The Coulter Conundrum
Stinging Venom? Bad, But We Love the Buzz

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 12, 2006

Is it time for the media to stop lavishing attention on Ann Coulter?

In her latest book attacking godless liberals, the conservative author trashes as "witches" some of the women whose husbands were killed at the World Trade Center -- precisely the kind of ugly, over-the-top invective that she knows will produce a publicity storm that will carry her onto the bestseller lists.

Matt Lauer grilled her last week on "Today," which prompted the New York Daily News banner "COULTER THE CRUEL," which in turn led "NBC Nightly News" and ABC's "World News Tonight" to examine her remarks. The question, said NBC anchor Brian Williams, was "Have you no shame?"

But are news outlets being shameless in giving Coulter a platform for her inflammatory rhetoric, knowing it will boost ratings and circulation?

"She made news," says "Today" Executive Producer Jim Bell. "I think our audience is smart enough to figure it out and reach their own opinions. It's not our job to censor people." Besides, Bell says, "she's good television."

Coulter is a savvy constitutional lawyer and onetime Senate aide who rose to prominence as an advocate of Bill Clinton's impeachment. But she became increasingly incendiary in her books and TV appearances, a shtick that made her sufficiently rich and famous to warrant a Time cover story last year.

For those who missed it, Coulter writes of the widows: "These self-obsessed women seem genuinely unaware that 9/11 was an attack on our nation, and acted as if the terrorist attack only happened to them. . . . These broads are millionaires lionized on TV and in articles about them, reveling in their status as celebrities. . . . I've never seen people enjoying their husbands' deaths so much. . . .

"And by the way, how do we know their husbands weren't planning to divorce these harpies? Now that their shelf life is dwindling, they'd better hurry up and appear in Playboy."

Her one valid point -- that once widows turn themselves into political activists, their personal tragedies should not shield them from rebuttal -- is totally overwhelmed by the nastiness of her assault.

A number of conservatives have turned on Coulter this time around. "Most Americans reject that kind of vitriol because it is mean and counterproductive," said Fox's Bill O'Reilly. Radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt called her remarks "beyond callous, beyond any notion of decency. It is disgusting."

But why would anyone expect anything different? This is a woman who responded to the 9/11 attacks by saying: "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." That persuaded National Review to drop her syndicated column; in response, she told this reporter the editors were "girly-boys."

MSNBC dumped Coulter as an analyst years ago, and USA Today dropped her as a 2004 convention commentator after she assailed "the corn-fed, no makeup, natural fiber, no-bra-needing, sandal-wearing, hirsute, somewhat fragrant hippie-chick pie wagons they call 'women' at the Democratic National Convention."

She also uses violent imagery against the media: "My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building."

Coulter, who made the rounds at Fox, CNN and MSNBC last week, remains unabashed, telling Time: "I'd say my 'name calling' has been a smashing success." So when the staff of "Today" or any other program books Coulter, they know exactly what they're getting: a woman whose vituperation they can decry even as they milk it for market share.

Of course, since even bad publicity is still publicity, this column, too, will probably make the Coulter cash register ring a few more times.

Spinning His Wheels

Tom Friedman may be a respected commentator around the world, but in certain precincts of Detroit, his name is mud.

Ever since the New York Times columnist unleashed an all-pistons-firing attack on General Motors -- even going so far as to say the company should be taken over by Toyota -- he has practically been run over by the domestic automaker's defenders.

"It sounded as if he was cheerleading for the elimination of 140,000 American jobs," says Frank Beckmann, a talk show host at Detroit's WJR Radio. "That would be an economic catastrophe for the nation, not just our state."

What aroused Friedman's wrath was GM's offer to guarantee buyers of some of its gas-guzzling models in Florida and California $1.99-a-gallon gasoline for one year. Friedman's signature theme these days is that U.S. gas prices are too low, which he says encourages excessive consumption that enriches Arab petro-states and buttresses terrorists in the region.

GM is America's most "dangerous" company, Friedman wrote two weeks ago, "like a crack dealer looking to keep his addicts on a tight leash. . . . Our military is in a war on terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan with an enemy who is fueled by our gasoline purchases."

Friedman says in an interview that he was trying to "grab their attention about how seriously I think they're getting off track by creating a kind of alternate universe in which $1.99 gas is still a real possibility."

He got more than the company's attention. The Detroit News said in an editorial that "Friedman and his fellow effete elites in New York City" fail to understand that "if the domestic manufacturers go down, they'll take a big chunk of the American economy with them."

Steven Harris, a GM vice president, wrote on the company's blog: "That a journalist of his caliber and reputation could write such a defamatory, uninformed opinion was shocking to those of us dedicated to this company." Harris says in an interview that Friedman overlooked such matters as the company's research on hydrogen cars.

Says Friedman: "Nothing would make me happier than to see GM become a hyper-competitive company. . . . But it's not going to get there by giving away $1.99 gas for some of its least-fuel-efficient vehicles."

Footnote : GM withdrew a letter to the editor after the paper insisted the automaker not call Friedman's column "rubbish," suggesting instead "we beg to differ" and, when that didn't fly, "not so."

Nothing to Fear

With George W. Bush starting to hold more news conferences, it's worth looking back at the father of the modern presidential presser.

Franklin D. Roosevelt met with reporters about twice a week in the Oval Office, an astonishing 998 times in 12 years. But, says Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter in a new book, "The Defining Moment," FDR laid down strict ground rules: He could not be quoted directly (and radio coverage was banned); his comments were "on background" and could not be attributed to the White House without a spokesman's okay; and some remarks were off the record and could not be used at all. It must have worked: After that first meeting in 1933, the reporters applauded.

"He transformed the relationship between the White House and the press and made Washington the news center," Alter says in an interview.

But FDR viewed the scribes as "a collection of uneducated hacks," writes Alter. The president teased or scolded them like children and privately derided New York Times columnist Arthur Krock as "that Tory Krockpot."

Roosevelt sometimes gave the reporters misleading information, and spokesman Steve Early warned that he would "make an example" of any journalist who violated the ground rules. Of course, the press corps played along with the biggest charade of all, declining to photograph the president in his wheelchair or report that he had been crippled by polio.

Breaking with precedent, Eleanor Roosevelt became the first president's wife to hold regular news conferences on her own.

One member of the press corps became an active collaborator when Roosevelt was running for office. After Ernest Lindley, then with the New York Herald Tribune, and other reporters told the candidate that his speeches were unfocused, Roosevelt said: "Well, if you fellows think my speeches are so bad, why don't you write one for me?" Lindley did, arguing for what would become the New Deal.

The message for Bush, says Alter, is that hiring Tony Snow as a spokesman is essentially irrelevant: "The only way for a president to change his press coverage is to do it by himself."


After Republican Brian Bilbray won a special House election:

"Victory in California Calms GOP" -- Washington Post, June 8.

"Narrow Victory By GOP Signals Fall Problems" -- New York Times, June 8.

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