Thursday, February 20, 2003

Just before the 2000 election, Slate magazine polled its staff, and discovered that support for Al Gore was overwhelming (and for Nader, substantial). Editor Michael Kinsley defended his publication against the charge of bias: "for the millionth time!—an opinion is not a bias!" But the issue was never bias, but rather balance; unlike partisan publications such as, say, The Nation or National Review, general-interest journals of politics and culture are supposed to cover the gamut of relevant points of view. When the staff is so thoroughly partisan, though, readers get--well, they get articles like "Roll Call".

Billed as a survey of "prominent people in politics, the arts, entertainment, business, and other fields" and their views on invading Iraq, the article originally presented the opinions of 27 people of an astoundingly homogeneous cast. (At least one has been added since then; perhaps more will follow.) The list includes four former Democratic Party politicians, including three former Clinton administration officials; four alumni of the Washington Monthly (a legendary liberal political journal whose staff once included Kinsley); three from the masthead of The American Prospect (a not-so-legendary liberal political/economic journal); and one each from the New York Review of Books, Dissent, and The Nation. And I haven't even mentioned nouvelle radical Arianna Huffington, labor lawyer Tom Geoghehan, or Brookings Institution scholar (and Center on Budget and Policy Priorities board member) Henry J. Aaron. The business world is represented by two individuals--one of the former Clinton administration officials and a Financier who made number 131 on the Mother Jones 400 for his nearly $300,000 in political contributions in 2000--all of it to the Democratic party.

Thus without double-counting (Robert Reich is both a Clinton man and an American Prospect co-founder), the 27 include a total of 17 explicitly self-identified liberal, leftist or Democratic Party-affiliated personalities (63%)--for all but one of whom the identification was, at one time at least, in an official capacity. In contrast, there is one self-identified conservative in the list (Peggy Noonan), and three others who may or may not call themselves conservative, but who are frequently labeled as such (Heather MacDonald, John McWhorter, and Charles Murray). The remaining 6 include a novelist, an essayist, filmmaker Spike Lee, a comedy writer, and two military veterans-turned-journalists.

Now, it is certainly conceivable that such a politically monochromatic group (ranging from centrish to leftish liberal Democrats, with a few outliers) could have produced a breathtaking array of original and varied insights into the question at hand. In fact, though, they did not; the generally canned-sounding responses added staggeringly little to the regular Slate ruminations of Fred Kaplan (a former staffer for the late Democrat Rep. Les Aspin), Mickey Kaus (another Washington Monthly alumnus), or, for that matter, Kinsley himself.

If Slate were an openly partisan rag, it surely would never have dared inflict on its fellow loyalist readers such a collection of bland, conventional, uninspiring commentary. Its pages would instead be filled with either sparkling internal debate or, if consensus had been reached, rousing calls to the faithful. And if Slate were at all serious about its professed political ecumenicalism, it would have presented a rich, eye-catching smorgasbord of views from all across the political and social spectrum. But because it's the worst of both worlds--a liberal stronghold masquerading as a pluralist publication--it can neither rally nor provoke; it can only bore.

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