I enjoy the online magazine Slate, and have for years. Along with Salon, it was one of the first magazines to try the online-only format only, and has managed to collate a collection of some of the finest news analysis around. Sure, it's never been perfect, and given the fact that it produces much more content than a traditional monthly general interest magazine, there's bound to be some hiccups along the way. Still, it's been a remarkably robust information source for quite some time now.
That said, I've noticed a trend. Not terribly long after it was sold to the Washington Post (from Microsoft), the format and content changed a bit. They snagged some high-profile bloggers and expanded their multimedia sections. In and of itself that's been a positive thing. However, I've noticed that a lot of the headlines have become remarkably...cranky.
Normally, I would enjoy this sort of thing (what with crankiness being my bread and butter and all), but lately it's seemed to be needlessly sour. It's almost as if there is a blatant attempt for the headlines to be provocative and attention-getting. While this is obviously nothing new in the news business, it's also sort of unsettling for a publication that really hasn't been known to do it in the past.
First, let's shine a light on one Mr. Matthew Yglesias. I'm not a fan--I find him to be a very good writer with very poor analytical skills--but since joining Slate he's branched out and become quite diverse in his opinions, much to his benefit (and mine, as it were). However, this recent piece about the San Antonio Spurs is an example of unnecessary hyperbole. The point of the article is that the Spurs are a good team but no one watches them because they are textbook-level boring. He then seems to extrapolate that as Americans we reward success (i.e., our slavish devotion to the free market) yet when presented with it we'd rather have a dog-and-pony show. He misses the point entirely--sports is a competition to be watched for fun, and no one wants to watch something boring, regardless of success. He makes the entirely wrong point by stating that it's the same reason the program Bridezillas exists: because we'd rather watch a train wreck than a boring wedding. And yet I can guarantee that's not the case: aside from the occasional ex, I don't think anyone wants a wedding to fail miserably. Weddings serves a legitimate useful social need above and beyond our pure entertainment, a threshold that sports really doesn't meet. Taken along with another Slate article ("All Men Can't Jump") with the blatantly ridiculous subtitle of "Why nearly every sport except long-distance running is fundamentally absurd" (whose main point appears to be--I shit you not--that since animals are more athletic now that we emphasize brain power, the only sport worth it is something we are roughly on par with with most animals, which is running), it makes me think that perhaps Slate really shouldn't have a Sports section. I don't think they get it.
Second on the list is this particularly catty admonishment asking whether the Orange Prize is a sexist tool. The Orange Prize (I had to look it up) is a British prize presented to only female authors. The writer of the article, of course is all for it--drag out the usual canards about women being under the constant jackboot of "subtle sexism" justifying the need for a girls-only prize. (Me calling his article "catty" probably doesn't help my case that this is stupid.) The writer, L.V. Anderson, seems nonplussed as to why this would be a thing--why not have a ladies-only room when they can't win any other way? (As with most issues with discrimination, it's confusing for those harboring white guilt whether to bring them to the At least she recognizes the other side of this--what good is a prize when you lop off half of the eligible candidates--but the article still feels more like a lamentation that any sort of effective attempt to answer the question in the headline. (I'll be honest--my opinion of this article is probably heavily biased due to the fact that she included a quote from Jezebel.com, a source I an convinced will not rest until they find out how many decades they can set feminism back.)
And, finally, the article that prompted me to write this post, is this one by Tom Scocca. Titled "Don Draper's Shocking Secret: He Doesn't Exist," Scocca is apparently troubled by the fact that Mad Men and Don Draper specifically appear to show up in articles as an example of how things worked in the past. You see, instead of writing "back in the 1960's" or "at a time when modern feminism was in its early stages," a true crime of literature is occurring because bored writers instead substitute in an easily recognizable culture reference instead. The particular condescending line where he tells us, the reader, that Don is a "made-up person inside your television set" (written, of course, in italics, since us plebes are too slack-jawed from watching TV instead of doing whatever Scocca things is more morally superior to get his point) sets the tone for the rest of the post. If a reference is made to, say, gender pay inequality, and a writer makes a one-sentance remarks about how it's not the days of Mad Men anymore, Scocca equates this to the fact that "What's wrong with Mad Men isn't that it makes you boring. What's wrong with Mad Men is that it also makes you stupid." See, we're all stupid because we'd never otherwise understand that forty years ago things were tough for women in the workplace! We need something the boob tube shoved down our throats to get it!
Sure, it's a little lazy to simply substitute the same cultural reference by too many writers--as it is to cling to failed second-wave feminist ideals or have self-appointed elite journalists who were reading Ender's Game in high school instead of making the football squad--but it's also just as lazy to whip up a completely sensible "epidemic" just to write a condescending column about it. Don Draper certainly wouldn't approve.