Media

Time to Respond

Eric Alterman responds to allegations made by <i>Time</i>'s John Cloud, author of the controversial Ann Coulter profile.
Editor's note: Read the short interview referred to below, here.

John Cloud doesn’t like me.  Either that, or he doesn’t like being criticized for producing a morally and intellectually indefensible work of journalism and has chosen to respond with a fusillade of personal invective.  You be the judge.

In response to my comments on his admiring profile of Ann Coulter in which he announced that he "didn't find many outright Coulter errors"* based on a casual Google search, available here, Cloud says I:
  • am the left-wing equivalent of [...] Ann Coulter
  • am trying to out-Coulter Coulter
  • am simply insult[ing] him
  • am hid[ing] the fact that it also quotes James Wolcott, Andrew Sullivan, Salon, Ronald Radosh, and even Jerry Falwell criticizing Ann Coulter.  She is called everything from an "ideological huckster of hate" in [his] story to a "skank."  [He] say[s] she can be "callous and mouthy," that [he] wants to "shut her up occasionally," that her writing can be "highly amateurish."  She is called a "fascist," a "polemicist," and--by Radosh--a virtual McCarthyite.
  • want [...]  people to ignore Coulter, to pretend as though she doesn't exist and isn't one of the most loved--and hated--figures on the public scene
  • Made a mistake about a quote of hers in What Liberal Media
  • seem most annoyed that [Time] did not use more of [my] personal "sources" on Ann Coulter
  • [don't] seem to have done any reporting for his item on [him] whatsoever.

    In his interview with CJR Daily available here, he adds:

    "I think Eric Alterman and Ann Coulter engage in the same kind of debate. They don't often make actual arguments.  Instead, they throw names around. This is the point of my article.”

    And ...

    "I think maybe Eric and Ann are in the same bunch. They also, by the way, use the same language."

    To take these one by one may appear a bit tiresome and self-serving, but there are larger issues involved, including, admittedly, defending my reputation, but more importantly, having to do with defending the tenets of honest journalism and fair-minded media criticism.  So I will, as briefly as I can, engage Cloud on the facts:

    Cloud insists that Coulter and I are peas in a pod, guilty of the same sins, up to the same shenanigans.  OK, let’s compare me with Ann Coulter.  True, we both have B.A.s from Cornell, where we both attended many Dead concerts, (though I don’t pretend I refused to partake in the local customs).  More to the point, I went on to earn an M.A. in international relations from Yale and a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Stanford.  I’ve written six books, two published by university presses, containing many thousands of footnotes.  None of these books have been substantially challenged on the basis of the evidence they employ, even by those who strongly disagree with my arguments.  This is not true of Coulter.

    I am also a professor of journalism at the City University of New York, a senior fellow of two think tanks, a professional blogger for the most trafficked internet news site in the world and the media columnist for oldest continuously published weekly magazine in the United States.  I am pretty sure none of the above is true of Coulter, either.

    What’s more, Coulter has twice either wished for, or joked about the mass murder of American journalists.  She has called for, or joked about, the assassination of a sitting American president.  She has called for, or joked about, the mass murder of entire populations of Moslem nations.  She has referred to the president of the United States and his wife as “pond scum,” among many other things.  She has called Christie Todd Whitman a "birdbrain" and a "dimwit"; Jim Jeffords a "half-wit"; and Gloria Steinem a "deeply ridiculous figure" who "had to sleep" with a rich liberal to fund Ms. magazine--all of which makes her "a termagant."  I have never called publicly for the death of any one, nor joked about anyone’s murder, nor called any president or any senator any names like those listed above, though I admit, not all of them—including the current president—are among my favorite people.

    While Cloud vouches for Coulter’s accuracy, an entire industry has sprung up demonstrating that accuracy plays no role whatever in her work.  You can find dozens, if not hundreds, of lies, mistakes, misattributions, and unsupported allegations in Coulter’s work catalogued here, here, here and here, to name just a few.  Cloud insists that his "job in this story was not to be a fact-checker."  Funny, that’s just exactly the excuse the White House offered in July 2003.  ("The president of the United States is not a fact-checker.”  See The Book on Bush, p.330.)  Well, I always thought Time magazine was pretty proud of its fact-checking capabilities, but OK, that’s quite an admission.  Still it misses the point.  If Cloud could not be bothered with checking the accuracy of Coulter’s work, he should not have vouched for it and his editors should not have  published him doing so.  Deploying the authority of America’s most influential magazine, Cloud declared the work of Ann Coulter to be without “many outright [...] errors."*

    Is it too much to ask, if he isn’t going to fact check Coulter’s work, that he at least check her comments in his own piece?  Cloud explains, "Coulter says profiling makes sense when Muslims have committed virtually all the terrorist attacks against Americans for the past 25 years."  By not pointing out that, for example, the number of terrorist acts against Americans by pro-life radical extremists makes Coulter’s claim false, Cloud is enabling a racist lie that is factually incorrect.

    This is the heart of the scandal of its publication in Time and the reason his name will now be forever synonymous with a kind of craven, dishonest journalism that seeks to apologize for those who hold the values for which Time professes to stand in contempt.  It is not about liberals attacking conservatives nor vice-versa.  For all of Cloud’s attacks on my political orientation, it had nothing to do with my criticisms of his piece.  Those dealt exclusively with Cloud’s journalism.  For some reason he does not seem to get this, so let me spell it out:

    Nobody really cares about Mr. Cloud personally, or the fact that he found Ms. Coulter so charming and "ironic" sipping her white Bordeaux and throwing her blonde locks back as she downed her Nicorette.  The issue that engages those of us who are invested in protecting and defending the honesty and integrity of American journalism is that Mr. Cloud has used the powerful and influential pages of Time magazine to declare Ms. Coulter’s work mostly accurate ("didn't find many outright Coulter errors"*) while admitting that neither he, nor Time’s minions, did the necessary work to defend that pronouncement.

