Slate editor Jacob Weisberg on editing: “What?”

A Gregg Easterbrook review of Al Gore’s new film prompts Atrios to question the degree of contempt in which Slate Magazine holds its readers. I think I can help him out on this.

One indicator of how highly a publication regards its readers is in the quality of the content. Easterbrook’s review is borderline stupid. Media Matters provides perhaps too much detail on why that’s so: if you want the short course, it’s because Easterbrook finished reviewing the film in the second paragraph and filled out the rest of the column with factual errors and some truly bizarre straw men: “If Gore is so concerned about the environment, why does he still travel by air?” “If Gore is so concerned about poor people, why does he want to lower their standards of living by decreasing the use of polluting fuels?” Plus, he says Gore is a transsexual Martian who sighs a lot, as who among us wouldn’t.

You’ll notice I don’t link to Easterbrook’s review. This is because I’m taking a cue from Weisberg, who told New York University journalism students that his magazine “doesn’t believe in using quotations” because “quotations are there often to thank the sources, or for the writer to kind of congratulate himself on having talked to the person.” While I’m not prepared to dispense entirely with quotations, I do believe links are often used by writers to thank their sources or kind of congratulate themselves for having read the stuff they’re talking about, which interferes with the Weisbergian goal of keeping things “very tight and concise” and might lead some of my readers to check on things like whether or not Easterbrook actually called Gore a transsexual Martian.

As far as you know, he did. And if he didn’t, that’s okay too: Weisberg says my readers will catch it.

Another aspect unique to Slate is that its editors don’t believe in fact-checking. “We think it makes authors lazy and careless,” says Weisberg. “We like writers to be responsible for their facts. And we’ve also discovered that on the Internet, and particularly since the advent of blogging, mistakes get found out very quickly. So there’s a huge disincentive to making mistakes.”

Imagine how much grief the New York Times and Weisberg’s alma mater, the New Republic, could have avoided if editors hadn’t held out that fact-checking crutch to Judy Miller and Jayson Blair at the Times, and Ruth Shalit and Stephen Glass at New Republic. The poor kids were insulted by the implicit editorial assumption that they were lazy and careless, and we all paid the price.

At any rate, I’m covered: if I’m wrong about Easterbrook’s description of Gore, a reader will notice and tell me about it eventually, and if a few early readers don’t catch the correction, assuming I’m wrong, and go around thinking Easterbrook is even more of a demented flake than he actually is, well, that’s the nature of online publishing and that’s the cost of keeping things “tight and concise.” Why get it right the first time if someone will be along to fix it in a while?

Atrios’s specific question was “Um, Slate, do you really have such contempt for your readers that you publish Gregg Easterbrook under the title “Ask Mr. Science”?”

And the answer is, yeah, all that and more. Seems to work for them, though.


From comments …
NTodd: “You’re wrong. Al Gore actually is a kitten-eating cyborg.”

RP: “I’m the kitten in question. When Al Gore said I had to start thinking outside the box I said “oh yeah? Eat me.” So he did. No need to fact check. I am hugely disincentivized to make mistakes.”

My only quarrel is with RP’s self-congratulatory use of a quotation.

The access logs are starting to over heat; it must be time to break out the “Welcome Atrios Readers!” banner again. You all are in no small part responsible for the site reaching a million plus visitors over the past year, so, thanks very, very much.

Adding, on 12/9/2011 … Okay, 5 1/2 years later the Atriots are back. Why? I dunno, but howdy.

43 thoughts on “Slate editor Jacob Weisberg on editing: “What?””

  1. I heard that Gore is a kitten that eats cyborgs….

    if I got that wrong I’m sure NTodd will correct me

  2. NTodd: you’re falling into a common trap: the issue isn’t what Al Gore actually is, but whether Easterbrook said he is what I said Easterbrook said he is. If I can’t trust my readers to deal with this stuff, who can I trust?

  3. I enjoyed your blog and plan to return. I can’t believe that I used to be a regular reader of Slate AND TNR. I detest them both now and consider their blogs Hacltacular.

  4. I’m the kitten in question. When Al Gore said I had to start thinking outside the box I said “oh yeah? Eat me.” So he did. No need to fact check. I am hugely disincentivized to make mistakes.

  5. I am glad you guys concede that I am right about Gore, even if the concession is by inattention to my excellent piece on the serial exaggerator.

