Fearlessly Exposing Pandagate for What It Is
A Reddit Ask Me Anything with Slate editor David Plotz.
Slate’s Editor David Plotz responded to questions on Tuesday about his favorite magazines, his marriage to Hanna Rosin, and his hatred of pandas during an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
webdevcrazy: What was the most unexpected thing you learned from reading the whole bible?
David Plotz: God—what a jerk! I was unprepared for the essentially unpleasant, rageaholic nature of my God. I assumed there was some loving kindness in there somewhere—I know the Christians have that—but there was very, very little. On the other hand, the most admirable people in the book are the people who argue with this implacable, rageful, irrational deity (Abraham, Job, Gideon, Moses). Also, basically every woman in the Bible is a prostitute.
bradspahn: Can you tell us more about what your marriage with Hanna Rosin? As a feminist dude, I feel like there aren't many examples of really equal marriages that involve two careers and multiple kids, but it sounds like yours really is very equal.
David Plotz: Hanna Rosin is amazing, but you know that. I don't know that our marriage is really equal. It is more that the inequalities flow back and forth. We don't split things 50/50 or anything like that. It is that there are periods when I have more responsibility for the kids and periods when she does, periods when my career is front and center and periods when hers is. And we are pretty good about watching out for each other. We've just come out of a period where Hanna has been traveling a huge amount for her book, and it's clear that she'll be a bit more domestic in the coming months, and I may be less. I don't think it occurs to either of us that our own career or life is more important than the other's. We went into marriage knowing that, and we've done a pretty good job sticking to it. Plus, we have incredibly generous parents who help out, and a great babysitter, and great friends, and wonderful children, all of which simplify the complexities of family and work life.
WrigleyJohnson: What made you switch from being a DOJ paralegal to a journalist?
David Plotz: That was definitely the best career error I made. When I graduated from college, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, so I took a job as a paralegal at the Department of Justice to see what lawyers did all day. I loathed it. Two days after I started, I was desperate to leave.
I sent my résumé (college newspaper and bad college clips) to 93 newspapers around the country. Only one, the Winston-Salem Journal, offered me an interview, and then a job. The week of my Winston-Salem interview, I saw a job opening at the Washington City Paper, the alt-weekly in D.C., and sent my résumé and my undergraduate thesis, which was about Marion Barry. The editor, Jack Shafer was intrigued by the Barry thesis, and offered me a job, which I took. I covered D.C. politics for Jack—the most difficult and rewarding job I can imagine.
shanepang: Pandas. We all know your firm stance against pandas in the past. Have your views on pandas softened? Hardened?
David Plotz: Hardened into a diamond-core of loathing and rage. When will Americans wake up and see Pandagate for what it is. The Chinese government charges extortionate rents for us to house, feed, breed their dumb animals. When babies are born, the Chinese take them back, and then rent them to another high bidder. Zoos are literally wasting millions of dollars on this shoddy merchandise, when they could be stocking up with made in America otters or brown bears.
alma9: What is your favorite publication other than Slate (or one of your favorites)?
David Plotz:Top of Form As an editor, I envy and adore New York Magazine, which we subscribe to even though we live in D.C. It is perfect as a magazine—beautiful, always clever, bold, provocative, fun. I read the New York Times more than I read anything.
Echoey: You've spoken often on the podcast about your previously-held anti-gay marriage views. I was hoping you could elaborate on them, and perhaps explain why you felt that way.
David Plotz: Sure. I went to an all-boys, jocky private school in the mid-’80s. It was a school where homophobia was explicit and never questioned. I absorbed enough of that to make me feel ashamed, and I carried forward homophobic ideas into college. Gay marriage was never really something anyone talked—I probably first heard about it as a serious idea in the mid-’90s. At the time, I thought: oh marriage is special. It is a particular, defined institution for men and women, for historic reasons, and we tinker with it at our peril. I was all for civil unions, but I stumbled at marriage. Then, my then-colleague John Cloud talked to me about gay marriage one day, and explained why it mattered, and why civil union was a non-substitute, and how important it was to be free to love who you love and make a family with that person. And I realized that I had been an idiot, and have been for gay marriage ever since.
NinjaDiscoJesus: What did you think of the inauguration speech yesterday?
David Plotz: Perhaps because I have lived in D.C. for so very long, I have been exhausted with speeches. Any politician worth a dime can deliver a great speech, and most of them can write them. But so what? It is very, very, very rare, vanishingly rare, for a political speech to make a difference in the world. Political change never happens because someone makes a nice speech calling for it. It happens because politicians and interest groups commit political capital and labor and money. The Obama speech was a moving, effective speech, well delivered. I don't think anyone will remember it in a week, much less in a year. Can you remember anything he said at his first inauguration? I can't.
Dankois: Which is your favorite flavor of Fresca? Original citrus, black cherry citrus, or peach citrus?
David Plotz: Original. The black cherry is gross. The peach is vile.
Komputerwelt: What’s your stance on the elections in Israel today?
David Plotz: Incredibly depressed. My wife is Israeli and has lots of relatives over there, and it has become harder and harder to visit. I don't see how Israel backs away from the settler-driven, expansionist, occupationist path it is on.
UVdogastrophe: Other than your fellow Gabfest panelists and your wife, who is the most enjoyable person at Slate with which to argue/discuss political and societal issues?
