IX: Media Transmitters
As seemingly psychotic cranks go, Ann Coulter has carved out a nice little career for herself as an obsessive hater of all things liberal, flavoring her television appearances with a frothing, twitchy dyspepsia that seems to infect everyone on the sound stage.
Along the way Coulter, like many of her media compatriots on the right, first developed a significant role in transmitting memes from the extremist Clinton-hating right into the mainstream of conservatism, and since then has expanded into other fields. During that process, she's been important in bringing the two sectors even closer together.
Of course, Coulter has built much of her reputation on being outrageous, as on the recent occasion when she penned a column about Muslims that concluded: "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." Unsurprisingly, she has indulged in a litany of Clinton-hating memes that originated in the extremist right, ranging from equating him with Hitler, to hinting before Y2K that he intended to declare martial law, to indulging in later-disproven rumors that he had fathered an illegitimate black child.
The quintessential Coulter "transmission" remark, though, came after Sept. 11, in an interview with the New York Observer:
- "My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times Building."
Most of the commentary about this remark focused on its seeming endorsement of terrorist violence, which her defenders, such as the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, dismissed airily as merely lacking in humor: "Why would anybody even pretend to believe that Ms. Coulter wishes any real harm to the New York Times or wishes to convert all Muslims forcibly to Christianity?" (Peculiarly, this piece ran on the same day as Coulter's Observer interview.)
This line of defense is nearly identical to that deployed by Rush Limbaugh when he tries to claim that he's merely an "entertainer" -- something along the lines of, "Why would you take them seriously in the first place?" Well, I don't know, you tell me: Why would anyone take them seriously? Just because they have audiences of millions who hang on their every word as Received Wisdom? Just because every major broadcast and cable-news network has presented them, and people like them, as serious thinkers whose words are worthy of the public's consideration?
More to the point, exactly which parts of Ann Coulter are we not supposed to take seriously? Just those parts when she writes like a banshee from hell? And how, exactly, are we supposed to discern those parts from the rest? Where does the 'fierce raillery' about which 'everybody laughs afterwards' end? And does that mean talking about blowing up hundreds of New Yorkers is supposed to be humorous?
In any event, there should have been no question that this remark was beyond the pale of acceptable public discourse, much more so than anything Trent Lott has ever said. Coulter should have become a pariah, at least on the public airwaves. Indeed, I should have expected not merely journalists to denounce her for this remark, but fellow conservatives as well. That this hasn't happened -- that in fact that conservatives have defended her avidly, and indeed she seems to be back on the air more than ever -- is significant in its own.
However, there are even more consequential subtexts here.
First, Coulter is clearly suggesting here that the only thing wrong with McVeigh's attack was his choice of targets. Coulter would have preferred the NYT Building; but she otherwise appears to be suggesting that bombing government employees (including a day care full of toddlers) was acceptable as well. I would argue that this aspect of her remark is even more egregious, and should earn her the permanent scorn of every decent American.
The important point that all of the postmortems about Coulter's remark missed, however, was the very context that was its foundation: Namely, a recognition that the extremist right of Timothy McVeigh was allied with, and indirectly doing the bidding of, ostensibly mainstream conservatives like herself.
In many ways, Coulter's remark is just an acknowledgement of the relationship. I'm certain it will gain her even more fans among the Patriot crowd. And that's how the ties grow stronger.
A number of analysts have noted over the years that violent right-wing extremists have often been viewed by mainstream conservatives as useful tools for enacting their own agenda. The history of this dates back as far as monarchists' attacks on liberal thinkers in the 16th and 17th centuries, and includes the American lynching phenomenon of 1870-1930, as well the McCarthyite/Bircher exploitation of the Communist threat and the opposition to desegregation and the civil-rights movement.
