The First 20

What Slate Said About the Next 20

How we covered the events that are shaping the future.


Todd Boebel

For our 20th anniversary, Slate is revisiting the events of the past two decades that, we suspect, best foretell the events of the next two. But how did the magazine cover those stories as they happened? Join us as we dive into the archives. (This page will be updated as the rest of the Next 20 arrives.)

July 17, 1996: Walking and Talking Opens in Theaters

Slate didn’t review Walking and Talking on its release. (To be fair, we didn’t review many movies.) The first mention came in Sarah Kerr’s 2002 Movie Club dispatch, in which she expressed disappointment in Holofcener’s Lovely & Amazing “since I adored director Nicole Holofcener’s first film, Walking and Talking, the shrewdest depiction of female best-friendship I know of.” (Slate’s David Edelstein put Lovely & Amazing on his 10 best list that year.)

Walking and Talking first started to come up regularly in 2012, with the release of Girls. Seth Stevenson was the first to make the connection, in an all-male Girls round table: “With her hyper-realistic focus on money issues, body image, and female camaraderie, Holofcener is the godmother of Girls.”

That same year, we put Walking and Talking on a list of 50 movies from the 1990s that weren’t directed by white American men. (Lots of great movies on that list; if you like Walking and Talking, check out High Art.) Dana Stevens endorsed it on the Culture Gabfest; Seth on the DoubleX Gabfest. Holofcener’s breakout film, Enough Said, came out the following year, and Dana launched her review with a personal paean to Walking and Talking:

I’ve long thought Nicole Holofcener pretty much walks on water. Her first film, Walking and Talking (1996), is an old favorite, a movie I know almost by heart. I can’t exactly make an objective argument for its place in the cinematic canon, but it made me laugh and meant something to me when I was an aimless, anxious, self-sabotaging twentysomething like the character at its center.

Further reading: Troy Patterson’s amazing essay on Girls, New York, voices, and generations, “The New York Observers.”

Aug. 8, 1997: Charles Moore Discovers the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

In the summer of 2009, Slate writer Miriam Goldstein, moonlighting as an oceanography Ph.D. student, led an expedition to explore the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. She came out of it with material for three peer-reviewed papers on such topics as “Scales of Spatial Heterogeneity of Plastic Marine Debris in the Northeast Pacific Ocean,” but Slate got only a single brief report, in which Goldstein summed up her trip with a note of disappointment that anticipated Dan Engber’s Garbage Patch debunking: “Though we didn’t find a giant floating garbage dump or a vast garbage island, we did find a lot of plastic bits.”

March 8, 1999: The New York Times Identifies Scientist Wen Ho Lee as the Target of a Nuclear Espionage Investigation at Los Alamos

Around the turn of the millennium, Slate tracked the news through its proto-aggregation feature Today’s Papers. You can follow the Wen Ho Lee case, and watch the Times disgrace itself, through those columns, although it’s probably not the best way to understand the story. Journalism is the first draft of history, and like most first drafts it’s usually a mess.

The second draft of history is explanatory journalism, as with this Explainer column from Aug. 31, 1999, when the case against Lee was beginning to unravel. “The thinness of the evidence against him has led some to suggest that Lee, who was born in Taiwan, is being persecuted because of his ethnic heritage,” writes the Explainer. “There is scant evidence for that, too.” (The byline for that column has dropped off the page at some point during the past 17 years, one of a panoply of glitches that Nathan Heller describes in his exploration of the archive.)

The third draft of history is media criticism—in this case a run of Chatterbox columns by Timothy Noah calling on the New York Times to take responsibility for its role in the Lee affair and assessing its gestures in the direction of an apology.