  6. Is NTodd a troll, or did he not bother to read the post?

    rob: NTodd is not a troll, and while I do sometimes wish readers would read my posts before they comment on them, I don’t feel comfortable demanding that they do so since I, as the editor, often don’t read them before I publish them.

    bigvic: Thanks for the kind words …

  7. If leaving fact-checking to the editors makes writers lazy, what does leaving fact-checking to the writers make editors?

  8. If leaving fact-checking to the editors makes writers lazy, what does leaving fact-checking to the writers make editors?

    Well, derek, it makes us either the new breed of cutting-edge, pioneering online innovators or the latest in human vaporware. Either way,you’d be a fool not to buy us if we were an IPO. And that’s a fact, so far as you I know.

  9. I always check my facts. Saddly, they always have a distinct liberal bias. So in the interest of fairness, I no longer use them.

  10. The god thing about the press is that it takes a lot of potentially terrible fast food workers out of the labor force. Imagine the state of the restrooms at McDonalds if Slate and NYTimes reporters had responsible jobs and mops.

  11. Why check facts? As Colbert has noted, facts have a liberal bias, so they can’t be trusted.

    Again, as Colbert has recommended, it is better to go with one’s gut.

    Facts just aren’t “fair and balanced” enough for those who KNOW the truth.

  12. The kitten who is thinking inside the box is actually in a state of quantum indeterminacy. That also excuses anything you might read by Easterbrook on the subject of Gore, because it either may or may not be true until someone collapses the wave function.

    That I think dispenses with all of this except to note that Mr. Easterbrook is unlikely to understand any of what I just wrote.

  13. I’m glad to see that Slate has the guts to take on the left-wing dogma behind “global warming”. You here are nothing but gullible sheep ready to gulp down whatever lies Al Gore throws your way.

  14. I’m glad to see that Slate has the guts to take on the left-wing dogma behind “global warming”. You here are nothing but gullible sheep ready to gulp down whatever lies Al Gore throws your way.

    Congratulations, Leonidas! Since you didn’t actually read Easterbrook’s column and you don’t know that he didn’t actually have any substantive quarrel with Gore’s (and the rest of the sentient world’s) position on global warming, you’ve been hired as Slate’s new executive editor. Don’t worry about reporting to work; there isn’t any. Check’s in the mail.

  15. On fact-checking: I kind of agree with Weisberg here. I work for a publication that fact checks rigorously and it’s a great thing, I think, and if I had my own magazine, I WOULD have a similar fact-checking procedure.

    But, it does make some writers lazy or too comfortable writing up stuff they’re not sure about with the belief that the checking process will make everything all right. That only applies to some writers, of course. I consider the attitude a kind of professional failure that’s a bit incentivized by the system. Ideally, an article submitted to be published should be ready to be published. The fact checker should really demand no changes to the piece. If the checker does, the writer should feel like a failure. That’s the ideal, though. In truth, the checking (and changes) becomes just part of the process. The only changes that should be made in checking should be changes demanded by a changing situation between the time of reporting, writing and publication, or maybe something that a clever and dilligent checker uncovers something that the writer might have missed, but couldn’t be reasonably faulted for missing.

    One other thing to consider is that, in the case of Stephen Glass, we saw a magazine that had a good checking process in place but that had the process subverted by some one who knew how to beat it.

    I’m not sure that a daily paper should have a checking process, btw. Their stories are reported more quickly than a monthly magazine story. Web sites like Slate fall into the same boat. The real problem I see here is that the Easterbrook article was criticized on substantive, factual grounds and Slate hasn’t responded. I really like Slate, but if a publication isn’t going to respond to criticisms, no army of fact checkers will be able to solve the problem.

  16. So fact-checking makes some writers lazy because the vetting process will occur after publication and catch any errors that made it into print? I guess that’s a good way to discover which writers need to be fired. Or would that require too much effort by editors who prefer not to have any responsibilities?

  17. “And what is Truth? Is truth unchanging law? We both have truths – are mine the same as yours?”

    (don’t blame me… blame J.C. Superstar for the bad rhyme)

    Facts are nothing without context. Null or obscuring data, interfering with actual information. And without fact-checking, that’s all you really have.

    I think it would simplify a lot of processes not to have fact checking. Like running a nuclear power plant, for instance. Lot faster without having all those double and triple checked processes. And they’d be right most of the time. When they aren’t, I bet the people downwind would let them know pretty quick!

  18. Daily newspapers like the NY Times never have factcheckers. And since Slate publishes new stuff daily, I wouldn’t expect them to have factcheckers, either.

