Why is Ann Coulter on the cover of Time magazine this week, the subject of an oft-favorable 5,800 word profile? Coulter is the author of a series of shrill, error-laden partisan screeds that likely line the shelves of your local bookstore. But how does Coulter, and the legion of hyper-partisan, venom-spewing right-wing authors she leads, sell so many books when her books are so full of errors, omissions, and outright lies? How did Unfit for Command come to dominate last year's presidential campaign for a month?
Conservative publishing houses and authors have come to play a huge role in our political discourse, with the rest of the media bestowing great attention -- and the influence that attention brings -- upon them; attention and influence that few progressive authors can match. It certainly isn't because Coulter, Dick Morris, David Bossie, Laura Ingraham and the rest are more factual than David Corn, Eric Alterman, and Molly Ivins -- quite the opposite. And it can't be because they are better writers, as anyone who has opened a Dick Morris book can attest.
The recent flurry of publicity surrounding the forthcoming attack book The Truth About Hillary: What She Knew, When She Knew It, and How Far She'll Go to Become President provides a valuable lesson in how conservative publishers gain attention (and influence) for their books and authors -- and how those books are little more than partisan political tools.
A full five months before Edward Klein's book about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is scheduled to appear in bookstores, media outlets from Fox News to the Kansas City Star brought readers and viewers speculation that the "damaging" book could "torpedo" Clinton's potential 2008 presidential campaign.
The stories began with a Drudge Report posting that touted the book as "the ultimate Hillary-attack" and quoted a "source close to" Klein saying "The revelations in it should sink her candidacy."
That was enough to set the conservative media machine in motion; the Washington Times, New York Post, MSNBC's "Scarborough Country," and Fox News' "Hannity & Colmes" amplified Drudge's posting.
The Washington Times claimed a "new book could prove a roadblock to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's possible run for the White House in 2008."
MSNBC host Joe Scarborough told viewers the book's "contents are top-secret, but the sources say the revelations inside could torpedo Hillary Clinton's chances at a run at the White House," later adding, "A lot of people believe a new book, which promises to be a tell-all about Hillary Clinton, will stop her in 2008."
The Fox News shoutfest "Hannity & Colmes" hosted professional Clinton-basher Dick Morris, who announced that he was a source for The Truth About Hillary, and proudly answered "Yes" when host Alan Colmes asked if his goal is to "do anything you can to derail a possible Hillary candidacy?" Morris' own 2004 book attacking Sen. Clinton, Rewriting History, threatened to set a new world record for lies-per-page, as Media Matters showed at the time; immediately calling into question the credibility of any book that relies on him as a source.
Discussion of The Truth About Hillary and speculation about its possible impact on Clinton's possible presidential campaign wasn't limited to the explicitly conservative media; the Associated Press, New York Daily News, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, among others, got in on the act. The Inquirer explained:
"There's a good bit of 'pre-buzz' buzz about an unauthorized biography of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton due for a September release by Sentinel Books. That would be the 'preliminary' media hysteria leading up to the marketing blitzkrieg-driven 'genuine' pre-publication buzz, which should start around June."Daily News gossip columnist Lloyd Grove suggested that the "buzz" surrounding The Truth About Hillary was the result of intentional "leaks" from the publisher: "Klein yesterday wouldn't shed any light on Drudge's account and uttered a noncommittal 'uh-huh' when I noted that some might consider the report a ploy by Sentinel to generate prepublication buzz."
But while several news organizations touted the book, none had anything to say about the book's substance -- not entirely surprising, given that it won't be published for several months, but it does highlight the absurdity of suggesting that the book could affect a presidential campaign when not one media figure discussing it has read a word of it. Nor did the media outlets that "reported" on the book ask the obvious question: what new allegations could the book possibly contain?