March 18, 1999: Nokia Introduces the 3210 Cellular Phone

According to our funky new archive-search machine, Slate has never mentioned the Nokia 3210 before, “gadget reviews” not really having been the kind of thing one did in 1999. But the search led me to this paragraph from Masha Gessen’s Kosovo dispatch, which gives a sense of the cultural footprint of cellphones immediately before the 3210’s release:

About a year and a half ago, Kosovo got a cell-phone network, and life changed. People could communicate with relatives abroad—and everyone in Kosovo has relatives abroad. As time went on, more and more people were also separated from their relatives, friends, and lovers up in the mountains fighting for the KLA. Cell phones do not work up there, but satellite phones do, and the KLA has a few of those. … Last night, when we went out to dinner in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, Faith pulled out a cell phone, a seriously loaded Nokia with a computer and all sorts of other extras. “It’s to make up for losing everything I owned,” she said.

Oct. 13, 2000: Ralph Nader’s Rally at Madison Square Garden

In keeping with Nader’s complaints to Michelle Goldberg, Slate didn’t cover his rally. Instead, we covered the Nader campaign from the perspective of increasingly anxious Gore supporters (as most of us were).

Robert Wright argued that the Clinton administration had created the opening for a left-wing anti-globalization candidate by giving short shrift to labor concerns in trade talks. Mickey Kaus countered that Al Gore, instead of struggling to win back his progressive base from Nader, should use Nader as a foil to re-establish his centrist bona fides. Nader himself wrote in urging Gore to take the bait.

American University law professor Jamin Raskin proposed a solution to the spoiler effect: a vote-swapping scheme in which Gore supporters in safe states would cast ballots for Nader while Nader backers in swing states pulled the lever for Gore. Various websites were launched to coordinate such an effort, although questions were raised about its legality.

A week before the vote, it was clear that Nader might throw the election to George W. Bush. Jacob Weisberg, in a column that pulled no punches, pointed out that was Nader’s express goal. “It’s not just that Nader is willing to take a chance of being personally responsible for electing Bush,” he wrote. “It’s that he’s actively trying to elect Bush because he thinks that social conditions in American need to get worse before they can better.”

Nov. 14, 2001: The First Armed Drone Strike

Slate missed the first drone raid, but we covered the subsequent ones pretty thoroughly—especially one that took place on Feb. 4, 2002.

In a piece about growing reports of Afghan civilian casualties, Scott Shuger cited the Pentagon’s use of “a drone-launched Hellfire missile to wipe out a group of people including a tall man perhaps thought by U.S. intelligence to be Osama Bin Laden.” (Spoiler: It wasn’t.) Eric Umansky argued that drones’ lousy cameras might be to blame for faulty drone raids—including one in which “an agent somewhere in the region, viewing a live feed from the Predator’s belly-mounted camera, thought the men were wearing Arab—not Afghan—garb, and that the leader was tall.” Robert Wright discussed the risks that arise “if the terrorists are hunted down sloppily, with lots of collateral damage (as when an American drone fired a Predator missile at a hapless Afghan because he was tall, wearing flowing robes, and getting what looked like deferential treatment from other men).”

Around the same time, Shuger addressed a less sympathetic criticism of drones: They put Air Force pilots out of work. “You can see why aviators would be upset at the prospect of such a huge net loss in fun and prestige,” he wrote. “But you can also see what the right thing to say to the Right Stuffers is: Get with the program—defending the country isn’t about you getting your jollies.”

April 1, 2002: Us Weekly Publishes “Stars—They’re Just Like Us” for the First Time

Slate first mentioned “Stars—They’re Just Like Us” in this 2004 head-to-head gossip-mag roundup. (The winner was the National Enquirer: “no waffling, no wondering, just blithe certainty.”) A 2006 story about Shiloh Jolie-Pitt, known at the time as “the Brangelina baby,” made a slightly botched reference to the feature’s name. (“Children, like movie stars, are just like us!”) By 2008, the phrase was sufficiently recognizable to be tweaked into a headline.

