The rise of Ann Coulter's new book, "Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right," to the top of the New York Times bestseller list may be a shock to some, but the controversial pundit's scathing rhetoric and outspoken conservatism have helped position her as exactly the sort of figure who sells books. More polemic than argument, "Slander" is riddled with factual errors, egregious misrepresentations and a constant stream of broad, inflammatory claims about liberals, as numerous critics have been quick to point out. Yet despite the limits of her one-sided argument, she actually offers a troubling lament for the state of our political discourse -- even as she contributes to its decline.
Coulter began her career as a pundit during the investigation and impeachment of former President Bill Clinton. An attorney, Coulter aided Paula Jones with her legal case and later wrote a book on Clinton titled "High Crimes and Misdemeanors." Since then, she has written a syndicated column and made frequent television appearances.
Coulter is self-consciously inflammatory. As she told the Sunday Times of London recently, "I am a polemicist. I am perfectly frank about that. I like to stir up the pot. I don't pretend to be impartial or balanced, as broadcasters do." It is exactly that kind of invective which has earned her so much publicity.
"Slander" has already come in for heavy criticism over her factual errors and distortions. Throughout the book, for example, she relies heavily on quantitative searches of the Lexis-Nexis news database to support her assertions about the media's bias and its unfair treatment of conservatives, making at least 15 such claims. At first blush, these bits of evidence seem to provide strong support to her arguments. Yet very serious questions have been raised about her methodology. <p
The American Prospect's weblog, Tapped, noted that Coulter's claim that "Between 1995 and 2001, the New York Times alone ran more than one hundred articles on 'Selma' alone" is demonstrably false. Tapped also reported the inaccuracy of her claim that "In the New York Times archives, 'moderate Republican' has been used 168 times," while "There have been only 11 sightings of a 'liberal Republican.'" But a search in the New York Times' own archive found 22 hits for "liberal Republican" since 1996; in a search of the Times archives for "all available dates" in Lexis-Nexis, the weblog found 524 such citations.
Bob Somerby punctured Coulter's argument that the New York Times reveals a liberal bias by having used the phrases "Christian conservatives" or "religious right" 187 times during, roughly, the 2000 calendar year, while never using the phrases "atheist liberals" or "the atheist left." Somerby found that the New York Times compared favorably with the conservative Washington Times, which had 151 references to "Christian conservatives" or the "religious right" in 2000 -- along with, of course, no references to "atheist liberals" or "the atheist left."
Coulter also repeats several well-debunked myths in her book. Particularly striking is her relentless repetition of the claim that former Vice President Al Gore falsely suggested that he was the inspiration for the book "Love Story" -- a claim Coulter makes four separate times. As Robert Parry noted in an article in the Washington Monthly, author Erich Segal told the New York Times in a Dec. 14, 1997, article that Gore was indeed part of the inspiration for the main character in the novel. Gore did mistakenly say that the character of Jenny had been based on his wife Tipper, but he based this comment on an incorrect report in the Nashville Tennessean.
Another favorite tactics of Coulter's is the use of deceptive paraphrases to distort others' viewpoints. Blogger Scoobie Davis has noted that Coulter misrepresents the views of Frank Rich and Bruce Ackerman on the war on terrorism. Early in the book, Coulter writes that "New York Times columnist Frank Rich demanded that [Attorney General John] Ashcroft stop monkeying around with Muslim terrorists and concentrate on anti-abortion extremists." The column that she cites, however, makes no such argument. Coulter also writes that "Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman recommended dropping the war against global terrorism ('declare war at the first decent opportunity'!) and instead concentrate on 'home-grown extremists.'" Yet Ackerman's column suggests a cautious approach to a global war on terrorism, not "dropping" it, and nowhere does he advocate concentrating on domestic terrorists instead of international terrorists. Coulter's paraphrases are both wild distortions.
Another problem plaguing "Slander" is the deceptive way Coulter uses footnotes to lend a false sense of legitimacy to questionable points. To take one example, in her discussion of media treatment of former Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., she provides a list of 10 quotes alternating between positive coverage prior to his political demise following allegations of sexual harassment, and negative coverage afterward. Coulter introduces the list with the claim that "What happened to Packwood is a stunning example of the media's power both to destroy and protect ... In the case of Packwood, the media's good dog/bad dog descriptions were applied to the exact same human being."
To the casual reader, the list must seem fairly damning. Yet if one flips to the back of the book and checks her sources, it turns out that her claim about "the media" rests on a very small sample. Rather than the 10 different articles the casual reader would assume Coulter is quoting, she relies on one article for four of the five negative quotes, a second for three of the five positive quotes, and a third for the other two positive quotes. In all, the list comes down to four articles -- thin evidence at best for the broad suggestion that coverage of Packwood proves "[t]here is no intellectual honesty whatsoever in media descriptions of politicians," which she makes two paragraphs later.
Coulter's use of quotes from liberal commentators as proof of media bias is equally problematic. She disregards the importance of conservative commentators, by writing, for example, "Rush Limbaugh is not the president, the vice president, or a Massachusetts senator. He's not the New York Times. He's not ABC, NBC, or CBS." Coulter also tells us that "What conservatives object to is not liberal opinion commentary, but rather ostensibly objective news coated with smears." Yet much of her evidence for media bias and unfair attacks on conservatives comes from the opinion columns of liberal pundits. Particularly damaging is the way in which she bases broad comments about "the media" in at least two places exclusively on opinion columns. Writing that "the media quickly sketched out the larger themes" about Bush's intelligence, she cites the Kansas City Star's Steve Kraske and the New York Times' Maureen Dowd and Thomas Friedman to support the contention that the media portrayed George W. Bush as dumb -- all of whom are columnists.