The Clintons' business, personal, and public lives have been the subject of countless Congressional investigations; a $70 million Republican-led independent counsel investigation; and a cottage industry of right-wing attack books with titles like "Hell to Pay," "The Case Against Hillary Clinton," "American Evita: Hillary Clinton's Path to Power," "Ron Brown's Body: How One Man's Death Saved the Clinton Presidency and Hillary's Future," and "Hillary's Scheme: Inside the Next Clinton's Ruthless Agenda to Take the White House" -- and that's just the first page of Amazon.com search results for "Hillary Clinton." She has been accused of illegal firings, illegal hirings, affairs, murders, cover-ups, shake-downs, high crimes, low crimes, and changing favorite baseball teams. Yet none of the media outlets that have breathlessly covered this "damaging" new book have thought to ask the obvious question: what new allegations could they possibly throw at her? Kidnapping the Lindbergh Baby? Killing JFK? Killing JFK, Jr.?
The extraordinary attention paid to this not-yet-published book provides some insight into how right-wing attack books like those by Coulter and Klein get so much attention and gain so much influence: a carefully-orchestrated pre-publication publicity campaign by the publisher, aided by conservative media outlets like Fox News and the Washington Times, which are all too happy to serve as publicists.
But the few details available about The Truth About Hillary also serve as a useful reminder that these books are not, as the media often portrays them, honest investigative works; they are, rather, purely partisan tools designed specifically to damage reputations and influence elections.
The Washington Times reported that sales materials produced by Sentinel boast: "Just as the Swift Boat Veterans convinced millions of voters that John Kerry lacked the character to be president, Klein's book will influence everyone who is sizing up the character of Hillary Clinton." Likewise, the New York Post reported on April 12 that Sentinel spokesperson Will Weisser "said he hoped that The Truth About Hillary would do to Clinton what the Swift Boat Veterans bestseller did to Kerry. 'That would be our fondest wish,' he said, before adding, 'We're just trying to sell books. It will be up to the voters to read the book and decide for themselves about Senator Clinton. We're not out to get anyone, per se.'"
The publisher's comparison of The Truth About Hillary to the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth demonstrates both that the forthcoming book is an attempt to influence an election, and that it will likely be filled with misstatements, unsubstantiated allegations, distortions, contradictions and outright lies.
Damaging Senator Clinton apparently isn't just a goal held by the publisher; author Edward Klein "doesn't care for the Clintons," according to a December 2004 New York Post article based on comments from an "insider." Along with Klein's apparent animosity towards the Clintons, his credentials as an author deserve more scrutiny than they have gotten. Klein's previous books have been widely denounced in reviews for relying on "anonymous sources" and "psychobabble"; he left his post as editor-in-chief of the New York Times Magazine in the wake of the magazine's publication of what the Washington Post described as "two stories of questionable accuracy."
So: the book's publisher has suggested the purpose of the book is to defeat Clinton; the author is known to dislike the Clintons; and the one known source -- Dick Morris -- has leveled increasingly bizarre allegations against the Clintons for years and says he'll do anything he can to defeat her.
And yet, the book (so far) is being taken seriously, and presented as a serious threat to Sen. Clinton. Its potential to "damage" her is taken as a given by the media, months before it is published; nobody wonders what credible damaging information about Clinton could possibly have remained unearthed all these years; nobody speaks of the book as what it is: an obvious partisan attack, the goal of which is not finding the truth, but derailing a political career.
With a finely-tuned right-wing publishing and promotion apparatus pushing their books months in advance, conservative media outlets eagerly acting as publicists, and so-called "mainstream" media outlets that don't bother to take a critical look at the content -- or intent -- of the books, it's no wonder authors like Coulter sell so many copies. This week's deeply flawed Time magazine cover story about Coulter -- in which the author laughably explains that he did a Google search but couldn't find many examples of her getting facts wrong -- and the hype around the forthcoming Klein book illustrate the problem perfectly: the media takes these books and authors seriously enough to give them extensive attention, but not serious enough to give them the scrutiny and critical reviews they deserve.