Black southern woman who just made a record that brings out the Black origins of country music, a style that is much more complicated than just white guys writing songs about pickup trucks and beer.

Q. In the book, you lament that jazz is no longer a living art form. When do you think this will happen to pop and — if it hasn’t happened already — to rock?

A. For some people in the book, it is surprising that rock and roll has lasted so long... Of course, Keith Richards never thought it would last until now. And they’re [The Rolling Stones] are still together. Anyway, it’s a little ridiculous at 80 years old, but it’s okay.

Q. You could have titled your profile on Aretha Franklin “Aretha Has a Cold,” as a tribute to Gay Talese and his writing around Sinatra… You barely managed to get a quote out of her.

A. It was impossible. I went to see her in Ontario and we talked in her dressing room for about half an hour, 45 minutes, and then we were texting, but nothing much could come of it. It seems to me that she was suspicious of people she didn’t know. She didn’t give me what Leonard Cohen gave me. Or Paul McCartney, or Patti Smith, who I even played guitar with at a public event. It was terrifying...

Q. A predecessor of yours, the legendary editor Robert Gottlieb, once told me that the profiles of The New Yorker are no longer what they used to be, that now they call a profile meeting someone for a couple of hours and writing 6,000 words about the experience.

A. Nonsense. I always make the same recommendation to my reporters: “Take the time they give you and then keep in touch once the interview is over. Go with them to a concert, to their child’s graduation.” You’d be surprised how much they get.

Q. That way of working is increasingly difficult... Do you find it frustrating that fans are happy for their idols not to speak with reporters?

A. It’s social media’s fault. If I’m Beyoncé and I have a gigantic audience, why would I risk talking to a stranger for three hours? Something could go wrong, and earn me the hatred of millions of people... Why do that?

Q. But before, rock stars were comfortable flirting with universal hatred... It was part of the fun.

A. The advantage of the people who appear in the book is that they’re beyond their peak, and they’ve got nothing left to prove. In Cohen’s case, he was literally dying.

Q. Have you ever spoken to Bob Dylan?

A. Only for three minutes. I had the foresight not to tell him that his music had changed my life; he must hear that all the time. The adjective “awkward” doesn’t even begin to describe that conversation.

Q. The press in the United States has been in crisis for years, but now...

A. Now it is in a particularly low moment... The most affected have been small and medium-sized newspapers. A year ago we published a story about the last environmental reporter in all West Virginia, the center of coal mining. He was fired. So there is no longer anyone who wakes up every morning with the mission of writing about the effect of that industry on the air you breathe or the water you drink. It seems tragic to me. The disappearance of local journalism is among the reasons why our image among ordinary people is terrible. They don’t trust us...

Q. Was the media arrogant in waving the banner of “the truth”?

A. I’m going to tell you something that may sound controversial. I will be the first to admit that the mainstream media made mistakes, and that they are imperfect, but I don’t know of anything better that could take their place. Does it sound arrogant? Could be. But it is true. We can be unfair or inaccurate, and we make mistakes. Note that The New York Times overlooked the Holocaust. That’s a colosal one. But even so, I see no alternative. Is it the gigantic tidal wave of crap we see online? I don’t think so. Don’t get me wrong: there are also new, promising and interesting things on the internet.

Q. The New York Times is under intense internal fire for its coverage of Gaza and trans people... When you see an institution like that in crisis, do you fear contagion?

A. Don’t worry about them, they will overcome that generational and ideological clash, and business is going very well for them. Here we also have debates, it’d be very boring if we didn’t, but not in a destructive way.

Q. There is another debate underway over whether objectivity, sacrosanct in American journalism, continues to serve its purpose. Which side are you on in that war?

A. Objectivity is a very good word for science. For The New Yorker I prefer accuracy and fairness. Although it is obvious that we are basically a liberal institution...

Q. Which does not mean leftist...

A. No. Ideology is not at the center of what we do. We’re not focused as much on opinion as, for example, The Atlantic...

Q. Does worrying about clicks and audience keep you up at night?

A. I care about having a sustainable business so I can carry out this mission that I care about so much. It’s not about clicks. It’s about subscribers: they are 80% of our income. When I arrived it was only 25% compared to 75% advertising. One collapsed and the others rose: now we have 1.2 million. And they pay a significant fee. We’re not giving the magazine away.

Q. Is one of The New Yorker's missions this year to prevent Trump from returning to the White House?

A. Our mission is to tell the truth about the world. We are not the Democratic National Committee. Our job is to tell the truth about Trump and about Joe Biden.

Q. With Trump, the truth is becoming more and more slippery...

A. I don’t want to hide my feelings about him. He represents the American version of the authoritarian temptation that is afflicting much of the world.

