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Slate: Just Another Spoon
May 20, 1996 :: Michael Sippey

The net is abuzz with talk of a man who wears khakis, blue blazers and clear, round glasses.

Slate, the new online venture of Microsoft and Michael Kinsley, launches in June. A "weekly" net.rag of about 25,000 words, Slate will most likely strive to provide that healthy dose of serious political journalism that Kinsley feels the net lacks.

In a May 13, 1996 New Yorker piece on Slate, Ken Auletta leads us behind the scenes at Microsoft, where Kinsley is readying for the launch. We learn about Kinsley's office on "the campus," his new apartment in Seattle, and his now famous khakis. And while Auletta describes Kinsley's discovery of hypertext, clickable maps and discussion threads, we're treated to gems from the mouth of Michael like "one of the bad things about email is that it's too easy to reach your congressman!"

According to Auletta, Slate "will try to navigate between becoming a data bank, as are many Web sites, and a hip, dripping-with-irony magazine where people write faster than they think." (Hmmm, I've been told that I type faster than I think...has Auletta seen the obvious?) Furthermore, "Kinsley is an unabashed elitist, dismissive of the tell-me-what-you-think Zeitgest of the Web."

I have nothing against elitism. Without it, we wouldn't have the authoritative voice of the New York Times, the galleries at the Met, or even the dismissive voice of Suck.

And I have nothing against the particular brand of elitism that Kinsley practiced as editor of The New Republic. I enjoyed reading TRB, because Kinsely worked well on the page. When I was reading TRB regularly, I was fresh from college, and new to the Big City. I would catch up on the ever-thin New Republic while riding the bus or taking my lunch hour -- soaking in his brand of intelligent liberalism laced with a nice streak of libertarianism. "Finally," I thought, "a Democrat with a sense of irony."

When Kinsley left The New Republic for CNN's Crossfire, the irony was sucked dry, and our love affair was over. Typically perched against Pat Buchanan or John Sununu, Kinsley was the left's patsy, tossing up lobs for the other side to bash back. Crossfire did nothing more than reflect television's take on politics: you're either left, right, or don't belong on TV.

Kinsley didn't belong on TV; Crossfire turned him into a parody of himself, with the crisp white shirts and signature eyeglasses. He was too smart for television.

And Kinsley doesn't belong on the web. Not because he's too smart, but because he's not quite smart enough.

In the June issue of Harper's Magazine, Lewis Lapham describes what makes Harper's different from the mass media. "The big media," he writes, "cannot afford to describe the world as it is. The world is too strange, too specific, too alarming, too much at odds with the mythologies in which people prefer to believe, and so the mass media have little choice but to tell welcome and dearly beloved lies."

Will Kinsley tell lies? No, probably not. But will Slate be different from the mass media? No. Will Slate use web to open up the political discussion to include the specific, the alarming, the realities that are "at odds with the mythologies?" No. What Kinsley doesn't seem to understand is that with the technology of the web -- simple hypertext, visuals and audio -- he has better tools at his disposal to at least attempt to describe and decode the political world as it really is. Disjointed, fragmented, image driven, blindingly fast.

Furthermore, Kinsley's "top down" approach to publishing will leave the reader -- the electorate -- on the sidelines, a mere spectator to his parade of high-priced brainpower. As he himself put it, "there is a reason that some people get paid as writers and some don't." But in this election year, with the "interactive" technology he has at his disposal, leaving the electorate on the sidelines is shortsighted, perhaps even irresponsible.

This is a liminal time for web publishing. Business models are in question, advertisers are circling the wagons, and yet the potential readership continues to skyrocket. Kinsley has the brains, the money and the resources to make something incredible happen this summer. And yet he won't. Instead, we'll be fed more armchair political punditry, this time with just another brand of spoon.

One with a Microsoft logo on it.



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