As I've been documenting, for the past six years or so this uneasy alliance is re-emerging, as ideological and political traffic between movement conservatives and right-wing extremists becomes increasingly common. Sometimes this happens almost accidentally, often in the meeting-ground of personal ambition and lurking agendas, as when David Horowitz published the views of white supremacist Jared Taylor at his Frontpage Webzine. Sometimes, as with Coulter, it is done with apparently full intent.
Her McVeigh remark really makes the relationship quite clear, depending of course on the extent to which mainstream conservatives view Coulter as one of them. Judging by their continuing silence about her obvious extremism, I'd have to assume that most of them are happy to claim her.
This kind of meshing of mainstream corporate interests with right-wing thuggery is in fact a hallmark of incipient fascism. A compliant media that portrays this kind of phenomenon as unremarkable is also important in its development.
And that is the role that media transmitters like Coulter play: Not only do they inject the extremist meme into mainstream conservatism, they also condition the mainstream to think of extremists in a generous and even collegial light. Simultaneously, they persuade extremists who might otherwise align themselves with marginal and powerless fringe groups to instead perceive that mainstream conservatives are capable of addressing their issues, thereby drawing them into the political ranks of mainstream conservatism.
For all her notoriety, Coulter is in some ways a minor player as a media transmitter. Let's look a little further at the various sectors of the media where transmitters operate:
While many of his critics would like to lump conservative radio-talk megastar Rush Limbaugh in with some of his contemporaries on the hard right, the Big Fat Idiot appears mostly to be a secular conservative who only occasionally treads into xenophobic or theocratic dogma. However, Limbaugh artfully presents ideas from the hard right for legitimate consideration by the mainstream, and thus plays a major role as a transmitter of ideas from other sectors -- especially in light of his considerable reach.
Limbaugh’s transmissions are clearest when he’s at his most shrill, decrying bureaucrats in Washington who "would just as soon do away with democracy" and similar hyperbole. "The second violent American revolution is just about--I got my fingers about a quarter of an inch apart -- is just about that far away," he told a Washington Post reporter, describing the sentiments behind the Patriot movement. "Because these people are sick and tired of a bunch of bureaucrats in Washington driving in to town and telling them what they can and can't do with their land." It’s a line that would have played well at a militia meeting.
At other times, Limbaugh has dabbled in wink-and-nudge racism: On his thankfully short-lived TV program, for instance, Limbaugh one night promised to show his audience footage of everyday life among welfare recipients. He then ran video of the antics of a variety of great apes -- mostly orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees -- hanging about zoos. The audience, of course, applauded and laughed.
Limbaugh also sounds themes that often are taken whole from stories circulated first among the Patriot right: Clinton body counts, education conspiracies, phony medical and environmental tales. Perhaps this is most important role: As a font of outright misinformation. (Limbaugh has never, to my knowledge, issued a correction for any of his voluminous factual errors.)
Limbaugh likes to dress himself up in public as an "entertainer," but what he really is above all, as I've observed, is a propagandist. This is apparent from many aspects of his programs, ranging from his refusal to engage in any kind of open or honest debate to the endless spew of disinformation that flows into his microphone. The latter is perhaps the most telling, because this is the essence of Newspeak: to render the meanings of words empty by assaulting them with falsification.
Just as significant on the airwaves are the horde of Limbaugh imitators who appear willing to say anything outrageous in the hope of garnering higher ratings. Foremost among these is Michael Savage, the obnoxiously xenophobic hatemonger who recently was awarded a slot on MSNBC's Saturday lineup.
Savage is particularly gifted at presenting overtly racial appeals in soft wrapping, so that his listeners know what he means, even if he can't be pinned down for it later. But at times his appeal to racism is nearly naked. When he calls for the deportation of all immigrants, and the internment of Muslim-Americans, it isn't hard to discern a racial purpose to it all.
