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

Over the last decade, Slatehas consistently been at the top of my reading list. It's thoughtful, timely, and a pleasure to read. I've criticized it more than I've criticized other publications, but that's largely because I've read it more than other publications.

As a frequent reader, I'd love to see Slatebetter use both its medium—online publication—and its genre—news and policy analysis that's thoughtful and responsible, yet often light and witty. In this spirit, let me offer three suggestions to Slate's editors and writers.

1. Use Your Medium—Link to Original Documents. Reporters, columnists, editors, I don't trust you. Don't take it personally: I don't trust anyone. Nor should you trust things I write. Everyone makes mistakes, sometimes caused by our ideological preconceptions and sometimes just by human frailty. Remember the line about a good journalist: He's the one who, when his mother tells him she loves him, tries to get it confirmed through two independent sources. Many readers approach journalists' articles the same way.

So, if, for instance, you think you've nailed President Bush in an error, link to the whole speech, so people can see the context. That way, when you're mocking Bush for saying, "I'm honored to shake the hand of a brave Iraqi citizen who had his hand cut off by Saddam Hussein," readers can easily go to the full quote, and see that it says

I'm honored to shake the hand of a brave Iraqi citizen who had his hand cut off by Saddam Hussein. … I appreciate Joe Agris, the doctor who helped put these hands on these men. … These men had hands restored because of the generosity and love of an American citizen …

Bush was shaking the prosthetic hands of people whose real hands had been cut off by Hussein. In context, there's nothing risible about his statement (as Spinsanity also noted; for similar examples, see here, here, and here).

Because of this, I think the Bushisms column shouldn't have run this statement. But I realize that others may disagree. That's why, rather than the impossible first-best world of "always quote accurate sources, and in context," I prefer the second-best world in which writers try their hardest to be accurate, but also provide the sources so readers can judge for themselves.

Likewise, say you want to claim that "the violent crime rate in Canada is 10 times lower than in the United States." Include a link to the document that supports this assertion—or, if the document isn't on the Web, and you can't put it online, at least link to a paragraph that cites the source.

As it happens, the most authoritative sources suggest (based on 1999 data) that the violent crime rate in Canada is roughly similar to that in the United States, and certainly not 10 times less. The Canadian homicide rate is indeed much lower, but by a factor of four, not 10. The "10 times lower" claim, the Slate people told me, came from a Sept. 5, 2004 article in the Spokane Spokesman-Review; that article didn't give a precise further source, and the book it generally refers to (Seymour Martin Lipset's Continental Divide) doesn't seem to support the assertion.

Linking to the source, or at least identifying it, would alert readers that the author is (in this case) relying on a newspaper account, not on the underlying study. Having to provide this link might also remind the writer and the editor that the claim may deserve stronger support, or perhaps should be removed if no such support is available. And maybe a link would make readers trust you more, precisely because they know you're willing to provide the original sources.

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.

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.

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.

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.