    We can debate the meaning of the word “lie” and whether it can apply to a false description. As the author of a doctoral dissertation and a 450 or so page book containing over 1,400 footnotes spread over 91 pages on the topic of presidential lies, and a member of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, I like to think my vote should carry some weight when I say "yes."  But I admit the point is arguable.  What is not arguable is that Ann Coulter’s work cannot be fairly described as without "many outright [...] errors"* by anyone with a modicum of respect for rules of evidence or the simple meaning of words.  Again, I refer you to the countless examples listed above, not merely in What Liberal Media, but in Tapped, Media Matters, Spinsanity, Salon and many, many others.

    Cloud also complains that I did no independent reporting on Coulter for my item.  This is silly.  I’ve known Coulter since 1996, and worked with Coulter virtually every day for more than a year on MSNBC, before she was fired.  I first published a column about her in September of 2002.  I published half a chapter plus an entire appendix in a book that came out in 2003.  Demonstrating that Cloud’s ability to think and reason had been befogged by his apparent attraction to Coulter’s "irony" did not require any additional reporting on my part.  That is, dare I explain it again, exactly the point.  All of the evidence was available to Cloud when he wrote the piece, just as it was available to me.  He chose to ignore it.  I didn’t.  This is not about “my personal sources” about Coulter, as he implies—once again casting aspersions on my motives without any personal knowledge.  (To tell you the truth, I don’t even know what he means by my “personal sources.”)  Rather, it’s an argument about the accuracy of Coulter’s statements and of Cloud’s—but more importantly Time’s—willingness to vouch for them.  Why is that so hard for Cloud to understand?

    A few smaller points.  Cloud says I ignore the fact that he quoted some people who didn’t like Ann.  Well, true, but he wrote a 5,800 word piece and I wrote a short blog item. Naturally I could not deal with all of it.  (And quoting people calling her names like “skank” does not, in my idea, substitute for examining her accuracy.)  In any case, if Time (or Cloud) wants to take the time and do the necessary research to critique all 5,800 words,  I’d be happy to do so ... for $25,000.

    Cloud says I misquoted Coulter’s attack on a legless Vietnam veteran in What Liberal Media? Well, I am willing to believe this might be the case, as I did not have Time’s army of researchers and fact-checkers at my disposal and everyone makes mistakes.  But I’m afraid he’s going to have to provide some evidence.  What Liberal Media? has nearly a thousand footnotes.  Cloud’s article has none.  What’s more, I was in the studio at MSNBC when the incident took place.  (There was cheering.)  True, I didn’t hear it, and never claimed to, and even if I had, I might have misremembered it.  Evidence is a much trickier matter than Cloud seems to understand.  My own source who claimed to have heard it might have been mistaken as well.  But I know Cloud wasn’t there and unless he’s watched a videotape—and I’m not sure I’d trust his word even there—I’ll wait until the point is proven.  (Though I must admit I don’t think it makes much moral difference.)  In any case, if Cloud can provide or point me to a tape, I’ll be happy to correct future editions of my book.  If not, well, I’ll have to judge his assertion based on the level of accuracy of the rest of his piece.  (Howie Kurtz however, appears to have a different story to tell here.)

    Cloud says I want people to ignore Coulter.  Well, yes, this is true.  There are any number of people, I suppose, who want to kill Arabs, joke about murdering New York Times journalists and American journalists serving in Iraq, who call people vicious names, even during their funerals, who mock legless veterans, and who lie with impunity about those with whom they disagree.  It would be a better world if we ignored all of them.  I wrote about Coulter for a while in the hopes of demonstrating that a person who employed such practices had no business being embraced as a respectable voice in the mainstream media, and then I stopped.  I did what I could and moved on.  Now, the least I can do is remain consistent to my own personal principles by refusing to debate or appear with Coulter.  I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what Cloud thinks is the problem here.

    Cloud notes to CJR, that Hitler and Stalin have also been on the cover of Time.  Excuse me, but why is he bringing up Hitler and Stalin?  Nobody else has.  Isn’t that the kind of thing the left is always being accused of doing?  Reels the mind ...

    Finally, Cloud throws in a great many personal insults toward me and toward David Brock in the hopes of deflecting the criticism he has received of his work.  My guess is that this is his first experience in receiving public criticism and he will grow to regret the intemperance of his remarks.  In the meantime, even if his wild charges were accurate, they would do nothing to exonerate his article.  I will let Brock speak for himself and he does so very well here.  But I should also like to point out that for all Cloud’s angry and unsupported accusations about me, the reader will note that I have not called him a single name.  Nor have I attributed a single unspoken motive to him.  In fact, I never even noticed him at all before the story was e-mailed to me by Time’s PR person on Sunday morning.  All of my comments have been directed toward Cloud’s indefensible work of journalism and the damage that Time’s publication of it has done to our profession and to the cause of honest and honorable political discourse in the United States.

    *CORRECTION:  An earlier draft incorrectly quoted Mr. Cloud as using the expression "mostly accurate." His actual phrase was he "didn't find many outright Coulter errors."  I regret this mistake but it changes nothing in either my larger argument or Cloud's. Also, an earlier version of Altercation appeared without Cloud's letter. That was the result of an editorial miscommunication. I had always intended to include it and said as much when it was received.