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Bestseller trampled under footnotes
By JOHN C. COTEY, Times Staff Writer
Bob Somerby says it's easy enough to find mistakes in the New York Times best seller Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right, by conservative columnist and pundit Ann Coulter.
"Just pick any page and start," says the political comedian, who runs dailyhowler.com, a liberal Web site devoted to media criticism. "Within five minutes you'll have something that is weirdly inaccurate."
To do this, of course, you actually have to care whether the book is accurate, and plenty of offended liberals do. Finding mistakes in Coulter's book, atop the bestseller list since its debut seven weeks ago, has become an obsession for certain wired lefties.
Myriad Web sites have mined Slander (Crown, $25.95), to undercut what they feel is a scathing, prejudiced and inaccurate attack on liberalism and the media. Among the critics are Somerby's dailyhowler.com, Spinsanity.com; the American Prospect's daily Web log Tapped; mediawhoresonline.com; Scoobie Davis Online; Salon.com columnist Joe Conason and a Dr. Limerick.
The biggest complaint: an all-liberals-bad, all-conservatives-good approach.
From the pages of Slander: "The left is itching to silence conservatives once and for all"; "If Americans knew what they (liberals) really believed, the public would boil them in oil"; "Principle is nothing to liberals. Winning is everything."
And naturally, "Almost all serious debate takes place exclusively among conservatives"; "Conservatives in America are the most tolerant (and long-suffering) people in America"; "When right-wingers rant, there's at least a point: There are substantive arguments contained in conservative name-calling."
But this isn't just about differing ideologies. The liberals also have dredged up numerous factual errors. One example: Coulter accuses Katie Couric of "berating Arlen Specter about (Anita) Hill 10 years after the hearings." But as the Webbies point out, Specter, not Couric, brought up Hill while promoting his book, and Couric asked him just one question: "You accused (Hill) of publicly, quote, 'Flat out perjury'. Any regrets?"
Coulter says she expected scrutiny from the left. She told Brian Lamb, who hosts C-SPAN's Booknotes, that she warned her publisher, Crown, of the need for extensive footnotes: "They are going to jump on every single sentence. I'm going to have to defend it. They're going to say it's not true. And I'll just be looking all this up in the end."
Which is fine by the Internet. The footnotes Coulter extols are the very weapons being used to attack her.
Clinton the 'rapist'
Coulter's favorite target in Slander is the New York Times (though presumably she wouldn't argue with the accuracy of its bestseller list), followed closely by Bill Clinton (whom she calls a rapist), Al Gore and every television network except Fox.
The book is filled with fighting words, or the truth, depending on your political affiliation. Somerby says it is offensive that the mainstream media won't expose the book for its inaccuracies.
The Internet troops are willing to meet the challenge.
When Coulter writes that the media use words such as "ugly" to describe only conservative women, the debunkers fire off a list of names Rush Limbaugh has called Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, Ann Richards and Donna Shalala; Tapped (www.prospect.org) even repeated John McCain's notorious joke about Chelsea Clinton: "Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because Janet Reno is her father."
When Coulter writes that editors dispense with fact-checking to provide the public with more "liberal bilge" and says it's hard to think of a single hoax book written by a conservative, Davis (www.scoobiedavis.blogspot.com) supplies a list of right-wing books and authors, including David Brock, who has admitted he deliberately printed lies in his book, The Real Anita Hill.
Coulter lists 10 before-and-after quotes to show how the media built up Bob Packwood and then tore him down. In the media, Packwood went from "successful lawyer and bright young man" to someone who "might have been successful selling insurance or probating wills back in Oregon." He went from being the grandson of a "member of the 1857 Oregon Constitutional Convention" to a "nerdy son of a timber lobbyist." At one time a "voracious reader" with an office lined with books on British history and biographies of Disraeli and Oliver Cromwell, his diaries were deemed "pitiful for their lack of awareness."
But Spinsanity makes it clear that Coulter is not citing 10 different articles; instead, the list of 10 quotations comes from only four articles -- hardly the wide-ranging media dishonesty she is trying to prove.
Coulter has defended herself on talk shows by pointing to her research. Her book is 205 pages, with 780 footnotes making up another 36 pages. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times reviews of Slander found this quite impressive; Somerby finds the footnotes mostly quite wrong.
"Coulter exaggerates, embellishes, embroiders and misstates on virtually every page," he wrote on his Web site.
"So over the top," laments Davis, a 30-something aspiring writer. "That anyone would take that seriously astounds me."
Davis, who describes himself online as a "surfer, TV host, pundit and party crasher," started his Web site in response to journalist Bernard Goldberg's best seller Bias, which also derided the so-called liberal media. Davis took the same approach with that book as he has with Coulter's, but is finding much more fertile ground this time around. His site even features a transcript of a conversation he had, masquerading as a journalist, with Coulter.
Davis: There's just so little criticism (of your book) that it looks like -- just doing an Internet keyword search, it looks like your main critic is some surfer named Scoobie.
Coulter: (Laughs loudly) Somehow I have missed the important writings of Scoobie.
