When the New York Times recently added fuel to the bogus plagiarism attacks on Rick Perlstein’s new book on Reagan, "The Invisible Bridge," with what Paul Krugman rightly derided as “‘opinions differ on shape of the planet’ reporting,’” I was immediately reminded of a somewhat mirror-image situation involving Ann Coulter's "Slander," in a 2002 review by Janet Maslin.
"Slander" was every bit as vacuous as Perlstein’s book is weighty, yet, though the Times' review of "Slander" was largely negative, the way both books were treated reinforced an odd, implicit false equivalence between the two — and that is what I found particularly troubling. Much to the credit of the Times, its public editor, Margaret Sullivan, wrote a measured, yet devastating critique of how the Times had dealt with Perlstein’s book and the accusations against him. For example:
Felix Salmon, the media writer and editor, described the matter as “an entirely fake ‘controversy,’ ginned up wholly by wing nuts who think that Reagan is God and that any left-wing criticism of him, no matter how scholarly and intelligent, is tantamount to blasphemy.”
“The article clearly damages Perlstein,” Mr. Salmon wrote to me. “The New York Times is basically a co-conspirator here, in a concerted Swift-boating of Rick Perlstein. For shame.”
Yet, despite Sullivan’s exemplary performance — I have to restrain myself from quoting more of it — it seems inevitable that the same sort of thing will happen again in the future, since the Times has no mechanism for examining, much less dealing with, the larger problems of false balance and superficial analysis, which the contrasting example of Maslin’s review of "Slander" illuminates.
While the Times' misguided article about Perlstein still favored him in some respects — any inkling of the truth inevitably would — its fundamental premise was wrong, and by treating the attacks on Perlstein as anything more than outright calumny it misstated the basic facts of the case. The same was true, mirror image-style, of Maslin’s "Slander" review. In both cases the result was creating the appearance that there was much more there than was actually the case — that there was at least something of substance involved, rather than a total fraud.
Maslin appeared quite concerned to strike a balance. On the one hand, she referred to Coulter's “insult slinging,” right after providing a quote, which readers can assess for themselves. On the other hand, she wrote that “A great deal of research supports Ms. Coulter's wisecracks,” but the often bogus quality and content of that research remained hidden from view. Maslin even combined these two sides of her assessment in a single sentence: “Ms. Coulter relies on 780 footnotes (she is a lawyer) and a bottomless supply of bile,” but while the bile is quite easily quoted, it takes at least a little footwork to discover what the footnotes entail. And this is where Maslin and the Times badly failed their readers.
Maslin's review appeared on July 18, but Coulter's footnote, research and fact-check problems had already been discussed in the fledgling, pre-Howard Dean campaign blogosphere for several weeks prior to that. The fact that her footnotes often betrayed her claims, rather than supporting them, as footnotes are supposed to do, was already well known.
The American Prospect started off its coverage at Tapped, on June 27, with a tip from a reader catching Coulter in multiple lies about Vermont Republican-turned-independent Jim Jeffords, and published a series of posts over the next several weeks, eventually all collected here. Later on June 27, Tapped also noted that blogger Scobbie Davis had started a blog devoted to debunking "Slander." Bob Somerby’s Daily Howler — notable at the time as arguably the first political blog — began its coverage on July 9, and Salon ran a column from Spinsanity by Brian Keefer on July 13, which noted, “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.” It cited the others mentioned here, while noting that Coulter “repeats several well-debunked myths,” uses “deceptive paraphrases to distort others’ viewpoints,” deceptively “uses footnotes to lend a false sense of legitimacy to questionable points,” and “pummels nonsensical straw-man caricatures of political opponents throughout the book,” among other things.
In short, there weren’t just problems with "Slander," there were patterns of problems — patterns in need of decoding. As Somerby would later write, “If you read this book with NEXIS nearby, there’s amusement on almost each page.” Yet, despite all this, Maslin’s review swallowed Coulter’s shoddy “scholarship” whole, even as it objected to her manner and tone.