    I used to be a factchecker for several magazines, including Spy back in the day. And Weisberg is right, it can make writers lazy. And if a writer is fundamentally dishonest and writes down a bunch of fake quotes in his notebook there’s no way a factchecker is going to catch it, since the one thing factcheckers never do is run quotes by the person being quoted, since people always a) deny saying what they said or b) try to rephrase things

  19. Mike, Slate really isn’t in the same position as a daily. With the exception of the magazine’s blogs, nothing on there is excruciatingly time-sensitive. Easterbrook’s review, for instance, could have been held for two or three days with no ill effects, and given his history on the subject of global warming, should have been.

    That said, Slate’s problem isn’t so much with facts as assumptions: what they need is someone who can read a piece, identify the major points and ask if each is true. A good example is John Dickerson’s recent column on Al Gore. Eric Boehlert noticed that Dickerson described Gore as having struggled to beat Bill Bradley in the 2000 Democratic primaries, and points out that Gore handily shut Bradley out in each of the ones both men contested.

    That’s not so much a fact-checking issue as a genuine editorial one: is what Dickerson wrote an accurate characterization? If an editor isn’t fact-checking his writers and he’s not editing them for clarity, what the heck is he doing other than hiring and publishing them?

    One can make an argument that since Slate is essentially a large op-ed page, Weisberg doesn’t have any obligation to do much more than hire and publish; the general rule of thumb with opinion columnists is that if it ain’t libel, it’s all good. But he bills the magazine as a source for cutting-edge analysis, not just opinion, and analysis depends at least in part on accurate premises. Dickerson didn’t publish numbers on Gore’s primary “struggle;” had he, or had an editor asked him what constitutes a struggle, that particular premise likely wouldn’t have survived the editorial process.

    With Slate, I don’t think there is much of an editorial process beyond copy editing. I assume the other editors read the stuff in their sections before it goes up, but I’d guess Weisberg doesn’t read much of what he publishes until after he publishes it.

  20. Fact checking only makes writers lazy if they can get away with it. In my early life, I worked for a trade magazine and if any of our stories were found to have erroneous facts, the story was pulled (if there was time) or the writer was docked (if there was not). THAT was a disincentive.

  21. Brian, when I wrote for weeklies some years back my goal was always to get a piece into print the way I wrote it. The editors were annoying but they also performed a service for which I was sometimes profoundly grateful. They didn’t make me lazy. I don’t understand why they’d have that effect on other writers or how anyone would know without seeing a writer in both circumstances, and I don’t understand why anyone would want to risk the reputation of their publication on whether or not editing acts as a disincentive.

    And again, just because Slate publishes daily doesn’t mean they have to publish something the day it’s filed. They could build in a 2-day delay for most of their stuff and still be publishing daily.

  22. When the writers are paid liars, fact checkers and editors just gum up the whole process.

  23. It is, or should be, unethical for any publication, Slate included, to fail to fact check. The issue is one of intellectual integrity and honesty, in an almost academic sense.

    No academician would (or should) fail to cite sources, or represent another’s work as his/her own by failing to quote, or misrepresent facts. This would be fabrication, or falsification, or misrepresentation, and at the federal level the Office of Research Integrity worries about such things.

    No scholarly journal should publish as fact something which hasn’t been confirmed as such. It would misprepresent to do so, and be saying, in effect, “we believe this to be true”, when in fact the more accurate representation is “we cannot say or don’t know if it’s true, because we haven’t checked.”

    Journalists are first responders to history, culture, sociology, anthropology, and science. And so on. The first on the scene, perhaps. They have a duty to get the vital signs right, to do an accurate review of symptoms, to take as accurate a history under the circumstances as can be taken. So that later, when more diagnosis follows, and more throrough care is provided, the patient can be well-treated.

    Easterbrook, and Slate, misrepresent history, cheat when it comes to being intellectually honest, and put something out which they knew, or should have known, was inaccurate. This is intellectually reckless and unethical. The only recourse now is for them to be called out on it. But if they were a graduate student and an academic publication respectively, they could well find themselves involved in an academic misconduct proceeding.And Easterbrook himself might well flunk the course or have his thesis rejected.

  24. “That I think dispenses with all of this except to note that Mr. Easterbrook is unlikely to understand any of what I just wrote.

    Comment by Ba’al”

    OMG, my cat just disappeared.

