Al Franken’s best-known character, Stuart Smalley, urges people to recite daily affirmations such as “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and doggone it, people like me!” But with his new best seller, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, the former Saturday Night Live writer has ignited a firestorm of hatred. The book sparked a televised shouting match with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who screamed at Franken, “Shut up! Shut up!” It also prompted a lawsuit by Fox, which claims the satire violates its trademark of the phrase fair and balanced.
Franken takes the slams in stride. He walks over to a bookcase in his living room in New York and pulls out a copy of Treason, the latest book by right-wing media darling Ann Coulter. “With her, you can open up to any random page and find a lie,” he says. To demonstrate his point, Franken flips to page 265 and reads Coulter attacking New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. She writes, “He blamed twenty years of relentless attacks by Muslim extremists on, I quote, ‘religious fundamentalists of any stripe.’ ” Franken does a quick check online. What Friedman actually wrote: Requiring airline passengers to travel naked would make flights safer because “no religious fundamentalist of any stripe would be caught dead flying nude.”
Why doesn’t Franken keep Coulter’s book on his coffee table? “Sometimes Democrats come over,” he says.
When did you hear about the lawsuit?
I was on vacation and I was thinking about ways to market my book. One night I go to bed and I’m reading The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell. I get about halfway through and I start to fall asleep. I close the book and go, “Must think of tipping point for my book. Must think of … zzzzz.” The next thing I know, my assistant comes in saying, “Al! Al! You’re being sued by Fox.” I look at him for about a second and a half and say, “Good!”
Has the right’s lying changed since you wrote Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot?
It’s proliferated. It’s become more acceptable. It’s because it worked so well and they’re getting away with it — so much that they just do it even more.
So Limbaugh created a model?
A model of how to distort. What is shocking about Ann Coulter and the lies in her previous book, Slander, is that there was no protest from the right. No one said, “Hey, you can’t do this shit.” There’s no price to be paid for lying. It’s rewarded.
What lie bothers you the most?
That liberals hate America — that’s just sickening. It’s an MO, and it’s used on Fox all the time. It makes me seethe.
Your book describes the difference between how liberals love America and how conservatives love America.
They love America like a child loves his mommy. And Mommy can do no wrong. We love America like an adult loves someone — recognizing our mate might have some faults and taking the good with the bad and always working to appreciate what’s there and being critical of what’s wrong and trying to help make it better.
You say in your book that something is “terribly wrong” with Coulter. Can you be more specific?
There’s a hysteria there. Whenever I mention her name to conservatives, the universal thing I hear is, “Off the record, there’s something wrong with her.” For someone to do what she does, you have to loathe yourself. To say to yourself, “This is how I am going to make my living. I’m going to do everything I can to twist, to lie.”
So Coulter and others on the right consciously know what they’re doing?
She has to consciously know what she’s doing. If she doesn’t, she’s crazier than even I think.
What’s the connection between lies of media types like Coulter and O’Reilly and lies of the Bush administration?
The Bush administration uses the right-wing media to push its agenda. They know that they can rely on Limbaugh and the Wall Street Journal editorial page and all these people to put out their lies and distortions. When Bush says, “The vast majority of my tax cuts go to people at the bottom,” Sean Hannity will repeat it on his Fox show ad nauseam. He’ll say, “A waitress earning $25,000 gets a 100 percent tax cut!” One: No, she doesn’t. Two: It cuts $300 from her income-tax bill — but she gets no cut of her FICA, and she loses health care and day care and housing vouchers for her kids. Meanwhile, Dick Cheney gets several hundred thousand dollars in tax cuts. It’s just cynical and sick. The right-wing media allow the president to lie to the American people and not be held accountable.
When you talk about O’Reilly in the book, your tone changes. You really seem pissed at him.
I don’t hate Bill O’Reilly. I find him kind of funny. There’s something goofy about the guy in an odd way. What I hate is the hypocrisy and the distortion of the truth.
O’Reilly recently wrote, “We don’t do drive-by character assassinations. We don’t denigrate opponents’ points of view with gratuitous personal attacks.”
Drive-by character assassinations? I mean, in their complaint, they call me a “C-level political commentator” who is “shrill and unstable.” And this is how they talk in a legal case about trademarks.
What do you foresee for the election?
I actually foresee a very interesting election. This is a very divided country, and Bush’s credibility is slowly cracking. He has no idea what to do economically other than to cut taxes; he has created these huge deficits. There’s no policy apparatus in the White House — everything is dictated by politics. And, ironically, this hurts everybody, including the rich. If the economy sucks, they aren’t going to have anywhere to put their money.
You once credited your book on Rush Limbaugh with his subsequent weight loss. Will your new book convince the right-wing media to cut back on their lying?
No. Weight loss is one thing. This is their livelihood. The lies are all they’ve got. And the misrepresentation. And the ugliness. Oh, and the bullying. I get down in the mud with these guys because somebody has to. But I would encourage every one else to ignore them — don’t waste your time listening to these guys.