Here’s a brief sample of what some online had already published before Maslin’s piece appeared. The focus is not on the most pernicious of lies, but on the most blatant and obvious — the sort that ought to catch a reviewer’s attention and call everything else into doubt.
First, the initial piece from Tapped, about how Coulter lied about Sen. Jeffords:
On page 7, Coulter writes that Jim Jeffords "opposed Reagan's tax cut, supported the elder Bush's tax hike, supported Clinton's tax hike, and opposed the younger Bush's tax cut." She's right about the first two. But we checked, and Jeffords -- like all Republicans at the time -- voted against Clinton's 1993 budget (which included the tax hike) and for George W. Bush's recent tax cut. The latter is a pretty glaring error, both because it was so recent and because Jeffords' refusal to oppose the cut was a major blow to liberals who thought his party switch would help them defeat it.
(On the same page, Coulter also writes that Jeffords "voted against Clinton's impeachment" -- which is impossible, as the Senate never voted on impeachment ... [This is incorrect. See correction at end.]
The last lie is particularly jaw-dropping. But her lie about Jeffords’ vote for Bush’s tax cut should have been equally apparent to any competent political writer at the time. Alarm bells should have gone off right away, and the reviewer should have started digging to see just how pervasive Coulter’s lying had been — at least, if truth mattered more than “balance.”
Scoobie Davis began his initial blogging by noting Coulter’s sweeping accusations against alleged liberal responses to the war on terror on pages 5 and 6. He then wrote:
Two of the sources Coulter uses to arrive at these scurrilous conclusions are New York Times columns by Frank Rich and Bruce Ackerman. On page 5, Coulter writes, “New York Times columnist Frank Rich demanded that [Attorney General] Ashcroft stop monkeying around with Muslim terrorists and concentrate on anti-abortion extremists.”
REALITY: I checked the column Coulter cited and found that nowhere in the column does Rich even remotely suggest that Ashcroft curtail efforts against Islamic terrorists. In fact, I checked every post-9/11 Times column by Rich and found that Rich has not made any such demands of Ashcroft.
What Rich did do was “chastise Ashcroft for not meeting with Planned Parenthood, which sought to offer tips on combating anthrax scares, based on its own experience with them,” as explained in another critical piece from the Columbia Journalism Review.
On July 1, Tapped noted that Coulter lied about the frequency of the phrase "liberal Republican" in the New York Times. Coulter said "11 times" compared to 168 for "moderate Republican," but did not explain her methodology. They found 22 hits for seven years using the Times' own search engine, and 524 hits on Lexis for "all available dates." Ooops! Or mega-ooops! Take your pick.
On July 2, Tapped took on another database lie, “the Selma lie.” Coulter wrote:
Since abortion is not the left's proudest moment, liberals prefer to keep reminiscing about the last time they were giddily self-righteous. Like a senile old man who keeps telling you the same story over and over again, liberals babble on and on about the "heady" days of civil rights marches. Between 1995 and 2001, the New York Times alone ran more than one hundred articles on "Selma" alone.
Tapped found 776 hits on “Selma” of which over 700 were obvious false positives — funeral notices, wedding announcements, mentions of Selma, California, etc. From there, they noted:
Of the remaining 70 items, in our judgment only 16 were centrally concerned with historic happenings at Selma from the civil rights era. The other 54 contained brief mentions of Selma and civil rights but appeared in articles on different topics. Once again, Coulter's dubious claim -- that "between 1995 and 2001, the New York Times alone ran more than one hundred articles on 'Selma'" -- is false.
On July 9, Bob Somerby, at the Daily Howler, examined Coulter’s claim that the New York Times referred to “Christian conservatives” or the “religious right” hundreds of times, but never once referred to “atheist liberals” or “the atheist left” — supposed proof that they were being singled out by the liberal media to be stigmatized. But Somerby did his own search — and searched the conservative Washington Times as well — which showed a strikingly similar pattern. He then drew the blindingly obvious conclusion:
Why do newspapers write about “Christian conservatives?” Because they exist, and because they’re important. And why don’t we read about the “atheist left?” Because the group doesn’t exist.
