Michael Kinsley

Some Webbies Think the Internet Can Do No Wrong –That’s Not Right!

VTR Date: December 3, 1997

Guest: Kinsley, Michael


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Michael Kinsley
Title: Some Webbies Think the Internet Can Do No Wrong: That’s Not Right!
VTR: 12/3/97

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. My guest today is Michael Kinsley, who many of us know best for his years in traditional print journalism, as editor or columnist at The New Republic, Harper’s, The Economist, Time magazine, and elsewhere. Perhaps even more Americans mostly recall Mr. Kinsley as doing television battle so long and so heatedly with Pat Buchanan and others on CNN’s fabulously successful Crossfire.

But now my guest has very much of a new venue, in cyberspace, as the creator and editor of Microsoft’s Slate, a new kind of online electronic magazine. Many of us who so much admired the linear Kinsley of course wonder just why in the world he’s gone cybernetic with Bill Gates out there in Seattle. And, indeed, some of his younger, electronic would-be rivals and detractors do too. They seem not to think he fits cyberspace well enough, perhaps consider him not cool or with it, still too much the Gutenberg Galaxy man. Indeed, his cyberspace detractors have even turned a few letters of the alphabet around to make Slate read “Stale” instead.

And when I read a Michael Kinsley essay in Time Magazine recently, I wondered if he weren’t indeed deliberately tweaking these webbies by proclaiming so many of them off-base in their indignant absolutism when, for instance, denying parents the right to be worried about some of the harsher stuff that the Internet and the other new media are giving American children such easy access to.

In Time magazine, my guest writes, “Internet hype is justified, as editor of an online magazine, slate period com, I have a big stake in thinking so. But internet special pleading is not justified. The ‘net doesn’t need and doesn’t deserve exemption from the rules that apply to the rest of human endeavor.”

But let me ask Mr. Kinsley just what he’s referring to here. I know we both have colds, and I’m so unfamiliar with the computer and its lingo that I say “period” instead of “dot,” but I think we still do talk some of the same language.

KINSLEY: Just barely, maybe.

HEFFNER: You’ve become that…

KINSLEY: No, no, no. I’m still regarded in a lot of cyberspace as an intruder from the old, decaying world of print.

HEFFNER: Do you feel that way?

KINSLEY: I think it’s one of the most boring propaganda points of many people in that world that there is some unique method of doing things in cyberspace, or some particular purpose that cyberspace has. The Internet is a fantastic medium, but it’s just a medium, and there is room for everybody in there: old fogeys; young, alienated hipsters; and there’s room for every, every type of journalism, every type of, form, of expression. And I don’t think there’s any one form of expression that is especially, uniquely suitable to cyberspace. And I don’t think that what I do… I mean, people say what I do in Slate doesn’t belong in cyberspace. I think that’s very silly. Cyberspace is infinite. That’s what’s great about it. And there’s room for everybody.

HEFFNER: But what is the difference? There must be one. There must be several.

KINSLEY: Well, there’s… Excuse me. We do both have colds. There’s many small, practical differences between journalism on the ‘net and journalism in print, or television, which I’m used to. One obvious one is the articles have to be shorter. People do not like reading on a computer screen. And that’s the most frequent comment I get about Slate is, “Gee, I love your stuff, but I don’t like reading on a computer screen.” Let me add you can print it out or even order a print copy for yourself if you wanted, but we, of course, are trying to produce something that will entice you to read on a computer screen.

And there are several answers to that problem. One is screens will get smaller and more portable, and ultimately maybe even, in two or three years or sooner, there’ll be one you can take to bed, take to the bathroom, take on an airplane, and it’ll be just like print in that regard. Another answer is, we offer, not just Slate, but all cyberspace journalism offers things which you can’t do in print. Hyperlinks, connections from… if you mention a document that exists in another website, people can just click on it and go there. And it’s an endless travel from one site to another. Very different from a print experience. You can embed sound and images. We can review a piece of music the way everyone in print for centuries has reviewed books. You wouldn’t think of writing a book review without having a quotation from the book to illustrate your point. We can have quotations from pieces of music to illustrate our point if we’re reviewing a symphony performance or something like that. So that’s another answer.

And then, the final answer is one that a computer sciences professor gave at a panel. A nice lady in the audience said to me, “I love your magazine, but I don’t like to read on a computer screen.” And I guess I was giving a sort of weary answer. And this professor interrupted and said, “Your problem will be solved actuarially.”

HEFFNER: “Actuarially.” [Laughter]

KINSLEY: Meaning…

HEFFNER: We will die off.

KINSLEY: Right. I mean, I’m sorry to say. And your children or grandchildren will grow up totally comfortable with reading on computer screens.

Now, we don’t intend to wait for that. We’re trying to make it enticing to you. But..

