DURING A PANEL discussion on media bias at Book Expo America 2003, Al Franken called Bill OíReilly on his penchant for saying heíd won a prestigious Peabody Award as the host of Inside Edition, when he had never won the award. OíReilly didnít take kindly to the confrontation. The heated exchange, which was covered by C-SPANís Book TV, became the subject of media coverage around the nation. BuzzFlash interviewed Franken about his first-round KO against OíReilly ó and about the larger issue of the mediaís right-wing bias, which Franken covers in his forthcoming book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right (Dutton).
Author of the bestseller Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot (Delacorte, 1999), 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 (Delta, 2000) and Oh, the Things I Know! (Dutton, 2002), a satire of 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 for his work on the show, four for writing and one for producing. He 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.
Q: On May 31, your appearance at a book exposition with co-panelists Molly Ivins and Bill OíReilly was broadcast on C-SPANís Book TV. At the event, you confronted OíReilly about his lie that that he had received the prestigious Peabody Award for his work as host of Inside Edition. Could you recap the story ó which is kind of funny when you think about it, lying about an award that honors outstanding achievement in broadcast journalism.
A: Well, it isnít just that Bill OíReilly claims he won a couple of Peabody Awards. Whenever he was asked about Inside Edition and it being sort of a tabloid show, OíReilly would indignantly say that they had won two Peabody Awards. Who says weíre a tabloid show? 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 couldnít believe that Inside Edition had won a Peabody. And I did the research. And, of course, they hadnít won any Peabody Award. I thought I would call OíReilly, 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 [George] Polk Award a year after he left. And so he got very, very angry and said, "Go ahead ó go after me, Al." And so I just thought that itíd be fun to do.
I gave the story to Lloyd Grove at the Washington Post, who called OíReilly. OíReilly 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 thatís 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 OíReilly had claimed on several occasions to have won Peabodies and hadnít.
OíReilly then attacked Rob Reno in the most vitriolic way, saying, basically, "I never said I won a Peabody. This is a total fabrication. The manís a liar," et cetera, et cetera. And that sort of seems pathological to me, or Bill OíReilly just felt that he could get away with it. Itís sort of emblematic of him.
Q: Well, you bring up an interesting point, because it seems that one of the tactics of the right wing is that when they are confronted with the facts or proof of their lies, they just switch gears.
A: OíReilly kept saying during the C-SPAN event, and he kept repeating, "All I did was mix up a Polk and a Peabody." But thatís not the whole point of the story. When confronted with a lie, these guys just deny it.
Q: You stated in your speech on C-SPAN that outside of the mainstream media, thereís a well-funded, well-organized, right-wing media ó and you gestured to OíReilly ó and that they act 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?
A: 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 werenít true and print them. And, after a while, they became such a part of the echo chamber that CNN and the New York Times and the LA Times felt they had to address those stories.
Q: But if you have that mechanism and infrastructure, like the right-wing media, youíre 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.
A: The first part of my new book is about the media, and then it gets more into the Bush administration. But, of course, theyíre married ó 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 donít 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 ó you know, ratings will be up if we go to war. Itís an establishment bias ó 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 there are 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: weíre an adjunct of the Republican Party, and weíre going push that agenda every day, and, as you say, brand these stories that help further the right-wing cause.
If you watched Hannity & 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 attacking Clinton in the harshest terms every day. Hannity deliberately meant to undermine Clinton by saying heís not following his advisers, weíre running out of ammunition, he doesnít know what heís doing. He was allowing guests to come on and say this is the worst-planned military operation in history, and heíd nod and say, "Um-hmm."
Q: You made an appearance on Donahueís show back in January and confronted Bernard Goldberg about his book Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News, which claimed liberals run the media. And you made the comment on Donahueís show that so many of the right-wing media are just flat-out lazy in not tracking down sources or context for what is reported.
A: 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 ó 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 didnít 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 ó there was no communism anymore. And so John Chancellor says, basically, Gorbachev is in the position where he canít blame communism ó 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 isnít around anymore to defend himself.
So Iím on the show with Donahue, and Iím in San Francisco on a satellite, which is always hard to do, and heís 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 didnít know. Goldberg just didnít know. And Goldberg says, "You tell me, Al," very indignant that I would ask him. And I said, "No, you tell me. Itís your book. You tell me." And basically he said, "Okay, I donít 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 wasnít a problem or something.
Itís the amazing laziness of putting something in your book without thinking, "Huh, letís see, 1991 ó whatís going on around that time? Didnít communism fall? Didnít the Soviet Union fall around then? We must check out what this is." And here I am just reading Goldbergís 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.
Q: You stated at the C-SPAN event that the Democrats have taken it for too long and weíre not going to take it anymore. What would you do if you were the head of the Democratic National Committee? Or what would you advise Democrats about the current political situation and how to fight back?
A: This is something Iím trying to get together with some other people who asked me to put a show together ó 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, "Thatís 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.
Q: How does your background in comedy give you a better understanding of politics, an ability 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?
A: Well, I think that thereís a value to comedy in and of itself. Iím a comedian first and foremost, which some people think doesnít give me the right to do what Iím doing. And I donít quite understand that. Whatís Hannity? Whatís OíReilly? Whatís their background, you know?
Q: We call them infotainment.
A: Yeah. And I think that being able to make people laugh and write a book thatís 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 thereís all kinds of advantages to it.
Now, one of the things that the right wing doesnít seem to get ó they have an unbelievable obdurate resistance to understanding irony. So when you write, "Rush Limbaugh is a big fat idiot," they donít 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. Heís 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 wonít 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 ó itís kidding on the square, as I like to say.
A version of this interview was originally published on BuzzFlash.com.