Issue 6: November/December

Books: How Slippery Is Slander?

Are footnotes a foolproof defense of accuracy? The conservative pundit Ann Coulter seems to think so. When liberal columnists and bloggers alleged that her new book, Slander, misreads history, selectively (and deceptively) presents facts, and misquotes the media, Coulter pointed to the 780 footnotes that pepper her pages.

Her publisher, Crown, has corrected five errors for the book's second printing: three minor misidentifications of public figures, an incorrect citation of The New York Times's coverage of the race car driver Dale Earnhardt's death, and an erroneous claim about press coverage of an Al Gore gaffe.

But what about the dozens of other allegations by Coulter's ideological foes? CJR checked out a sample of forty alleged errors — some backed by footnotes and others not — and found that nineteen were either accurate or could generously be considered fair comment and criticism. (Though some of the latter were hyperbolic or oversimplified to the point of absurdity — "Liberals have been wrong about everything in the last half-century," for example.) If a number of those nineteen would have raised the eyebrows of any good fact-checker, the remaining twenty-one would not pass without major debate. Here are three examples — all involving The New York Times, which consumes a major chunk of her index — of the kind of misstatements that we think Crown should consider correcting:

Coulter Claim: The New York Times columnist Frank Rich "demanded that Ashcroft stop monkeying around with Muslim terrorists and concentrate on anti-abortion extremists." (p. 5)

Footnote: She cites an October 27, 2001 column in which Rich makes no such demands. He does chastise Ashcroft for not meeting with Planned Parenthood, which sought to offer tips on combating anthrax scares, based on its own experience with them.

Coulter Claim: Liberals called the American flag "very, very dumb." (p. 4)

Footnote: She cites a New York Times story in which a liberal history professor, Daniel Boylan, makes no claim about the intelligence of the flag. He does criticize — as "acting very, very dumb in their patriotism" — those who have criticized Hawaii for not flying an American flag over Iolani Palace, the nineteenth century seat of the Hawaiian monarchy.

Coulter Claim: She introduces a New York Times editorial on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas headlined the youngest, cruelest justice, then writes: "Thomas is not engaged on the substance of his judicial philosophy. He is called 'a colored lawn jockey for conservative white interests,' 'race traitor,' 'black snake,' 'chicken-and-biscuit-eating Uncle Tom' . . . ." (p. 12)

Footnote: The passage is constructed to suggest that the Times authored these epithets, but the footnote refers readers to comments made in a Playboy article, which goes unmentioned in the book's text.

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