Q. Is it possible to do work based on facts when a third of the population does not believe them?

A. I have no solution for that problem. They distrust everything. We live in a world where, as Philip Roth said, it’s getting harder and harder to write fiction. Nonfiction has become so incredible that you can’t surpass it.

Q. It seems that expectations are too high among potential Biden voters and too low among Trump voters.

A. No one can be surprised by Trump anymore. He says so many outrageous, cruel, inaccurate or conspiratorial things that it doesn’t matter. It only increases his appeal among his people.

Q. Can the media do better than what they did in 2016? How can we find the balance between reporting on the atrocities he says and not serving his interests?

A. I’m not sure. Did you see the speech he gave at Gettysburg? It is a sacred site of American rhetoric, where Lincoln spoke his most famous words. Comparing both, it becomes difficult to think that all things improve with time.

Q. Will The New Yorker sign an artificial intelligence agreement with OpenAI?

A. It’s not for me to decide. I think they have already taken all the information they wanted. I think it’s scandalous. As is what technology has been doing to us for 15 years. They act with impunity, and pretend to be doing good, because they wear t-shirts and eat macrobiotic food. The unfairness and inequality they have inflicted on the modern world can’t be covered up by how cool the iPhone is.

Q. Have you tried asking ChatGPT to write a Springsteen profile in the style of David Remnick?

A. I'm not that vain, but I think it still has a way to go to be a good tool. It will become so, inevitably.

Q. Shortly after October 7, you traveled to Israel and wrote on the ground. Your article began, somewhat in the style of Janet Malcolm, with this phrase: “The only way to tell this story is to try to tell it truthfully and to know that you will fail.” Was it the assumption of defeat?

A. The underlying point of that piece was that you have to take both perspectives into account. I’m Jewish and part of my family is quite conservative and religious. I hear that propaganda. Denial of the other is a form of bigotry. Include all points of view, be fair, serve reality in all its complexity... We all fail at that... It is a job that requires a greatness of mind and spirit that most of us lack. It must be possible, for example, to sympathize with the campus demonstrations [in favor of Palestine] and recognize that blatantly antisemitic messages have been heard there, while at the same time pointing out that police actions against these protesters have gone too far. It is possible, or rather necessary, to denounce that the October 7 attack was horrific and included not only murder but also deliberate sexual violence, and, at the same time, deeply criticize Israel’s reaction.

Q. Bothsidesism, to use the latest English neologism, is not very popular today.

A. You can criticize it when what one side is getting at is not true. For example, if you tell me Donald Trump is a bad moral actor, but yet again, so is Biden, just because he is his rival. I don’t accept that: Biden may be many things, but he is not a morally disgusting player.

Q. A balanced treatment of an unbalanced issue ends up distorting reality...

A. In the case of Israel and Gaza, saying everything I have said is not falling into bothsideism. That’s a cliché at this point. It’s used as a weapon to dismiss those who do not think like you.

Aretha Franklin
American singer Aretha Franklin, at Barack Obama's presidential inauguration ceremony, in Washington DC on January 20, 2009.Pat Benic (Pool via CNP/Getty Im

Q. I don’t know how many of your young colleagues would have published a profile on Judith Butler, a Jewish thinker famous for criticizing Israel, and at the same time an article by Zadie Smith, which was not nice about campus protests.

A. That is the definition of a liberal mind. I am not referring to what is known in Washington as liberal, in the sense of contrary to the Republican Party, but to something broader. It is very difficult. So is free speech. I’m talking about [John] Locke, about [John Stuart] Mill. About being understanding, empathetic... A very difficult way to live. But for me it is the only way.

Q. And do you consider, as a recent The Atlantic cover said, that the “golden age of American Jews is ending” in this country?

A. It was an intelligent piece, but I don’t entirely agree with it. I wouldn’t tie it so closely to Israel’s current moment.

Q. One of the points that the article tried to prove is the supposed fall in public favor of Jewish comedians, who have lost part of their hegemony. In a recent interview, you talked about Jewish humor with Jerry Seinfeld…

A. When I interviewed him, I went to the Encyclopedia Judaica to look for its article on comedy and found a statistic that said that at that time, 80% of known comedians were Jews. To begin with, it seems to me to be a bullshit statistic, or, at the very least, a poetic statistic. It is natural that in recent years other voices are being heard. As happened then with those immigrants from Eastern Europe, we are now seeing a too belated explosion of novels, comedy and culture from Asian Americans, African Americans, Hispanics... We can only celebrate it.

Q. Would you say that anti-semitism is on the rise in the U.S.?

A. Demonstrably.

Q. And would you say that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza?

A. Thanks for the easy question. I would say that what Israel is doing is deeply wrong.

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