“Ann Coulter and Me”

Another excerpt from Jeff Cohen’s Cable News Confidential:

Ann Coulter & Me

by Jeff Cohen

As an MSNBC in-house pundit in 2002, I had a timeslot each afternoon for one-on-one debates with a roster of rightwingers, including GOP Members of Congress, Rev. Jerry Falwell, National Review editor Rich Lowry, and buckraker Armstrong Williams—who went on to pocket nearly a quarter-million dollars from the Bush administration to promote its “No Child Left Behind Act.” When I repeatedly debated Williams at MSNBC, I had no inkling about Team Bush’s No Pundit Left Behind program.

In June I was set to debate Ann Coulter, who was on tour promoting a book called Slander. Coulter was firmly established as the top shock jock of cable news. I knew from hanging out with too many conservative pundits in too many greenrooms that her TV stardom was the source of envy; they groused that she used her legs, miniskirts and sleek blond hair to gain unfair advantage over other right-wing yakkers. I heard this complaint mostly from men over 50.

I’m willing to believe Coulter when she publicly proclaims that she’s not anorexic or bulimic. But I did wonder if her unfair advantage was some sort of diet/pep pill. Not that drugs would excuse her of personal responsibility for muddle-brained comments—like referring to Tipper Gore as “gaudy white trash.” Or talking about “the benefits of local fascism.” Or calling for public flogging of juveniles, because it wouldn’t be cool “in the ’hood” to be flogged.

I wondered if she was sober in 1997 when, as an MSNBC contributor, she debated Vietnam veteran Bobby Muller about landmines. Discussing Vietnam, Muller said, “In 90 percent of cases that U.S. soldiers got blown up—Ann, are you listening?—they were our own mines.” At which point Coulter interrupted to say. “No wonder you guys lost.” She said that to a man who took a bullet in Vietnam, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.

I suspect that the happy-pill hypothesis persists because, as cable news viewers know all too well, Coulter is so often laughing inappropriately while spouting her odious commentary.

To me, Coulter is something of a cross between Joan Rivers and Eva Braun. Now I have a general rule against Eva Braun comparisons, ever since my pal Randy Credico, a comedian, got banned from the Tonight Show 20 years ago—after he quipped that whenever he saw America’s UN ambassador Jean Kirkpatrick on TV, he had to wonder “if Eva Braun really died in that bunker in 1945.” I’ve made an exception in Coulter’s case. (In Slander, she called Katie Couric “the affable Eva Braun of morning television.”)

I looked forward to my Coulter debate, which had been scheduled a week in advance. I read chunks of Slander (for which I deserved combat pay) and prepared questions. But I wasn’t sure whether the book was serious or self-parody. Its thesis is that liberals engage in name-calling because they can’t engage in logical, factual debate. This from an author who doesn’t limit her insults to Democrats like Hillary “Pond Scum” Clinton; she called the Republican EPA chief Christie Todd Whitman a “bird brain” and former GOP senator Jim Jeffords a “half-wit.” When the rightwing editors of National Review rejected a Coulter column urging enhanced airport vigilance against “suspicious-looking swarthy males,” she called the editors “girly-boys.”

On page 2 of her book, I learned that liberals have “a hatred of Christians”—and, a few pages later, that “liberals hate America” and “hate all religions except Islam.” On page 5, I read, “New York Times columnist Frank Rich demanded that [Attorney General] Ashcroft stop monkeying around with Muslim terrorists and concentrate on anti-abortion extremists.” This claim was sheer invention and offered almost a textbook example of slander, the apparently un-ironic title of her book.

With my questions ready, I got into makeup, put in my earpiece, and headed to the set as I did around that time each day. But just before airtime, my producer informed me, “She won’t debate you.”

I was incredulous: “This was set a long time ago. I’m ready to go.”

“She’s not,” replied the producer. “She claims she knew nothing about a debate.”

I was a network staffer ready to debate the contents of a book. The author was a guest, unwilling to debate. Which of us do you think went on the air? Ann Coulter, of course—appearing with an anchor ill-prepared to ask tough questions.

If MSNBC were following the codes of journalism, an author unwilling to debate her controversial book would not be given a free ride. But MSNBC follows the codes of conformity and show biz: Coulter is a draw, so she dictates the terms of debate . . . or nondebate.

So much for “The Liberal Media.”