David Plotz: Love this question! I have the great good fortune to share a hallway with the following murderer's row: Josh Levin, Bill Smee, John Dickerson, Will Dobson, Matt Yglesias, Dan Kois, Will Saletan, Dave Weigel. It is heaven for argument!
For pure office BS-ing, I would say Yglesias. I love economic thinking applied to noneconomic problems, and Matt does that better than anyone I know. But really, every single person at Slate is someone I would happily squabble with.
Mcfors: Who is you favorite vendor at the Dupont Farmer’s Market?
David Plotz: Heinz (sp?), the Swiss guy who sells amazing, unfashionable vegetables. I love his uncompromising ethos, and the kale kills. What about you?
Mcfors: Is that the bearded guy at Next Step Produce? Great place. I also like the second apples from Toigo Orchards (only 99 cents a pound) and eggs from someone named Tom—he's stationed near Atwater Bakery and the singing Street Sense woman.
David Plotz: Yup, Next Step.
Sdkstl: I'm a reader since launch and was a subscriber. Two questions: 1.) Would you charge again for Slate? 2.) The online magazine field is a lot more crowded than when Slate first launched. How would you describe its role in today's media landscape?
David Plotz: Thanks for reading for so long, and subscribing back in the day. 1.) I don't see Slate charging subscriptions. But I can easily see us having a membership program, where we would charge for a membership that would offer special benefits like private events, or free tickets to live Gabfests and the like. But not a subscription.
2.) For a long, long time, Slate was in a category of one, or maybe two (with Salon), online-only magazines. What's been wonderful in the past 7 years has been the emergence of so many healthy, clever, innovative online only sites that are not principally news sites, and the online success of traditional magazines like the Atlantic. The health of the category has been good for all of us. There is more advertising, and more readers who now get to read across sites (Slate AND the Atlantic AND HuffPo AND Daily Beast AND Gawker...). More competition has been good for all of us, and forced us to innovate constantly. It has also made us realize that we have to stick to our comparative advantage: Slate is smart and funny. That is what we do best. We stick to that. And the results have been good. Our audience has been growing very rapidly.
Fblom: I started reading Slate because of Hitch. Can you tell us a memory unedited about him?
David Plotz: We would have lunch once a year to reaffirm the Slate/Hitch partnership. My favorite was one—perhaps in 2009—when he had me over to his apartment in the Wyoming. The lunch was sausages, wine, and Hitchens talking to me for about two hours about his childhood, and his awful boarding school. I hadn't realized till then how much of his hatred of arbitrary authority and abusive authority came from the childhood experience of a brutal, arbitrary school.
Plusroyaliste: I read Slate every day and my favorite contributor is Dave Weigel, mainly wanted to encourage you to keep him around.
My general question is to what extent page views drive decisions about subject matter to report on at Slate? Obviously there's a basic commercial consideration but there are some red meat topics (ie. marijuana) that are known to drive page views and that some online outlets focus on to get that traffic. Is that a major incentive when stories get pitched and, if so, how do you balance that against not wanting to report disproportionately on subjects whose importance doesn't necessarily correlate with their popularity?
David Plotz: Like all of our competitors, we carefully track metrics. I can tell you that 33,603 people were on Slate 10 seconds ago, and 2,910 of them were reading a piece about Google. And one of my major goals—and one that my bosses in particular judge me on—is attracting more readers to Slate. So we are constantly looking for ways to increase our audience. That said, Slate's comparative advantage is wit and intelligence, so we often make our biggest gains from our smartest stories. That's not to say that a traffic-whoring piece about a celebrity breakdown won't get traffic, and that's not to say we won't run such pieces, but in general, the smarter we are, the better we do. The key way you get traffic is not writing sleazy stories, it is writing MORE stories. (For example, we recently added Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog, which has brought us a bumper crop of very smart, lively, science and astronomy-minded readers.)
Brenbuescher: Slate has an awesome staff—how would you describe your leadership philosophy and your management style?
David Plotz: Brenbuescher, or as I like to call you, "mom":
Editing Slate is very easy, because it mostly involves getting out of the way! Mike Kinsley had a rule when he started Slate: No assholes. We have stuck hard to that. Like Mike and Jacob Weisberg, my predecessors, I think my most important job is hiring people with the right sensibility—smart, funny, bold, energetic—and watching them do wonderful things. We tend to hire best available players rather than positions.
Ihniwmansb: What is John Dickerson really like?
David Plotz: John was actually hand carved out of black rhino horn, then brought to life with an incantation involving spider webs by a benevolent witch. He can do only good in the world, and eats only cotton candy.
John is more or less how he seems. Very smart, super hard worker, very funny in a disarming way. Excellent guitarist. Talks too much about Dylan.
Jjmccullough: Do people call you "Plotz" or "David" in day-to-day conversation around the office? I notice on the podcasts people sometimes make what appear to be revealing slips of the tongue.
David Plotz: Both. Increasingly PLOTZ because we just hired a third David.
Aviddakota: Have you ever made anyone on Slate's staff cry?
David Plotz: Only with joy, I hope. There have been occasionally teary meetings in my office. I once cried during a meeting because I was so proud of the person I was talking to, but I don't think he noticed.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.