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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There's also another danger with running political jokes, especially ones that aim at making a substantive political criticism in a substantive political magazine. The existence of a recurring joke column, whether "Bushisms" or the 2004 campaign season's "Kerryisms," tempts the author into finding facts to fit his joke template rather than building jokes around interesting or amusing facts.

One might think of it as the Independent Counsel problem, borrowing from what Justice Scalia (quoting Justice Jackson) said 10 years before the Clinton/Lewinsky matter (paragraph break added):

[W]hen a special-purpose independent prosecutor is chosen, there's a special risk that he will pick people that he thinks he should get, rather than cases that need to be prosecuted. With the law books filled with a great assortment of crimes, a prosecutor stands a fair chance of finding at least a technical violation of some act on the part of almost anyone …

It is in this realm—in which the prosecutor picks some person whom he dislikes or desires to embarrass, or selects some group of unpopular persons and then looks for an offense—that the greatest danger of abuse of prosecuting power lies. It is here that law enforcement becomes personal, and the real crime becomes that of being unpopular with the predominant or governing group, being attached to the wrong political views, or being personally obnoxious to or in the way of the prosecutor himself.

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The harms caused by excessive prosecutorial zeal are of course greater than the harms caused by excessive journalistic zeal, especially in the lighthearted field of poking fun at politicians' foibles. Still, journalists, like prosecutors, may lose a necessary sense of perspective and fairness if they set their agenda to be "Let's find something that X did wrong," rather than "Let's find something that someone did wrong, whoever that someone might be."

Petty errors of the sort that ordinary speakers (especially tired ordinary speakers) routinely make may thus get blown up into an occasion for mockery. Necessarily careful answers may get blown up into supposedly improper "caveats and embellishments," and get pejoratively labeled "Kerryisms" even when the question really does call for a complex answer rather than a simplistic one. That's not the recipe either for fair commentary or for effective political humor.

If Slate were just a humor magazine, then keeping journalistic perspective and even a sense of fairness might be less important. If it were just a policy or politics magazine, then being funny would be less important. But given that Slate tries to have both serious content and a sense of humor, it needs to uphold the standards of both genres.

Eugene Volokh teaches constitutional law at UCLA School of Law and runs the Volokh Conspiracy Weblog.

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