US ‘Shock jocks’ – balance shifting?

An interesting piece in yesterday’s Guardian about Al Franken and how Air America is beginning to make some inroads in to what to date has traditionally been a predominantly right week media haven. Possible future analogy for bloggers?The truth about lies

Leftwing radio talk show host Al Franken has won a ‘breakthrough’ award for his wisecracking war against the claims of the American right. James Silver reports

Monday June 27, 2005
The Guardian

His three-hour radio show over for another day, Al Franken – to many liberals, one of the Last Great Hopes of the American Left, and “an obnoxious prick” to his rightwing detractors – steps out into the blistering New York City heat and wilts. A sore back explains his painful-looking waddle to the coffee shop. The Al Franken Show, on fledging liberal talk radio network Air America, has just moved studios from the skyscrapers and buttoned-down shirt chic of 6th Avenue to the rather more down-at-heel bagel-shop obscurity between 10th and 11th Avenues on the far west side of Manhattan. He appears to be still getting used to it.

Is Franken, 54, over-doing it? His goofy features seem to adorn every third taxi in the city. There are the bestselling books (his most recent hit was Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right), the TV appearances, the political street-fighting, the corporate event pay-days, entertaining US troops abroad, and – perhaps, above all – his seemingly solo jihad against what he tactfully calls “the greedy, evil, warmongering bigots and scumbags of the American Right”. Oh, and next year he will be moving his radio show to his home state of Minnesota as he gears up for a possible run for the US senate in 2008.

Tonight the former Saturday Night Live star steps on to the stage at the city’s China Club to become the first recipient of the prestigious New York International Radio Festival’s World Achievement Award for Breakthrough Radio, which is “only periodically given to one radio on-air talent who has made a great political or cultural impact in his country and/or throughout the world”.

Award show hyperbole aside, there is no doubt that Franken and Air America – which has been going for 18 months and is syndicated in 65 cities around the US, attracting 2.7 million listeners – have carved out a niche in enemy territory. Political talk radio has traditionally been the home of rightwing shock jocks.

Now a Jewish, wise-cracking, unabashed Manhattan-dwelling liberal, in a country where that is often a dirty word, has parked his camper-van in middle-America’s back yard.

“Rightwing radio still does dominate,” concedes Franken, “but before Air America it was a monolith.” The Right, he patiently explains, cornered the market in talk radio in the late 1980s when the Fairness Doctrine, which ensured that radio stations had to be balanced, was revoked. His nemesis, top-rated talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who claims up to 20 million listeners, launched his station and spawned a generation of copy-cats. Rightwing talk flourished, while there was no real equivalent on the Left.

Franken’s routine uses wry humour to debunk inaccurate claims made by rightwing commentators and politicians. Given his heavy workload, he secured the services of 14 students – a “ragtag bunch of Harvard misfits” whom he named Team Franken – to do the fact-checking and research required to write Lies.

“What we do is set up a lie and then debunk it,” he explains. “I think we are developing a kind of a cottage industry. I’m very entertained by the debunking process and also at the same time I’m outraged by the lies. I really do see the serious corrupting effect Fox, talk radio and many commentators on the right have on America. A lot of people in the mainstream media think it’s beneath them to debunk it. And it’s not. These people need to be subjected to scorn and ridicule. Someone has got to be willing to get down in the weeds and fight them.”

He cites a recent example from his show. “[Fox news anchor] Bill O’Reilly took [leading Democrat senator] Joe Biden’s appearance on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos and deliberately misrepresented what Biden said. Biden was calling for an independent commission to look at Guantanamo and other US detention camps. When pressed by Stephanopoulos, Biden said that although he personally thought the US should close Guantanamo, he said that he had introduced legislation to get a bipartisan commission to make the recommendations.

“Two days later O’Reilly cuts it together to make it sound like Biden had simply said ‘Close Guantanamo’, leaving out any mention of legislation and independent commissions. Then O’Reilly himself said ‘I believe there should be an independent commission.’ He not only misrepresented what Biden actually said, he then claimed for himself the senator’s idea. I mentioned this to Howard Kurtz, who writes about the media for the Washington Post. He replied, ‘Well, people expect that of Fox’. No one in the mainstream press holds them to any standards at all.”

Franken is disparaging of his rightwing media foes. Rush Limbaugh is “fat” and “a hypocrite”, Ann Coulter is “a nutcase”, and Bill O’Reilly “a splotchy bully and liar”. He says: “All three have very different pathologies which is really interesting.”

He has written chapters or even entire books about them, such as Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot (1996). Franken thinks Limbaugh is “anything but an idiot. That was meant ironically.” He pauses. “But he was of course very fat at the time. He was a huge, morbidly obese, fat man with a huge gut and a big fat ass.

“Rush is someone who for years had been saying, ‘Anyone who uses drugs illegally should be put away’. It turned out, of course, that he was doing massive quantities of prescription painkillers. The quantity meant that he had to get them illegally. There’s no shame in addiction, but he’s a hypocrite. He’s a guy that talks about fam ily values and he’s been married and divorced three times. Rush is a talented radio guy. It’s just that he has no fidelity to the truth at all.”

Franken, who has feuded with Coulter, memorably described her in Lies as “the reigning diva of the hysterical right”. He has seen nothing since to make him change his mind. “Ann Coulter just says terribly, awful, vicious things … About Muslims, she said we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. Or she said the only regret about [Oklahoma City bomber] Timothy McVeigh was that he didn’t go to the New York Times building. These are things that pass for jokes for her.

“O’Reilly was sued for sexual harassment by a woman who produced a complaint that included very, very graphic transcripts of alleged phone sex from him that he never denied. In fact he settled with her. Then he talks about traditional values versus leftwing people who have these terrible secular humanist values.”

Franken claims not to mind any of them having a pop at him in return. Indeed, to be reviled by Bill O’Reilly is “a badge of honour”. He says: “If you are known by your enemies then those are three great enemies to have. And I must say the one who comes after me the most often and the hardest is O’Reilly.

“He did me the biggest favour he could possibly have done when he essentially forced Fox to sue me over Lies. They took me to court over the subtitle – A Fair and Balanced Look At The Right – and claimed that I was infringing their trademark. [Fox News uses the phrase Fair and Balanced]. There was a hearing and the court ruled in our favour and we got massive publicity. I was hoping the case would go on for a couple more news cycles.”

Nor do the mainstream media escape Franken’s ire for the “disgraceful” job they did reporting the build-up to war in Iraq – which he, of course, opposed vociferously. “What we have in this country right now is a cowed media. The Bush administration has successfully intimidated them and they’ve done that by denying access to correspondents who have challenged them. Reporters worry about losing their access, and thus their job. It’s an awful situation.”

When Franken began accusing Bush of lying, it was, he recalls, “a big deal”. But that’s changed. “Now people are much more willing to say the government was lying, for instance, over the war.” A smile creeps onto his face. “We need to broaden our vocabulary. Sometimes people aren’t lying, of course, they’re just bullshitting, or what they are saying is poppycock or nonsense.”

He reveals his next book is called The Truth (with jokes). “It’s not about the media this time. It’s about whatsisname? George Bush.”

From bloggers to pundits, his enemies are no doubt poised to respond. And when they do, Franken will be down in the weeds, waiting for them.

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