Defending his 5,800-word cover story on right-wing pundit Ann Coulter in an online interview, Time writer John Cloud used all manner of ad hominem attacks -- including against Coulter, the original subject of his whitewash profile -- but few facts. Apparently stung by widespread criticism over Time's decision to feature Coulter on the cover, Cloud invoked the ultimate distancing technique, comparing Coulter to Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler.
In the interview, posted on the Columbia Journalism Review's CJR Daily weblog, Cloud also went after journalist Eric Alterman over Alterman's scathing commentary on the Coulter profile: "I think maybe Eric and Ann are in the same bunch. They also, by the way, use the same language." That's a bizarre accusation; as far as we know, Alterman, who has written a number of critically acclaimed books, has never lamented that the New York Times building wasn't blown up or suggested that a sitting president should be assassinated. He has never slurred Muslims or women or disabled Vietnam veterans.
But Cloud -- ostensibly a "hard news" reporter -- saved his most caustic vitriol for Media Matters for America and its president and CEO, David Brock. After CJR interviewer Brian Montopoli quoted from Eric Alterman's take on the Time article -- which quoted Media Matters' item on the subject -- Cloud responded by attacking Media Matters:
[H]e [Alterman] picks up something from David Brock's Web site [Media Matters] and reprints it on MSNBC's website. Now David Brock is a very famous hater of Ann Coulter. They used to be friends, they're not friends anymore. He is also a serial liar. David Brock wrote a whole book saying, "Oh, my other books? They were lies." So I don't think David Brock has a lot of credibility on the question of Ann Coulter. And what they are doing is a smear job. That's his other history -- David Brock has a history of smear jobs. And this is a smear job against me personally.
The observant reader will note that in this response Cloud challenged not one fact in the Media Matters item; questioned not one conclusion drawn. Instead, he simply leveled personal attacks against Media Matters' president.
It's also worth noting that the Media Matters item wasn't about either Coulter or Cloud "personally"; it was about his article. Again, Cloud didn't challenge a single fact the item contained, which makes his characterization of it as a "smear job" ... well, a smear job.
Montopoli responded by noting that contrary to Cloud's assertion in the article that he couldn't find many mistakes by Coulter, Media Matters' item contained "a lot of examples of what seem to me to be errors" by Coulter. Montopoli asked Cloud: "Even if you don't think highly of David Brock, how do you respond to that?"
Cloud replied with a classic bait-and-switch:
This one sentence in a 5,500-word piece has been worried over more than any other. Which is fine, I'm happy to defend it. My piece does not say that there are no Ann Coulter errors.
Of course, nobody has claimed that his article said there were "no Ann Coulter errors." Cloud is setting up a straw man -- defending his article against an allegation nobody has made, rather than defending his article against the criticism Media Matters actually made: that even his cursory Google search for "Ann Coulter lies" clearly demonstrates the falsity of his claim that he couldn't find many falsehoods by Coulter.
More from Cloud:
David Brock, who knew Ann Coulter from years ago, goes to a book that's years old, and prints some mistakes from that book, and of course [there are] mistakes. And a lot of them are corrected. If you go out and you buy a copy of Slander now, you won't find those mistakes in it, because the publisher has corrected them.
Read that again: Cloud is defending his statement that he couldn't find many Coulter errors by saying that sure, she makes a lot of errors, but her publisher corrects "a lot of them" later. Not to mention the fact that if "a lot" of Coulter errors were corrected, she must have made "a lot" in the first place -- a pretty clear indication that Cloud's contention in Time that he couldn't find many examples of Coulter mistakes was untrue.
Finally, it simply isn't accurate to say that "you won't find those mistakes" in the current edition of Slander. For example, using Amazon.com's "search inside this book" feature, we see that the current (2003) paperback edition of Slander still contains Coulter's false claim that The New York Times ran "more than one hundred articles" about the Selma civil rights march over a six-year period.
Cloud then returned to debating his favorite opponent, the straw man:
Now, I had a choice of, do I want to, in my article, list every single Ann Coulter mistake ever made, even ones that have been corrected by the publisher -- which is, by the way, what almost every other journalist who has written about her has done -- or do I want to say something fresh and interesting about her? ... My job in this story was not to be a fact-checker. I don't say in this story that she's never made a mistake.
Of course, nobody has suggested that Cloud should have listed every single Coulter mistake ever made, and Cloud knows it. Rather, Media Matters and others have suggested that he should not have said he was unable to find many errors; a seemingly reasonable suggestion, given that he now acknowledges that Coulter has made "a lot" of errors.
In defending Time's decision to put Coulter on the cover of Time, Cloud argues: "we have put Josef Stalin on the cover. We have made Adolf Hitler the person of the year." Earlier in the interview, Cloud had equated Ann Coulter with liberal-leaning filmmaker and author Michael Moore, noting that Time featured Moore in a cover story last year: "And, by the way, at that time we didn't get quite the reaction, certainly not from the left, which seemed rather pleased with the cover we did on Michael Moore."
It should be obvious to most that Coulter has little in common with Hitler or Stalin. What may be less obvious is that while both Coulter and Moore are similarly reviled by their ideological opposites, this comparison is also inappropriate. Moore is extremely critical of President Bush and other Republicans, but as far as we know -- like Alterman -- he has not suggested that Bush be assassinated, as Coulter did with Bill Clinton, nor has he advocated violence against his political opponents or against journalists, as Coulter has.