A week after she was praised in Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People" issue (4/18/05), the magazine went a step further by making far-right pundit Ann Coulter the subject of a lengthy April 25 cover story. Readers who might have looked for a critical examination of the overexposed, factually challenged hatemonger found something else: a puff piece that gave Coulter a pass on her many errors and vicious, often bigoted rhetoric.
Throughout the article, Time reporter John Cloud gave Coulter every benefit of the doubt. Her clear, amply documented record of inaccuracy was waved away. Coulter's notoriously vitriolic hate speech was alternately dismissed as a put-on or excused as "from her heart," while the worst Cloud could say about her was that she can "occasionally be coarse." Time readers learned that Coulter is an omnivorous reader (one of exactly two examples of her consumption being the Drudge Report website), and that she regards herself "as a public intellectual." Coulter, who writes a syndicated newspaper column and makes frequent cable news appearances, is dubbed "iconic" by Time because she "epitomizes the way politics is now discussed on the airways."
In reality, there are few who "discuss" politics the Coulter way--by smearing opponents as traitors, calling for a renewal of McCarthyism and endorsing the killing of reporters.
"Coulter has a reputation for carelessness with facts, and if you Google the words 'Ann Coulter lies,' you will drown in result," wrote Cloud. "But I didn't find many outright Coulter errors."
That would depend on how one defines "many" or "outright." Websites like the Daily Howler, Tapped, Media Matters and Spinsanity have pointed out literally dozens of errors in Coulter's book Slander and other Coulter statements. Coulter directed Cloud to one error she now admits to making, about the New York Times supposedly ignoring the death of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt (an error she lied about making when she appeared on FAIR's CounterSpin--8/9/02). Coulter managed to make yet another error in her explanation to Cloud, but this didn't seem to lead Cloud to dig any deeper. As Salon's Eric Boehlert pointed out (4/19/05), Slander's publisher made five corrections after its initial printing--and should have made at least six more.
But it's important to acknowledge that Coulter is, in a sense, hard to "fact check" because she rarely makes arguments based on facts. Appearing on television programs to say that liberals "want there to be lots of 9/11s" (Fox News, 10/13/03) can either be treated as a serious argument for which she has no evidence, or explained away as "opinion." Such cheap and disgusting smears tend to be acceptable by mainstream media standards-- so long as they're coming out of Coulter's mouth.
Benefit of the doubt
Throughout the article, Cloud presented instances where Coulter was allegedly misunderstood or underappreciated. And in each case, Cloud either gave Coulter a pass, or concluded that her opponents were wrong. Cloud generously wrote that Coulter "likes to shock reporters by wondering aloud whether America might be better off if women lost the right to vote"-- as if she writes or speaks such things on national television only to get a rise out of journalists. Cloud also argued that Coulter can "write about gender issues with particular sensitivity," an odd trait to attribute to someone who recently claimed that women are "not that bright" (Fox News, 9/23/04).
Cloud also recalled a TV debate over environmentalism where Coulter offered her typical hyperbole: "God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the seas.... God said, 'Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It's yours.'"
Unfortunately, wrote Cloud, "her rape-the-planet bit would later be wrenched from context and repeatedly quoted as Coulter nuttiness." The context, apparently, is that she was laughing when she said it-- and that, as Coulter put it, her critics "don't get the punch line"--which was that raping the Earth is preferable to "living like the Indians." Cloud admitted that maybe not everyone would find the slur funny--but doesn't seem to understand that laughing about "raping" the Earth is no less offensive than making the suggestion with a straight face.
In recounting two of Coulter's more notorious TV appearances, Cloud found fault with everyone else. Recalling her firing from MSNBC for disdainfully telling a disabled Vietnam vet, "No wonder you guys lost," Cloud interjected that the veteran, Robert Muller, was incorrect when he claimed that 90 percent of U.S. landmine casualties in Vietnam came from "our mines" used by enemy forces. Cloud--who had been unable to find many errors in Coulter's work--rebutted Muller by saying that a 1969 Pentagon report found that "90 percent of the components used in enemy mines came from U.S. duds and refuse"--a minor if not meaningless distinction. Cloud also recalled that the MSNBC incident "became an infamous--and oft-misreported--Coulter moment" because outlets like the Washington Post had misquoted Coulter as saying, "People like you caused us to lose that war." Cloud ignored the fact that the source of the paraphrase was Coulter herself (Extra!, 11-12/02).
