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When Time magazine named Ann Coulter among its 100 “most influential people” last week, alongside such heavyweights as Ariel Sharon, Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, Kim Jong Il and the Dalai Lama, the choice produced guffaws online. Plugging the issue on Fox News last week, Time executive editor Priscilla Painton insisted it was Coulter’s use of “humor” that made her so influential, stopping just short of suggesting that Coulter is the conservative Jon Stewart. But even Fox’s Bill O’Reilly wasn’t buying it. He pressed Painton: “Do you think people, Americans, listen to Ann Coulter? Do you think she has influence in public opinion?”
At least now we know where Time magazine was going with its choice. Turns out Coulter’s inclusion was just a warm-up — a justification — for this week’s fawning Time cover story, “Ms. Right.” Polemicist pundits like Coulter purposefully drive political discourse into the ground, making a cushy, albeit factually challenged career out of labeling Democrats America-hating traitors. Time magazine stands on the sidelines and cheers, confident it has, for at least another week, placated conservative critics who demand proof that media outlets don’t lean left. (And even that didn’t work.)
Coming, as Wonkette.com noted, “seven years late,” Time’s Coulter push feels overly contrived. Her latest book is a five-month-old clip job of recycled columns. She has no full-time, high-profile media platform. Instead, she crisscrosses the country collecting $30,000 speaking-fee checks and shows up on late-night cable talk shows that are watched by the thousands.
The Time profile rings hollow right from the cover blurb: “Fair and balanced she ain’t. This conservative flame-thrower enrages the left and delights the right.” Time plays dumb, though, failing to note that Coulter has been abandoned by the conservative press, with the National Review dismissing her as “barely coherent” and a Weekly Standard writer, reviewing Coulter’s “Liberal Lies About the American Right” for the Washington Post, describing her book as “a piece of political hackwork.”
The true tipoff to the Time feature comes in the fourth paragraph, when it tries to get “serious with Coulter and asks her why she enjoys attacking liberals.” Here’s what follows:
“‘They’re terrible people, liberals. They believe — this can really summarize it all — these are people who believe,’ she said, now raising her voice, ‘you can deliver a baby entirely except for the head, puncture the skull, suck the brains out and pronounce that a constitutional right has just been exercised. That really says it all.’”
Puncturing the skulls of newborn babies? In order for the feature to stay afloat, Time has to ignore Coulter’s graphic riff on so-called partial-birth abortions as a symbol of Democratic beliefs, which it dutifully does. Author John Cloud seems to think the comment is darling, marveling how her response helped humanize her.
According to Time, Coulter, whom “you can trust will speak from her heart,” sees herself “as a public intellectual.” Cloud adds, “The officialdom of punditry, so full of phonies and dullards, would suffer without her humor and fire.” (During a recent C-Span appearance Coulter insisted, “Conservatives believe in God. By contrast, liberals believe they are God.” So much for intellect.)
And there’s this beaut: “Coulter is more like Clare Boothe Luce, the wife of this magazine’s co-founder, who rankled the Roosevelt establishment in the ’40s with her take-no-prisoners opposition to the New Deal and communism.” Actually, Clare Boothe Luce was a pioneering editor, playwright, politician, journalist and diplomat. Coulter is a professional name-caller.
The most awkward moment comes when Cloud writes: “Coulter has a reputation for carelessness with facts, and if you Google the words ‘Ann Coulter lies,’ you will drown in results. But I didn’t find many outright Coulter errors.”
Coulter’s publisher, Crown, had to correct five errors in “Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right,” although scores more should have been fixed. Here are some lowlights:
Coulter tries to document liberal bias by claiming that “Today” host Katie Couric called Ronald Reagan “an airhead.” Here’s the transcript: “The Gipper was an airhead. That’s one of the conclusions of a new biography of Ronald Reagan that’s drawing a tremendous amount of interest and fire.” Coulter simply lied about Couric.
“Al Gore saw busts of Washington and Franklin and asked, “Who are these guys?” Not true. Gore was referring to busts of John Paul Jones and the Marquis de Lafayette.
“Al Gore lied about how he and Tipper were the inspiration for “Love Story.” Not true. In an interview years ago with “Love Story” author Erich Segal, the Nashville Tennessean reported that Segal had suggested Gore and Tipper had been the inspiration for the “Love Story” characters. That’s where Gore picked up the story.
Coulter accused New York Times columnist Frank Rich, in the wake of 9/11, of writing a column that demanded that Attorney General John Ashcroft “stop monkeying around with Muslim terrorists and concentrate on anti-abortion extremists.” Rich did no such thing.
Complaining about how the liberal Times endlessly recycled the glory days of the civil rights era and the famous march from Montgomery to Selma, Ala., Coulter claimed, “Between 1995 and 2001, the New York Times alone ran more than one hundred articles on ‘Selma’ alone.” As American Prospect’s Tapped noted, of those 100 Selma mentions, only 16 were centrally focused on civil rights events.
According to Coulter, Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., “supported Clinton’s tax hike, and opposed the younger Bush’s tax cut.” Wrong and wrong. He voted against Clinton’s tax hike (as did all Republicans), and he voted for Bush’s tax cut.
So, exactly how hard — if at all — did Time actually look for Coulter’s well-documented errors? “I don’t say she’s never made a mistake. I say she has a reputation for carelessness,” Time’s Cloud tells Salon. “I didn’t feel the need to make the story another rehash” of Coulter’s factual missteps. “Slander came out a long time ago. I think on balance the story is fair.”
Searching for some new way to support the “Coulter’s really important” thesis, Time latches onto this unique angle: “As a congressional staff member 10 years ago, Coulter used to help write the nation’s laws. Now she is far more powerful: she helps set the nation’s tone” (emphasis added). Forget the nonsense about setting the tone — even conservative scribes don’t buy in to that. But Coulter, working between 1995 and 1997 for Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., helped write the nation’s laws?
According to contemporaneous news clips from Capitol Hill trade publications, such as the Hill and National Journal, Coulter at the time was almost always referred to as either Abraham’s “deputy press secretary” or his “legislative assistant.” In 1995, one article noted that Coulter “puts on conferences and seminars” for the senator. It wasn’t until she actually left Abraham’s office in ’97 that Coulter received a retroactive promotion in the press and morphed into Abraham’s former legal counsel, which makes it sound like she wrote laws.
We don’t begrudge anyone padding their résumé. It’s a Beltway tradition. But Time looks pretty foolish for trying to turn that fluff — and Coulter herself — into a cover story of substance.
Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."More Eric Boehlert.