Perhaps just as disturbing about Savage is the eliminationist tone of much of his rhetoric, much of it aimed not at a racial or ethnic group but at liberals generally: "I say round them up and hang 'em high!" and "When I hear someone's in the civil rights business, I oil up my AR-15!" Here was a recent rant aimed at liberal critics:
- "I'm more powerful than you are you little hateful nothings. You call yourself this for that and that for this. You say you represent groups, you represent nobody but the perverts that you hang around with and I'm warning you if you try to damage me any further with lies, be aware of something: that which you stoke shall come to burn you, the ashes of the fireplace will come and burn your own house down. Be very careful, you are living in incendiary times. You can't just throw things at people and walk away thinking that you had a little fun. I warn you; I'm gonna warn you again, if you harm me and I pray that no harm comes to you, but I can't guarantee that it won't."
The level of intolerance and the implied threat in remarks like these -- and they are common in his diatribes -- raise reminders of similar eliminationism that ran rampant in Germany in the 1930s.
Another Limbaugh-wannabee with a more modest reach is Chuck Harder, a Florida-based talk-show host whose topics range from United Nations takeovers to the coming Y2K Apocalypse -- as well as the full complement of Clinton scandals. In the past, Harder has broadcast daily updates from the Freemen standoff in Montana, and once featured renowned anti-Semite Eustace Mullins -- one of the radical right’s revered figures -- as an "expert" on the Federal Reserve.
B. Cable TV
Among transmitters of memes that originated in the far right, one entity stands in a class all its own: Fox News.
The cable-news behemoth touts itself as "fair and balanced," but no one has ever really figured out just who they think they're kidding. Probably the dittoheads who buy up Ann Coulter books.
Well, an open bias is one thing. But broadcasting far-right conspiracy theories is another. And that's what Fox has done on numerous occasions.
The most noteworthy of these -- though it received almost no attention at the time -- occurred Feb. 21, 2001, when Brit Hume interviewed a fellow named Bob Schulz of We the People Foundation. Schulz was propounding on television a tax scheme that is built upon a hash of groundless conspiracy theories which have their origins in the far-right Posse Comitatus and other extremist "tax protest" schemes. It was, in fact, remarkably similar to the Montana Freemen's theories as well.
Here's the transcript of Hume's interview [from the videotape excerpt provided at the time by Fox News]:
- Brit Hume: ... Coming to the conclusion that there is no law on the books that actually requires them -- or most others for that matter -- to pay income taxes. Most astonishing, noted the Times, those companies were not only not being pursued by the IRS, but some of them have actually collected refunds on taxes previously paid but now they claim were never owed. So is there something to their argument? Bob Schulz thinks so. He's the leader of a small but vigorous movement that is seeking to convince Americans that the income tax is a massive fraud on the public. He joins me now from Albany, N.Y.
Well, this will come as quite astonishing news to a great many Americans, Mr. Schulz -- what's the basis of the claim?
Bob Schulz: There is a very substantial, credible body of evidence by as many as 87 researchers that has concluded that the 16th Amendment was fraudulently certified in 1913, and that in fact three-fourths of the states had not approved or ratified, properly ratified the 16th Amendment, the income-tax amendment.
Hume: And what have the courts ruled on that matter?
Schulz: The courts have not ruled on the fraudulent ratification of the 16th Amendment. Bill Benson, the individual, the professional who went around to the archives of all 48 states that were in existence in 1913, obtained 17,000 notarized and certified documents relating to the ratification process in that state, he put his report together and went to court with it, and the courts ruled it's a political question for Congress. He then took the issue to Congress, and Congress said it's an issue for the courts.
Hume: And so basically it stands because the folks who could have upset it have let it stand.
Hume: Right. Now let me ask you about the tax code itself. Now, I know that you contend that within the tax code there is a definition of what is called taxable income, and that somehow, although it appears to apply to all income from all sources, it does not, because of what is called Section 861. Can you explain what Section 861 is?
