In their coverage of Ann Coulter's attacks on the widows of 9-11 victims, both Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz and ABC's Jake Tapper denounced Coulter's inflammatory rhetoric while asserting that her underlying point -- that Democrats deliberately put forward "infallible" advocates in order to squelch honest debate -- is "valid" and "perfectly acceptable." But a closer examination of the specific examples of "infallible" advocates cited by Coulter turns up evidence that, in every case, these individuals have faced strong Republican opposition and, quite often, ad hominem attacks from conservatives.
Loading the player leg...
In their coverage of right-wing pundit Ann Coulter's attacks on the widows of 9-11 victims, both Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz and ABC News senior national correspondent Jake Tapper have denounced her inflammatory rhetoric while asserting that her underlying point is "valid" and "perfectly acceptable." In her new book, Coulter claimed that the widows "enjoy their husbands' deaths" and "revel in their status as celebrities" and accused Democrats of deliberately putting forward such "infallible" advocates in order to squelch honest debate. In uncritically asserting that Coulter's "point" is valid, Kurtz and Tapper both suggested that these purportedly "infallible" spokespeople have, in fact, been protected from rebuttal. But a closer examination of the specific examples cited by Coulter turns up evidence to the contrary. In every case, these individuals have faced strong Republican opposition in the political sphere and, quite often, ad hominem attacks from conservatives.
While hosting the June 11 edition of CNN's Reliable Sources, Kurtz referred to Coulter's comments regarding the widows as "harsh" and "inflammatory," but later agreed with National Review Online editor at large Jonah Goldberg that "she has a point." In his June 8 Post column, Kurtz referred to her attacks on the widows as "vile" and, in a June 12 Post column, as "ugly, over-the-top invective." Nonetheless, in his June 12 column, he went on to endorse her "one valid point -- that once widows turn themselves into political activists, their personal tragedies should not shield them from rebuttal."
While Kurtz glossed over the partisan nature of Coulter's argument, Tapper highlighted and agreed with it. Tapper stated in June 9 ABC News audio podcast that in her book Coulter makes a "perfectly acceptable," "intelligent," "respectable," and "honest" argument that "the Democratic Party and the liberals constantly bring out spokespeople whom [sic] are unassailable," although Coulter "took it one step further" by attacking the 9-11 widows personally. Tapper's statement is flawed in at least two respects: he asserts that these liberal spokespeople have, in fact, been treated as unassailable, and he suggests that the use of spokespeople who have personal stories related to the cause they are forwarding is the unique province of Democrats and liberals.
As Media Matters for America noted, numerous Republican strategists and conservative media figures have similarly defended Coulter by attempting to shift the focus away from her incendiary remarks and towards her "larger point." But a closer look at her underlying argument proves it baseless.
Coulter has cited numerous liberal advocates who she claims have capitalized on their tragic stories for political gain. Beyond the so-called "Jersey Girls" -- the four 9-11 widows who pushed for the establishment of the commission to investigate the attacks -- whom Coulter assails in her book, she has also highlighted the following individuals: Vietnam war veteran, triple amputee and former Sen. Max Cleland (D-GA); Cindy Sheehan, mother of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq; the late actor and paraplegic Christopher Reeve; and decorated Vietnam veteran Rep. John P. Murtha (D-PA). But contrary to Coulter's suggestion that these advocates' personal histories have prevented conservatives from responding to their arguments, in each case they have provoked substantial public discourse and faced strong conservative opposition:
- Jersey Girls: Coulter would have readers think that the Bush administration immediately satisfied the Jersey Girls' demand for an investigation into the 9-11 attacks. In fact, while the Jersey Girls' campaign for such a probe began receiving national media attention in May 2002, President Bush vocally opposed the idea of an independent panel for more than six months as members of Congress debated such a proposal. Moreover, following the formation of the 9-11 Commission, the White House repeatedly attempted to obstruct its work.
- Christopher Reeve: Following a horse-riding accident in 1995 that left him paralyzed from the neck down, Reeve became a strong advocate for the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. But like the Jersey Girls, his lobbying efforts were met with stiff opposition from the Bush administration and Republican lawmakers. While Bush allowed in 2001 for the federal financing of research on the limited batch of existing stem cell lines, Reeve and his foundation continued to push to expand the scope to include new lines. The Republican leadership neglected to take up the issue prior to Reeve's death in October 2004, and while a bill to ease the restrictions passed the House in 2005, it subsequently stalled in the Senate under a veto threat from Bush.
