Jack Shafer had his list ready. The celebrated media critic, who was laid off from Slate a few weeks ago then picked up by Reuters, was doing a live chat discussion on September 21 at the journalism site Poynter.org. A reader asked him about liberal media bias and what to do about it. Shafer, apparently off the top of his head, offered this:
Seriously, the overwhelming liberal bias of the journalists at Slate was outweighed by the eagerness of its editors to run tons and tons of conservative and libertarian writers. Here’s a list over the past 15 years: James Q. Wilson, Steve Chapman, Steven E. Landsburg, Brian Doherty, Richard A. Epstein, Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Caldwell, Michael Young, William F. Buckley Jr., Eugene Volokh, Herbert Stein, Ben Stein, Daniel Drezner, Karen Lehrman, David Brooks, Anne Applebaum, Sam Tanenhaus, Jonah Goldberg, Tucker Carlson, Mark Steyn, Matt Labash, Alex Kozinski, Jack Goldsmith, Douglas W. Kmiec, David Frum, Richard A. Posner, R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., Ross Douthat, Lucianne Goldberg, Viet Dinh, James Pinkerton, David Klinghoffer, Dinesh D’Souza, Wladyslaw Pleszczynski, Norman Podhoretz, Nick Gillespie, Midge Decter, Abigail Thernstrom, Stephan Thernstrom, Cathy Young, Radley Balko, Jill Stewart, Charles Paul Freund and William McGurn.
This is a deeply dishonest reply. There are 44 names on that list. For anyone who spends any time researching these writers, it becomes clear that: 1) not all of them are conservatives; 2) some who are conservatives were only allowed to contribute to Slate if they did not write about politics; 3) the few who wrote about politics generally wrote articles attacking their “fellow” conservatives; and 4) the majority of these writers wrote for Slate in the first few years of the website’s existence.
In short: For the first few years after its founding, Slate allowed a few conservatives to contribute some pieces. Then the site went hard left — we’re talking almost 10 years ago — and now it allows an occasional conservative in, but only to attack other conservatives. So, Shafer is full of it.
Oh, and there’s no way in hell Shafer came up with the list spontaneously in a live chat. It was a prepared, defensive cut-and-paste job. At least that’s my guess.
Why did Shafer use names “from the last 15 years” to defend Slate’s bias? Why not the last five years? Well, the 15-year time frame encapsulates the entire history of Slate, which was launched in 1996. It also allows Shafer to use a dishonest sleight of hand. From its launch in 1996 until 2002, Slate was edited by Michael Kinsley, who had been the editor of The New Republic. Under Kinsley, The New Republic was known to entertain a few conservative ideas, if only to try and smack them down with neoliberal counterarguments. Kinsley brought this sensibility to Slate. He may also have been trying to create a more general interest website with a broader appeal than The New Republic.
When Kinsley left in 2002, Shafer was in the running to be his replacement. But his chances were doomed by the Monkeyfishing scandal, wherein Shafer edited and ran a story about fishing for monkeys that turned out — shocker! — to be made up, and lefty Jacob Weisberg took over instead.
After Weisberg took over, Slate began to lose any vestigial openness to publishing conservatives — unless, of course, they were conservatives attacking conservatism. In his live chat on Poynter, Shafer used the 15-year window to give himself some cover. It is the equivalent of saying, “Arianna Huffington loves conservatives! Why, she’s written for National Review and praised Newt Gingrich!” Of course, she did those things in the 1980s, before she went hard left.
Thus, from 1996 to 2006 you find well over half the writers on Shafer’s list: James Q. Wilson, Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, David Klinghoffer, etc. (I’m giving the Kinsley era 10 years even though Kinsley left in 2002; it often takes magazines and websites months or years to fully establish new identities). Moreover, many of these contributions were one-offs or had nothing to do with politics. For instance, Shafer cites Emmett R. Tyrell as a sign of Slate’s hospitality to conservatives, but the sole piece Slate ran by Tyrell is called “Requiem for a Swim Coach” — and it ran in 2004. Here’s Mark Steyn! Oh — writing about show tunes. In 1996. When you see the names William McGurn and Wladyslaw Pleszczynski on Shafer’s list, it momentarily impresses — especially coming at the end of the cavalcade of right-wingers Shafer has recited. Then you Google it and see that both men appeared together once in a “breakfast table” conversation in 2001 — and that the conversation was focused on the Super Bowl. Hey, here’s Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter — together, once, in another “breakfast table,” this time from 1999. Herbert Stein is on Shafer’s list; he passed away in 1999. But wait, here’s Ben Stein! Writing against the death tax! In … 1999. Christopher Caldwell wrote several pieces for Slate — about literature. And most of these ran in the Kinsley era.
It’s also worth nothing, if also obvious, that a few of the names on Shafer’s list are not even conservatives. Obama disciples Andrew Sullivan and David Brooks are questionable, as is David Frum. Sam Tanenhaus, author of “The Death of Conservatism,” is no conservative.
Finally, there is the red-on-red tactic the left loves, getting “conservatives” to attack other conservatives. Most of the names on Shafer’s list appeared in Slate during the Kinsley era, and many of the articles they wrote had nothing to do with politics, but the ones that aren’t from that era and do have to do with politics are largely critical of conservatism or conservatives. There’s Steve Chapman in 2001, writing “In Praise of Polygamy.” Or Ross Douthat going after Michael Gerson in 2007. Or Doug Kmiec explaining why “Barack Obama is a natural for the Catholic vote” in 2008.
After reciting his list, Shafer went on to reiterate: “Slate ran lots of conservatives because it liked to challenge its liberal audience. That’s what I most loved about the place.”
Seriously? The thing that Shafer most loved about Slate, more than anything else, was the idea that it “liked to challenge its liberal audience”? If so, why didn’t Shafer encourage Slate to run conservatives’ articles about politics, instead of just running conservatives’ articles about swim coaches and show tunes? Why didn’t Slate have a regular conservative columnist? Why won’t Slate ever link to this article?
Yeah, Slate has always been about conservatives challenging liberal assumptions. Now excuse me while I go monkeyfishing.
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.