News & Politics

Al Franken and the Lying Liars

Franken talks about his battle with Bill O'Reilly, right-wing media bias and his new book, 'Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.'
During a recent panel discussion on media bias at Book Expo America 2003, Al Franken called Bill O'Reilly on his lies -- and O'Reilly didn't take to it kindly. The heated exchange, which was covered by C-SPAN's Book TV, became the subject of media coverage around the nation. BuzzFlash interviewed Franken about his first round KO against O'Reilly -- and about the larger issue of the media's right-wing bias, which Franken covers in his new book, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right".

Author of the must-read "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot," the audio version of which won a Grammy Award, Franken has also penned "Why Not Me? The Inside Story of the Making and Unmaking of the Franken Presidency" and "Oh, The Things I Know!," a satire on self-help books.

A 1973 graduate of Harvard, Franken performed stand-up comedy before joining Saturday Night Live. Between 1975 and 1980, Franken won five Emmy Awards, four for writing and one for producing. Franken returned to SNL for a 10-year run in 1985, during which time he created one of the SNL Hall of Fame characters, self-help guru Stuart Smalley.

On May 31, your appearance at a book exposition with co-panelists Molly Ivins and Bill O'Reilly was broadcast on C-SPAN's Book TV. At the event, you confronted O'Reilly about his lie that that he received the prestigious Peabody Award for his work as host of Inside Edition. Could you recap the story -- which is kind of funny when you think about it, lying about an award that honors outstanding achievement in broadcast journalism.

AL FRANKEN: Well, it isn't just that Bill O'Reilly claims he won a couple of Peabody Awards. Whenever he was asked about Inside Edition and it being sort of a tabloid show, O'Reilly would indignantly say that they had won two Peabody Awards. Who says we're a tabloid show? And O'Reilly would offer as proof the Peabody Awards that Inside Edition had supposedly won. And he did this on a number of occasions. I got through watching him once on C-SPAN and then went researching on Nexis. I just followed it up because I couldn't believe that Inside Edition had won a Peabody. And I did the research. And, of course, they hadn't won any Peabody Award. I thought I would call O'Reilly, and that way he could stop saying the wrong thing, which any journalist would be embarrassed about. Instead of being grateful that I had called him, he just got angry. Well it turns out that Inside Edition had won a "Polk" Award a year after he left. And so he got very, very angry and said, "Go ahead – go after me, Al." And so I just thought that it'd be fun to do.

I gave the story to Lloyd Grove at the Washington Post, who called O'Reilly. O'Reilly sort of said, "Well, all I did was mix up a Polk and a Peabody, and Al has this jihad against me," et cetera. Now that's not necessarily worth writing about, but then I discovered that about a week later Robert Reno at Newsday decided to do a column about the fact that O'Reilly had claimed on several occasions to have won Peabodies and hadn't.

O'Reilly then attacked Rob Reno in the most vitriolic way, saying, basically "I never said I won a Peabody. This is a total fabrication. The man's a liar," et cetera, et cetera. And that sort of seems pathological to me, or Bill O'Reilly just felt that he could get away with it. It's sort of emblematic of him.

So I thought that was the example of his lying that I could use at the Book Expo, because my book isn't about him. It's about the whole right-wing media, and how it affects the mainstream media. I also focus on Bush and his administration -- who do a lot of lying -- and how a right-wing media has allowed them to get away with a lot of stuff that, in a different media environment, they probably wouldn't be able to get away with.

Well, you bring up an interesting point, because it seems that one of the tactics of the right wing when they are confronted with the facts or proof of their lies, they just switch gears.

FRANKEN: O'Reilly kept saying during the C-SPAN event, and he kept repeating, "All I did was mix up up a Polk and a Peabody." But that's not the whole point of the story. When confronted with a lie, these guys just deny it.

You stated in your speech on C-SPAN that outside of the mainstream media,there's a well-funded, well-organized, right-wing media –- and you gestured to O'Reilly –- and that it acts as an echo chamber in the news, pushing the right-wing attacks, scandals and ideology. Could you elaborate on that idea of an echo chamber?

FRANKEN: Well, what certainly happened during the Clinton administration was that the American Spectator and the Washington Times and the Wall Street Journal would get these things that weren't true and print them. And, after awhile, they became such a part of the echo chamber that CNN and The New York Times and the L.A. Times felt they had to address those stories.

