Can the media really be fair in a Coulter climate?

It wasn’t actually illicit, but it felt close.

There I sat, at a downtown restaurant in bleeding-heart Boulder, Colo., conspicuously reading “Slander,” Ann Coulter’s bestselling Molotov cocktail of conservative angst. I prepared, even hoped, to be stared at, berated or even engaged in debate — at least by the Greenpeace petitioners out on the sidewalk.

Instead, the ideological bait met with indifference — a reaction I share after considering Coulter’s book. The conservative firebrand, along with Bernard Goldberg and other insurgents of the right, raises many valid and well-sourced arguments against the status quo. But to what end, aside from seeking to even the score?

Coulter fails at her chief goal: critiquing the “insufferable” tenor of political debate. Barely pausing for breath or bothering to link one paragraph to the next, she assembles an impressive arsenal of footnotes, some clever ripostes and a litany of Lexis-Nexis search results.

On many points, it should be noted, Coulter is dead right. Major newspapers are often inconsistent in their news judgment. Television hosts and reporters willfully blur the line between commentary and fact-gathering. Despite conveniently glossing over right-dominated talk radio, Coulter offers some provocative questions. For instance, why are popular books by conservatives always labeled “surprise bestsellers”?

Once immersed in this snide tit-for-tat, however, Coulter neglects the larger issue: Why does media bias matter?

I can think of a few reasons. If journalism is the first draft of history, then historians will need to sift through a lot of opinions. The notion of a “media elite” manipulating information should never eclipse the “fourth-estate” sense of accountability and responsiveness.

That said, the focus of criticism should be on the lack of substance or depth in the media, rather than journalists’ political leanings. Katie Couric’s incivility toward Charlton Heston on “Today” is less dispiriting to me than the reality that marginal media outlets like C-SPAN or TheSmokingGun.com are among the few places to find undiluted material about the NRA.

The old saw of the New York Times’ leftism alarms me less than the paper’s pandering to wealthy leisure-obsessed readers. With its array of focus-grouped sections, the ostensible paper of record would rather find out where to buy politicians’ clothes than consider the leadership qualities of those who wear them.

If, like the Coulterites, you are keeping score, my political orientation is roughly midway between Tom DeLay and the patchouli brigades of Boulder.

As a print journalist for nearly a decade, I have had plenty of exposure to how coverage is formulated and I am troubled by some lapses. And yet I have also seen plenty of right-friendly handling of stories like Whitewater, Clinton’s impeachment, the Contract With America and Bush’s seduction of the 2000 campaign press corps.

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