Will We Ever Jump The Snark?

If you thought trying to understand all the intricacies of global warming, Middle East diplomacy or the human genome project were mind-bending exercises, try this thesis on for size: Attacking women whose husbands died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks can be popular – and profitable.

If I didn't know better, I would have thought NBC's Matt Lauer was in on the scheme to boost book sales when he interviewed conservative author/commentator/irritant Ann Coulter on yesterday's "Today" show. But in reality, the results of his aggressive attempt at getting Coulter to try and defend the seemingly indefensible showed just how far removed we are from what used to be considered civility. After all, who would naturally think of widow-bashing as a "promotional" tactic?

Lauer was talking to Coulter about her latest book, released just yesterday, and asked her about this passage about 9/11 widows who have been critical of the Bush administration:

These broads are millionaires, lionized on TV and in articles about them, reveling in their status as celebrities and stalked by grief-arazzis. I've never seen people enjoying their husbands' deaths so much.
You can read about and watch the entire interview here, but it's fair to say Coulter did not back away from that statement or other similar comments made in her book. It's also fair to say that the attention and controversy generated by the "Today" exchange has turned into a high-profile issue that is resulting in priceless advertising for Coulter's book – which was the whole point of the interview from her perspective.

As a result, Coulter has been beneficiary of just the kind of PR blitz she was looking for. The New York Daily News devoted two pages to covering her remarks and the paper's front-page screamer proclaimed her "Coulter The Cruel." Her "controversial" remarks were carried in reports via the AP (including on CBSNews.com), appeared in newspapers, became a topic of discussion on Cable TV news shows and got chewed over in the blogosphere.

While her claim that these widows are "enjoying their husbands' deaths" is certainly shocking standing alone, it's the kind of hyperbolic rhetoric Coulter has made an career out of. With books about liberals titled "Slander," "Treason," "How To Talk To A Liberal (If You Must)" and the latest, "Godless," the bomb-thrower has become a best-selling author, conservative icon and liberal whipping girl. In short, Coulter has become an industry unto herself.

After her "Today" appearance generated so much attention, Coulter became the most-searched topic on Technorati. As of today, "Godless" has moved up to No. 3 on Amazon's list of best-sellers. All this attention is sure to keep her speaking fees -- already listed as up to $60,000 a pop – in the upper stratosphere. Hmmm, think maybe she knows exactly what kind of reaction she wants?

It can, and has, been argued that news shows like "Today" should not give Coulter a forum from which to launch her vitriolic and attention-grabbing attacks. I'm not sure I completely agree with that. The media as a whole – all of us – certainly shoulder some of the blame for providing "provocative" and "passionate" points of view that in reality cross a line here or there. But, just as the press does not get to select the leaders it covers, neither do they get to select the figures impacting our culture and debate – whether it's Coulter or Michael Moore.

While some may want to say the attention given to Coulter illustrates some failure of our free press, it probably is much more an indicator of the audience itself. The fact that an attack on widows of 9/11 could help sell books is not a function of Coulter's appearance on a network morning show. It's an indictment of the state of discourse today. Shrillness sells, invective rewarded and "snark" is celebrated – on all sides. It just doesn't pay to be civil (or maybe even sane) anymore.