When News Outlets Hand Megaphones to Menaces

By Mark Jacob

If Ann Coulter won the Nobel Peace Prize or scored the winning goal in the World Cup, the New York Times would be compelled to put her in its pages.

But she didn’t do either of those things. She didn’t do anything, really, except continue to say narrow-minded and racist things about politics. Yet the Times chose to include her thoughts in an opinion piece last week, as if she was an esteemed expert graciously enhancing our worldview.

Coulter’s inclusion was especially odd because she said in 2002 that her “only regret with [Oklahoma City bomber] Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building.” She later clarified that she “should have added, ‘after everyone had left the building except the editors and reporters.’”

By giving Coulter a place of honor in its opinion section, the Times not only showed a lack of respect for its audience but also a lack of respect for itself. If the editors were looking for balance, they could have found a right-wing pundit who didn’t advocate the murder of the Times’ entire staff or the murder of anyone, for that matter. But they picked Coulter because of her star power.

There was minor criticism of the Times’s decision, but nothing like the dust-up in 2020 when the Times ran Sen. Tom Cotton’s “Send in the Troops” op-ed calling for the military to put down social justice protests after the murder of George Floyd. Times editorial page editor James Bennet initially defended publication of Cotton’s fact-challenged piece, saying “Times Opinion owes it to our readers to show them counter-arguments.” But the Times eventually said “the essay fell short of our standards and should not have been published,” and Bennet resigned.

Some news organizations think they can maintain distance from public figures even when they’re platforming them. But they can’t. Newsrooms have a choice about who they put on their airwaves and their websites. Their inclusion comes across as an endorsement not necessarily of everything the public figure says but of their status as someone whose views are worth hearing.

In Fox News’ conspiracy to spread lies about the 2020 election, much of the disinformation came out of the mouths of guests, not Fox employees. Fox probably thought it had deniability — that it was just covering the news and its guests were newsmakers. Problem was, internal Fox communications revealed in the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit showed that Fox higher-ups knew Trump’s Big Lie advocates were “lying” and promoting “really crazy stuff” but Fox put them on the air anyway.

When it became clear that Fox couldn’t duck responsibility, the network agreed to pay a $787 million settlement.

A more recent example of media recklessness was Newsmax airing Sarah Palin’s outrageous call for civil war. Talking last week to host Eric Bolling about the indictments of Donald Trump, Palin said:

“I think those who are conducting this travesty and creating this two-tiered system of justice and I want to ask them, ‘What the heck? Do you want us to be in civil war?’ because that’s what’s going to happen. We’re not going to keep putting up with this. And Eric, I like that you suggested that we need to get angry. We do need to rise up and take our country back.”

Newsmax knows Palin is a reckless demagogue. That’s why Newsmax invited her on the air. It owns what she says.

News organizations need to start showing more responsibility. When they amplify liars and promoters of violence, they legitimize them. And they delegitimize themselves at the same time.

(Credit to Media Matters’ Matt Gertz for recalling Ann Coulter’s wish for a terrorist bombing of the New York Times building.)

Mark Jacob, a former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune and co-author of eight books, is a consultant for Courier Newsroom.