In all, Coulter offers more than 40 citations of columnists and pundits to support her assertion that conservatives are treated unfairly by the mainstream media. Though most of these quotes are identified as coming from commentators, and some of her examples are certainly outrageous, the danger is that the casual reader may interpret many of these as evidence of reportorial bias. If read carefully, however, much of her evidence reveals little more than then banal fact that liberal pundits and the New York Times editorial page are critical and often unfairly dismissive of conservatives and their policies. Using Coulter's methodology, one could easily string together quotes from conservative pundits and Op-Ed pages to make the case that the media treats liberals unfairly, rather than conservatives.
In addition to her troubles with facts, Coulter also engages in what my co-editor Brendan Nyhan has called "some of the most consistently emotional, subrational jargon in national politics." Throughout "Slander," she uses what Nyhan identifies as her three favorite tactics: various names and issues used solely to rile her readers' emotions; vicious, sweeping attacks on "liberals"; and loaded language and nasty insinuations disguised as rational arguments. Former President Bill Clinton comes in for some of the harshest treatment; she refers to the "pizza boxes, women's panties, and other detritus of the Caligula administration," describes his "adolescent cramming in all-night slumber parties, leaving the place littered with pizza rinds and women's panties" and refers to him as "IMPOTUS" and "the felon." Coulter even uses "clintonized" as an adjective without a capital letter, genericizing the name into an attack as others have done. Nor is she above simple name-calling, referring to Katie Couric as "the affable Eva Braun of morning TV" and referring to Tom Rosenstiel of the Committee of Concerned Journalists as "Concern Propagandist Rosenstiel."
Coulter also pummels nonsensical straw-man caricatures of political opponents throughout the book. Most obvious and striking is her treatment of "liberals." Without ever bothering to define exactly who she intends the term to include (at various points it includes Andrew Sullivan and Republican-turned-Independent Sen. Jim Jeffords, R-Vt.), she makes sweeping judgments:
"Even Islamic terrorists don't hate America like liberals do."
"[T]he left is itching to silence conservatives once and for all."
"[I]f Americans knew what they [liberals] really believed, the public would boil them in oil."
""Principle is nothing to liberals. Winning is everything."
Of course, in Coulter's asymmetrical political world, conservatives are universally good:
"[A]lmost all serious debate takes place exclusively among conservatives."
"[C]onservatives in America are the most tolerant (and long-suffering) people in America."
"[W]hen right-wingers rant, there's at least a point: There are substantive arguments contained in conservative name-calling."
Coulter's style of argument is often based on jargon and invective rather than substance. Consider this dismissal of claims of conservative bias in the media:
"A 'study' analyzing the New York Times's coverage of the 2000 presidential race conclusively proved that 'this "liberal bastion" published 50 percent more anti-Gore articles than anti-Bush, and nearly twice as many pro-Bush article as pro-Gore.' Claims of 'conservative bias' in the media at large are amusing oddities. But a claim that the New York Times has a conservative bias can be explained only by the sheer joy liberals take in telling lies. This is how liberals flaunt their massive control over news in America. The fact that everyone knows they are lying is part of the fun. They take insolent pleasure in saying absurd things, like college radicals giving revolutionary speeches at their parents' dinner table: We will raid their wine cellars and have their women!"
Nowhere does Coulter engage the actual substance of the study. Instead, she places key words in quotation marks ("study," "conservative bias") to make them appear to be untrue, and makes reference to broad stereotypes of liberals. Finally, she rams home the suggestion that liberals lie by repeating it twice, then coining a jargon phrase ("We will raid their wine cellars ...") which she repeats later in the book. None of this has anything to do with whether or not the New York Times ran more stories that were critical of Bush or critical of Gore; it has everything to do with appealing to preconceived notions about the media -- notions Coulter herself has helped to construct.
Yet if readers can leave aside all of these problems (admittedly not an easy task), Coulter is actually driving at something important about the state of political debate in the media. She's right, for example, that left-leaning politicians and editorial pages sometimes mount sophisticated and unfair rhetorical campaigns against their political enemies. The example she chooses -- attacks against former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and his policies -- is exactly on point. She also chooses other examples to good effect, such as Rep. Charlie Rangel's equation of Gingrich's policies with those of Nazi Germany. Absurdly, though, she steadfastly refuses to admit that conservatives can be guilty of exactly the same thing -- an asymmetry so glaring that only the most partisan readers can accept it at face value.
A surprising amount of what Coulter has to say about the conduct of contemporary political debate rings true. "Instead of actual debate about ideas and issues with real consequences," Coulter writes, "the country is trapped in a political discourse that increasingly resembles professional wrestling." Likewise, she derides "arguments by demonization" and argues that "[l]ies and personal attacks are deeply corrosive of public debate and democratic compromises." She correctly observes that perceptions and falsehoods promulgated in the media have a self-reinforcing quality: "Cliches, biases and outright lies are constantly reinforced through the media echo chamber." But given how she herself uses these tactics throughout the book, even Coulter's more astute observations raise obvious charges of hypocrisy.
Yet "Slander's" sales, alongside those of Coulter's political opposite, Michael Moore, reveal something sad and important about the state of the country: Those with a talent for inflammatory rhetoric rather than facts have their fingers on the pulse of contemporary political debate.