Because we live in a mass media culture, it seems that there's no such thing as any single story really causing that much of an impact. A news story has to be branded, and people have to keep talking about it. It's natural that the news cycle is going to turn very quickly, so even important stories get washed over.


But if you have that mechanism and infrastructure, like the right-wing media, you're able to keep a story alive and keep it circulating. You almost brand or market that news story, if you will, for the course of a week or longer.

FRANKEN: The first part of my new book is about the media, and then it gets more into the Bush administration. But, of course, they're married -- this right-wing media and the Bush administration. To make the argument that the media has a left- or right-wing, or a liberal or a conservative bias, is like asking if the problem with Al-Qaeda is do they use too much oil in their hummus. And sometimes they do use too much oil, and sometimes they don't use enough. But the real problem with Al-Qaeda is they want to kill us. And the real problem with the press is all the other biases that they have. Those include: get the story fast; scandal; negativity; sexiness -- you know, ratings will be up if we go to war. It's an establishment bias -- a bias for the "new," which sounds contradictory to the establishment bias, but I think it helped Bush and hurt Gore in 2000. And so they're all these biases in all the media.

But in the right-wing media, they do have a right-wing bias. And they also have an agenda. So their agenda is: We're an adjunct of the Republican Party, and we're going push that agenda every day, and, as you say, brand these stories that help further the right-wing cause.

If you watched Hannity and Colmes during the war, it was hilarious. Hannity would, every day, be saying that Democrats were undermining the President by criticizing the Commander in Chief with criticisms that were so either nonexistent or mild. Whereas, Hannity, if you went back and looked at what he was saying during Kosovo, was attackingClinton in the harshest terms every day. Hannity deliberately meant to undermine Clinton by saying he's not following his advisors, we're running out of ammunition, he doesn't know what he's doing. He was allowing guests to come on and say this is the worst planned military operation in history, and he'd nod, and say, "Um-hmm."

Here's another example: I do a sort of a case study with the Wellstone Memorial and about the complete distortion of that event in the right-wing media. And that did get into the mainstream media, and it did affect how people around the country thought of the Democratic Party. And I think it had an effect obviously in Minnesota, and in Missouri in the Senate races, and gave the Senate to the Republicans.

There was a piece where Connie Lewis gave the eulogy for Sheila Wellstone, and she started off by saying there was this day where she picked up Paul for one of these 14-hour days on the campaign trail, and Sheila had already left for her campaign day. Paul pulls out this note from a pile of stuff from Sheila, and Sheila tells him in the note where dinner is, and how to put it in the microwave -- you know, he's an absent-minded guy in all these things. And then, at the bottom of the note, it says, "We will win." And Paul looks at Connie, and just gives her this look like, isn't she the greatest? Isn't she the greatest? The whole thing was about their love story. They got married at 19. I barely ever saw Paul without Sheila there. They were a truly incredible couple. And that's what the whole part of that piece was, in the middle of the campaign.

Well, Hannity's show cuts it together and just keeps the "We will win" part to show how partisan the event was, and then puts it together with Rick Kahn's speech and with something from Mark Wellstone. And my image of that was Alan Colmes walking past the Fox edit room that day saying "What are you up to, guys?" "Oh, we're just editing a piece on the Wellstone memorial." "OK." You know what I mean? The right wing machine cranked out lies. There was Christopher Caldwell who wrote the editorial for the Weekly Standard. The only thing he saw, I think, might have been the piece I just described from Hannity and Colmes.

You made an appearance on Donahue's show back in January and confronted Bernard Goldberg about his book that claimed liberals run the media. And you made the comment on Donahue's show that so much of the right-wing media is just flat-out lazy in not tracking down sources or context for what is reported.

FRANKEN: Well, in that one, Goldberg had a chapter called "Left Wing Hate Speech." He uses as an example something that John Chancellor said in the commentary on Nightly News with Tom Brokaw on August 21, 1991 -- that was the day that the coup was put down in the Soviet Union, the one at the Parliament where Yeltsin was on the tank and stuff. And Brokaw gives this impassioned opening to the show, something like, "This is the day where the gray men of the Kremlin were finally put down. And history will speak. And that the people of Russia didn't let themselves go back into the darkness, the state oppression, blah-blah-blah."