"With Bias, it was the thought that let's not just let these things go unanswered. Let's look at what they say and analyze what they say," Davis says. "But nothing has been as ambitious as this (in-depth look at Slander). I mean, there's just so much there."
"She's a real lightning rod," he says. "She's a very, very strange figure. She just sort of stands out. Bernie's (Bernard Goldberg) book was No. 1 too, but it didn't create anywhere near as much interest as this one has."
Dr. Limerick (slannder.homestead.com) got involved after reading Somerby's stuff online. He refused out of principle to buy the book, instead compiling all of the Web's work on Slander into one place. Eventually, he couldn't resist, and bought the book.
"I started at Chapter 2, because Chapter 1 seemed to have been well-mined," says Limerick. "I learned only yesterday that AHC (Coulter) calls it her favorite."
Limerick cites nearly 50 places in the chapter where he feels Coulter erred or merely twisted facts to fit her theme.
In some cases, the footnotes expose her writing as twisted in order to fit her theme. For example, Coulter writes that the New York Times published an editorial criticizing Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. She continues, "He is called 'colored lawn jockey for conservative white interests,' 'race traitor,' 'black snake,"' and so on. This gives the impression that those terms were used in the editorial, but they weren't. (They are attributed to Jocelyn Elders in a Playboy interview and Joseph Lowery if you bother to check the footnotes.)
Limerick's original goal was to pick apart the whole book. But his site says just doing the one chapter was "exhausting and dispiriting work."
A shot from the 'left wing'
The Web critics are especially critical of what Somerby calls Coulter's "pseudo research." They say she relies heavily on (or, as conservative reviews say, is "armed with") LexisNexis searches to provide evidence of the media's liberal bias.
She proudly states that a LexisNexis search of the New York Times reveals 109 items using the phrase "far right wing" and just 18 using "far left wing."
But Somerby did his own search of the conservative Washington Times and found roughly the same ratio. He also points out that Coulter doesn't distinguish between, say, a reference in one New York Times article about basketball player Nick Anderson making a shot from the "far right wing."
Other instances where Somerby says Coulter abused LexisNexis:
She said the New York Times showed its liberal bias by using the phrases "Christian conservatives" or "religious right" 187 times during 2000, while never using the phrases "atheist liberals" or "the atheist left." But the Washington Times had 151 references to "Christian conservatives" or the "religious right" in 2000, and no references to "atheist liberals" or "the atheist left."
Somerby: "'Atheist liberal?' Who uses that term? She makes up a term to make her point. I love those kinds of silly things."
To prove that liberals "babble on and on about the 'heady' days of civil rights marches," Coulter claims that between 1995 and 2001, the New York Times ran more than 100 articles on "Selma" alone. "I believe we may have revisited this triumph of theirs sufficiently by now," she quips.
Tapped, however, did its own LexisNexis search for Selma and came up with 776 hits -- "424 were death notices, 18 were wedding announcements, 25 were other sorts of paid notices, five were in photo captions, and 234 were either: a) contents listings; b) people with the name Selma; c) references to Selma, California; or d) references to Selma, Ala., that had nothing to do with civil rights."
Of the 70 remaining, Tapped said only 16 were centrally concerned with Selma's civil rights history.
The fight goes on.
When Coulter accuses Time, Newsweek, Ladies' Home Journal and U.S. News and World Report of running pieces on senility before the 1984 election in a conspiracy to discredit Ronald Reagan, she is rebuked by the cybersleuths.
Time and Newsweek pieces touch on a poor debate performance, but Time writes that when it came to being senile, "the President clearly is not."
Newsweek quotes doctors saying there is no reason a man Reagan's age shouldn't be president. The Ladies' Home Journal story was a writer's report on the health care received by her elderly mother. And the U.S. News story had praise for the robust Reagan.
"Pathologically inaccurate," Somerby wrote of this particular claim that the liberal press was out to get Reagan.
Coulter may have given the Webbies their best ammunition on the book's last page. On it, she slams the New York Times for not running news of Dale Earnhardt's death in their paper until two days after his death.
"It took the New York Times two days to deem Earnhardt's name sufficiently important to mention it on the first page," she writes. This, she posited, was evidence of its obliviousness to "the society they decry from their Park Avenue redoubts."
Oops, says Somerby, who did a LexisNexis search and found that the New York Times ran the news of Earnhardt's death the very next day on Page 1.
The gaffe should provide some satisfaction to Coulter's online critics. Though Crown editor Doug Pepper called it a small mistake, he confirmed that it will be corrected in the next printing.
"That's pretty embarrassing," says Somerby.
Pepper refused to comment on the Internet's attack on Slander because he hasn't visited any of the sites, but added he is aware from reading Joe Conason's Web log at Salon that criticism exists.
"Whenever a book about politics comes out, there's always sites from either side that are sniping away," Pepper says.
As for the other mistakes the Web is trumpeting, he says there are no other plans to correct anything other than a few "little mistakes grammatically."
"We published the book and we stand by its veracity. If a mistake is found in any book, we change it."
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