Eugene Volokh on three ways to fix Slate.

June 1996 - June 2006.
June 19 2006 6:13 PM

What's Wrong With Slate

And three ways to fix it.

Editor's Note: This week Slatecelebrates its 10th anniversary, an occasion we are marking with nostalgia and self-congratulation. In the spirit of equal time, we've asked some of the magazine's most persistent critics to tell us what's wrong with Slate

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Of course, Slateeditors' time is limited, even if on the Internet space no longer is. I can't expect you to provide a link for every sentence. But providing such links when you're criticizing the person you're quoting, or when you're making an important but likely controversial factual assertion—seemingly standard practice at leading nonprofessional blogs—doesn't seem too hard.

2. Use Your Medium—Provide Better Corrections. Most newspapers' corrections practices have long been nearly useless. If a correction is ever published, it appears several days later in a separate corrections section, which I suspect only a few readers read.

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Slate, I'm sorry to say, isn't much better. For instance, when Charlton Heston announced in 2002 that he had Alzheimer's, Slate ran an Explainer that claimed that California law required Heston to give up his guns if he were "diagnosed with full-blown Alzheimer's." That turns out to have been an error. Six days later, Slateposted an addendum to the original article alerting readers to the possible error, and 15 days after that, after investigating the matter, Slate corrected the article.

The trouble is that correcting an article on its original Web page will only reach those readers who visit an old article—for instance if a Google search takes them to that piece. Yet most regular Slatereaders will just read the article once, when it first comes out. They'll thus never notice the correction.

Slate's Other Web Sites column did link to my criticism, and since 2003 Slatehas run a periodic Corrections column. Yet most regular Slatereaders don't regularly visit the Corrections column: Slatetells me that in the last week of May 2006, the Corrections page got 1,200 unique visitors while the entire site got 2.2 million. Nor does the front page make clear to readers that a particular piece they had read before has been corrected; the Corrections column, when it appears, is simply labeled "Corrections: Slate's mistakes."

Why not do better than the newspapers? When there's a serious error in an article, why not put up an item on your front page that says "Retracting Our Charlton Heston Explainer," "Correction: Canada Isn't So Safe From Violent Crime After All," or some such?

That way, most of the readers who had seen the original piece will at least know that there was an error in it. You're not as limited as newspapers are: Including an extra item on the variable-size Slatedaily front page may be a little bit of a distraction, but it's not as great a cost as adding a new story to a fixed-size newspaper front page.

3. Watch Your Genre—Stay Serious Without Being Too Serious. I like Slate's wit. Humor, including political humor, makes political magazines more interesting. Yet it seems to me that serious magazines (serious in the good sense) need to be scrupulously fair even in their humorous items.

I take it that we'd all agree that political humorists shouldn't make up quotes and pass them off as real. (Situations where it's clear to readers that the quote is fictional are a different matter.) Likewise, even humorists shouldn't make a speaker look ridiculous by omitting important details that the speaker's audience knew about but that the joke's audience might not. Nor should they mock a speaker by quoting the speaker out of context, when the in-context quote is quite sensible.

As I noted above, I've often criticized Slate's Bushism of the Day feature for the latter two errors. (That's what makes me one of Slate's "most persistent critics.") Many of my readers have responded with variants of, "Relax, it's just a joke." And indeed jokes can't live up to the standards of precision that we expect from a 1,000-word article.

But when the editor of an opinion magazine quotes a politician to mock him—not just as a joke, but as political commentary—the quotes need to be fair as well as funny. Otherwise, thoughtful readers who are drawn to the magazine for its serious content may be understandably upset about the departure from journalistic standards of fairness. And they may wonder whether editors or writers who have shown a willingness to mock politicians by quoting them out of context might also be unfair to those politicians in their serious work.

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