Michael Kinsley takes readers' questions on Buckley, journalism, politics, and honesty.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Feb. 28 2008 1:12 PM

Kinsley on Intellectual Honesty

Bill Buckley had it, journalism should strive for it, and politics needs more of it.

Slate's founding editor, Michael Kinsley, was online on Washingtonpost.com on Feb. 28 to chat about the late William F. Buckley Jr., the New York Times' McCain story, journalistic ethics, and the presidential campaign. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Michael Kinsley: Good morning. Let's go.

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Washington: How much criticism are you get from your left-wing brethren for your take on this John McCain story?

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Michael Kinsley: None at all. I've gotten more favorable feedback from that piece than anything i've written for years.

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East Lansing, Mich.: I thought of you when I heard Buckley had died. I am not conservative, but I had a real appreciation for Buckley (a bit of a crush, really). Through Firing Line and other PBS fare he introduced me to so many great people and ideas (like you and yours). Malcolm Muggeridge also comes to mind. The way he treated people who disagreed with him gave me a template for my freedom of ideas—even if most people didn't react that way to a teenager with her own nonstandard ideas, or a 46-year-old thinking "outside the box," he let me know that there were people out there who enjoyed ideas and discussion.

Michael Kinsley: No question that Buckley set a standard that many voices on the left and the right today—but, imho, especially on the right—don't meet for civility in the political discourse.

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Reston, Va.: Mr. Kinsley: Any chance you might pen and publish an update of your column from the run-up to the 2004 presidential election that provided a raft of myth-debunking facts about the nation's economic fortunes under Democratic and Republican presidents? I have shared that column with a number of friends and associates in the past four years. Thank you.

washingtonpost.com: Do the Math(Post, Aug. 1, 2004)

Michael Kinsley: Many thanks for asking! Actually, I have updated that column every year when the new stats come out in the Economic Report of the President, around the beginning of February. This year I did a sort of truncated version before they came out, about a month ago, about how all the Repub candidates were vying to be the new Reagan when the old Reagan's record on spending, etc., was worse than Clinton's, from their point of view.

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Woodbridge, Va.: If I remember correctly, you were a frequent guest on Firing Line; how did you meet Bill Buckley, and what was your relationship with him like?

Michael Kinsley: I met Bill Buckley in 1982 when I first went on Firing Line. After that I spent probably 10 hours with him on TV for every one hour in private. (The same is true for Pat Buchanan.) In other words, I can't really claim to have known him well. But he was always, always kind and considerate and fun to be with.

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washingtonpost.com: I Remind Me of Reagan(Post, Feb. 1)

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Charlottesville, Va.: William Buckley subsidized National Review with remnants of his father's Mexican oil money—though what will happen to it now is anybody's guess. William Kristol's Weekly Standard is froth and bubbles on the fringe of cascading green ocean waves of Murdoch money (it is said to lose $1 million a year). Was the failure of Slate's subscription service because William Gates concluded that "a penny for your thoughts" was just about what he'd pay? What do you think of subsidized opinion-mongering?

Michael Kinsley:Slate's decision to stop charging for access was strictly a business decision about how to make the publication profitable. We realized (as has almost everyone by now—but this was very, very early) that you could make more money by selling ads to a large number of people who come for free than you can charging people for access.

Slate is now profitable, and that is one of the proudest accomplishments of my life. A main purpose of the whole exercise was to make the kind of journalism I like best self-supporting. That is the best protection.

On the other hand, I certainly don't mind rich people subsidizing magazines! It's better than race horses.

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Athens, Tenn.: Is there, in your opinion, a media bias toward or against a particular candidate in general? It seems that during Sen. McCain's first run he was the media darling. That of course did not help him. Now many assume that Sen. Obama is the de facto media favorite.

Michael Kinsley: I guess I share the conventional wisdom on both of these points. McCain has always been a media darling. At a magazine editors convention a few years ago, he started a speech by saying he was happy to be there addressing "my base." He gets and deserves points for jokes like that.

And the SNL take on Obama is also correct. He is a media darling now. Hillary is rightly bitter. I am puzzled—something happened about six weeks ago that was like a light switch turning off, or on: All of a sudden, she became "the Clintons," and every resentment of her and her husband came to the surface among the media, liberals, everybody.

That said, I am not the best person to explain the media Obama swoon, since I have been a swooner myself.

No doubt we'll all turn on him at some point, faithless bastards that we are.

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Newton, Mass.: One of the things I have found most dismaying about contemporary conservatism is its intellectual dishonesty (though I suspect such a trait becomes more conspicuous and offensive the further the ideas of its owner depart from my own). How would you rate Mr. Buckley's intellectual honesty vis-a-vis other prominent conservative intellectuals (e.g. Bill Bennett, Richard Posner, David Brooks).

Michael Kinsley: I agree with you that there is a lack of intellectual honesty among conservatives today. Among liberals too, no doubt, tho I am partisan enough to feel that it's worse on the other side. In fact, I think that the lack of intellectual honesty is one of the real defects of the political dialogue in general. (The media are pretty good guardians of factual honesty—they will nail a lie if they can. But flagrant hypocrisy, for example, is much harder for them to deal with.)

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