In celebration of Slate Plus’ first anniversary, we’re republishing a selection of pieces from the past year, including this article, which was originally published on Sept. 29, 2014.
Jessica Winter moderated “Is Slate Too Liberal?” from Sept. 17 through Sept. 23. Slate Plus members can read the full thread here.
Recently at Slate’s annual retreat, we asked staffers to reflect on how political bias—specifically, what is perceived to be the magazine’s left-liberal leanings—may affect our coverage. The conversation was so spirited that we wanted to open it out to Slate Plus members. Many reiterated the point that integrity—as measured in fidelity to facts and rigorous critical thinking—was far more important than any semblance of ideological “balance,” and indeed that Slate’s generally left-of-center point of view is one of the things that attracts them to the magazine. Others had plenty of constructive criticisms and thoughtful suggestions, including adding more conservative voices to our print work and podcasts, working harder at achieving geographic diversity, and scaling back on framing stories in terms of “identity politics.” Below are lightly edited highlights from the discussion—which we welcome all our readers to continue.
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Several members said they were bothered by what they characterized as a geographic (as distinguished from partisan) bias.
Lestroid: It seems to me that Slate has a bias towards D.C. and NYC. Many of its writers demonstrate a cluelessness about the lives of people who do not live in those [areas]. From reading the Slate comments it appears that your readership is more regionally diverse than your staff. I suppose that this would also explain the lack of political diversity amongst your writers as well.
Adding some staff writers from other regions outside of the northeast and D.C. might bring some nuance to Slate's reporting, so that there is less of a knee-jerk assumption that all Southerners are bigoted rednecks, for example. There might be some better understanding of underlying issues that affect a political race.
Jessica Winter, Slate business and technology editor: Our main offices are indeed in D.C. and NYC, and perhaps geography is destiny. To be entirely fair, we have video and podcast producers in California, art staff in Atlanta, a senior editor in Cincinnati, our resident policy wonk is in Iowa City, our weather guru is in Wisconsin, our history editor is in Ohio, and on and on ... but the point is well-taken! I do feel as though I ask variations on the question "Is this story too New York–y?" a lot in discussions with writers, but maybe I need to ask it more often.
Lestroid: I'm not really referring to articles or podcasts that specifically focus on life in NYC. In fact I enjoy learning about the culture of a place that is so different from the places I have lived. I'm talking more about reporting on events that happen around the country. There seems to be an East Coast bias to the presentation of those events and the depiction of the people in other places.
Nomoreno: Agree, they could at least have a Silicon Valley reporter that lives in Silicon Valley, not New York.
Jessica Winter, Slate: Ah, this is a dream of mine, too!
David de los Angelos: Hello Lestroid, I have long since accepted the fact that cultural and political dialogue will be constantly be clothed for snow in winter, humidity in the summer, and will be getting about town in taxi cabs. There are people all over the world who know what the five boroughs are and how far Georgetown is from the Capitol but who have never set foot in North America. C'est la vie.
Mark Allender: Absolutely right on here—thank you for bringing this up…I am in Cleveland, and I've heard more than once in Slate what a shithole Cleveland is. And it isn't—I love this city.
Jessica Winter: But Mark, according to Slate, Cleveland should be the Next Silicon Valley!
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Member @Nomoreno challenged Slate’s decision to carve out sections of the magazine into “identity-specific categories.”
Nomoreno: …It's OK to have strong opinions and points of view. That's the point of the site … I dislike segregating coverage areas into identity-specific categories, such as "Feminist," "Black," "Gay," or what have you. For one, it gets hard to fill these beats with substantial stories all the time…As a gay guy, I can tell you, our navels are not that interesting. It’s also a bit polarizing and intellectually limited to always see events through the lens of some type of identity politics. On a slightly more political note, I think its a bit paternalistic to put people in these boxes. There is so much more to a human being then these identities.
Will Saletan, Slate national correspondent: I think you're spot-on about identity-oriented coverage. This is a problem of the Internet in general: Clearly identifiable constituencies flock to articles on their favorite topics. Moving beyond that and addressing these topics from other perspectives is good journalism, but it's harder to find the more complex, non-identity-driven audience that responds to that kind of coverage.
Drivewest: I disagree that coverage is now "segregated by identity." I view the coverage as just more coverage on different topics, not "special coverage." I particularly like the relatively recent coverage on race- and ethnicity-related topics, because Slate had essentially zero reporting on this for many years. My only wish is that your writers moved beyond the black-white binary for discussions on race.
Saying that this coverage is "viewed through the lens of some type of identity politics" is making the lens of white, straight, well-to-do folks the "default" and pretending that isn't a lens at all.
Bryan Lowder, Slate assistant editor: The question of whether identity-oriented coverage is "good for journalism" is a complicated one, but I will say this in its defense: I was writing about LGBTQ stuff for Slate long before we launched Outward, and no one ever knew where to run it. It usually ended up in Double X, which is inappropriate for all kinds of reasons. The truth is, people already think of women and gays as other or niche, and "our issues," much as they should be treated as "mainstream," simply won't get the space and attention they deserve in a context where straightness (and perhaps to a lesser extent) maleness are the default metrics of interest. With Outward, we have a space where we can write about subjects that would never make the "regular" sections of most publications—whether cultural, political or otherwise—because they would be considered too fine-grained or specific. I also think it's good to have spaces where a basic fluency with the context and issues can be assumed: When I write about drag queens vs. Facebook, say, I don't want to have to start by explaining what drag is from scratch. If you have clicked into Outward, we are assuming you know at least that, or that you are curious enough to look it up if you don't. Lumping everything together would negate much of that richness, I think.