Schulz: Yeah. There is no law, no statute, or regulation that requires most citizens to file a tax return -- most U.S. citizens to file a tax return or to pay the income tax. As an example, under Section 861 of the federal code of regulations, it says clearly that there's a list of income items, and unless the item of income comes from one of the sources which the code lists, then the code doesn't apply to the, um ...
Hume: -- To the taxpayer in question.
Schulz: Right. And so all of those sources are foreign sources. Unless you are a foreigner working here, or a U.S. citizen working or earning your money abroad, then the tax code does not apply to you. That's clear in the code.
Hume: Now, I work for Fox News Channel, which was -- is a division of a company that has its headquarters overseas. It is a domestic enterprise. And it is from that that I realize my income. Now if I were to take the position this year that I was owed a refund because the taxes that the company does withhold -- and I don't think I can convince them not to -- that I was owed a refund, and applied for that, would I get it?
Schulz: Um, heh, it might be difficult, because of the size of your corporation. Clearly, the federal government is nervous, Brit. A growing number of employers -- so far they're small employers -- have taken this position and have received refunds back for the money they're withheld from the paychecks of their employers. So far, no large company has taken this position.
This wasn't the only occasion when Fox interviewed Schulz. When he staged a "hunger strike" (there's no evidence he actually went without food) later that year, Fox's Hannity and Colmes interviewed him, and were only a little less credulous than Hume.
[Schulz, for those interested, gave up his "hunger strike" after the intervention of Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland, who at first promised to give Schulz's group a briefing on tax laws with IRS officials, but even called that off when Schulz announced the meeting would be "putting the IRS on trial." Last anyone heard of Schulz, last November, he was threatening the federal government with a "final warning" to all branches of government to "obey the Constitution, or else." Um, OK, Bob.]
Then there's Bill O'Reilly, the former tabloid-TV-show host who now poses as a "journalist" as the chief talking head at Fox. O'Reilly in particular has a penchant for conspiracy theories.
O'Reilly, who especially prides himself at "no spin" broadcasts, bristles at such suggestions. So let's roll the tape, courtesy of the fine folks at WorldNetDaily, the Web site where O'Reilly's online column originally appeared, and with whom O'Reilly has had a long association. (Its own significant role as a transmitter is discussed below. WND has long been a clearinghouse for a number of other "New World Order" style conspiracy theories.)
This is from a piece dated March 21, 2001, titled "Oklahoma City blast linked to bin Laden":
- A former investigative reporter for the NBC affiliate in Oklahoma City last night told Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly she has gathered massive evidence of a foreign conspiracy involving Saudi terrorist leader Osama bin Laden in the 1995 bombing of the federal building that killed 168 people.
This wasn't the only time O'Reilly touted this theory. From a story by NewsMax (another conspiracism-rich Web publication) later that year, titled "McVeigh's Trial Attorney Alleges FBI Blocked Conspiracy Probe":
- During an interview Monday night on Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor," host Bill O'Reilly asked Jones whether he believed McVeigh had acted alone.
It is worth noting, however, that this time O'Reilly at least interviews the source of all these theories -- McVeigh's attorney, Stephen Jones.
It has remained an O'Reilly favorite. From a Fox transcript of May 8, 2002, "Are the OKC Bombing & 9/11 Linked?":
- Last year, we interviewed investigative reporter [Jayna] Davis from Oklahoma, who believes there was a tie-in between the bombing in Oklahoma City and 9/11.
Joining us now from Washington is Larry Johnson, the former deputy director of the State Department's Office on Counter-terrorism under Presidents Bush and Clinton.
So you think there's some validity to this?
LARRY JOHNSON, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT COUNTER-TERRORISM OFFICE DEPUTY DIRECTOR: I was skeptical at first, Bill. I took the evidence, I looked at it, and I started talking to some of the witnesses. Where there's smoke, there's fire. You've got several things going on here that have not been thoroughly looked at and need to be checked out.
