We Don’t Like Your Altitude

A bad altitude and some new features.

We Don’t Like Your Altitude

One of our goals at Slate is to provide what we call “intelligent synthesis” of the news of the week. Through features such as “Frame Game” (see William Saletan’s analysis of the dismissal of the Paula Jones lawsuit), we hope to provide a deeper understanding than a conventional news summary would enable, but without the time-wasting encrustation of quotations and anecdotes that clogs the typical newspaper or magazine story.

We like to think that in our small way, we’re having some influence on the conventional media, too. For example, a few days ago, the NewYorkTimes ran this headline: “Plane’s Altitude Blamed in Crash That Killed 33.” There, in remarkably few words, the Times gets to the essence of a complicated story. Altitude problems caused the crash! What more, after all, does one need to know? Pedants may quibble that the problem was, more precisely, a lack of altitude, but that is a small point. The larger conceptual breakthrough is the Times’ discovery of the single factor–altitude, or the lack thereof–that can explain all plane crashes past and future. Solve the altitude problem, and no one need fear boarding an airplane ever again.

We who write headlines as part of our jobs are used to being underappreciated for the contribution we make to human betterment. We are ordinarily happy to labor in anonymity: No one ever gets a byline for a headline, however brilliant. But this is a special case. Some toiler on the Times copy desk has completed the great work begun by the Wright Brothers. They lifted humankind up; he or she has figured out how to keep us there. It all depends on having the right altitude. Surely a Pulitzer is called for, if not a Nobel.

More for Your $19.95

We’ll be trying a few new editorial features next week. Watch out for them:

As announced last week, “International Papers” is now attached to the Tuesday and Friday e-mail deliveries of “Today’s Papers.” And starting in a couple of days, your Monday morning delivery of Today’s Papers will include our fruitcake of the Sunday Washington talk shows, “Pundit Central.” To sign up (or to sign up again if you were cut off during the sign-up process), click here.

We invited Gertrude Himmelfarb, the historian, to exchange e-mail for a week with journalist Andrew Sullivan about whatever struck them as interesting in the news that day. Himmelfarb (who is married to Irving Kristol, the neoconservative thinker) tortured us by saying it sounded like a good conversation over the breakfast table–which is just what we have in mind–but that she’d rather keep her own views to her own breakfast table. Damn. But that did give us a name for this experimental dialogue–“The Breakfast Table”–and we did line up Nation columnist Katha Pollitt, who is no mean consolation prize, to share cyberkrispies with Sullivan starting Wednesday, April 8. And we hope neither the vigorously conservative Himmelfarb nor the vigorously left-wing Pollitt is offended at the notion that they are what used to be called “moral equivalents.”

“Chatterbox,” our frequently updated column of gossip, speculation, scuttlebutt, and philosophical reflection on politics, has been so popular that we’re initiating “Culturebox,” a similar feature on, well, culture. We define culture broadly to include almost anything except Monica Lewinsky, who is adequately covered, we hope, by Chatterbox.

–Michael Kinsley