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Member @mattdick said that he dislikes when writers assume their readership arrive with liberal views.
Mattdick: I tend to knee-jerk into the "rigor and integrity should be enough" camp, but I have a nuanced proviso before you agree to agree with me. I find not the liberalism, but the assumption of liberalism, to be problematic.
I may not agree with some point of view that is left of my beliefs, but I can accept as fair and reasonable someone who might hold that opinion. But [the] assumption that all right-thinking people not must agree, but do agree with that opinion—that bothers me … Don't assume that someone who disagrees with you is a mythical beast.
Jessica Winter, Slate: One great strategy for our more politically-minded or ideologically oriented bloggers is to keep an eye out for people whom you'd ordinarily disagree with who are saying smart things. For example: As a left-leaning business writer, our Moneybox writer Jordan Weissmann knows that if, say, Marco Rubio does a good job on X issue this week, then it's going to be worthwhile and surprising and value-added for a left-leaning publication to give Rubio credit where credit is due. Maintaining editorial rigor and integrity goes hand in hand with never worrying about toeing an ideological line, I think.
Mattdick: That's definitely the way to go for a variety of reasons. Our current political discourse is ruined partially by the instinct to ascribe criminality to our opponent's motivations. You may think Obama was wrong to delay the full application of Obamacare, but to call him a criminal over it should disqualify you from eating at the grown-ups' table.
Will Saletan, Slate: So true. The illness here is incomprehension of other viewpoints. Get past that, and the quality of your thought goes way up, even if you end up with the same general position.
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@Tortugaracing initiated a discussion of whether Slate needed to publish more conservative writers.
Tortugaracing: It feels like more of Slate’s recent content assumes that the reader shares the author’s expressed liberal viewpoint. I think this is more visible on Slate because articles often blend news and editorial and things like Slate podcasts and S+ push the writers (and their viewpoints) out from behind the story.
Adding more articles from writers with equally visible conservative viewpoints could be interesting. I would hope that they would write about issues and events that could just as easily be covered by a writer with a liberal viewpoint and that the reader would come away with a similar understanding of the facts (albeit with likely a different interpretation).
Will Saletan, Slate: I wonder whether we need more conservatives writing with equally visible assumptions, or whether the problem is the tendency toward assumptions in general. When we write with the assumption that the reader shares our viewpoint (and I think you're right about that problem), we leave beliefs and frameworks unscrutinized. But scrutiny is our job, right?
Rachael Larimore, Slate senior editor: I would like to see us publish more articles from conservatives with visible viewpoints, but I hope that we would not publish pieces that assume the reader agrees with the author. Such assumptions are a turn-off for me.
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Member @Mvn argued that Slate should not pursue balance at the expense of truth.
Mvn: Balance should never be the goal, truth should be the goal. By all means, report real questions—not manufactured controversies, but truly open questions. Take climate change: The science is settled, the response is not. We need to have open discussions of how to react and adapt to a changing climate. We cannot do that as long as the news media keeps trying to provide "balance" in airing a side (deniers) that has no validity…Would Slate be "too liberal" in taking climate change as a given? Some would say yes, and call for balance. That is false equivalence, and Slate should avoid that type of "balance." Is the traditional "liberal" set of responses all there is? No. But the real, properly balanced discussion of climate change never happens because the news media keeps reporting a controversy that has no basis in fact.
Laura Helmuth, Slate science and health editor:
Totally agree about false balance being a problem in journalism, especially when writers who don't know anything about science try to write about science. I handle most of our health and science coverage, and there are a lot of things we at Slate treat as beyond debate even though people still debate about them. Climate change is real, and so is evolution. Vaccines are safe, nutritional supplements often aren't, and homeopathy is baloney.
Jessica Winter, Slate: There are definitely certain positions on certain issues that Slate takes as a given, from the settled science of climate change to marriage equality to the literally unspeakable affront of the name of the Washington football team. But the majority of issues and topics we engage on Slate just don't break down along ideological lines so easily—recent debates on military intervention in distressed countries and our coverage of the NSA's overreach are just two that come to mind where liberal/moderate/conservative response has been all over the map.
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@Confusedmarmot wondered if some areas of emphasis in Slate’s coverage reflect the interests of average Americans.
1. The podcasts provide good balance in their discussion of political and social issues. For example, the Political Gabfest commentators provide the facts, offer their opinions, and offer counterarguments to their opinions. The result is insightful, rigorous analysis.
2. Keep coming down on the side of facts and reasoned analysis. Sometimes the facts fall on the "liberal" side (e.g., climate change) and sometimes they don't (e.g., genetically modified crops).
3. If Slate has a bias, I think it is more in terms of its "life" pieces than its political pieces. For example, there seem to be a disproportionate number of articles about academia (job market for Ph.D.'s, what professors should do about student evaluations, can professors date grad students, etc.). I don't think these articles reflect the issues average Americans are interested in.
Dan Kois, Slate culture editor: Interesting point about academia pieces. I edit many of those, and the traffic on them suggests some strong audience exists out there for that writing and those arguments—so are the millions of readers who clicked on, for example, “Thesis Hatement,” not “average Americans”? In a way they aren't! Many of them were academics themselves. But it seems to me that there is no “average American,” and part of our job is to find articles that explore a niche-y subculture and find a way to make it interesting to a broader audience. Sometimes we succeed at that and sometimes (more often maybe?) we don't.