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Lies (And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them): A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right
Al Franken
New York: Dutton, 2003.
$24.95, 377 pages, ISBN 0525947647.

David McBride
University of Nottingham

In the aftermath of the 2000 election, America has found itself smothered by a right-wing media bias that stretches from the walls of the White House to Fox television broadcasts to nearly every American newspaper not named New York Times. Amidst this right-wing takeover, the conservative power elite of Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter have been outspoken lobbyists spreading the idea that America is trapped in a left-wing media bias. Without citing any real facts, spinning truths, and coming away relatively uncontested, the Coulters and O’Reillys have had their messages broadcast to the entire American public. Which raises the question, if there is such a strong liberal bias in America, why are Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh able to have their gospels of conservative rhetoric broadcast to every American household?

Enter Al Franken.

Franken, a former writer for Saturday Night Live and one of America’s best-known political satirists, has followed up his earlier work, Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, with his best-selling work, Lies. In Lies, Franken does not only dispel the myth of the liberal media bias, but he takes apart the works, statements, and quotes of the conservative elite (Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Hannity, Coulter, Bush I and II, Ashcroft, etc.) and reveals all, showing his readers how the elite has lied and how it has been able to get away with it.

Case in point: Ann Coulter.

In the second chapter, “Ann Coulter: Nutcase,” Franken discusses various lies proferred by the current conservative queen. One example of the liberal bias that Coulter cites has to do with sports and the newspaper The New York Times. She tells about The Times not printing the story of the death of American sports icon Dale Earnhardt until two days after his death. She points out that every other newspaper in America printed the story as a frontpage headline the very next day. The Times writers, Coulter concludes, are snobbish, uncaring and have no respect for the American public. Franken disagrees. To show that Coulter’s claim is erroneous, he uses an ingenious technique called "checking the Times newspaper on the day after the death of Earnhardt to see if the story made the front page." And lo and behold, what did Franken discover?

Pretty powerful indictment, I have to admit. No mention for two days! One small problem. Dale Earnhardt died on February 18, 2001. On February 19, 2001, which by my calculation is the next day, the Times ran a front-page account of Earnhardt’s death written by sportswriter Robert Lipsyte under the headline: 'Stock Car Star Killed on Last Lap of Daytona 500.' Here. Look at it. [p. 7]

Franken includes a copy of the front page of The New York Times, circling both the date and the story so Coulter would not be confused. Besides this little lie, Franken points out, amongst other things, that Coulter “invented” that Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief Evan Thomas was the son of four-time Socialist candidate for president Norman Thomas. Franken, using a research strategy which was very different from Coulter’s, called Evan Thomas to see if his dad was Norman Thomas. Franken presents a transcript of his call to Thomas:
Me: Evan, thank you for taking my call.
Evan Thomas: No problem, Al. What’s up?
Me: Was Norman Thomas your father?
Evan: No.
That sounds simple enough. But to protect my reputation for thoroughness, I didn’t let Evan off the hook quite so fast.
Me: Are you sure?
Evan: Yes.
Me: And your father? What was his name?
Evan: Evan Thomas, Sr. I’m a junior.
Me: Uh-huh? And your father, Evan Thomas, Sr., did he ever run for president?
Evan: No. He was in publishing. [pp. 10-11]

To further illustrate the tendency of Coulter to blur the truth, Franken goes through her book, Slander, and spends five pages showing how Coulter lied throughout her book. Not only does he present her false claims, he also demonstrates exactly why they are false, providing clear evidence of the exact opposite of what Coulter writes. It is quite funny, unless you are Coulter, presumably.

Franken continues with his witch-hunt for conservative lies by exposing such conservative liars as Bill O’Reilly in Chapter 13, and Sean Hannity in Chapter 14, both stars of conservative Fox broadcasts. But Franken is not content with merely denouncing the lies of individuals, he also exposes the general lies that have surrounded major events, such as the 2000 election, 9-11 and the blame being placed on Clinton, and the Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq—or should that read Weapons of Mass Deception? Franken makes a point of clearly presenting the sources behind his claims, a number of them official documents, which leads to a major underlying theme of his book: Franken makes claims that are supported with facts. Coulter, O’Reilly, Bush (I or II), and other conservative elites just seem to make claims.

I have a few reservations as far as the portrayal of former President Bill Clinton is concerned. Franken appears to use Clinton as an example of a perfect politician, where his argument would have been strengthened by simply listing Clinton’s faults, but still providing ample evidence that Clinton was a much better President than Bush. While Franken makes it clear that attacks on the Clinton presidency by the Bush administration and the conservative elite have proven to be lies, the policies of Clinton sometimes appear as a standard of perfection to which the Bush regime is measured. And while I believe it is quite true that Clinton’s policies on everything besides sleeping with your aides was much better than the current policies of he whom some see as an American dictator, Franken could have been more effective by writing from a more objective point-of-view rather than as an angry Democrat. Michael Moore is another satirical critic of Bush, but he is also critical of past Clinton policies, and thus appears as a more objective voice.

Franken’s greatest asset is his humour, which begins on page one and is relentless throughout. His portrayal of some of the conservative leaders in his comic/cartoon sketch, Operation Chickenhawk: Episode One, in which John Kerry leads a group of soldiers through Vietnam, is especially hilarious. The group is comprised of the current conservative war hawks, George W., O’Reilly, George Will, Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft, Clarence Thomas, and Rush Limbaugh, amongst other conservatives, who evidently found a way to avoid fighting in Vietnam (Al Gore is also included). The chapter gives us a “what-could-have-been” if the current overly eager promoters of war had themselves had the “testicular fortitude” to fight in Vietnam, rather than got their powerful daddies to bail them out.

Overall, Lies is a recommended book for anyone interested in American politics during the Bush regime. Franken belongs to the same school as Michael Moore, using as he does his abilities to relate to the average American citizen in an easy and humorous language that brings to the forefront major issues which may otherwise have been ignored. Authors such as Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky have been writing about the perils of American politics for decades, but their works have only been endorsed by a few thousand Americans. Arguably due to their academic style and approach in the way they portray America’s political “sins,” readers often overlook their work. With Moore and Franken, a bridge has been erected to the American masses, using humour and everyday language to awaken the sleeping masses to the setbacks of the current regime.



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