- Max Cleland: While serving in Vietnam, Cleland lost both his legs and part of one arm in a grenade explosion. He went on to serve in public office for decades, culminating in his election to the U.S. Senate in 1996. In his 2002 re-election campaign, however, Cleland faced an aggressive challenge from Republican candidate Saxby Chambliss, who ultimately won the election. As The New Republic's "Notebook" reported on December 2, 2002, "[A]ttacks on Cleland's patriotism formed the subtext of virtually the entire Chambliss campaign, as noted by many press accounts leading up to and following the election." A July 3, 2003, Washington Post article described the notorious Chambliss ad attacking Cleland: "It opened with pictures of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. 'As America faces terrorists and extremist dictators,' said a narrator, 'Max Cleland runs television ads claiming he has the courage to lead. He says he supports President Bush at every opportunity, but that's not the truth. Since July, Max Cleland voted against President Bush's vital homeland security efforts 11 times!'
- John Murtha: In November 2005, Murtha called for the redeployment of U.S. troops out of Iraq over a six-month period. But far from treating him as infallible, the White House quickly responded that he was "endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party," while House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL) accused him of "prefer[ring] that the United States surrender to the terrorists who would harm innocent Americans." Further, Murtha's action spurred an intense public debate on Capitol Hill over the United States presence in Iraq. But while Murtha's proposal did attract the support of numerous Democrats, Republicans vocally opposed his plan for withdrawal. During House floor debate on the proposal, Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH) was forced to retract her floor statement that a U.S. Marine "asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message: that cowards cut and run, Marines never do." He also faced frequent attacks from conservative media figures such as syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh, who described him as "just the useful idiot of the moment" and claimed that he is "the biggest morale booster that the enemy has in Iraq." Fox News host Bill O'Reilly compared Murtha and others calling for withdrawal from Iraq to Hitler appeasers: "These are the same people before Hitler invaded in World War II that were saying, 'Ah, he's not such a bad guy.'"
- Cindy Sheehan: In August 2005, Sheehan staged an extended antiwar demonstration outside President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, and demanded that he meet with her to explain the "noble cause" for which her son Casey died in Iraq. But despite her well-publicized efforts, Bush repeatedly refused to meet with her. Further, she was subjected to repeated personal attacks from right-wing media figures: syndicated radio host and CNN host Glenn Beck described her as a "pretty big prostitute" and a "tragedy pimp"; O'Reilly claimed that she was being "run by far-left elements who are using her, and she's dumb enough to allow it to happen"; right-wing pundit David Horowitz said of Sheehan, "It's very hard to have respect for a woman who exploits the death of her own son and doesn't respect her own son's life"; and Limbaugh said she "doesn't have the IQ of a pencil eraser."
Further, in the June 11 podcast, Tapper touted his network's coverage of Ann Coulter's recent attacks on the widows of 9-11 victims (documented by Media Matters for America here, here, and here). Tapper asserted that ABC News' coverage of Coulter's remarks was superior to that offered by NBC News, because in a June 6 World News Tonight segment, he had "put some perspective" into the story by "show[ing] that there are Democrats and liberals who are making incendiary allegations as well." During the segment, Tapper compared Coulter's remarks to comments made by New York state comptroller Alan G. Hevesi --who stated that Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) would "put a bullet between the president's eyes if ... he could get away with it" -- and liberal entertainer Harry Belafonte, who stated that Bush was "no better" than Osama Bin Laden. Tapper further argued that American democracy "has always been messy and vulgar," noting that President Andrew Jackson's opponents had once branded his mother a "prostitute" and citing an 1856 incident in which Rep. Preston Brooks (D-SC) beat Sen. Charles Sumner (R-MA) "nearly to death" with a cane on the floor of the Senate chamber. Tapper's report included a quote from ABC News contributor George F. Will, who noted that "our problems today are rather tame" in comparison to Sumner's beating by Brooks.
But while Tapper took the time to offset Coulter's comments regarding the 9-11 widows by pointing out that Democrats and liberals have previously made inflammatory remarks, he did not similarly note that, contrary to Coulter's argument, some 9-11 victims' families have promoted Republicans and conservative causes. As Media Matters has noted, during the opening night of the 2004 Republican National Convention, three relatives of 9-11 victims gave speeches broadcast on national television -- Debra Burlingame, whose brother died in the attacks; and Deena Burnett and Tara Stackpole, who both lost their husbands. On numerous occasions, Burlingame publicly supported Bush's re-election. Following the public disclosure of Bush's warrantless domestic surveillance program, Burlingame defended the program in a February 6 New York Post op-ed and in appearances on the April 3 edition of The Rush Limbaugh Show and on the January 30 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes. Further, a conservative advocacy group, Progress for America, released an ad in October 2004 in support of Bush's re-election titled "Ashley's Story." In the ad, 16 year-old Ashley Faulkner, whose mother died on 9-11, recounted the story of Bush embracing her at a campaign event. Said Faulkner: "He's the most powerful man in the world and all he wants to do is make sure I'm safe, that I'm OK."
