The title of Franken's latest book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right (Dutton), was not intended to slip under the radar, and it didn't. The former "Saturday Night Live" prankster got himself another No. 1-selling book in no time, due in large part to the media backlash that was sparked by Franken's deliberate stand-off with Fox News Channel personality Bill O'Reilly and the Rupert Murdoch media empire that backs him.
Weeks before the book was released in late August, the Fox posse found offense with the proposed title and cover. They claimed that the tag "Fair and Balanced" was Fox News property and that the inclusion of a photo of O'Reilly on one of the early cover designs implied O'Reilly's endorsement; frivolous litigation ensued and the photo didn't make the final cover of the book. The roots of this mutual antagonism were planted before the book was even finished, in May, when left-winger Franken and right-winger O'Reilly (aka O'Lielly by the comedian) went at each other on a televised "Book Expo" on C-Span. Class-clown Franken used the opportunity to taunt the in-your-face talk-show bully with juicy research to be published in his book: accusations that O'Reilly was a liar and a bully were returned in kind. But Franken had the last laugh and made sure the expo incident made the final draft.
In general, Franken's liberal agenda is not hidden and never has been. In this book (others include Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot: and Other Observations, 1999; and Why Not Me? The Inside Story of the Making and Unmaking of the Franken Presidency, 2002), the fearless satirist holds unaccountable conservatives accountable for their words, with the help of 14 unpaid, hotshot Harvard research assistants known as Team Franken. (Franken's wife kept the team fueled with home-cooked meals.)
In the chapter Franken devotes to O'Reilly and the Murdoch machine, Franken effectively documents that O'Reilly's relationship with the truth is not cordial. He is a registered Republican and not the independent he claims to be, though he vehemently rejects a conservative label. Franken also clarifies the hazy assertion that O'Reilly won two prestigious Peabody Awards while anchoring "Inside Edition;" the show actually won a Polk Award after Bill left the show. Stories about his humble beginnings and where he grew up are further challenged by an inside source, O'Reilly's mother. Ouch.
Franken's satirical self is always evident and unabashed in Lies; he's much more playful than his foes, and one has to laugh at his storytelling shenanigans. Take, for instance, the chapter in which Franken tries to get his son to pretend to be a candidate at Bob Jones University (BJU to insiders) in South Carolina. Franken's son thinks the spy job/prank is somewhat mean and immature, and won't go along with the game. This doesn't stop Al, who recruits the youngest-looking Team Franken researcher to pretend he wants acceptance into the fundamentalist Christian school. On their visit to the campus, Franken poses as a concerned family member and concocts an elaborate story about how the boy's father died in a car crash. Franken cuts his hair short, hoping nobody will notice him, and maintains his anonymity despite getting into a debate with a student about creationism in the school cafeteria. He is later busted by a member of the administration, who is willing to continue the tour if Franken's interest is sincere. Franken admits that it isn't.
In his discourse, Franken expresses a curiosity about the interracial dating ban at BJU, and he ponders whom Tiger Woods could date at this institution. He is later surprised to find out that the interracial dating ban is a thing of the past, but there is a no-touching policy (which negates the whole purpose of dating for most of us). Overall, Franken was impressed by the hospitality at BJU and decides that the school is just a weird place with weird beliefs.
To help answer how the term "liberal," meaning tolerant and freethinking, has become so dirty, Franken takes aim in the chapters titled "Ann Coulter Nutcase" and "You Know Who I Don't Like? Ann Coulter." He challenges Coulter's views of the "slanderous left" as reported in her slanderous book Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right. When Team Franken checks her endnotes (which she erroneously refers to as footnotes), her research turns out to be shoddy and possibly dishonest. Franken also charges John Ashcroft, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and the rest of the gang as posturing as simple folk, rather than the power elite that they are; their true interests more personal than extended. He brings up Ashcroft's fundamentalist Christian beliefs that have been a roadblock for women's and gay rights. Franken also talks about the stacking of former lobbyists into Department of Interior Positions, damaging the environment in favor of their own prosperity. Tax breaks for the rich are disguised by misleading charts and outright lies.
It's difficult to find clarity in the spectacle that is conservatism these days, but Franken at least makes the search an interesting and worthwhile read. And he's still more entertaining and informed than some of those who purport to be entertainers and don't know what they're talking about. Lies could serve as a bridge for some heavier reading. While writers such as Chomsky, Nader, Said and Zizek can be somewhat exclusive, maybe Franken is an ambassador, linking the pedestrian with the cerebral.
Franken is necessary. We are not being bombarded by a liberal media as is alleged by Rush, O'Reilly, Coulter, etc. We are being bombarded by a tainted corporate media that is only interested in the bottom line, and Franken covers this with plenty of statistical references and amusing anecdotes.
Pat Greene writes for the Orlando Weekly. Email [email protected].