So far there have been two major media black eyes at the Democratic convention in Boston. The first was on Monday when the Washington Post handed out 10,000 copies of a special convention issue of the daily, complete with the dated banner headline "Election 2000."
The second talked-about misfire was USA Today's decision to spike as unusable a column it had commissioned from radical right-wing pundit Ann Coulter. The decision to not run the lazy, mean-spirited rant actually made perfect sense, especially after Coulter reportedly refused to make any requested changes. But then Coulter ran to Fox News and insisted that the paper was trying to "ban" her conservative voice, which meant USA Today had a headache on its hands.
The Post blamed its snafu on a production error; the news desk had used a template from the last time a special convention issue was published and forgot to double-check the date. And what was USA Today's excuse? Why on earth did the paper, known for its moderate bent and almost old-school approach to journalism (anonymous quotes are still a no-no there), ever think it was a good idea to open up its Op-Ed pages to a fringe columnist like Coulter? She's someone who's on the record -- after 9/11 -- as saying, "My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times Building," and whom even the conservative National Review, which used to publish Coulter, has tagged as nonsensical.
USA Today spokesman Steven Anderson stands by the paper's decision, telling Salon: "We felt she would have been a suitable person" for the daily. He adds, "We're sorry Ms. Coulter quit."
On Monday Anderson explained to reporters that the idea of hiring Coulter stemmed from the paper's wanting "a fresh approach to events that have largely become four-day commercials for political parties." The idea was that she'd write "wry columns that would appear under the heading "Crashing the Party." USA Today wanted wry, so it hired someone who recently compared Sen. John Kerry's campaign manager to a Saddam Hussein Baath loyalist? Who has compared Saddam's trial to President Clinton's impeachment, and insists Democrats wish Saddam were back in power? Who says liberals hate America?
USA Today editorial page editor Brian Gallagher, defending the choice, told a reporter Coulter "was a voice from [the conservative] side with standing and visibility." Notice how credibility was not a requirement. By contrast, for the Republican convention in August, USA Today has tapped Academy Award-winning director Michael Moore to file dispatches.
Are the two really compatible? Nowhere in his movie "Fahrenheit 9/11" does Moore suggest, for instance, that Republicans hate America or that Bush's Cabinet members are akin to Iraqi terrorists. Moore is an accomplished and, yes, partisan filmmaker; Coulter is a factually challenged name-caller. Could USA Today honestly not tell the difference?
This is just the latest example of mainstream press outlets embracing discredited, right-wing pundits in an effort to prove their "balance." And don't think the political pressure from the right isn't real. On the eve of the convention, at a media panel held at Harvard University, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw talked about how conservative activists "feel they have to go to war against the networks every day." ABC's Peter Jennings added, "I hear more about conservative concerns than I have in the past. This wave of resentment rushes at our advertisers, rushes at our corporate suites. I feel the presence of anger all the time." To fill the temporarily empty conservative slot, USA Today on Monday tapped columnist Jonah Goldberg to file from the convention. To date, Goldberg has not fantasized to reporters about domestic terrorists blowing up a major media outlet.
Ironically, it was Goldberg who had to clean up after Coulter at National Review Online when she and the conservative journal parted ways in 2001. On the heels of the 9/11 attacks, NRO published a controversial Coulter column that suggested the United States "invade [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." Her words produced howls of protest, and Coulter fired off a defensive column attacking her critics. National Review balked. In a letter to readers at the time, Goldberg noted that Coulter's follow-up column was "barely coherent," adding that it "was Ann at her worst -- emoting rather than thinking, and badly needing editing and some self-censorship, or what is commonly referred to as 'judgment.' Running this 'piece' would have been an embarrassment to Ann, and to NRO."
When National Review editor Rich Lowry informed her of that fact and asked for changes to the column, he got no reply from Coulter. Instead, according to Goldberg, she "showed up on TV and, in an attempt to ingratiate herself with fellow martyr Bill Maher, said we were 'censoring' her." Sound familiar?
According to Coulter's press release this week, USA Today was not happy with the "tone, humor, [and] sarcasm" of her piece. (Perhaps the most amusing part of the manmade media drama was reading a dispatch Coulter wrote for Human Events -- the right-wing publication that employs her as a columnist -- in which she both referred to herself in the third person and then quoted herself ... in a story she wrote about herself.)
Actually, USA Today's Gallagher told a reporter for his own paper that the column had "basic weaknesses in clarity and readability that we found unacceptable."
That's being generous.
The column starts off comparing Democrats to Satan (that must be the Coulter "humor") and goes downhill from there. USA Today editors rightly suggested to Coulter that her jokes were not funny and the name-calling was not useful. But here are a few more trouble spots Coulter likely would have encountered if she had agreed to be edited:
But she was in no mood to talk.