From the June 11 edition of CNN's Reliable Sources:
GOLDBERG: There's also -- there's one other point that's worth making. Ann has a point when she says that because of the victimology and identity-politics culture that especially the mainstream press is so immersed in, that we create these spokespeople who do have an air of infallibility. We pick black people who get to say things that only black people are allowed to say, victims who are only allowed to say what victims are allowed to --
KURTZ: Cindy Sheehan.
GOLDBERG: -- Cindy Sheehan, all across the board.
KURTZ: But you say that we create them -- in other words, because of the megaphone quality of the media by giving a lot of attention to women whose husbands died in 9-11?
GOLDBERG: Partly that and partly just because of the sort of ideological precepts of the mainstream media which says that there's a sort of -- that this sort of identity politics notion that certain people have the right to say things and other people don't. And so you have --
KURTZ: But so, she has a point.
GOLDBERG: She does have a point.
KURTZ: But doesn't she totally step on her point by talking about "witches" and "harpies" and "enjoying their husbands' deaths"?
GOLDBERG: And I think that she performs a great disservice to her own cause because what she does is, she turns out to be this Medusa's head that the liberal media gets to pull up, scare everybody, and it discredits what I think is in many ways a perfectly valid point that she has to make. Calling it -- saying that "the wives are enjoying their husbands' deaths" is grotesque, and she shouldn't say it. But what better person to have the liberals -- to have -- for liberals to have to make those kinds of arguments?
From the June 9 audio podcast of ABC News Shuffle:
TAPPER: The general subject is "taking the bait," and the question is, do we as reporters sometimes take the bait and do stories about things that we know are not as significant, perhaps, until we take the bait, until we report on them. Or are -- maybe even it's not a question of significance. Maybe it's a question of doing what is -- is desired. I have four examples from recent days.
TAPPER: Three is Ann Coulter.
HARI SREENIVASAN (ABC News correspondent): Yeah. Oh, yeah, OK. Great.
TAPPER: She has a -- she has a perfectly acceptable argument, a perfectly intelligent argument in her book Godless.
SREENIVASAN: Totally free media.
TAPPER: And the argument is that the Democratic Party and the liberals constantly bring out spokespeople whom [sic] are unassailable: Cindy Sheehan, John Murtha, the 9-11 widows, etc. And -- and it becomes -- any time you question what they're saying -- "How dare you question these people?" And that's a -- that's a perfectly respectable and honest argument. But what Ann Coulter did -- and remember, she has a book out to sell -- is then she took it one step further. This is what a lot of conservatives complain about, that instead of just making that argument, or that the 9-11 widows should not have been given the authority that they were given, that they were -- and remember, several of them endorsed [Sen.] John Kerry [D-MA] -- that she went after them personally. She called them "harpies," she called them "witches," she said they enjoyed their husbands' deaths.
SREENIVASAN: Broads -- she called them "broads."
TAPPER: And are we taking the bait? She says something outrageous. We cover it. She sells books.
TAPPER: All right, now Ann Coulter. What do you think? What are your thoughts?
SREENIVASAN: Oh, my God. That was ridiculous. I mean, I think we were total suckers for that. And basically, look, if you're her publicist, you love this. If she says incendiary things in her book, you love the fact that everybody starts to make the story about her saying incendiary things, and by the way, it's in the book, title still gets mentioned. I mean, she just got a ton of free media that she could not have bought and paid for from any book -- sort of, advertising. So, I mean -- you know, to the point where I basically remember saying to myself, "I'm not even going to click into a story that has her or the book in the title. I just don't want to create demand for this --
TAPPER: You know, it's funny, though. I -- I did the story for World News Tonight, and I would have done it for [ABC's] Good Morning America, but it was bumped off the show by the Zarqawi news. But what's interesting is, you get it from both sides on this issue, because liberals say, "Why are you giving this woman more attention than she deserves? Why are you helping to sell her book?" And then conservatives say -- and there are a lot of conservatives who do not like Ann Coulter, die-hard conservatives who think that she's a shock jock, who think that she basically presents a caricature of the conservative viewpoint, who says -- she says things that are racist, she does things just to sell books. And conservatives say, "You -- you do this and you, liberal media, are caricaturing conservatives, and that's not fair either." So, you can't -- you can't win, really, but at the same time, this was something that a lot of people were talking about yesterday. Do you not do the story? We tried to do it at World News with some perspective, some historical perspective. We talked about how -- and throughout American history, there's been vulgarity and messiness, and, in fact, President Andrew Jackson's mother was accused of being a prostitute in one -- in one campaign. And then -- and then, also, we tried to show that there are Democrats and liberals who are making incendiary allegations as well. That said, you know, did we take the Coulter bait?