  25. reporters….

    with mops….

    oh the horror. (insert an old Geech restroom cleaning cartoon here)

  26. I write for Salon from time to time. My articles went through some serious editorial review and I was asked to substantiate a few things and make a few things more clear. But they didn’t do “fact checking” per se. In my first peice I let slip the implication that Horatio Hornblower was a real person, not a fictional one, for which careless writing I was roundly ridiculed. In my second piece I called somebody “the late” so-and-so, when that person was very much alive.(I was writing about events that had taken place twenty years earlier, and one of my other informants had told me that the person had passed on to his reward.)

    Fortunately an alert reader caught that second gaff very early, and because Salon is online, I was able to correct it almost immediately. Unfortunately, the person in question had also already read the piece. In any event, as soon as I found out about my mistake, (after alerting Salon), I tracked the fellow down and called him on the phone to apologized. He really gave me an earful, and I felt embarrassed and stupid. Of course I would have feld embarrased and stupid even if he had been gentle on me.

    So, even though Salon had provided serious editorial oversight, I did make some stupid mistakes (the likes of which I hope never to make again). Before I stopped reading Slate altgether I had come to the conclusion that many writers were given free rein to write whatever bullshit they felt like writing, and that many of them did just that. This latest Weisber/Easterbrook business tends to confirm that impression.

  27. NTodd: you’re falling into a common trap: the issue isn’t what Al Gore actually is, but whether Easterbrook said he is what I said Easterbrook said he is. If I can’t trust my readers to deal with this stuff, who can I trust?

    For me to correct you, I’d have to actually read the damn post. I’m totally above that.

  28. Well, since we aren’t checking facts, how ’bout these nuggets?

    1- George W. Bush skipped out on most of his National Guard obligations.
    2- George W. Bush had a cocaine arrest during his Guard days which his Daddy helped cover up.
    3- George W. Bush lied about WMDs to get us into Iraq.
    4- George W. Bush just “plays a Christian on TV” to suck-up to the Christian Right.
    5- George W. Bush is a changeling. (this one is likely true on SO many levels)
    6- George W. Bush has the IQ of a carrot.(apologies to those carrots reading the blog)
    7- George W. Bush has never been seen picking his nose on Television.
    8- George W. Bush was the recipient of a stolen election. Likely two stolen elections. (see Florida/Ohio)
    9- George W. Bush has the largest offshore account in the history of mankind. Why do you think that the Caymans recovered so quickly after their hurricane damage?
    10- George W. Bush IS the Anti-Christ.

    There. No need to factcheck. You are here-by enlightened and can now go about your lives content.


  29. Slate has had its own huge problems with facts in the past. Like say Monkey Fishing (it was too good to fact check!) along with being bambozzled when it did its weekly diary series(think they stopped that). Good to see its a feature not a bug.

  30. re the movie, interestingly Frank Rich had a column that seemed to have mixed feelings about it.

    As to Slate, sigh. I usually hang out in Jurisprudence, and the usual suspects actually have a point — the quality of the pieces are mixed, sometimes much too snarky, and unfortunately, sometimes warranting fact checking.

    Maybe, it’s the Wonkettee effect.

  31. I’d always understood that The New Yorker had the best, most thorough fact-checking in the Biz. Which explains why they have lazy hacks like Sy Hersh, David Remnick, Hendrik Hertzberg and Nicholas Lemann working for them. Time Mag has largely discontinued fact checking, and thus Joe Klein. Q.E.D.
    After my mother had her third hip replacement and was well into her eighties, she wanted a wheelchair at times. But I wouldn’t let that happen, she would just get lazy.

  32. Don’t you guys understand the premise behind Slate? It’s “slate,” as in, a rock tablet, as in, what we write cannot be changed, addended, corrected, or erased. They chisel their web columns into HTML for all eternity, exposed to the elements. Unless the elements erode those cyber tablets into fine dust, the writings stand.

    You people are so last century, so out of touch with the Christian American mainstream. Slate gives the people what they want, pure, oblivious, unadulterated channeling of the mysterious and unprovable, written in stone, for the cyber age.

  33. In my second piece I called somebody “the late” so-and-so, when that person was very much alive.

    Thus continuing the proud tradition started by Mark Twain who convinced quite a large number of people that one of his rivals was dead. (Note to self: maybe I should look and make sure it was Twain? Naaah… someone will point out if I’m wrong…)


  34. It’s funny that so many of the rhetorical habits of the right-wing have historical roots.

    One GOP legislator once said–in the context of the Nixon impeachment hearings–‘my mind’s made up; don’t confuse me with the facts.’

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