HEFFNER: Give up all hope. Give up all hope.

KINSLEY: Well, I wouldn’t do that.

HEFFNER: But let me ask you something about this matter of length. Have you accepted that, that you really have to have shorter pieces?

KINSLEY: Yes. Yes. I mean, I hope we pack more wallop into fewer words by skilled editing. We have very skilled editors. But there are certain forms of magazine journalism which are very valuable, which we simply do not do. We do not do long, Vanity Fair, New Yorker type profiles and with reportage, you know, things that go on for 15, 20, 25,000 words. That’s simply not suitable for our medium.

On the other hand, we can do very, very intense, condensed, fast-moving summaries of the news in a way that the traditional magazine can’t do. We can be on top of events. When I worked at The New Republic, we went to press on Wednesday afternoon, and if you were in Washington D.C. you might get an advance copy on Friday, you might get it in the mail on Saturday; if you lived anywhere else in the country you got it, I get The New Republic, I’m in Seattle, the following Thursday, eight days later. We go to press twice a day, actually, in Slate, but our biggest moment of change, when we think of going to press, is Friday morning at 10:30. And at 10:31 you can get it anywhere in the world.

HEFFNER: Okay. Now, let me ask you this. My grandson, Alexander, age 8, unsuccessfully tries to teach me how to enter cyberspace, how to use the computer. And you can’t teach this old dog that new trick. But I have to wonder: What about the perceptual apparatus, in McLuhan-ish terms, to what degree will this attention paid to the shorter-attention demand of the computer communication of cyberspace, what’s going to be the impact upon the way we think, and ultimately what we think? I’m sure you’ve addressed yourself to this question.

KINSLEY: Well, I can’t claim to have thought about it too deeply, because I don’t take that worry too seriously. First of all, we’re not going to put traditional magazines out of business. There will always be a place for the things we can’t do; and we’re trying to claim a place for the things that traditional magazines can’t do, as well as a considerable overlap between the two. And also, journalism in cyberspace can be a very intense and deep experience; it’s just a different experience from sitting and reading one, linear, 25,000-word article. You have, we call them “internal links,” but you can call them any number of things, but within your piece you can have little sidebars and journeys in different directions. And you can easily spend, in a well-done piece in a web magazine, as much time as it would take you to read a 20-, 25,000-word magazine article; and you can get just as much out of it. And it would just be a different sort of experience.

HEFFNER: If you say you can get just as much out of it, doesn’t that indicate — and I’m not fighting against the future; I’m just curious at this point — doesn’t that mean that we’re going to teach ourselves, we’re going to educate ourselves, we’re going to inform ourselves increasingly with these shorter bytes rather than with the longer ones? They’ll still be there, you say. Okay. I’m aware of the fact that I edited Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. I know that the original two volumes in French are in the library if someone wants to get them. I know the two volumes translated into English are there. But I also know that most people turn to the much shorter, edited versions. And things have changed.

KINSLEY: Well, I would… Certainly things have changed. Far more people have read Tocqueville as a result of the shorter version than ever would have read him back when there were two longer versions.

HEFFNER: But they didn’t. But they haven’t. Because they didn’t read Tocqueville; they read my bastardization of Tocqueville.

KINSLEY: Well, I’m sorry you think your version is a bastardization.

HEFFNER: What else could it be?

KINSLEY: My feeling, to be very blunt, is most magazine articles are too long. So the idea that they’re getting shorter doesn’t bother me a bit. When I was at The New Republic I was regarded by my colleagues as someone who was always saying, “Make this shorter. Cut it.” I think there’s a lot of excess verbiage in these very long articles, and I’m totally unapologetic about the notion that an article of a few hundred words or a thousand words can say something significant.

You know, when I tried to establish a rule at Slate that we would really try not to run articles longer than a thousand words — although we inevitably do — several people said to me, “I can’t say anything of value in that length.” And I said, “Well, don’t insult me. I wrote a column for 11 years that was 900 words, and I hope I said something of value.” Maybe I didn’t.

HEFFNER: Look, maybe I’m putting this the wrong way. I’m not opposing it, I’m not saying Ay de mi, shame on us; I’m just raising the question as to whether you don’t perceive that there will be, that there must be a different kind of perception among, once the actuarial solution takes place, that we’re going to be a different people.

KINSLEY: Oh, well, certainly. You know, television, people said the same thing, and I think probably accurately. Had the effect of shortening people’s attention span, their patience for longer things. It’s possible that the Internet actually cuts the other way. When I see kids, who would otherwise be watching cartoons or stupid sitcoms on television, surfing the Web, going from site to site, and learning things, they’re having a far richer intellectual experience and learning a lot more, and it’s a far superior thing to watching television. So, in that sense, the Web is a step, well, it’s a good step backwards.