O'Reilly's record extends well beyond his propensity for right-wing conspiracy theories. There have been such slips, for instance, as when he recently referred to Mexicans as "wetbacks."
O'Reilly also has been sounding an ominous theme that likewise is becoming popular on the Patriot right: That liberals who criticize Bush's war efforts are "traitors." His recent remarks were especially noteworthy:
- Americans, and indeed our foreign allies who actively work against our military once the war is underway, will be considered enemies of the state by me.
Just fair warning to you, Barbra Streisand and others who see the world as you do. I don't want to demonize anyone, but anyone who hurts this country in a time like this, well, let's just say you will be spotlighted.
This, from the same fellow who accused Clinton of malfeasance during the Bosnian campaign, and who undermined our position abroad by openly suggesting that Clinton's missile attacks on Al Qaeda were an attempt to 'wag the dog.'
These, of course, are mere samplings. If you happen to watch Fox News with any regularity, these far-right themes come popping out from all kinds of corners, usually uttered by spokesmen from transmitter political organizations such as those I identified in the last installment. (The popular Hannity and Colmes program is also a rife with this kind of rhetoric.) The result is a steady drip of extremist memes blending into the day's Republican talking points.
C. The Internet
Anyone who's followed the conservative movement's growth in the past five years is well familiar with the Free Republic, the ultra-conservative Web site that is in a class all its own in transmitting the extremist agenda into mainstream conservatism.
Free Republic (like the Patriot movement) avoids wading into racial or religious discussions, and presents itself as purely a "conservative" political forum, but it has become one of the chief breeding grounds for conspiracy theories on the right. During Bill Clinton's presidential tenure, many of these involved his alleged plans for overthrowing democracy and installing a "New World Order" dictatorship. Any number of extremist memes have over the years received extensive play at the site, including several post-9/11 threads blaming the entirety of that disaster on Clinton. In recent months, the site has gradually shifted its focus to a bellicose defense of President Bush's Iraq war plans, with an emphasis on intimidating liberal antiwar protesters.
The most significant part of the Web site's reach, though, is the kind of following it has created. Self-labeled "Freepers" have in recent years become increasingly organized manifestations of some of the extreme sentiments that circulate at the site, to the point of having serious real-world effects: Freepers played significant roles in several incidents involving thuggery and intimidation during the post-election Florida debacle, including disrupting an appearance by Jesse Jackson (in concert, as it happens, with white supremacists) and engaging in noisy, intimidating protests outside of Al Gore's vice-presidential residence.
Not quite as potent but certainly as vivid of transmitters of far-right memes are a couple of well-read Webzines: NewsMax and WorldNetDaily. Both have at various times been funded by right-wing guru Richard Mellon Scaife, who has on several occasions displayed his own predilection for extremist beliefs. Certainly these two Webzines reflect that. (Both magazines, incidentally, also carried breathless coverage of Bob Schulz's anti-tax campaign.)
WorldNetDaily in particular has been extremely conspiracy-prone over the years. In the run-up to Y2K, for example, its major theme was the Patriot belief that Clinton intended to use the social chaos certain to proceed from the looming technological disaster as a pretext for declaring martial law and thereby establishing his dictatorship. Of course, one of the chief promoters of this theory was the zine's editor, Joseph Farah, who penned numerous columns on the subject.
NewsMax has similarly been a major conduit of extremist anti-Clinton propaganda, especially since its reins were taken over by Christopher Ruddy, the Scaife-funded 'investigative reporter' who devoted years to proving Clinton had Vince Foster murdered (though of course he also pursued dozens of other Clinton conspiracy theories, all equally groundless). In recent months NewsMax has shifted its focus to attacks on Muslims and liberals as "traitors," while loudly defending President Bush's war plans.
