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What Happened at Slate This Week? 

Senior technology writer Will Oremus shares what stories intrigued him at the magazine this week. 

Drawing by Charlie Powell

Will Oremus.

Drawing by Charlie Powell

Hi Slate Plus-sters,

I’m Will Oremus, our senior technology writer, which makes it sound like I write about tech for the nursing-home crowd, which in fact I do only occasionally. My background is in local news, and I used to spend city council meetings daydreaming of one day writing for Slate. I got my chance in 2010, when a professor in my master’s program at Columbia Journalism School read one of my pieces and mused that he could imagine it running in a magazine like The Nation—“or maybe Slate,” he added. He offered to put me in touch with an editor at whichever one I preferred, to see if they’d be interested in publishing it. “Slate!” I fairly shouted. “Slate!”

Miraculously, then-foreign editor June Thomas liked it, and proceeded to give it one of the most astute edits I’d ever received. The piece, about the economics of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, did not necessarily portend a career as a tech blogger. But it helped me land a Slate internship after I graduated, and I stuck around doing whatever I could to make myself worthwhile. I wrote Slatest posts for Josh Voorhees, backed up Jeremy Stahl on the social-media feeds, turned Republican presidential candidates into tiny animated horses, and finally landed steady work covering technology for Josh Levin. And that’s how I ended up here today, writing about the latest advances in gadgets for geriatrics.

So what happened on Slate this week? Rather a lot, actually—and while I hate to get too serious in a friendly Slate Plus chat, the fact is that it was a pretty serious week.  I’ll start with a brief story about the piece that generated the most conversation in my own little household.  

My wife loves Slate, but on Tuesday she told me something I don’t hear from her very often: “I read a story on Slate today that I didn’t like.” It was Allison Benedikt and Hanna Rosin’s piece criticizing Rolling Stone’s stunning cover story about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia.

First, some background: A week ago, Rosin spurred a wave of media scrutiny of the Rolling Stone piece when she interviewed its author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, on the DoubleX Gabfest. Erdely seemed to dodge her repeated questions about how hard she had tried to contact the perpetrators on the alleged seven-man assault that served as her story’s ghastly centerpiece. Her evasive answers triggered coverage in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and elsewhere that raised fresh doubts about the credibility of Rolling Stone’s reportage—and, by inevitable implication, the credibility of the victim’s story.

This week’s column by Benedikt and Rosin was a follow-up in which the Slate editors added their own reporting and commentary to explain why it mattered that Erdely had failed to contact the alleged rapists. Their column was an incisive piece of media criticism. So why didn’t my wife like it?

It wasn’t because it was a bad piece, she explained. But she worried about how people would react to it, and to other pieces like it. Specifically, she suspected that they would jump prematurely to the conclusion that the victim’s story was false (which was not at all clear at the time, and still isn’t). By casting suspicion on the rape victim’s truthfulness, she felt, Slate was contributing to people’s tendency to doubt or downplay the stories of rape survivors. She also worried the intense scrutiny might serve, unintentionally, as a warning to other young women not to come forward with their own stories, even if they were true.

Questioning a rape victim’s account is dicey territory. The safe thing, especially for a publication whose readership leans progressive, would be to shy away from it. But Benedikt and Rosin didn’t do the safe thing. They did the journalistic thing, which is to pursue the truth, even when the truth might be uncomfortable, unfortunate, or poorly received by some. And, as of Friday, it appears their concerns about Rolling Stone’s methodology were justified.

It may be true that the uproar over of the Rolling Stone story is, as The Atlantic put it, terrible news for rape survivors. (Let’s hope it isn’t.) But while I understand my wife’s misgivings about a potential blacklash, the fault lies with Rolling Stone, not the journalists whose reporting poked holes in its narrative. And as awful as it will be if any future rape victims are taken less seriously by sexists who use this saga to prop up their biases, I’m convinced it would be worse to inhabit a world in which the media refrain from asking hard questions for fear of the political implications.

I fell in love with Slate years ago, long before I was hired as an intern here in 2011, not only because its writers were witty and thoughtful, but because they were intellectually fearless. There were no questions they were too timid to ask. And I liked it that Slate’s writers often reached conclusions that clashed with my own values and preconceptions.  

Slate’s editorial voice and approach to the news have evolved over the years as the site has grown and the media landscape has shifted. The site now publishes far more than it used to, and some of its UVA-related stories were more credulous than others. But the magazine’s culture of free inquiry into troubling issues, and willingness to raise awkward questions, has persisted. To me, the work of Rosin and Benedikt exemplifies that. (Rosin, by the way, published a fresh follow-up on Friday after Rolling Stone’s editors backed away from their story, acknowledging “discrepancies.”)

Another magazine that embodied that ethic, on its better days, was The New Republic. I say “was” because the magazine’s young owner, Facebook tycoon Chris Hughes, fired the top editors this week and announced sweeping changes, prompting an earnest eulogy from Slate’s David Greenberg, a former TNR intern. The magazine’s demise, as Greenberg saw it, was not only about the financial struggles of print media. Rather, it was a casualty of “the polarization of a media environment that leaves little room for a strain of liberal thought that not only attacks the right and the far left but also prods and questions liberalism itself.”

Our Seth Stevenson, meanwhile, reviewed the Twitter fights that erupted over the magazine’s past and future, in one of those great Slate pieces that I didn’t entirely agree with but of which I enjoyed every word. (Stevenson is a marvelous writer—I’d read him on just about any topic.)

What else transpired in our virtual pages this week? A highlight was Jamelle Bouie’s nuanced analysis of the human and institutional psychology that leads some police officers to resort too readily to deadly force.

Science editor Laura Helmuth gave DNA co-discoverer and racist crank James Watson the dressing-down he deserves.

Linda Tirado explained why poor people stay poor.

In a delightful match of author and topic, Simon Doonan ruminated on Kim Kardashian’s backside and the high bar we’ve set for celebrities to truly shock us.

The editors of the Slate Book Review chose their top 10 books of the year—and all 10 were written by women.

Finally, the best piece of writing in the magazine this week was Bryan Lowder’s fresh, powerful, impressionistic essay on the effects of Truvada, an HIV prevention pill, on gay culture and identity