Debate strikes at heart of pundit puffery

A look at Ann Coulter's media presence

Bill Maher and Ann Coulter recently made a trio of joint debate appearances. Given the role the host of HBO’s “Real Time” played in launching her career, the Republican bomb-thrower ought to at least have picked up the dinner tab before their jousts.

That’s because Maher, more than perhaps anyone, helped launch Coulter as a national media figure — a seldom-discussed history that’s illustrative in understanding the current state of punditry, and the alchemy that goes into the making of a modern media monster.

Before she was widely known, Coulter was the most frequent guest on Maher’s previous latenight series, “Politically Incorrect,” which ran on ABC from 1994 until 2002, when the program was canceled in the wake of Maher’s controversial remarks following the Sept. 11 attacks. Coulter even appeared on “PI’s” final telecast.

Hard as it is to believe, few had heard of Coulter before the mid-1990s, when MSNBC briefly employed her as a legal correspondent. But it was with Maher — whose criteria for conservative guests has always exhibited a predilection toward attractive women in short skirts — where Coulter established her belligerent brand, which she parlayed into a series of bestsellers, beginning with “High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case Against Bill Clinton” in 1998.

Through a spokeswoman, Maher declined to discuss his contribution to Coulter’s current profile. Yet Coulter is an almost Frankenstein-like media construct, sparked by the hostility that surrounded the Clintons. Unlike many talking heads forged at that moment, she cleverly managed to extend her 15 minutes of fame and become a fixture in the opinion firmament by adhering to several key rules in the care and feeding of media monstrosities.

In no particular order, these include:

Be attractive. In television, there’s no substitute for being telegenic. Nor is there any denying that there’s a double standard for women, though homely men are certainly handicapped, too, if they hope to secure consistent airtime.

Be provocative. Here’s where Coulter really stands out — and where pundit wannabes often trip up. It’s easy to say outrageous things, but not always so easy to toe that line without tumbling over into self-immolation. Coulter’s latest coup is a war of words with Sen. John McCain’s daughter, Meghan, who called her “offensive, radical, insulting and confusing.” But like Rush Limbaugh (or the Hulk), Coulter thrives on anger and conflict, even when it’s friendly fire.

Be available. Coulter flies Fox News’ air frequently enough to qualify for co-pilot status. For beginning pundits, simply answering “yes” — without regard to the time or topic — is an essential bit of advice: You have to be a pretty committed media whore to drop everything for a last-minute appearance alongside Greta Van Susteren, or a pre-dawn date with “Fox & Friends” or “Morning Joe.”

Write a book. Everybody needs a calling card to be considered an “expert,” and, more significantly, provide producers periodic excuses to book them. As a bonus, Coulter regularly transforms where she’s invited to appear into a referendum on liberal media bias.

Be unique. When Maher first made Coulter a semi-regular on “PI,” the ranks of political commentators were heavily male-dominated. The scales still aren’t gender-neutral, but networks made a conscious decision to exhibit more diversity thanks to the flap involving radio host Don Imus’ imprudent remarks about Rutgers women’s basketball team in 2007, and then Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s historic candidacies.

MSNBC president Phil Griffin has acknowledged that the Imus episode prompted the network “to say we’ve got to make a bigger commitment” to diversity. Coupled with the presidential campaign, that triggered a concerted push to add women and minorities to the chattering classes — and specifically swelled the puny roster of conservative minority women, giving Michelle Malkin some company, while showcasing such cable-news contributors as CNN’s Amy Holmes (a former Republican congressional aide who has already notched four appearances on Maher’s “Real Time” show) and MSNBC’s Michelle Bernard.

Coulter’s enduring notoriety stems from cultivating a small if inordinately loyal following, but she remains an example for next-generation monsters of all political stripes to study. And while there’s no substitute for occupying the right place at the right time, the Maher-Coulter connection demonstrates that when breathing life into talking heads, monsters aren’t born; they’re made.

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