Is Slate’s long-running “Dear Prudence” advice column plagued by fake submissions? It seems to have run with at least 12 since 2018, according to the guy who submitted them, who also claims some of the letters were substantially modified.
“Dear Prudie” offers amusing insight into the bizarre reality of post-modern liberals, capturing their predictable struggles with life after truth, where gender is fluid and monogamy is a prison. The column is published in a news outlet, so even if its primary purpose is entertainment, you’d expect the team would be either skilled or concerned enough to flag fakes. That challenge is telling, but not in the way you might think.
In a recent confessional essay for Gawker, writer Bennett Madison chronicled his two years of sending fake letters to Prudie. “I used burner email accounts to submit around 25 letters to Dear Prudence, at least 12 of which were answered on either the printed column or the podcast,” he wrote last month.
Not only did nearly half of Madison’s outrageous letters end up in “Prudie,” he claims Slate made major modifications to the submissions without his consent. “Sometimes,” wrote Madison, “my work was altered in ways that changed its substance.”
In the case of “My Daughter Is Pretending to Be Demonically Possessed… and I Can’t Take It Anymore!,” that meant when it ran on the “Prudie” podcast the letter “had been stripped of its caveats to allow Prudie to deliver a sermon about nurturing childhood creativity,” according to Madison.
In late September, I asked Slate if Bennett’s posts were “changed in substantive ways,” as he alleged. The outlet’s director of media relations replied, “Slate does not change the substance of letter writers’ questions. We do edit them for length, clarity and spelling and grammar, but don’t change the meaning or substance of any question that is submitted.”
She added that they “take measures to scan for fakes, but a few may slip through–and, after reading the Gawker post, we do certainly appreciate Bennett’s persistence and creativity. But we believe fake letters make up a very small percentage of our mailbag.”
To recap, if Madison is correct, the revelations here are that “Dear Prudie” seems to be very poorly vetted and that Slate occasionally makes big changes to the letters. Regardless, it’s still easy to assume most letters are real and unedited, and that it doesn’t matter even if they’re fake and modified.
That’s fair enough, Slate isn’t exactly NBC News (although they seem to have similar standards). When I reached out to Slate in late September, the publication’s director of media relations told me their audience had spent more than four million minutes reading “Dear Prudence” the week before.
“Dear Prudie” is something of an institution and, in the age of the internet, interesting letters are viral fodder. They sometimes even garner external media coverage, since journalists assume Slate effectively vets the letters and doesn’t fictionalize anything. Madison’s last fake submission, “Help! My Husband Won’t Remove His Mask, Even For Sex!,” ended up on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” over the summer, again because it was a somewhat believable predicament published by a news outlet.
The question of believability is actually what vindicates Slate and makes this story instructive. Madison described the struggle in the mask column as “an obviously phony scenario.” The problem is that it’s not.
“I had meant the letter as a mild comedy of manners set in the neurotic milieu of the Brooklyn middle class — a milieu that was, of course, my own,” Madison wrote in Gawker. But Slate ran the letter for the same reason Tucker Carlson ran a segment on it. There is nothing “obviously phony” about that level of precaution.
A quick internet search turns up headlines about recommendations that people wear masks during sex. “Safer sex during Covid-19 also means wearing a mask and avoiding kissing,” The New York Times reported. Planned Parenthood guidance from March says vaccinated people at risk of developing serious complications from COVID-19 should “avoid sex and other kinds of close contact” with their partner.
The fake and “depressed” author of Madison’s May letter wrote that her vaccinated husband insisted on wearing a mask inside their home, even when they were alone, even when they were eating, and even when they were having sex. “When I have tried to present him with the science, he says, ‘Scientists don’t fully understand the virus yet,’ or, ‘I know it probably isn’t necessary, but wearing it doesn’t bother me, so if there’s even a small chance that it can protect us, I’d rather be on the safe side. What’s the harm?'”
Given that lawmakers and purported experts have insisted vaccinated people continue to social distance and mask up, it’s hardly a leap to assume some small number of people with serious COVID-induced paranoia would cling to their protective gear.
In “Help! My Friend Thinks I Am Stealing Vaccines From African-American Grandmothers To Attend Sex Resorts,” the author’s white friend accused him of “only wanting to go to sex resorts and blamed me for taking vaccines away from ‘African American grandmothers,’ when he was able to receive the first dose of the vaccine. The sex resort claim seems to have come from nowhere in the fictional scenario, but the letter is entirely believable.
Again, a quick internet search turns up articles from last spring, when the letter ran in Slate, with headlines like “The Racial Disparities, Systemic Racism Behind Who Has Received Vaccines,” “Pandemic’s Racial Disparities Persist in Vaccine Rollout,” and “White People Got COVID-19 Vaccines Meant for Others.” Those pieces are from NPR, The New York Times, and Time, by the way.
In his Gawker essay, Madison explained what made a good letter. “After a few false starts, I learned that a good letter is defined by two opposing values: it must be plausible, but it must also be ridiculous. This is a delicate equilibrium to manage, and one that I botched frequently,” he reflected.
Ridiculous but plausible is also a great description of the post-modern left. That’s what at least partially lets Slate off the hook. How on earth, in a world where the left has resurrected segregation, named a man “Woman of the Year,” and published white papers like “Fat acceptance as social justice,” is anyone supposed to recognize satire?
The Babylon Bee, a conservative answer to “The Onion,” has an entire section called “Not the Bee” populated by “headlines that should be satire, but aren’t.” Both the Bee and Madison attempt to do the same thing, but as Not the Bee shows, discerning parody from reality isn’t easy.
That isn’t, of course, to say the right is too reasonable for parody. Onion stories like “Republicans Worried Blind Worship Of Trump Overriding Traditional Values Like Blind Worship Of Reagan” are still funny. We just had a Republican president who hosted “Celebrity Apprentice,” tweeted about the size of Kim Jong-un’s button, and assured supports there was “no problem” with the size of his penis. As “Saturday Night Live” learned, the reality was so funny, it was pretty hard to satirize.
But there’s still a key difference. The plausibility of Madison’s fake submissions is rooted in a pan-institutional mainstreaming of ridiculous beliefs. Everything Trump says and does is fact-checked into oblivion by the media and the political establishment. Every bizarre claim of racism or truth or transphobia that comes from the contemporary left is fact-checked into reality and justified by the mediocre intellectual gymnasts leading our institutions.
All that is to say, give Slate a break. Whoever vets “Prudie” has an impossible job.