The Case Against Hating This Headline

A brief history of The Atlantic’s use of a familiar article framing

Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Bettmann Archive / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

The case for trailer parks? They’re a cheap, energy-efficient path to homeownership. The case for Facebook’s success? It has nothing to do with MySpace. For pickled onions? Well, they’re delicious.

Over the years, The Atlantic’s writers have argued the merits of things and ideas both silly and serious—and also made the case against things, like performance reviews, breastfeeding, and Modest Mouse.

A casual reader may be acquainted with some of the more recent works of the genre—say, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s June 2014 cover story, “The Case for Reparations”—but this framing device has been in use at the magazine for more than a century. In fact, our staff has argued for and against so many things that “The Case” headlines have become somewhat of an inside joke among staffers and subscribers. “How many ‘cases’ have the Atlantic staff argued against at this point?” wrote one Twitter user in reaction to The Case Against Cats in 2016.

The answer, in case you’re interested, is more than 250—about 200 cases for, and 50 cases against. And, thanks in no small part to my colleague and technical wizard Andrew McGill, you can now browse the full collection.

This is not, it should be noted, a comprehensive list of any time the words The Case have appeared in an Atlantic headline. We restricted this list to articles that feature a writer, well, doing just that—making an argument. Some of the shorter, blog-style posts from an earlier era of our website use the formulation, but consist of just a few sentences of musing and links to articles elsewhere. Those aren’t included. And anything referencing a legal case—for example, the “case” against embattled Democratic Senator Robert Menendez—was also tossed. Even after narrowing down the list, there is a long, diverse history of such arguments.

Our first “Case” headline appeared in 1907, on Floyd Elmer DeGroat’s piece “Mutual Life Insurance: The Case for the Agent.” Purists may argue that the colon renders it invalid, but I’m going to let this one slide.

The second, and first standalone, “Case”—pardon the navel-gazing—is an argument for “the Newspapers.” Published in 1910, the piece begins with a timeless complaint: “This is an age of specialists, but it is still true that everybody thinks he knows how to run a newspaper.” Written by the former Wall Street Journal editor William Peter Hamilton, it goes on to stress the importance of professional newspapermen in keeping fake news away from the masses. Sound familiar?

On a couple of occasions, The Atlantic has featured dueling ideas in this format. Three years after “The Case for the Newspapers,” the magazine published its first set of dueling Cases, with December 1913’s “The Case for the Single Tax” and the next issue’s “The Case Against the Single Tax.”

Though a smattering of Cases appear throughout the 20th century, the use of these headlines drastically picks up in the new millennium; the vast majority come after the year 2000. The uptick coincides with the sharp increase of total pieces published by The Atlantic—when the magazine was no longer confined to print pages alone, but could expand its journalism to the vast wilds of the internet. And skipping forward to today, The Atlantic is still at it: Editors have employed the Case frame on 14 pieces so far in 2017—including 13 cases for various things and a single case against. The outlier came from my colleague Megan Garber, in her March piece against grammar scolds.

Our most recent Case is a somber one. In October, Katelyn Beaty argued in defense of “thoughts and prayers” after mass shootings, citing neuroscience research. “Since prayer aids in clear, calm, and empathetic thinking,” Beaty writes, “if we are going to respond well to complicated issues such as gun control, prayer may be more helpful in leading us toward better policy solutions than would an urgent, fretful, ill-considered response.”

So, why all the Cases? Scott Stossel, the editor of the print magazine, argues that the Case is “a very simple, unadorned way of saying ‘This is an argument.’” And argumentation, he says, is at the core of what The Atlantic does.

Which, naturally, leads us to make one additional (and admittedly self-serving) case: the Case for the Case Headline.

“What’s that thing Coco Chanel advised about outfits—before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one item?,” Garber muses. “Well, ‘The Case for’ headlines have taken that advice. They’re elegant and straightforward and supremely self-confident. No unnecessary adornment, no fancy verbs, no extraneous Hows or Whys. Just ‘The Case’ for something, to be taken or left. Yes or no, up or down—there is order in the universe, this headline says, and also please click on this story.”

My colleague Derek Thompson is the trope’s most prolific user, having written more than 20 cases in his nine years on staff. “I think the best way to ‘sell’ unfamiliar wonkiness to a general audience is through safe tropes that might strike a cynical editor as clichéd,” he said. “Many clichés are stale. Some are, ironically, breaths of air.”

And there’s a delightful push-and-pull nature to these headlines. The Atlantic’s founders wanted to create a space for exploring the American idea. Along the way, its writers must grapple with all the micro-ideas of their day, pushing some forward and arguing to leave others behind. Taken collectively, the Cases are a small sampling—a time capsule, if you will—of those we have endeavored to explain so far. Of course, there is plenty yet unargued—and still much deliberation ahead.