Slate Fare

What I Learned in 25 Years of Writing for Slate

Get out of your echo chamber, own your mistakes, and don’t get warped by Twitter.

Drawing of one bespectacled man looking overwhelmed on a laptop screen surrounded by angry speech bubbles with pointy teeth emerging from various devices
Illustration by Robert Neubecker

In 1996, Michael Kinsley called me with an offer. He was starting a magazine and wanted somebody to write a column, “The Horse Race,” tracking the presidential campaign. The race was boring—Bob Dole never had a shot against Bill Clinton—but the magazine, Slate, was exciting. Kinsley was going into the strange new world of online publishing.

In the quarter-century since, a lot has changed. Print magazines that scorned internet journalism collapsed or faded (it’s hard to believe now, but in the ’90s, people thought your article wasn’t real if it wasn’t on paper), while new websites popped up to challenge us. In the struggle for survival, many outlets withered and died. But Slate adapted and grew. And that’s how, against all the odds, I managed to work for 25 years at the same wonderful place.

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Except it isn’t exactly the same. Part of what has made Slate an interesting place to work—and why it’s still here—is that it changed. It has become younger, more energetic, and more diverse. It listens and speaks to people who weren’t central to its original audience. It opened its eyes and ears. It learned.

Little by little, the same thing happened to me. I learned. When people ask me why I’ve stayed so long in the same job, I have a simple answer: It was never the same job. Every day, the news changed. Something happened, or a new topic came up, or events put a new twist on some old issue. And my mission, before I talked or wrote about the new thing, was to learn about it.

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That’s how I understood the job as I was doing it. But over time, I realized that I wasn’t just learning new things. I was learning how to learn. When you’re young, and you’re lucky enough to get a platform—in my case, a writing job at an opinion magazine—it’s natural to think you’re there to churn out opinions. You have your issues, your passions, your takes. Then, gradually, you begin to understand how little you know and how wrong you often are. You become aware of your biases, your weaknesses, your tiresome rants.

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Looking back over my work at Slate, I can no longer count the topics I misjudged or the pieces I screwed up. Some are quite embarrassing, but every one of them taught me something. “Why Bush Is Toast,” which I wrote in September 2000 (spoiler: he wasn’t), taught me that I’m good at rationalizing predictions I hope will come true, and not so good at recognizing that that’s what I’m doing. “Give Him the Gun,” which I wrote two years later in the run-up to the Iraq war, taught me that I’m vigilant against existing threats but not so attentive to new problems that might arise from acting against those threats.

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My worst mistake was in 2007, when I wrote about race and IQ. To this day, the subject makes me feel almost physically ill. In addition to a basic scientific error—you can’t use data about the heritability of traits within a population to draw inferences between populations—I was spectacularly obtuse to the social context in which I was writing. I thought statistical averages within groups should make no difference in how individuals are perceived. And it would be lovely if we lived in that world. But we don’t.

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Recognizing these mistakes didn’t always stop me from repeating them. When Donald Trump won the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, I was sure he’d lose the general election. That’s because the propensities that cause a person’s errors—in my case, a tendency to rationalize optimism—persist even when that person knows better. But by studying your failures, you can learn to manage your propensities. If you look back at your work and don’t see any failures, that doesn’t mean you’ve succeeded. It means you’ve failed to become wiser than you were.

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And that’s what worries me about the online world we’re living in. I don’t see people learning from, or even recognizing, their mistakes. I see them caricaturing and gloating over the mistakes of others. In the old days, there was a lot of hope that the information age would make us smarter. It didn’t. Instead, high-speed communication, combined with algorithms that discern our biases and feed us what we want, helped us sort ourselves into echo chambers. On Twitter, Facebook, Slack, and other platforms, we’ve formed like-minded battalions that quickly spot the other side’s sins and falsehoods but are largely blind to our own.

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I don’t mean to suggest that tribalism is new or that it’s always political. In the late ’90s, when Microsoft was on trial for antitrust violations, Slate’s top editors—all of whom drew Microsoft paychecks and had Microsoft stock options—were almost comically unanimous in their motivated reasoning. Their politics ranged from progressive to neoliberal to libertarian, but their behavior was essentially identical: They summoned all of their intellectual power, which was prodigious, and used it to poke holes in the antitrust case—in effect, to defend Microsoft.

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Today, however, at Slate and many other publications, the range of political perspectives has shifted in ways that exacerbate our echo chamber problem. The left edge of left-leaning outlets used to be liberal; now it’s socialist. And the right edge, which used to include Republican viewpoints, is now liberal. Conversely, on the right, Fox News has lost its more moderate pundits—including longtime Republicans who left the party over Donald Trump—and now competes with more extreme outlets such as Newsmax and One America News Network. In both cases, this shift toward the wings has created platforms for viewpoints that—in some instances for good, and others for ill—used to be marginal. The two wings differ in many significant ways (to start with, leftists didn’t sack the U.S. Capitol), but both have insulated themselves from engagement with fundamentally opposing views.

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Debates between the left and center left often focus on limits or tactics. That’s because on many issues, such as health insurance, abortion, and climate, the two sides share basic values. But if you bring a smart conservative into that debate, you’ll hear broader, deeper objections. Grappling with strong arguments from the right has often helped me find weaknesses in my thinking. Without that kind of challenge, you can grow complacent.

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You can break free from the echo chamber, but it takes work. The first step is to look at your friends and colleagues, the people you talk to and listen to every day. What do they have in common? Are they all white? Christian? Liberal? Under 40? Whatever it is, that’s your bubble.

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The next step is to venture out. This is one healthy practice that the internet has made easier. You don’t have to travel 40 miles to meet conservative people in the countryside or liberal people in the city. You can meet them online. My favorite social medium is Twitter, so that’s where I go. But I don’t just read what Twitter feeds me, because that feed is based on whom I’ve followed, liked, or responded to. It reinforces my biases. Instead, I use Twitter’s “List” function to build alternative channels where I can get smart contrary views and information. Every day, I try to find and circulate at least one tweet that confounds my assumptions.

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If you do this a lot, the algorithm will learn from you. Twitter will begin to show you more content from the people in your alternative channels, and it will recommend other folks like them. And that’s how you progress to the third step: diversifying your circle and your audience. You can get out of an unhealthy feedback loop—captive to the left or right—and cultivate a more integrated community.

So that’s what I’ve learned in my time here: seek out other perspectives, study your failures, and try to become wiser every day. I can’t thank Slate enough for giving me that opportunity. I won’t be a regular here anymore, but I can’t leave the Slate family, any more than I could leave my family of origin. I have too many friends here, too many memories, and too much of myself woven into the place. This is where, as an adult, I grew up. It’s where I got my scars, learned about the world, and tried to do the best I could. Now it’s time for new people—people who see things I never could see—to come in and teach and learn. I can’t wait to read them.

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