Cloud also recounted a recent interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation where Coulter, arguing that Canada should participate in the war in Iraq, claimed that "Canada sent troops to Vietnam." When CBC interviewer Bob McKeown said she was wrong about that, Coulter pledged to get back to them about it-- but never did. Cloud rushed to the rescue by noting that "Canada did send noncombat troops to Indochina in the 1950s and again to Vietnam in 1972." Cloud is making quite a stretch to prove that Coulter was correct--Canada was officially neutral during the Vietnam War, so if any noncombat troops were sent (none are mentioned in a detailed 1975 U.S. Army history, Allied Participation in Vietnam), they would not have been sent to support U.S. forces there. Again, Cloud went out of his way to cast doubt on statements made by Coulter's critics, applying no such scrutiny to Coulter herself--the ostensible subject of his article.
Cloud downplayed Coulter's record of rank bigotry and racism. Recounting her defense of racial profiling, Cloud wrote, "It would be easier to accept Coulter's reasoning if a shadow of bigotry didn't attach to many of her statements about Arabs and Muslims." Cloud did not explain how this bigoted "shadow" mysteriously "attaches" itself to Coulter's words, but the strange metaphor does serve to distance Coulter from her obvious hatefulness.
Ironically, in another part of the story, Cloud recalled that Coulter once wrote that school desegregation has led to "illiterate students knifing one another between acts of sodomy in the stairwell." One wonders if the "shadow" of racism will find its way to that statement as well.
Cloud also noted that Coulter once said in a speech, "Liberals are about to become the last people to figure out that Arabs lie"--a comment Cloud dubbed "flagrantly impolitic," as if it's simply bad form to make a slanderous generalization about an entire ethnicity.
To illustrate the left's reaction to Coulter, the article was accompanied by a photo of a demonstration where a poster labels Coulter a "neo-imperialist criminal" and an "enemy," and her mouth is covered by a censorious red X. "Protesters blast Coulter at the GOP Convention in New York City last year," the caption explained.
What readers weren't told is that the poster was a right-wing satire, part of a pro-Republican counter-demonstration; Time cropped out the name of the organization responsible for the poster-- "Communists for Kerry"-- as well as another sign behind it promoting "Criminals for Gun Control." Does Time really pay so little attention to the graphics that it uses-- or was the cropping an attempt to make sure that readers wouldn't be in on the joke?
(The online version of Time, which ran an uncropped version of the photo, now identifies the sign-holders as "pro-GOP protesters" and appends a correction saying that "the original caption incorrectly stated that these protesters were blasting Coulter.")
Time readers who aren't aware of Coulter's work might wonder why a far-right TV pundit would be worth so much attention. Some media observers, like Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz (4/19/05), recalled that filmmaker Michael Moore made the magazine's July 12, 2004 cover.
Moore and Coulter share little in terms of tone or content; nonetheless, the comparison is worth exploring, since it reveals that Moore was held to a much different standard. The text on the Coulter cover asks, "Is she serious or just having fun?" For Moore, the release of his film Fahrenheit 9/11 led Time to ask on its cover, "Is this good for America?"
The Moore feature included a stand-alone sidebar that addressed his alleged inaccuracies, and gave ample space to critics who derided the movie. On top of that, conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan was given a separate piece to savage Fahrenheit 9/11 along with Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, calling them "crude, boring, gratuitous," and charging Moore with using "innuendo, sly editing, parody, ridicule and somber voiceovers to give his mere assertions a patina of truth."
The point is not that Moore should be treated the same as Coulter. In fact, Moore's film was premiering across the country, smashing all box-office records for documentaries, and had won international acclaim, making his work of bonafide journalistic interest. By contrast, Coulter's latest book is a months-old collection of columns, and if not for a handful of cable news appearances this year she would be almost completely invisible in the national debate.
At one point, Cloud asked rhetorically: "How did such a flagrantly impolitic person become such a force in our politics?" The answer is obvious: The mainstream media has granted her the time and space to spread her message. And if Cloud's own credulous writing is any indication, that's not going to change anytime soon.
Please contact Time's John Cloud and tell him you were disappointed that his article played down Ann Coulter's bigotry and inaccuracy.
Phone: (212) 522-1212
As always, please remember that your comments have more impact if you maintain a polite tone.