Total anti-communist, anti-Soviet introduction. And then, later in the show, Brokaw asks Chancellor, "What does Gorbachev do next?" Because, at this point, what brought about the coup were these horrible shortages that the Soviet Union was having, which were the worst shortages since World War II. And Perestroika, at this point, was six years old. Gorbachev had dismantled the state economy, and there was really no system -- there was no communism any more. And so John Chancellor says, basically, Gorbachev is in the position where he can't blame communism -- the problems are the shortages.

And Goldberg quotes this in his book about "liberal bias" and says it refers to the absurd notion that John Chancellor believes that the shortages in the Soviet Union were not caused by communism. Of course John Chancellor isn't around anymore to defend himself.

So I'm on the show with Donahue, and I'm in San Francisco on a satellite, which is always hard to do, and he's in the studio. And I asked him what happened on that day. I read him the quote. And I said, "What happened that day in the Soviet Union?" thinking that he knew. And then I would just say, "Then how could you leave out that context?" And in fact, he didn't know. Goldberg just didn't know. And Goldberg says, "You tell me, Al," very indignant that I would ask him. And I said, "No, you tell me. It's your book. You tell me." And basically he said, "OK, I don't know." Milton Friedman would have agreed with what John Chancellor was saying that day.

But when you confront the right-wing media about their reporting, all they do is they get mad. Instead of saying, "You know what? I really screwed up." Well, what happened was Goldberg just regurgitated something he got from a right-wing media research center, and just put it in the book and thought that, oh, this proves that John Chancellor thought that communism wasn't a problem or something.

It's the amazing laziness of putting something in your book without thinking, "Huh, let's see, 1991 -- what's going on around that time? Didn't communism fall? Didn't the Soviet Union fall around then? We must check out what this is." And here I am just reading Goldberg's book, and I think this is not what it seems. Well, what happened? What happened around then? That was even before I was writing this book about liars and the right-wing.

Celebrities who have spoken out against the Bush administration, like the Dixie Chicks, have been attacked by the right-wing media. Tim Robinson and Susan Sarandon, for example, were scrubbed from the Baseball Hall of Fame events surrounding the celebration of Bull Durham because of their liberal views. Did you face a backlash after you wrote Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot or after your recent appearance with O'Reilly on C-SPAN?

FRANKEN: No, no. I just tend to get really nasty e-mails. And I just send them back a little e-mail saying, "Thank you for your kind e-mail regarding my" – and I skip a space, and I put a forward arrow – "three-inch penis." Then I skip a space. "As you can imagine, I receive so many positive responses to my" – skip a space, arrow – "three-inch penis, that I'm unable to respond to them all." Then they get mad, yeah.

You stated at the C-SPAN event that the Democrats have taken it for too long and we're not going to take it anymore. And some of our readers have written that they want you to lead the DNC. What would you do if you were the head of the DNC? Or, what would you advise Democrats about the current political situation and how to fight back?

FRANKEN: This is something I'm trying to get together with some other people who asked me to put a show together -- a radio show. I think we have got to start matching their infrastructure. We have got to be able, when the right wing and Bush administration lie, to respond and say, "That's just not true." And we have got to start getting heard. We need leaders who can inspire people, and we need a message that resonates. And I think that we actually have both of those things.

How does your background in comedy give you a better understanding of politics, to see a situation differently or maybe unconventionally? How has it helped you in your political work, or at least your writing and speaking about politics?

FRANKEN: Well, I think that there's a value to comedy in and of itself. I'm a comedian first and foremost, which some people think that doesn't give me the right to do what I'm doing. And I don't quite understand that. What's Hannity? What's O'Reilly? What's their background, you know?

We call them Infotainment.

FRANKEN: Yeah. And I think that being able to make people laugh and write a book that's funny makes the information go down a lot easier and it makes it a lot more fun to read, easier to understand, and often stronger. So there's all kinds of advantages to it.

Now, one of the things that the right wing doesn't seem to get -- they have an unbelievable obdurate resistance to understanding irony. So when you write, "Rush Limbaugh is a big fat idiot," they don't understand. They say, "How dare you call him a big fat idiot?" And at the time, he was very fat, as you know, just a huge fat, fat, fat, fat, obese, morbidly obese, fat man. He's huge. Just his enormous gut and a big fat ass. But he had been engaging in ad hominem attacks, so there was a bit of irony within the title.

I have no doubt the right wing won't get the title of my new book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, as it is meant -- it's kidding on the square, as I like to say.

Al, thank you so much for your time.

FRANKEN: Thank you.

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