After working on Spinsanity for more than three years, I've seen a lot of bad political journalism. But John Cloud's article about Ann Coulter in Time still shocked me (note: it's not online yet for non-subscribers, unfortunately). It manages to bring together everything that's wrong with contemporary political coverage: the obsession with being counter-intuitive; the pervasive unwillingness to check facts; and the focus on "fairness" and "balance" rather than critical reporting.
A non-journalist might ask an obvious question: Why write a cover article about Ann Coulter in the first place? It's widely understood that she's a shrill, destructive demagogue. But to Cloud the distaste that both liberals and conservatives show for her is "suspicious":
Ann Coulter burns too fiercely for both the temples of the secular left--the New York Times--and of the religious right--[Jerry] Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church. But it's suspicious when conventional wisdom ossifies around someone so thoroughly. Why does she make so many people itch?
Maybe because she's said an astonishing number of things that no reasonable person could possibly defend? Or because she's pathologically dishonest? Call me crazy, but the answer seems pretty obvious. I doubt Cloud is running around asking why both the left and right distance themselves from out-and-out racists -- is that "suspicious"?
Then there's this train wreck:
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.
Clould lists one mistake and dismisses an allegation of another. That's it. But as others have pointed out, the Google search "Ann Coulter lies" yields our Spinsanity columns on Treason and Slander as the third and fourth results. Those two articles, which are each thousands of words long, document a vast array of false and extremely misleading claims. And there's much more out there documenting what's wrong with her work, including the Spinsanity archive and a useful Media Matters rundown of the Coulter record.
What's Cloud's defense? He's not a fact-checker:
My piece does not say that there are no Ann Coulter errors. In fact, I offer some Ann Coulter errors that we haven't seen before, and I quote people like Ronald Radosh at some length on the problems with the more recent book of hers, which is Treason. David Brock, who knew Ann Coulter from years ago, goes to a book that's years old, and prints some mistakes from that book, and of course [there are] mistakes. And a lot of them are corrected. If you go out and you buy a copy of Slander now, you won't find those mistakes in it, because the publisher has corrected them.
Now, I had a choice of, do I want to, in my article, list every single Ann Coulter mistake ever made, even ones that have been corrected by the publisher -- which is, by the way, what almost every other journalist who has written about her has done -- or do I want to say something fresh and interesting about her? Do I want to engage her on issues and try to figure out what makes her tick and whether this is all an act? That was what my story was about. My story was not primarily about picking apart ... all 1,000 of Ann Coulter's columns or the hundreds and hundreds of pages that she's written in her books. My job in this story was not to be a fact-checker. I don't say in this story that she's never made a mistake. In fact, I point out some mistakes. This is a story that calls some of her writing highly amateurish. I say I want to shut her up occasionally. I quote a friend of hers calling her a fascist [and] another friend of hers calling her a polemicist. I quote Eric Alterman, Salon, James Wolcott, Andrew Sullivan, and Jerry Falwell all criticizing her. The idea that this is a puff piece is just absurd. And it's part of this left-wing attack machine that David Brock has invented for himself in his shame.
As others have also pointed out, this is all wildly disingenuous. No one said Cloud should have listed every error she ever made. But to say that "outright Coulter errors" are hard to find is an absurd generalization. She's corrected almost nothing, and her one major correction is itself misleading. And to attribute all criticism to the "left-wing attack machine" of David Brock is ridiculous.
Time Magazine's decision to publish this article is almost beyond my comprehension. Cloud and Time deserve nothing but scorn.