SREENIVASAN: It's a subject for debate, certainly.
TAPPER: There's an argument to be made. I mean, I think people were talking about it, and certainly as a news organization, we try to cover things that people are talking about. But you always take that risk.
SREENIVASAN: You know, I mean, what's also fascinating to me is the first I actually heard about this was -- somebody actually sent me a link to a YouTube video of her talking to [co-anchor] Matt Lauer on [NBC's] the Today show. And that was just one of those moments that --
TAPPER: What show was that? What show?
SREENIVASAN: Some other network has a morning show, but they don't -- that show --
TAPPER: I've never heard of that show. Is that British?
SREENIVASAN: It could be. It is a -- they have, like, a building named "Rockefeller." I mean, it's a very sort of elitist, high-end -- no, I'm just kidding.
TAPPER: Well, that network, I have to say, they did coverage that I don't think -- I mean, we tried to put some perspective in it and point out that Ann Coulter's not the only one out there making charges and, in fact, the conservatives are not the only ones saying incendiary things. And that network you're referring to did not do that. And I think that -- that's unfair, because certainly there are people on the left who are saying crazy things too.
From the June 7 broadcast of ABC's World News Tonight:
CHARLES GIBSON (anchor): When does political commentary go too far? And what has happened to civility? One conservative commentator, Ann Coulter is her name, has triggered an uproar by attacking, in very raw terms, many of the 9-11 widows. But there is a lot of what passes for commentary these days on both sides of the political spectrum that many people find despicable. Here's Jake Tapper, our senior national correspondent.
TAPPER: In her new book, best-selling author Ann Coulter calls the 9-11 widows "self-obsessed" and charges they act as if the terrorist attacks happened only to them. "I've never seen people enjoying their husbands' deaths so much," she writes about the widows, whom she calls "The Witches of East Brunswick." "How do we know their husbands weren't planning to divorce these harpies?"
[begin video clip]
REPORTER: So, the 9-11 widows are "witches" and "harpies"?
[end video clip]
TAPPER: The response has been forceful. "We have been slandered," five of the 9-11 widows wrote in a statement. "Contrary to Ms. Coulter's statements, there was no joy in watching men that we loved burn alive." Senator Hillary [Rodham] Clinton [D-NY] called Coulter's remarks "vicious" and "mean-spirited." But Coulter's tone also bothers conservatives.
DAVID HOGBERG (Capital Research Center research associate): It crosses the line into incivility and stuff that's nasty when she refers to them as "self-obsessed" or "enjoying their husbands' deaths."
TAPPER: Coulter today remained undeterred.
COULTER [clip]: They're cutting campaign commercials for Kerry, but we can't respond, because their husbands died. No, I've had it with this liberal infallibility. And I think a lot of Americans are seething with anger that we can't respond.
TAPPER: Incivility, at some level, is nothing new. This month, the Democratic New York state comptroller said this at a commencement address.
HEVESI [sound clip]: The man who, how do I phrase this diplomatically, will put a bullet between the president's eyes if -- if he could get away with it.
TAPPER: He later apologized. But heated comments fill the bookstores and the airwaves.
[begin video clip]
WOLF BLITZER (CNN host): Are you saying that President Bush is worse than Osama Bin Laden?
HARRY BELAFONTE (entertainer): I'm saying that he's no better.
[end video clip]
GEORGE F. WILL (Washington Post columnist): Television is the survival of the briefest. And the way to get maximum wallop into the minimum amount of time is to ratchet up the rhetoric.
TAPPER: Such rhetoric drove partisans in the past to call President Andrew Jackson's mother a "prostitute." Our democracy has always been messy and vulgar. In the Capitol in the 1850s, one South Carolina congressman beat a senator nearly to death.
WILL: So, by those standards, our problems today are rather tame.
TAPPER: Tame historically, but critics call it an unseemly attempt to sell books at the expense of 9-11 widows. Jake Tapper, ABC News, Washington.