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Mixed Emotions That Slate Lives Up to Its Hype

July 01, 1996|DANIEL AKST

I embarked upon this week's assignment, a review of Slate, with a certain amount of relish, since nothing could please me more than the chance to make fun of Microsoft's vaunted foray into serious journalism via the World Wide Web.

Microsoft has a tradition of vaporware (proclaiming products that don't exist), and when the brain trust up near Seattle finally does come out with something, it's usually a clunker until several releases later, when at last it works well as long as you have a relative in the memory chip business.

Slate, moreover, is run by Michael Kinsley, who is not much older than me yet vastly more successful, having run Harper's and the New Republic when I was still covering sewer board meetings in New Jersey. Worse yet, Slate purports to be a serious magazine on the Web, which sounds oxymoronic. Who, after all, wants a serious journal bristling with hypertext links to sophomoric discussion groups and far-flung background pages of dubious provenance?

And who on Earth wants to read all this prose on-screen? Reading is something I do horizontally. Computing is what I do sitting up, usually (thanks to Microsoft) with my hands clutching at what is left of my hair and my face contorted into an expression that would not have been foreign to Edvard Munch.

Finally, in what I can only assume is a stab at self-parody, Slate is to be made available on paper, but exclusively in Starbucks coffee outlets. In short, I was anticipating a nail on a blackboard.

I am thus disappointed to report that I come not to wipe Slate, but to praise it. Slate is a terrific new weekly magazine that happens to be distributed on the Web and is to my knowledge the first such big-time effort at periodical seriousness since the founding of the conservative Weekly Standard last year. This is not to slight the two or three such fine Web publications as Salon (, which came first and remains, to me, irresistible; it's just that Slate really is in a different league.

Nor must you read it on-screen (or at Starbucks). The gods of Microsoft, in an uncharacteristic outburst of good sense, are making Slate available as a Word file, which almost anyone ought to be able to download and print, if necessary with Microsoft's free Word viewing software. If your Internet provider can accommodate file attachments, you can even get Slate by e-mail.

Like a good soldier, I first tried reading the inaugural issue on-screen. Slate is simply and wittily designed and easy to navigate, but I soon found myself beginning to skim even Nicholas Lemann's excellent article on Asians and Jews, and so finally I succumbed to my essentially horizontal nature and got the Word file. It took me about five minutes to download at 28,800 bps, and even less time to get all 38 pages out of my fast laser printer. Like every writer in Los Angeles, I have a three-hole punch lying around (useful for screenplays), so I just made some holes and pushed through brads. Voila, a magazine.

But enough about technical matters. What Slate is really all about is content, and it's on that basis that it shines brightest. The first issue reminds me of the New Republic when Kinsley was running it (a halcyon era, in the view of some) and there is a certain amount of "round up the usual suspects" here. The all-star lineup of current and on-deck participants includes James Fallows, Anne Hollander, Ann Hulbert, Robert Pinsky, Michael Wood and Robert Wright. Many of these are familiar names from the New Republic, the Atlantic Monthly and other high-toned venues.

The tone of Slate is wry without being flip, the writing exceedingly sharp if a bit uniform, the perspective satisfyingly counterintuitive and nondoctrinaire. Although it lacks a single blockbuster story like Naomi Wolf's famous New Republic piece on abortion or the Atlantic's "Dan Quayle Was Right" cover story, the magazine nevertheless reeks of substance without ever (well, hardly ever) being boring.

Kinsley's fingerprints, in other words, are everywhere. The word "hand wringing," a dead giveaway, appears on Page 6, and there is a good deal of policy as well as politics. Expect lots of stories making clever use of Nexis, or explaining how earthquakes and hurricanes save lives. (They cut down on driving, no?)

The first issue gets things off to a good start, not only with Lemann's piece ("Jews in Second Place"), but with Hulbert's clever skewering of Miss Manners (a.k.a. Judith Martin), a fine debunking of the downsizing myth (we're all going to be counter workers at McDonald's!) by economist Paul Krugman, and a surprisingly restrained defense of "brief psychotherapy," even if it happens to be a favorite of the folks who brought us managed care.

There's also a Cullen Murphy column called The Good Word; the first one explores the difference (there is one) between "Jesuitical" and "Talmudic," although if you went to Georgetown you probably won't like it.

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