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The Long Fuse on Ann Coulter's Bomb

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 6, 2007

At first, Ann Coulter's anti-gay crack at a Washington conference Friday drew almost no media coverage, although it was witnessed by hundreds of journalists and political operatives and captured by television cameras.

But after some Democrats and liberal bloggers slammed the professional provocateur -- and were joined by a number of Republicans and conservatives -- it became a news story, albeit a modest one. Journalists could simply quote critics of the conservative author's latest rhetorical stink bomb, in which she referred to Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards with a six-letter word offensive to gays.

Why the initial reluctance to report the remark, made at the Conservative Political Action Conference? "There was a fairly high barrier, in my opinion, to make it worthy of a story, because part of what she's about is trying to use shock language to entertain her audience and, who knows, maybe to sell books," says Adam Nagourney, chief political correspondent of the New York Times.

Nagourney says he did not initially mention Coulter's slur at CPAC because he was not in the room and could not verify it. He put together a piece the following day. "The fact that she said it in such a public place, and was a featured speaker, and the fact that three of the presidential candidates criticized her made it news," Nagourney explained.

At the end of her speech Friday, Coulter said: "I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards, but it turns out that you have to go into rehab if you use the word [expletive], so I'm kind of at an impasse."

Markos Moulitsas, who runs the popular liberal blog Daily Kos, sees a media "double standard" when it comes to conservative flamethrowers compared with, say, the flap over two left-wing bloggers who quit the Edwards campaign amid criticism of their past anti-Catholic rhetoric.

"There's the notion that this is her shtick and this is how she sells millions of books," Moulitsas says of Coulter. But while she "just calls people traitors because they disagree with her," he says, "what's amazing is how much she's cheered in some quarters for saying those things."

After Coulter's use of the slur -- which drew more than a smattering of applause and laughter -- MSNBC's Keith Olbermann played the unexpurgated clip that night on his "Countdown" program. The most prominent newspaper coverage was at the bottom of a Los Angeles Times story (which used the word) and a mention in Dana Milbank's Washington Post column (which did not). Post editors decided then, and again for this story, that the controversy could be adequately explained without using the offensive word.

Edwards gave the incident more visibility by posting the video on his Web site and setting a goal of raising $100,000 in "Coulter Cash" to "fight back against the politics of bigotry." An e-mail solicitation quickly exceeded that goal.

The idea, says Jonathan Prince, Edwards's deputy campaign manager, was "to make clear that kind of language is not acceptable in political discourse. It's important for the right wing to know people are going to stand up against this kind of hateful rhetoric."

Several Republican presidential candidates quickly distanced themselves. As the New York Times reported, Rudy Giuliani called the remarks "completely inappropriate," a spokesman for John McCain said they were "wildly inappropriate," and an aide to Mitt Romney called the comments "offensive."

Conservative bloggers joined the fray. "Yeah, that's just what CPAC needs -- an association with homophobia. Nice work, Ann," wrote Ed Morrissey of the Captain's Quarters blog. And Michelle Malkin said Coulter had committed "the equivalent of a rhetorical fragging -- an intentionally tossed verbal grenade that exploded in her own fellow ideological soldiers' tent," and that children should not be "exposed to that garbage."

Some liberal bloggers chided the press. "It took the media a while to actually see the story as news," wrote Americablog's John Aravosis, who is gay. "Why? First, because they think Coulter is a joke, and she is. But she's a joke who was recently on the cover of Time, who gets paid tens of thousands of dollars a speech, has written several best-sellers, and was the most anticipated speaker at the biggest and most important conservative conference of the year."

Coulter did not respond to a request for comment, but she said on Fox News last night that "the word I used has nothing to do with sexual preference. It is a schoolyard taunt." She dismissed a question from host Alan Colmes about conservative criticism of the remark, saying that "the same people become hysterical" at her jokes.

Asked if she would use a racial slur in a joke, Coulter said it was "semantic totalitarianism to compare everything to the N-word."

The author of such books as "Godless," "Treason" and "Slander," Coulter is known for pushing the boundaries of acceptable discourse. She was widely condemned last year when she called a politically active group of 9/11 widows "witches," saying: "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?"

In 2004, USA Today dropped Coulter as a convention columnist when she derided "the corn-fed, no make-up, natural fiber, no-bra needing, sandal-wearing, hirsute, somewhat fragrant hippie chick pie wagons they call 'women' at the Democratic National Convention."

National Review dropped Coulter's column in 2001 when she wrote after the Sept. 11 attacks: "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." She responded by calling the magazine's editors "girly-boys."

A former Senate aide and MSNBC contributor, Coulter emerged from obscurity in 1998 with a book urging the impeachment of Bill Clinton, whom she called "crazy" and "like a serial killer."

During this decade of denunciations by Coulter, journalists have never quite resolved the question: Is what she says news?

"She's this willfully incendiary character, and it shouldn't be surprising when she says things that set off alarms," says David Folkenflik, National Public Radio's media reporter. "At the same time, she said what she said at a major gathering of the party faithful."

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