HEFFNER: All right. Let me ask you then about what I asked you to come here to ask you about. And it had to do with this business of what kids are encountering on the Internet, what they are encountering when they turn on their computers. You say that the notion that the Internet can do no wrong, that’s not right. What’s your concern here? You obviously have seen or know about things and their relationship to children that concern you, and think something should be done.

KINSLEY: Well, there was this very bad law called the Communications Decency Act, which Republican Congress passed, the Democratic president signed it, and then the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional, which censored the Internet for the sake of protecting children more than the First Amendment permits. And the Internet people were very engaged in that, and thought it was a horrible law. They were right about that, but the self-righteousness of the campaign bothered me.

I think there is a tradeoff, obviously, in this, as in several other issues involving the Internet: on the one hand, an adult’s right to see whatever he or she wants to; and on the other hand, the need to protect children. And there’s a spectrum of total freedom for adults versus total protection for children. And you’ve got to, as a society, draw a line somewhere in that spectrum.

What happened was, before the Internet, we had a comfortable tradeoff, or a tradeoff that people had come to terms with, involving, for example, you could designate districts for pornography shops, you couldn’t ban pornography shops. A whole series of laws and Supreme Court decisions that had established this tradeoff. Well, along comes the Internet, and it changes the terms of the tradeoff. It makes it worse. Either you’ve got to… it’s much easier to get this stuff. So either you’ve got to cut back on freedom for adults, or cut back on protection for children. And that’s what neither side in this debate was willing to acknowledge. The people who were in favor of censoring the Internet, in essence, were saying, “All we want is the same protection for children that we had before.” And the websters were saying, “All we want is the same freedom that people had before.” But you can’t both have that. The tradeoff has worsened. And it was the refusal to acknowledge that that bothered me.

HEFFNER: And what do you think you would like to see happen now?

KINSLEY: Well, I’m pretty close to a First Amendment absolutist. I think that there is software that parents can buy or get for free. America Online just the other day, as we tape this, announced a new program to offer it and encourage parents to use it. It allows you to choose what screening program you want. Private organizations, nonprofit, profit-making, will come up with screening programs. And you can choose the one that, if you like the Christian Coalition’s judgment, that’s fine; if you like the ACLU’s judgments, that’s fine. And there will be a private solution to this. But it will not work as well. Children… I think, it’s just one of the downsides of what is generally an upside thing, is that children will have more access to stuff you wish they didn’t.

HEFFNER: You say it’s one of the downsides. There are those who would maintain that it is such an incredible downside that we can’t accept it. And you seem somewhat — more than somewhat — sympathetic to that point here.

KINSLEY: Well, I’m, what bothers me is the refusal to recognize and sympathize with their concern. You can recognize, sympathize with it and still say, “I’m sorry.” My feeling is that there’s luddism on the left, and there’s luddism on the right. And the luddism on the left gets a lot of attention. People trying to stop technological innovation for environmental reasons, which sometimes are excessive. This is an example of luddism on the right.

HEFFNER: Why do you say, “On the right?”

KINSLEY: Well, I think basically, that, you’re right, that’s an oversimplification. But if you had to characterize, on the political spectrum, the cause of people who are eager to censor the Internet for family-values-type reasons, it’s more of a conservative thing than a liberal thing.

HEFFNER: Well, that’s the problem there, is that, to me the problem is that the opponents are doing anything, have managed quite successfully to paint this as a matter of concern about seeing a nude body, a concern about hearing a bad word. Many of the rest of us who don’t consider ourselves to be on the right are very much concerned about the violence that in the video games, on the Internet, in movies, etcetera. Movies at home in particular. And the virtual reality materials.

KINSLEY: Well, I think that’s a very good concern. But most of the fuss has been about the other stuff.

HEFFNER: But most of the fuss has come from those who traditionally fuss about anything that has gone beyond the 17th or 18th centuries. Granted. But we have a very real problem here. Yes, statistics relating to violence have gone down.

You know, George Gerbner once said about the system that I was involved with for so many years, for two decades…

KINSLEY: The movie ratings.

HEFFNER: The movie ratings. Said they are “an upper-middle-class conceit.” Because what they really do is provide a means, voluntary means by which upper-middle-class parents, educated parents, concerned parents, parents who take the time, have the time, who are not so pressured that they can’t do this, guide the destinies of their children.

KINSLEY: Well, they say, I mean, the same thing is happening on the Internet. The websters — that’s a crude shorthand — say it’s up to parents to protect their children. And on the Internet, even the most dedicated parent would have a hard time knowing, without hovering over their child as they surf the web and go through dozens of sites in the course of a few minutes, as a practical matter it’s impossible. These filters, these software filters, in essence delegate that chore to people who can take the time and trouble and have the expertise to do it. They’re not going to work perfectly. Kids are smart; they’ll outfox them. But at least concerned parents have a shot. But to say that it’s up to parents, and dismiss any thought that society ought to give them a helping hand, is a little fatuous, I think.

