John Cloud is a staff writer for Time magazine, where he has worked since 1997. Before coming to Time, he was a senior writer at Washington City Paper. He wrote this week’s much-discussed Time cover story about Ann Coulter.
Brian Montopoli: First things first: Why did you write the story? Did you pitch it, or did the editors come to you and say, “We want to do a cover on Ann Coulter?”
John Cloud: Last summer, you know, we put Michael Moore on the cover. 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. You get it from both sides.
As for how the story got suggested, I suggested it after the election. Ann Coulter [it seemed to me] had epitomized the way politics was discussed last year during the election. It was slash-and-burn, on both sides. Her side won, rather decisively, and it seemed the right time to figure out who was this force behind the way our political dialogue was being conducted. Ann Coulter is the person who is shaping the tone of this dialogue in many ways, and I thought it was time to examine her.
BM: One of the criticisms that people have made is that Time has bottom line considerations [that go into] who it puts on the cover, and choosing to put Coulter on the cover reflected either a pursuit of conservative readers or a desire to just put a hot woman on the cover, which is pretty much what the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz said. And let me read you something from Eric Alterman, and just ask you to respond: “Time’s cover story/whitewash of Ann Coulter … will make it impossible for serious people to accept what the magazine reports at face value ever again. It is as if Time had contracted a journalistic venereal disease from Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly and is now seeking to lower itself to their level in pursuit of their ideologically-obsessed audiences.”
JC:Well, this is just absurd. A few weeks ago, we put Jeffrey Sachs’ book on how to end poverty on the cover. I mean, is that going to be a huge seller for conservatives? We did a piece on television indecency that basically concluded that the FCC had gone too far in regulating television. That was on the cover recently. I don’t pick the covers, unfortunately — I don’t have that much power here — but we did Michael Moore on the cover last summer, we’ve done, over the years, incredibly flattering covers on Hillary Clinton, on both of the Clintons, multiple times. We did Ann Coulter because she’s an interesting figure. I could not care less what conservatives or liberals think of Time magazine’s covers, and if people read my work over the years — I’ve been a journalist for ten years — and if you read that body of work I think you’ll see that I’m not trying to kiss up to conservatives. And if you look at Time magazine, even over the last month, this idea that we’re kissing up to conservatives is wrong.
Plus, who are their sources for this? Did Alterman do any reporting before he made this assertion? I think a pertinent thing about Alterman is that he has said publicly that he will not engage Ann Coulter in debate. He won’t go on television with her. So his solution to Ann Coulter is to act as though she doesn’t exist … I don’t agree with that approach to people that we don’t necessarily like. I think you engage those people in open debate, you get those people to talk about their ideas, and then you weigh those ideas. And my story does that. My story is very fair about her.
I think maybe Eric and Ann are in the same bunch. They also, by the way, use the same language. He calls Ann Coulter a name-caller, but he doesn’t do anything in that screed against me except use sort of fancy name-calling. He says [the piece] is a “moral, professional, intellectual abomination” without making an argument about the actual substance of the piece. Instead, he 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.
BM: I realize you don’t have a lot of faith in what the Media Matters people have been saying. But the one line [from the Time article] that seemed to upset a lot of people on the left was, “Coulter has a reputation for carelessness with facts, and if you Google the words ‘Ann Coulter lies,’ you will drown in results. But I didn’t find many outright Coulter errors.” I looked at the Media Matters stuff on Coulter. There were a lot of examples of what seem to me to be errors. Even if you don’t think highly of David Brock, how do you respond to that?
JC: 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. In fact, I offer some Ann Coulter errors that we haven’t seen before, and I quote people like Ronald Radosh at some length on the problems with the more recent book of hers, which is Treason. 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.
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? Do I want to engage her on issues and try to figure out what makes her tick and whether this is all an act? That was what my story was about. My story was not primarily about picking apart … all 1,000 of Ann Coulter’s columns or the hundreds and hundreds of pages that she’s written in her books. 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. In fact, I point out some mistakes. This is a story that calls some of her writing highly amateurish. I say I want to shut her up occasionally. I quote a friend of hers calling her a fascist [and] another friend of hers calling her a polemicist. I quote Eric Alterman, Salon, James Wolcott, Andrew Sullivan, and Jerry Falwell all criticizing her. The idea that this is a puff piece is just absurd. And it’s part of this left-wing attack machine that David Brock has invented for himself in his shame.
BM: Ann Coulter has obviously said, as you well know, some pretty offensive things. There have been a lot of things on the blogs about why people are so upset. One blogger wrote …
JC: Are these conservatives or liberals who are upset? Because both sides are very upset with this piece.
BM: I’ve been seeing the conservatives complaining about the cover picture and the liberals complaining about the content. One thing I read on a blog that maybe gets to why this is bothering people so much is, as you know, Ann Coulter said at one point that her “only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building.” And one blogger wrote, “I reserve the right to be slightly upset about Time glorifying a woman who once expressed dismay that one of my parents wasn’t murdered in a terrorist bombing. So please, with no due respect, fuck the fuck off.” It obviously gets a little coarse. But, you know, Time has put on the cover a woman who a lot of people feel is sort of beneath contempt.
JC: Brian, Brian, we have put Josef Stalin on the cover. We have made Adolf Hitler the person of the year. We are a news magazine. The cover of our magazine is not glorification. It is news. This whole idea is bizarre to me. If the New York Times did a front-page story on Ann Coulter, would it be glorifying her or would it be covering her? And, by the way, the picture that we used on the cover is apparently such a horrible image for conservatives that they can’t even read the story.
As to the New York Times quote, our package has a whole list of outrageous quotes from Ann Coulter. It’s called “What Did She Say?” and we have a whole list of them. The New York Times quote she said to another reporter, George Gurley. She said at the time that it was a joke. You can say it was a despicable joke or that it’s not a very funny joke. But if she’s kidding around with another reporter, and says something to him that he puts at the end of his article, am I then obligated to print that in my article? I mean, we’ve already seen that quote. Again, this is about trying to get a fresh look at Ann Coulter. I didn’t reprint every outrageous quote, but, by the way, she told me outrageous quotes that are in my story. We don’t need to go to the New York Observer to find outrageous quotes from Ann Coulter. They are in Time magazine.
BM: We’re obviously in a very different world journalism-wise than we were even five years ago, because you’ve got all these people with the instant analysis on the Internet, and some of it is pretty vitriolic. I’m just curious if it’s bothering you.
JC: What I’ll say is that I think Eric Alterman and Ann Coulter engage in the same kind of debate. They don’t often make actual arguments. Instead, they throw names around. This is the point of my article. This is the way politics is engaged in debate now. And I think that his response to my article proves our point that this kind of dialogue, which is the Ann Coulter kind of dialogue, now holds sway.