May 6, 2002: Warner Bros. Enquires About Partnering With a Leading Harry Potter Fan Site

Obviously Slate did not cover an email from a movie studio to a blogger in 2002, because we cannot read private emails or see into the future. But five years later, Tim Wu made reference to friendly emails from Warner Bros. to another Potter fan site proprietor, in a post discussing the legal gray area known as “tolerated use”—copyright violations that avoid prosecution by keeping rights holders happy. “Anelli’s inbox contains not cease-and-desist letters but rather invites to the premieres of the Potter films, and the after-parties, too,” Wu wrote.

In 2011, Rowling teased a new Potter project, which would turn out to be the official Harry site Pottermore. All you need to know about the relationship between fan sites and the Potter-industrial complex is summed up in the concluding sentence of Slate’s post: “Fan site The Leaky Cauldron was given a sneak peek at the new Rowling project and described it as ‘breathtaking.’ ”

Further reading: Dan Kois did not enjoy a visit to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in 2010, and Katie Roiphe tried to reckon with the power of Pottermania in 2013.

March 20, 2003: President Bush Announces the Onset of “Military Operations to Disarm Iraq”

This is the only thing Slate has ever published about the Iraq War.

(It’s not, unfortunately. See this round table from 2002, or this one from 2004, or this one from 2008, where some of the participants in the previous two wonder where they went wrong.)

Jan. 16, 2005: Journalist Marjorie Williams Dies

Jack Shafer wrote Marjorie Williams’ obituary for Slate. The magazine also pointed readers to some of Williams’ loveliest work. Slate blogger Mickey Kaus rounded up remembrances from elsewhere on the web, and offered his own. Then he reported on Williams’ memorial service, at which her 9-year-old daughter sang:

Just mature and soulful enough to leave the audience stunned, just child-like enough to break everyone apart again. How she mustered the courage to do it under those circumstances I don’t know. … 1:50 A.M.

Williams’ husband, Chatterbox columnist Timothy Noah, edited a collection of her profiles and essays; Meghan O’Rourke reviewed it. Then Noah wrote a remarkable piece about going on a book tour to promote it.

On Dec. 30, 2005, Noah wrote a roundup of notable people who had died in the previous two weeks, too late for print magazines’ “year in death” packages. He included Debra Moses, a real estate executive and advocate for women with cancer who had befriended Williams during her illness. “Like Marjorie’s death earlier this year at 47, Debbie’s death at 48 is obscene, a savage insult to decency,” Noah wrote. “Good riddance to 2005.”

March 5, 2006: Crash Wins the Oscar for Best Picture

Slate movie critic David Edelstein didn’t think much of Crash, but he was oddly gentle with it:

[T]he old-fashioned carpentry (evocative of ’30s socially conscious melodrama) makes this portrait of How We Live Now seem preposterous at every turn. A universe in which we’re all racist puppets is finally just as simpleminded and predictable as one in which we’re all smiling multicolored zombies in a rainbow coalition. It’s strange, but I came out of Crash feeling better about race relations—not because of anything in the screenplay, but because of the spectacle of all those terrific actors (of all those races) working together and giving such potentially laughable material their best shot.

In the end-of-year Movie Club, L.A. Weekly critic Scott Foundas was harsher:

Not since Spanglish—which, alas, wasn’t that long ago—has a movie been so chock-a-block with risible minority caricatures or done such a handy job of sanctioning the very stereotypes it ostensibly debunks. Welcome to the best movie of the year for people who like to say, “A lot of my best friends are black.”

The Oscar ceremony itself was discussed by another critical round table. Troy Patterson:

Crash, huh? Well, its victory provided presenter Jack Nicholson with a good opportunity to present Jack Nicholson. He pronounced the syllable with just the right note of surprise, combining incredulity with reassurance and saying warmly, with his eyebrows, “That’s Hollywood.”

Nov. 10, 2007: Presidential Candidate Barack Obama Speaks at the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in Iowa

The only Slate correspondent to cover Obama’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner speech was Mickey Kaus, who had a typically sharp and cynical take:

It’s a very skillful speech in that Obama simultaneously does three seemingly contradictory things:

1) Portrays himself as a “real” Democrat. (“Triangulating and poll-driven positions because we’re worried about what Mitt or Rudy might say about us just won’t do.”)