This is just a small sample, to give a flavor of what was already out there when Maslin wrote her review. A more systematic approach from Dr. Limerick first sequentially examined Coulter’s footnotes in Chapter 2, then provided a more cursory look at the entire book. This approach clearly showed that critics weren’t simply focusing on a few bad apples. Given such pervasive dishonesty, a reviewer does not serve his or her audience by normalizing, rationalizing or “balancing” it in some way — as the Times seems to believe — but rather by illuminating it. The question a good reviewer would ask is, “What’s the significance of her lying?”
Consider the example of the Selma lie. In this case, there’s an obvious point to be made: The religious right has long tried to use abortion to claim the moral high ground in precisely the manner that Coulter attributes the left. They’ve even gone so far as to ritually equate Roe vs. Wade with the Dred Scott decision.
Unfortunately for conservatives, the religious right’s actual origins have nothing to do with fighting abortion; they came from fighting against integration. Fighting abortion was, essentially, adopted as a means for building a mass base, after years of being rejected or ignored as an issue. Max Blumenthal recapped this history after Jerry Falwell’s death in 2007, starting with Falwell’s 1950s opposition to Brown v. Board of Education. Two decades later, when Catholic conservative Paul Weyrich tried to get Southern evangelicals interested in abortion and other social issues, he was ignored for years, Blumenthal recounts:
In discussions with Falwell, Weyrich cited various social ills that necessitated evangelical involvement in politics, particularly abortion, school prayer and the rise of feminism. His pleas initially fell on deaf ears.
"I was trying to get those people interested in those issues and I utterly failed," Weyrich recalled in an interview in the early 1990s. "What changed their mind was Jimmy Carter's intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation.
This is not to say anything, necessarily, about how rank-and-file religious conservatives today may feel. But it does say a great deal about the origins of the movement that helps define them, whether they realize it or not. Coulter, of course, draws no such distinctions when talking about liberals, even as she projects her own share of collective conservative guilt onto them. (Salon’s own review of "Slander" noted that “A list that is meant to demonstrate that ‘liberals have been wrong about everything in the last half-century’ includes the Civil Rights Act,” which she justified by mislabeling segregationist Southern Democrats who opposed it as "liberals").
This projection of her own moral failings is a defining feature of "Slander," which shows up rather humorously when she writes (on page 136):
In the rush to provide the public with yet more liberal bilge, editors apparently dispense with fact-checking.
Books that become publishing scandals by virtue of phony research, invented facts, or apocryphal stories invariably grind political axes for the left. There may be publishing frauds that are apolitical, but it’s hard to think of a single hoax book written by a conservative.
Other than the book that sentence appears in, of course!
We can laugh — and we should. But the Times should be doing something more. It should be informing people, based on the foundations of factual reporting, not trying to “balance” contrasting allegations, a practice that can only give the advantage to those who make the most outrageous, fact-free claims, thus shifting the “center” ever further in their direction. This is the unlearned lesson that connects their recent bungled treatment of "The Invisible Bridge" with their botched review of "Scandal" a dozen years ago — and so much else as well. To correct the real problem facing them, the Times needs a good deal more than a courageous public editor. It needs an institutional rethinking of how to do its most basic job.
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Correction: Tapped's claim that the Senate didn't vote on impeachment was incorrect -- and I apologize for not catching it, as I misremembered events. The Senate did vote, but much of the proceedings were in private, and the outcome was a foregone conclusion, since it requires a two-thirds vote to impeach. Hence, Jeffords' votes against impeachment were immaterial. Coulter's point in raising them -- that he wasn't loyal to the GOP -- was ill-founded, given that three of the other four GOP senators to vote against impeachment also came from New England. They were all being loyal to the GOP voters who elected them. So, her argument was ill-founded, but clearly not expressed in a lie, much less a jaw-dropping one. I regret the error, and I'm glad that Twitter provides better fact-checkers than Coulter's publisher or the New York Times were able to assemble.