D. The Press
The Wall Street Journal remains a well-respected paper within journalistic circles for its reporting staff, but the paper's editorial page has for the better part of a decade become one of the real scandals of newspapering, particularly its rampant unethical behavior in publishing material that is provably false and often little more than thinly disguised smears of various liberals, particularly Clinton during his tenure, and refusing at time to correct even gross errors of fact. Not surprisingly, many of these false memes were generated by right-wing extremists of various stripes and then given the mantle of respectability by the WSJ.
This propensity had manifested itself well before Clinton -- as when, for example, it championed the work of Charles Murray, co-author of the now-infamous The Bell Curve. As Lucy Williams explained it in her analysis of the way conservatives treated Murray:
- By articulating a definition of poverty that associated it explicitly with illegitimacy, then associating illegitimacy with race, the Right made it acceptable to express blatantly racist concepts without shame. For example, when Charles Murray wrote The Bell Curve ten years after Losing Ground, he argued that welfare should be abolished, not simply because of the economic incentives it creates, but because it encourages "dysgenesis," the outbreeding of intelligent whites by genetically inferior African Americans, Hispanics, and poor whites.
Likewise, the WSJ indulged all kinds of extremist propaganda in its pursuit of Clinton. One of its chief sources was Floyd Brown, a longtime enemy of Bill from Arkansas days. Brown was responsible for the circulation of much of the early Whitewater dirt on Bill Clinton, mostly through Citizens United's top investigator, David Bossie (who later gained notoriety as the erstwhile chief investigator for Rep. Dan Burton's campaign-finance probe, and has in recent months been turning up as a pundit on Fox News).
Brown's credibility was already of questionable value; by 1998, this had become unmistakable. For instance, at Brown's Citizens United Web site -- in addition, naturally, to a bevy of Monica-related impeachment screeds -- you could find screaming exposes of the Clintons’ alleged involvement in the United Nations one-world-government plot. A streaming banner on the site shouted: "Secret United Nations Agenda Exposed In Explosive New Video!" (The video in question prominently featured an appearance by then-Sen. John Ashcroft.) A little further down, the site explains: "This timely new video reveals how the liberal regime of Bill Clinton is actively conspiring to aid and abet the United Nations in its drive for global supremacy." For those who follow the militia movement, these tales have more than a familiar ring.
Yet in 1994, members of the WSJ's editorial board sat down with Brown and examined his anti-Clinton information -- which in nature was not appreciably different from what he was flogging four years later -- and shortly thereafter, nearly half of the Journal's editorial page was devoted one day to reprinting materials obtained from Brown. Moreover, the WSJ continued to recycle the allegations from that material for much of the following six years.
The other major organ that transmits right-wing memes is the Moonie-owned newspaper The Washington Times, which suffers from a variety of ethical maladies. Most of these are related to spreading extremist memes about Bill Clinton, as well as championing various white-nationalist causes exuding from the neo-Confederate movement (two senior editors have long associations with the movement). But the conspiracy-mongering has continued well since Clinton left office, with a stream of recent pieces suggesting that Al Qaeda and not white supremacists were really behind the Oklahoma City bombing.
These are the rich orphans of the media business -- some of them are former reporters, some are former political operatives, and some are just propagandists in the Limbaugh mold. Their ranks are filled with all kinds and shapes of transmitters, many of whom gladly resort to extremist memes because of their outrageousness quotient -- and if there's any way to make your reputation as a pundit, it's to say something that makes headlines. No publicity is bad publicity, as they say.
These range from ex-liberals like Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens, who gladly traded in several extremist memes about Clinton in the course of excreting their voluminous bile toward him, to barely concealed extremists like David Horowitz and Michael Savage. In between, it was never unusual to hear the late Barbara Olson repeat a Patriot legend, or even now for Peggy Noonan to indulge in plainly irresponsible speculation about Muslims.
The most notorious of them, though, is Ann Coulter, whose behavior continues to provide us with nearly perfect models of how transmitters work, and why they are so effective. Indeed, there seems to be no end in sight.
Next: Reaching the Receivers