Dynamist Blog


This general subject has already consumed way too many pixels and way too much ink, but responsible journalism dictates that I return to it. In response to my earlier post about the media rewards to inflammatory political rhetoric, Brendan Nyhan (whose Spinsanity post I cited) wrote:

I was intrigued by your contention that Coulter is mentioned more than Moore in the New York Times and other "[p]owerful liberal voices" -- since it's the kind of claim that can be easily checked using Nexis, I thought I'd do so. (Things many people thought to be true have been proven to be false using this method -- see Geoffrey Nunberg's work on Bernard Goldberg's claim that conservatives are labeled as such more than liberals.) Anyway, checking the past two years for the New York Times, during which time Coulter has had two best-selling books and Moore has had one best-selling book plus an Oscar-winning documentary, I found significantly more mentions of Moore than Coulter - 60+ for Moore and 20+ for Coulter doing a quick count of relevant articles from the search results that excluded bestseller listings, letters to the editor and repeated capsule reviews. The Coulter mentions were generally snide remarks and asides, while Moore's were generally more positive or neutral, but there was significant variation. Hope you'll clarify this for your readers.

One final point: I would argue that Moore is often used in almost exactly the same way by conservative pundits as Coulter is by liberals -- to discredit a group by association.

At the time Brendan and I wrote, my Nexis password was many thousands of miles away from me, so I had to delay a thorough search. (A Nexis search is not, in fact, easy for most people, by the way. Most people do not have access to the subscription-only service.) I was sure about Noam Chomsky, whom I also mentioned, because I'd once done a Nexis search to see how the Times identifies him, discovering that they scrupulously ignore him, mentioning him occasionally as a linguist. He may be the left's version of the John Birch Society and the black-helicopter crowd, but pretending he doesn't exist creates a false picture of his influence.

First let me say that I agree with Brendan's final point. His charge is certainly true, and the practice is unjustified. Aside from Moore's essential status as an entertainer rather than an intellectual--Coulter tries to have it both ways--he's better described as a leftist than a liberal. But that's a topic for another day.

At the moment, however, conservatives have no media outlets that approach the cultural significance of the Times or that act as similar gatekeepers in the public discussion. (Classical liberals like me have next to none, but our social liberalism makes us more comfortable with, and less disconcerting to, liberal places like the Times.) The Times example is the core of the argument.

A simple Nexis count--I went back a year--does show exactly what Brendan says: more mentions of Moore than Coulter. But almost all of those mentions occur because of a) Moore's Oscar and b) Moore's speech at the Oscar ceremony, and some of the others are celebrity gossip items. None of them discuss his books or his ideas, nor do they hold him up as an exemplar of left-of-center thinking. Indeed, writing in the Times Magazine, James Traub declares, "Put Michael Moore behind a desk, and watch the right-wingers squeal. The problem is that many Democrats would squirm as well. It is just a fact that the Republicans are now the party of passionate convictions, while the Democrats are the party of grave reservations."

Traub's column is a lot of humbug. Both parties, and both broadly defined political camps (which is not exactly the same thing), include people of all temperaments and every degree of nuance. The much-derided nasty partisanship in Washington comes in part from the clash of the two parties' passionate wings, acting through their more pragmatic political representatives.

That said, I think I was indeed a bit unfair to the Times. A newspaper is not a monolith, and many Times writers understand that Moore and Coulter are intellectually lightweight entertainers who represent only themselves and the delighted fans of provocation.

The most serious treatment of Moore is a Frank Rich piece that portrays him as a wildly successful entertainer whose political grenades sell more movie tickets. "In America, at least, all is fair not only in love and war but also in entertainment. If Mr. Moore forgets his pact with the audience and makes a habit of preaching as he did on Oscar night, he might as well seal his own mouth with duct tape. But if he ambushes America with humor 16 months from now, he may be more of a factor in the next election cycle than all the other, more glamorous Oscar attendees now lining up at fund-raisers for Howard Dean."

As for Coulter, the official Times position, if such a thing existed, would be something like that expressed in the July 20 style section profile titled Blond Lightning on the Far Right: "She has been fired by MSNBC more times than George Steinbrenner canned Billy Martin, and she has come to grips with life as a single girl, personally and professionally, endlessly peddling her Lethally Blond franchise to a reluctant media that finds her reprehensible, but not resistible."

Could we now go back to talking about something more interesting?

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