Affirmative action, while generally a good and necessary thing, has always been more complicated than its supporters admit. It inspires a backlash; it often promotes people who are underprepared for their assigned tasks; and it attaches a stigma to those who do succeed on their own, often with a crushing psychological burden. Yet another problem is how easily it can be manipulated for nefarious purposes.
Women and minorities have been agitating for greater representation in a largely white, male media structure for decades, making their case by the numbers. According to a recent study published by Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), women made up just 15 percent of sources appearing on the three major network news programs in 2001, while 92 percent of all US sources for whom race was determinable were white.
Conservatives, meanwhile, have also made a case for greater media representation. They’ve done so by redefining the terms of debate. While most pundits and nearly half the “experts” employed by the media are quite conservative by any reasonable or historical measure of the term, that’s not good enough. They are demanding more. Bernard Goldberg, Nat Hentoff and Reed Irvine are hardly the only conservatives who say they deserve greater representation. Many news producers and editorial page editors apparently concur.
The media’s response to the traditional affirmative-action constituencies and the well-funded propaganda offensive by the conservatives has been to capitulate to both sides at once. Hence the rise of the female and/or minority conservative pundit, often unqualified by any traditional standard and frequently close to the line in terms of sanity but with job security the rest of us can only imagine.
When MSNBC began operations in the summer of 1996 and hired eighteen regular pundits–of whom I was one–the most recognizable type among the mostly unknown cast were the blonde and black fire-breathing right-wingers. Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, Jennifer Grossman, Niger Innes, Deroy Murdoch, Brian Jones, Joseph Perkins, Betsy Hart (a brunette, but still…); the list goes on and on. At the time, I used to joke that the producers might wish to inquire about the politics of the black/blonde daughter of Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton. If she liked Star Wars and tax cuts for the rich, they should offer her a lifetime contract.
It didn’t matter to the network executives at the time that women and minorities in real life were far more liberal than most television people, and their gimmick was, in that regard, deceptive. These pundits gave the new network some “pop” in the larger media–or so it was believed. In fact, most of those named above have faded back into the proverbial woodwork. But not all. Laura Ingraham now wears her leopard miniskirts on radio and is apparently a political fashion consultant to CNN’s Reliable Sources. (On Al Gore’s Florida speech: “His perspiration was, I mean…it was quite unpleasant.” On the state of the nightly news: “I think one of the worst things that’s happened to news is this sort of open-collared shirt, no tie, you know, do you take the jacket off? That whole, you know, undress thing on television…”)
Coulter, meanwhile, well… it’s complicated. On the one hand, she is the television babe to end all television babes–bright blonde locks, legs that never end and skirts so short as to make Sharon Stone distrust her Basic Instincts. On the other hand, she is clearly the victim of an undiagnosed case of political Tourette’s syndrome. How else to explain incidents like the time she attacked a disabled Vietnam vet on the air by screaming, “People like you caused us to lose that war”? Or when she termed Bill Clinton a “pervert, liar and a felon” and a “criminal”? Or Hillary Clinton “pond scum” and “white trash”? Or the late Pamela Harriman a “whore”? Coulter also wrote a book during the impeachment crisis that appeared to suggest the assassination of Bill Clinton. She was, also, as the Boston Globe reported, credibly accused of plagiarizing from a colleague at Human Events for her book.
By the time she finally got herself fired from MSNBC, Coulter was a star. (No man, or ugly woman for that matter, would have lasted remotely as long.) She found herself celebrated by the likes of John Kennedy Jr., who gave her a column in George, as well as bookers for talk shows with hosts like Wolf Blitzer, Larry King, Geraldo and Bill Maher, and quoted by ABC’s George Will with the same deference usually reserved for Edmund Burke or James Madison.
Lately Coulter has gotten herself in the news again by calling for the wholesale slaughter of Arabs, the murder of Norm Mineta and the use of mob violence against liberals and Muslims. Perhaps she’s kidding, but it’s hard to know. We have, too, another book-length screed, Slander, this one bearing the imprimatur of Crown Publishers. As with her entire career in the punditocracy, it is a black mark on the soul of everyone associated with it. Here is Coulter’s characterization of a New York Times editorial criticizing John Ashcroft: “Ew yuck, he’s icky.” She worries about “liberals rounding up right-wingers and putting them on trial.” One could go on, and on, and on.
What’s scary is that Coulter is hardly alone. Look at the free-associating reveries Peggy Noonan manages to publish every week in the Wall Street Journal, or the lunacies that right-wing lesbian Norah Vincent pours forth on the LA Times Op-Ed page–as if self-consciously seeking to fill the space mercifully vacated by that nutty nineties icon Camille Paglia. Check out Alan Keyes on MSNBC and tell me, seriously, that the man has ever made what Bobbie Gentry called “a lick of sense” in his life. I’m not saying that women and minorities don’t have the right to be as idiotic as white men. But be careful what you wish for and smart about how you pursue it. Liberals and conservatives both got their affirmative action. Guess who won?