HEFFNER: Well, it’s that fatuous quality that concerns me. Because it’s dishonest. It ignores all the things we know about the kids who are left alone, the kids who are latchkey kids, the kids who don’t have parents who are there, either there all the time, or who have taken the time and made the effort to assign this task to these other voluntary groups.

KINSLEY: And what you don’t want to do is encourage parents to take their kids off these computers and off the Internet, because it can be, I mean, the plusses are far greater than the minuses.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, you’re talking to a skeptic here.

KINSLEY: Take my word for it.

HEFFNER: Take your word as a novice who is really still delighted about what you’re finding as you’re so much involved with it now?

KINSLEY: Well, sure. What I find day to day just surfing around myself, but also seeing kids in front of their computers exploring the Internet. And they’re looking for trouble sometimes, and they’re finding it sometimes. But basically, as I said before, it’s so much more rich and intellectually useful experience than watching television that I think any parent would think, even if there is some downside, it’s a big net plus.

HEFFNER: This business of the piece you wrote in Time, I don’t want to comment on the importance of traditional print. What’s been the response to it? I would imagine up in Seattle the response can’t be that good, because it is a question, a large question you raise about the webbies.

KINSLEY: Actually, I got pretty positive response. Not just in Seattle, but from friends of mine in Silicon Valley. Now, maybe your friends tell you they like a piece because they really don’t, or they only tell you if they like it, and you don’t hear if they don’t like it. But I got… I was surprised I didn’t get any hostility. It shows the failure of the piece if I didn’t make more enemies with it.

HEFFNER: Well, maybe your colleagues up there don’t, maybe the webbies don’t read traditional journalism anymore.

KINSLEY: Well, Time Magazine, Richard, is on the Web. And you find that people at Microsoft and at the other companies and the West Coast and in the Silicon-Valley-type areas all over the country who are totally into this stuff read much of what you read. They actually do read it on a computer screen. And they read The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, which, they couldn’t even get The Washington Post by traditional means. And they read Time and Newsweek. And they’re better-informed and better citizens as a result.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, back at the beginning of television, my late friend, Donley Feddison, published a little book, The Big Media and the Little Me. A cartoon book, really. And it had this wonderful cartoon of modern man, Cyclops, all you really need, what we would become by adapting ourselves through natural selection was one big eye in the middle of the forehead to focus on the television screen. Do you really reject the notion or, not very enthusiastic about the notion that somehow or other, in McLuhan-ish terms, our perceptual apparatus will, in time change as we come to focus increasingly on this new means of communications? Without passing judgment as to whether it’s good or bad.

KINSLEY: Yeah, I assume it will change in some ways, as every development of this sort since Gutenberg, and I guess before, has changed. A) As you say, “Who knows how?” and B) it could well be a good thing.

HEFFNER: “Good thing.” That’s interesting. You mean it would be progress.


HEFFNER: Survival of the fittest.


HEFFNER: Which is not something I’d ever accuse you of believing.

KINSLEY: When people… wasn’t the Gutenberg revolution a good thing, when books were invented? And weren’t there, for all we know, there were people saying, “Oh, boy. People aren’t going to be out hunting anymore.”


KINSLEY: “They’re going to be stuck there with one eye staring at a book all day.”

HEFFNER: At least then it was two eyes staring at a book.

KINSLEY: Yeah. As I say, there are people who come up with reasons to oppose every advance in technology, and they’ve generally turned out pretty well.

HEFFNER: So you’re pretty positive about cyberspace.

KINSLEY: Oh, yeah. I’m having a wonderful time. And I’m pretty sure the project I’m working on is going to be a success. I can’t guarantee that. But there is no doubt that the Internet is going to change our lives. And no doubt it’s going to be for the better.

HEFFNER: In the half a minute we have remaining, what will be the sign of the success of Slate… dot com?

KINSLEY: I take a very hardcore line. If it meets the test of the marketplace. If advertisers and subscribers are willing to pay enough money to make it a go. And because of the economies of cyberspace — no paper, printing, postage — that is actually less money than it takes to start a regular magazine. That’s what I’m out to do: show that the Internet makes possible the kind of journalism you and I like more economically and easier, and therefore more plentifully, than before. And that, I think, even you would agree is a good thing.

HEFFNER: Well, maybe my grandsons will teach me how to access — not in the print version — but access in the cyberspace what you’re doing now. And I look forward to it. And thank you very much for joining me today, Michael Kinsley.

KINSLEY: Thank you, Richard.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.