Al Franken is on a tear. After a long and successful career, beginning on Saturday Night Live and continuing with his own network TV sitcom and the No. 1 best-seller Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, his latest book, Lies (And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them): A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, was a bestseller even before it hit bookstores. That was thanks in part to a lawsuit filed by fox News alleging that the book's subtitle violated the company's "Fair and Balanced" trademark. The suit was laughed out of court. Literally. The judge characterized it as "wholly without merit," driving home the point, as Franken describes it, that "satire is protected speech, even if the object of the satire doesn't get it." In the book, he and TeamFranken -- 14 research assistants assigned to him during a recent fellowship at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government -- take on the task of fact-checking leading figures in the right-wing media punditocracy -- Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Bernard Goldberg, and many others.
Franken's no-holds-barred style, brilliantly mixing sneering satire with incontrovertible facts, draws cheers and jeers. Progressive voters sick of being kicked in the teeth by the right are packing his book tour appearances -- 1,500 showed up at a bookstore in Austin, Texas, Dubya's old stomping grounds. Conservatives, most notably Bill O'Reilly and his fox News colleagues, have been stumbling all over themselves to counter his criticisms. Before a recent book tour appearance in St. Paul he took a few minutes for an impromptu chat with Utne about his own media consumption while getting his shoulders and back rubbed by a masseuse.
What books are on your bedside table right now?
I'm reading Paul Krugman's book The Great Unraveling and Weapons of Mass Deception by these two guys in Madison [John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton]. It's all about the Bush administration's uses of propaganda in the Iraq war. When I was working on this book, I had to absorb a huge number of right-wing books.
David Horowitz, the right-wing author and lecturer, recently published an op-ed in newspapers across the country arguing that by having the resources of Harvard behind you as you wrote this book, you had an unfair advantage over the people you write about who don't have those resources at their disposal.
He didn't challenge anything I said, though. He compared the entire endowment of Harvard with the endowment of the Heritage Foundation. But Harvard does other things like physics research. He ignored the fact that the Heritage Foundation does only one thing, and that is disseminate right-wing opinions. In fact, I was first invited to the Shorenstein Center [at Harvard] by a Republican, George Bush's cousin John Ellis -- you know, the guy who called Florida for Bush [on fox News in 2000].
Where do you get your news?
I watch a lot of PBS -- the Newshour, Frontline, [NOW with Bill] Moyers, Charlie Rose. CNN's Inside Politics. [Comedy Central's] The Daily Show -- one of the best programs on television. I'm amazed at how many people get all their news from that show.
What about newspapers, magazines?
I read The New York Times, The New Yorker. On the other side, I read the The Weekly Standard, the New York Post. I try to read columns by George Will, William Safire. I'm really glad David Brooks is in The New York Times now.
Are there any Web sites you read regularly?
I always read The Note, from ABC's political unit. It's like a daily primer for their own news team. It has lots of links to political stories. I read a lot of stories people send me via e-mail, from [British newspapers] the Guardian, the Independent, and so on.
Have you seen any good movies lately?
All my favorites, I think, are ones I haven't seen yet. I think my favorite movie right now is going to be Lost in Translation. In the last few years the greatest movie was Election [a 1999 comedy about a high-school student election, starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon].
What kind of music do you listen to?
The Grateful Dead. I'm stuck in the '60s. I love the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Dylan, Springsteen. As for newer music, I listen to Dar Williams, Lucinda Williams.
What do you do to inspire your creativity?
The only trick I do in writing I learned from the comedian Abe Burroughs. When I was a kid, I was watching the game show Password. Burroughs said to the host, "At the end of the day, don't finish what you're writing. That way you have something to start with in the morning."
What's next for you?
I'm contemplating a radio show. This couple from Chicago, Sheldon and Anita Drobny, are starting a liberal talk-radio network called AnShell Media.
And two questions from the audience at the St. Paul reading, sponsored by the celebrated independent bookshop Ruminator Books (www.ruminator.com):
Who's your favorite liar?
Oh, there are so many. I don't have a favorite. They're all special in their own way. There are hysterical Ann Coulter lies -- well-crafted lies. There are Sean "Stupid" Hannity lies. Bill O'Reilly is now my favorite. But there's a special place in my heart for Rush Limbaugh.
Who in the Bush administration would benefit most from a visit with Stewart Smalley [Franken's famous Saturday Night Live caricature of a neurotic self-help guru]?
Let's go right to the top. In fact, is Stewart here? [Franken turns around, takes off his glasses, and gets in character.] "Hello. I'm feeling a little nervous. [lisps] I haven't spoken to a crowd this big since the National Shame Conference. I would tell the president to say to himself: 'Hello, Self. I haven't created any jobs. But that's . . . okay . . . because I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, almost half the people voted for me.'"