In late October, Slate, the flashy and irreverent online politics and culture magazine, published (for the third consecutive election cycle) a list of its staff and contributors’ presidential preferences. Even for those for whom the liberalness of the media is a popular refrain, Slate’s results were shockingly lopsided. In total, 55 of the 57 votes went to Barack Obama; Jack Shafer, the media critic, picked Bob Barr and Rachael Larimore, the deputy managing editor, cast the lone vote for John McCain. (John Dickerson, the chief political correspondent, abstained.)
But, as Slate founder Michael Kinsley said, “an opinion is not a bias.” True, but they rhyme. During the week of Feb. 16, Slate’s liberal stable of writers were mostly balanced in regard to Obama, devoting approximately equal space and credibility to Obama’s supporters and critics. Their biases stemmed more from tone than coverage, and in some cases, the writers’ voice and underlying assumptions revealed a worldview more liberal than conservative.
Between Feb. 16 and Feb. 22, Slate posted 10 articles about Barack Obama: three columns offering Obama advice, penned by Christopher Hitchens, Dahlia Lithwick, and Eliot Spitzer; four installments in “the change-o-meter,” a feature that measures “how the Obama administration is changing Washington” on a scale of “politics as usual” (0) to “change we can believe in” (100); and three essays on Obama’s handling of the economy and his trip to Canada.
By my count, three of these articles were positive stories for Obama (“American homeowners get help from Washington,” “Obama heads north and lays the foundation for health care expansion,” “Yes, We Can, Eh?: How Canadians are dealing with an American president they actually like”), two were negative (“Confidence Hiccups: Skepticism surges while Obama talks more reform,” “The $500,000 Limit Is Not Enough: Four better ways of fixing the CEO pay debacle), and the rest were (topically, at least) neutral. A separate article, which was about the stimulus but did not mention Obama by name (“Take the Money and Run: Republican governors don’t really want to reject stimulus money-they just want to complain about it.”), goes in the positive column.
Any attempt to categorize bias in Slate must be conducted with hesitation and restraint. Slate’s goal, above all, is to be entertaining, and it does not pretend to try for the same level of gravity and unwavering equipoise in its reporting that defines (and confines?) more august magazines and newspapers such as Slate’s parent company, The Washington Post. Slate traffics on its sarcasm and wit, two techniques that can sometimes be conflated with bias.
But, this caveat noted, during the past week a certain liberal outlook could be noted amid Slate’s quips and asides. In the change-o-meter feature, where Slate gives Obama “points” when he does well and takes them away when he doesn’t, Slate assigned points for the suggestion of a CEO salary cap and for “focusing on homeowners, not investors” in the stimulus bill, while it deducted points when Hugo Chavez seemed “unconvinced that Obama is much different from George W. Bush”; Slate declared the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision “to reconsider regulating carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants” to be a “step in the right direction.” On these issues, Slate’s preference for the liberal view-salary caps, populist fiscal policy, unfettered diplomacy, environmental regulations-is evident.