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 Williamsâ€”who went on to pocket nearly a quarter-million dollars from the Bush administration to promote its â€œNo Child Left Behind Act.â€ When I repeatedly debated Williams at MSNBC, I had no inkling about Team Bushâ€™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.
Iâ€™m willing to believe Coulter when she publicly proclaims that sheâ€™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 commentsâ€”like referring to Tipper Gore as â€œgaudy white trash.â€ Or talking about â€œthe benefits of local fascism.â€ Or calling for public flogging of juveniles, because it wouldnâ€™t be cool â€œin the â€™hoodâ€ 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, â€œIn 90 percent of cases that U.S. soldiers got blown upâ€”Ann, are you listening?â€”they were our own mines.â€ At which point Coulter interrupted to say. â€œNo wonder you guys lost.â€ 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 agoâ€”after he quipped that whenever he saw Americaâ€™s UN ambassador Jean Kirkpatrick on TV, he had to wonder â€œif Eva Braun really died in that bunker in 1945.â€ Iâ€™ve made an exception in Coulterâ€™s case. (In Slander, she called Katie Couric â€œthe affable Eva Braun of morning television.â€)
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 wasnâ€™t sure whether the book was serious or self-parody. Its thesis is that liberals engage in name-calling because they canâ€™t engage in logical, factual debate. This from an author who doesnâ€™t limit her insults to Democrats like Hillary â€œPond Scumâ€ Clinton; she called the Republican EPA chief Christie Todd Whitman a â€œbird brainâ€ and former GOP senator Jim Jeffords a â€œhalf-wit.â€ When the rightwing editors of National Review rejected a Coulter column urging enhanced airport vigilance against â€œsuspicious-looking swarthy males,â€ she called the editors â€œgirly-boys.â€
On page 2 of her book, I learned that liberals have “a hatred of Christiansâ€â€”and, a few pages later, that â€œliberals hate Americaâ€ and â€œhate all religions except Islam.â€ On page 5, I read, â€œNew York Times columnist Frank Rich demanded that [Attorney General] Ashcroft stop monkeying around with Muslim terrorists and concentrate on anti-abortion extremists.â€ 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, â€œShe wonâ€™t debate you.â€
I was incredulous: â€œThis was set a long time ago. Iâ€™m ready to go.â€
â€œSheâ€™s not,â€ replied the producer. â€œShe claims she knew nothing about a debate.â€
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 courseâ€”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 â€œThe Liberal Media.â€