The legacy of Michael Kinsley, the former editor of The New Republic and Slate, continues to rot center-left opinion journalism.
The problem is that his writing and editing have elevated the "surprising" and "counter-intuitive" article above all else. The formula is always "I'm a liberal, but I think [something liberals don't typically think]" or "Everything you know about [some topic] is wrong." To his imitators, these cliched formulas take precedence over factual accuracy, clear analysis, or other mundane journalistic goals.
And over time, writers have gone further and further in pursuit of counter-intuitive takes on familiar topics. In late 2005, Slate published a disturbing article that gave a winking endorsement voter fraud and an article praising the entertainment value of the melee involving Ron Artest at a NBA game in Detroit.
The latest entry in the counter-intuitive derby is "A defense of Ann Coulter" by an entry-level New Republic reporter-researcher named Elspeth Reeve. What better way to break in at TNR than to defend the most loathsome pundit in America?
Coulter has endorsed violence and treason prosecutions against her political opponents on multiple occasions, but to Reeve, those are immaterial:
Yes, yes, Coulter has said some terrible things. But I don't think it's the terrible things that really bother liberals. Coulter makes us cringe not when she lies, but when she says things we wish weren't true.
Really? I'm not upset when Coulter says she regrets that Timothy McVeigh didn't blow up the New York Times? Instead, according to Reeve, liberals are bothered when Coulter says things "we wish weren't true."
She provides three examples, none of which make any sense, as Bob Somerby pointed out. Here's the first one:
Asked to define the First Amendment: "An excuse for overweight women to dance in pasties and The New York Times to commit treason." Just completely terrible, I know. But I have to admit, I giggled—having recently covered a pro-choice rally where I interviewed a very nice young woman whose nipples were covered by NARAL stickers.
Does seeing one person with nipples covered by NARAL stickers make Coulter's statement "true"? This is epistemology for five-year-olds. And what about the New York Times treason remark?
Next, Reeve writes:
Or take Coulter's most infamous line: Writing about her friend's death on September 11, she finished her essay with, "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity." Wow, that's pretty indefensible. The United States could never -- would never -- do such a thing. Instead, we've invaded their countries, killed their leaders, and are desperately trying to convert them to secularism. (It's not like mullahs appreciate the difference.)
As Somerby notes, Coulter was making an argument about what the US should do, not predicting what it would do. Her statement cannot be either true or untrue - it's simply an expression of her (repulsive) personal beliefs. Again, Reeve doesn't seem to understand epistemology on even a basic level.
Finally, Reeve quotes Coulter refusing to withdraw her attack on the "Jersey Girls":
"I didn't write about the 9/11 widows. I wrote about four widows cutting campaign commercials for John Kerry and using the fact that their husbands died on 9/11 to prevent anyone from responding," [Coulter] said. The thing is...it's kind of true. A little. It is a little absurd to hold up a person as an expert judge of the 9/11 Commission Report, for example, just because she lost a loved one. Liberals do tend to do that kind of thing, and it makes us look like weenies.
But as Somerby writes, "[i]t isn’t true that the 'Jersey Girls' were held up as experts 'just because they lost loved ones.' The women in question did make themselves experts, on a wide range of relevant matters, in the aftermath of 9/11."
Other than these three points, Reeve's article amounts to the statement is that she personally enjoys Coulter's over-the-top hysterics because she once was an embattled liberal using outlandish arguments against conservative co-workers:
I love Ann Coulter because, in her, I see a loudmouth on the assembly line, fighting not to be squished and whittled and boxed into the shape Washington seems to think fits a girl just right.
Elspeth Reeve, our extremely talented reporter-researcher, penned a clever, interesting, very well-executed defense of despicable authoritarian pundit Ann Coulter. Now, I found her ultimate point to be highly unpersuasive, as I imagine most people did, but this was a piece less about the destination than the journey. What made her column interesting was not the counterintuitive shock value but the fact that she had thought-provoking observations about Coulter's role in the political culture, however indefensible her conclusion may have been.
Note Chait's reasoning. Reeve's conclusion is "highly unpersuasive" and "indefensible," but the article is "clever," "interesting," "very well-executed," and "thought-provoking." Why? Chait disavows the "counterintuitive shock value," but what else is there? Reeve's argument makes literally no sense, which reduces the article to the surprising statement that a TNR writer "loves" Coulter and relates to her. There's nothing else there.
So who will the aspiring TNR writers of the future choose to defend now that the new bar has been set? Rush Limbaugh? David Horowitz? Comments are open.