At 8:10 AM on the morning of July 6, 2016 I sent an email to Slate.com that, journalistically speaking, should have awakened even the dead. The email was sent to Slate's official submission address - Slateoffice@slate.com -- and copied to its designated representative, "Stephanie," who had assured me that my offering would be seen by the appropriate editor. It should have instantly set off alarms, evoking both the drama of the Pentagon Papers and the history-making revelations of Edward Snowden's leaks.
The subject line was brief and to the point. It read: "Classified Documents from Pentagon- Re Comprehensive History of Iraq War."
There followed the briefest of notes: "Please forward to the appropriate editor. Please respond ASAP if interested. Ted Gup, former Washington Post investigative reporter and best-selling author of CIA history and Nation of Secrets."
That was July 6 - three weeks ago. I am still waiting for a response. And if my past dealings with Slate are any indication of what lies ahead, I shall be waiting for at least another millennium. That's because Slate does not deem it necessary to respond to writers - at least, not this one.
Now, for the record, I am in possession of no such documents as suggested in the email. I have no such story in the works. I never did. What I sent Slate was a ruse, nothing more. It was designed to be a sort of "live-body" test to see if Slate had a pulse, if it even bothered to read its submissions. The silence that attended that missive tells me that something is very wrong at Slate. Now, I am sure (though not that sure) that if Colin Powell or Garrison Keillor had signed off on the email, it might have been deemed worthy of reading and answering. But not if it bore the signature of "Ted Gup," hardly a household name, but still....
Let me say up front, I don't much like Slate. And yes, I am decidedly biased. The site itself is fine, and a decade ago I even once wrote for it. But the arrogance - or mechanical insouciance -- with which they carry on, sticks in my craw. It's what drove me to this mischief in the first place, to put them to a test of their journalistic bona fides. They are not going to like this, but so what...
Now, I'd be lying if I said my ego isn't bruised. For years I have submitted pieces to Slate.com and not once have they shown me the decency of a response. I mean not so much as a "we'll pass," or a "Thanks, anyway." No, nada. Nothing. Call me a glutton for punishment, but after a while, I took it personally.
Just penetrating their defenses is nigh impossible. Try getting a phone number or email for one of their editors. As a former investigative reporter for The Washington Post and Time, I found it more impenetrable than the CIA or NSA, both of which were more responsive that the Sphynx-like Slate. At least the intel agencies showed me the courtesy of a refusal.
Now maybe it's because I'm just not much of a writer, though in my own defense, during that same period in which Slate steadfastly ignored me, I contributed articles to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Nation, Politico, and a dozen other publications that I suspect even the vaunted Slate would regard as its peers. (And yes, I am a best-selling author and a Pulitzer finalist.)
So after the non-response to the modern-day version of the Pentagon Papers, I decided to make my beef public. And no, I do not think, in doing so, I will shame Slate into rendering a human response or extract a promise that henceforth they will at least respond to my inquiries. No, I had another motive for engaging in this mischief and for then sharing it with others, one that transcends my dented ego and my festering frustration: it goes to the current state of journalism and the obstacles to be faced by a new generation of journalists.
For more than thirty years, even as I have written books and articles, I have also taught journalism. And during that period I have observed how increasingly difficult it is to get editors to acknowledge, much less respond, to editorial offerings. For my students and recent grads it has been a bruising affair. The tech revolution, with all its salutary multi-media benefits, its enfranchisement of ordinary citizens, its enhancement of readily accessible resources, has been a journalistic boon in many ways. But it has also ushered in an age in which many within the media have constructed a cyber-moat around themselves, making it ever more difficult for those on the outside to make meaningful human contact with those on the inside.
The telephone has shrunk in significance. Its use today is regarded with a whiff of suspicion and a sense that it is overly intrusive and disruptive. With its decline, the access to telephone numbers has also withered. In its place are email addresses, and even these have now become increasingly remote, generic, faceless and unaccountable. Slateoffice@slate.com does not exactly telegraph the lore and romance of a newsroom, but seems more befitting the IRS or other distant and self-absorbed bureaucracies.
In this way Slate is hardly alone. It is increasingly representative of a new editorial landscape where courtesy has been redefined, if not erased, and where access to decision-makers is beyond the reach of all but the most-connected and prominent. Offerings to The Daily Beast, Salon and others have met with similar fates. The Internet which is rightly celebrated for its capacity to create communities online has also spawned a new feudalistic defensiveness and disregard, allowing bureaucracies to hide behind email addresses, erase phone numbers and street addresses, and function as if on an orbiting space station.
The remoteness is worrisome on any number of levels. It suggests the potential detachment and disengagement from the world around it, one that could spawn a sense of invulnerability and insularity. It raises questions about how new and not-yet-established writers may find a way in. It obstructs the dialogue between writer and editor, one that produces long-term relationships and which, even in rejection, often provided invaluable feedback and sometimes a hint of encouragement. What was relational is now increasingly transactional. Serendipity has been exchanged for efficiency, the pleasures of discovery, for the comforts of the familiar.
And it is worrisome too because there is no reason to believe that Slate was on to me and my little experiment. On the journalistic Richter scale, my offering should have shaken the editors out of their stupors. There was a time, not so long ago, when such a missive would have sent editors scurrying, fighting over turf, and clearing space on A1. But my guess is that the editors of Slate never even saw this email - or any of the others I have sent in recent years -- that they were swept up by a spam filter, deleted by an intern, or simply consigned to an eternity in the queue of unsolicited offerings. Or perhaps, they just weren't interested in the hidden truth of a long-suffering war. I'll likely never know.....