The editors at Slate, as part of their 10th-anniversary editorial mix, have asked me to expand upon some drive-by remarks I made about Slate in a Vanity Fair column not too long ago. (Actually, it was more than a year ago, but the Slate folk seem to remember their negative press keenly.) This kind of invitation demands, or begs, a degree of generosity and good sportsmanship. So, compliments: Slate speaks with a variety of highly identifiable voices, less filtered, or edited, or packaged than in almost any other mainstream publication. (Let me, reasonably, count Slate as established rather than alternative media.)
My problem is that many of these voices give me the creeps. What’s more, the voices are so identifiable, seem so real, so true to life, that my dislike of what has been written often extends to who’s done the writing. Jack Shafer, Jacob Weisberg, and Michael Kinsley—some of the voices that have dominated Slate—are my idea of a get-me-out-of-here party.
In a sense, this is an achievement. Slate, like Fox News, is part of the opinion media where even a negative reaction is a positive reaction. To me, the Slate people are insufferable in ways that are quite similar to the ways the Fox people are insufferable—at Fox, they like to be the toughest guys in the barroom; at Slate, the most overachieving guys in the classroom—demonstrating, perhaps, that affect rather than ideology is the culture’s most irritating force.
In the column I wrote for Vanity Fair, a 3,000- or 4,000-word piece, of which a few hundred words were targeted at Slate, I said that Jack Shafer, my media-columnist counterpart at Slate, had a certain school-monitor sensibility. Not the kindest thing you could say, and yet not a blood attack, either.
But Shafer set upon me. In short order and high dudgeon, he posted a column, double or triple the length of my comments, charging egregious conflict of interest in the motives of my criticism. Most pointedly, he concluded that I was saying bad things about him because, seven years earlier, he’d said bad things about me when he’d reviewed a book that I’d written.
There are at least two interesting points here, beyond Jack Shafer’s long memory. The first is that his review—which you will have to take on faith that I did not recall until Shafer reminded me of it (strange, since generally I remember all bad reviews)—was an oddly fevered, frothing-at-the-mouth-style personal attack (I am, he said, “a little shit”). The second point is that, upon further inspection, it seems that every really bad review I’ve ever received has been written by someone who is associated with Slate. Really. I don’t know what to make of this. Possibly, I represent something (although what that is, I can only guess at) that really rankles these people. Or, more likely, there are just too many would-be media people trying to become full-fledged media people by writing about other media people, and, hence, territorial issues arise and tempers inevitably fray (part of Slate’s economic model appears to be to provide a forum for people who, given their grandiosity and determination to rise in the media business, will work for low wages). It’s a quarrelsome circle.
As for Weisberg, Slate’s editor, in my Vanity Fair column I poked fun at him for taking censorious notice of my early escape from John Edwards’ dishwater-dull acceptance speech when we were both in Boston at the last Democratic National Convention. But it is not really Jacob’s self-seriousness (he, too, has a bit of the hall monitor about him) that bothers me. Rather, it’s his extreme and relentless careerism, evident too in almost every other writer at Slate—ironically, at a time when there is so little to gain in a journalism career—that I find exhausting and charmless. This not only bores me but, given my own issues in this regard, embarrasses me.
Slate, in other words, is by and for smart boys trying strenuously to be ever smarter than anyone they perceive as threatening their smartest status—all with the hope of ending up at some more or less horrible job at the New York Times.
As for Michael Kinsley, Slate’s founder and the mentor to Shafer and Weisberg, I just don’t get him. The idea that he represents a higher order of American journalism and opinion—that people might aspire, as everyone at Slate does, to be him—is just too strange.
Still, after 10 years—and how can that be? Where did the time go?—almost anything can happen. Aging (not that I’d know) can be salubrious. Certainly, 10 years on, Slate ought to be grand enough and confident enough to, at the very least, host this little bit of back talk without needing to have an ever-competitive, ever-striving last word.