2) Portrays himself as a bipartisan bridge-builder! (“I expanded health care in Illinois by bringing Democrats and Republicans together.” … “I don’t want to pit Red America against Blue America. I want to be the President of the United States of America.”)

3) Portrays himself as a brave truthteller willing to tell voters “what they need to hear” as opposed to “what they want to hear”—to deliver the “bitter medicine” (as columnist Roger Simon put it on Hardball). …

Of course, Obama gives no examples of #3—in fact, he’s telling Iowa caucus Democrats more or less exactly what they want to hear, namely that they don’t have to compromise (#1). He’s certainly not telling them that the way to be a bipartisan bridge-builder (#2) is often precisely to violate #1 and “triangulate,” as Bill Clinton did on welfare reform.

(Kaus’ permalinks have not stood up to the ravages of time; your best bet is to click here and search for “Jefferson.”)

Dec. 31, 2007: For the First Time, Americans Send More Texts Than They Make Calls on Their Mobile Phones

Nothing. We covered the death of the letter and the email, but the venerable telephone call passed from the world without a Slate send-off, until now. For a while we allowed readers to download a ring tone of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright saying “Goddamn America!” though.

July 30, 2009: Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Police Officer James Crowley Meet With Barack Obama in the “Beer Summit” on the White House Lawn

Oh man, we had a lot of takes on this. John Dickerson looked at the significance of beer. Hitchens thought Gates should have stressed rights rather than race. Richard Thompson Ford went further: “[T]here’s really no evidence that the police officer involved was a racist rather than a bully with a badge or a decent cop who made a bad call.” The Explainer sorted out a bunch of legal questions raised by the incident; Brow Beat assessed the history of cinematic beer-bonding; and the Political Gabfest used the event as the basis for a punny episode title.

April 5, 2011: Mallory Ortberg Meets Nicole Cliffe in Person

We covered the end of The Toast more thoroughly than the beginning, for obvious reasons of temporal unidirectionality. We did hire Mallory, though.

March 5, 2012: Invisible Children Releases the Video Kony 2012

March 7, 2012: Slate aggregates the Kony 2012 video.

March 9, 2012: Slate explainers the Central African Republic’s “boring name.”

March 13, 2012: Reckoning blogger Michael Moran addresses criticism of the Kony video, saying “Given the paucity of serious foreign coverage in the U.S. media, can we blame anyone for using the tools of modern media to get around the commercial filters that masquerade as ‘editorial judgment’ these days?”

March 14, 2012: The Culture Gabfest discusses the video.

March 16, 2012: Weigel blogger Dave Weigel points out that the Kony campaign’s shortcomings “wouldn’t be so troubling if people hadn’t died for this organization.”

March 19, 2012: Slate aggregates the video of director Jason Russell’s public breakdown and explainers Russell’s wife’s explanation for his breakdown.

Oct. 8, 2012: Slate aggregates Russell’s interview with Oprah.

May 20, 2014: Joshua Keating reports on the depressing findings of research on the Kony episode: The widespread outrage prompted by the campaign was a direct result of the film’s oversimplifications, and getting people to pay attention to something like the complex reality of central Africa is basically impossible.

June 12, 2016: 49 People Are Killed at Pulse, a Gay Nightclub in Orlando

We liveblogged the news from Orlando all day June 12. In the following days and weeks we published more than 100 stories connected to the shooting: on the Republican response, the history of violence at gay bars and clubs, gun control jurisprudence, Donald Trump’s speech, the congressional “moments of silence” that now routinely follow mass shootings, the impact of social media on terrorism, the future of the gay bar, and more.

Sept. 29, 2016: Slate Publishes the Blog Post “Reddit’s Vendetta Against St. Ives Apricot Scrub Is a Dermatological Inspiration”

We didn’t report on our publication of this blog post at all until the retrospective Next 20 essay came out the next day.