Al Franken,
Lies (And the Lying
Liars Who Tell Them)

(Dutton, 2003)

Push polling, deliberate deceptions, mud-slinging and LIES! It's the stuff of Republican politics, according to Al Franken. And after reading Lies (And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them), I must admit I'm both impressed by the evidence he presents to back up this claim and disheartened by the manner in which he delivers some of it.

Unlike Michael Moore, who presents himself as a political/social commentator and uses humor as one of his sharpest tools, Franken is a comic first, a commentator second. Unfortunately, this difference leads him -- and more importantly this sometimes-excellent book -- astray.

In the opening pages of Lies, Franken states that his first goal in writing the book is to dispel the myth that there's a liberal bias to the mainstream media's coverage of American politics. He then uses this as a jumping off point to examine some of the deceits the right-wing media -- Fox News, The Washington Times, The New York Post -- and the Bush administration use in order to further the Republican agenda.

Franken was serving as a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government during the writing of Lies, and he used the opportunity to assemble a group of students to assist with his research. This "ragtag bunch of Harvard misfits," known as TeamFranken, uncovered some truly startling examples of the media misrepresenting facts for the sake of a more sensational story. One such example is the booing of Republican Sen. Trent Lott at Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone's memorial. C-SPAN's Washington Journal program reported that the jeering was scripted by the Democrats, that "the people who were in attendance were told by screen when to cheer and when to jeer." In fact, what had happened was that the screens were displaying closed-captioning. The words on the screen were for the benefit of the deaf and appeared after the cheer or jeer had taken place. Yet the story in its erroneous, politically damaging version was repeated in numerous places from the Minneapolis Star Tribune to CNN.

TeamFranken also uncovers cases of inaccurate statistics being used in the media to support the Republican side of an argument. Then there's Bill O'Reilly's fallacious claim that the program he hosted, Inside Edition, was the recipient of two Peabody Awards, "the most prestigious award in journalism." There are numerous examples from Fox's Hannity & Colmes of Sean Hannity deliberately exaggerating or distorting the facts. So when Franken cites a speech in which Dick Cheney recalls frequently looking out from a helicopter "upon Arlington National Cemetery, its gentle slopes and crosses row on row," then decries Cheney's lie of being moved by the sight because "the gravestones in Arlington ... are not crosses," he does his liberal cause a grave disservice. Pick on the big lies, the ones that need to be exposed. Poetic license ain't the same thing.

At times in Lies (And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them), Franken seems more concerned with getting a laugh than with constructing a coherent and compelling argument. When he goes for the chuckle that's only vaguely supported by facts, Franken undermines his thesis -- and lowers himself to the level of the manipulative media types he's attempting to ridicule.

Perhaps the book's worst chapter is the fictional story of a Vietnam mission headed up by John Kerry in which a hapless band of soldiers including Bush, Cheney, Clarence Thomas, Newt Gingrich and others are shown to be witless buffoons and cowards. "Operation Chickenhawk: Episode One," in its mean-spirited attempt at humor, degrades Franken's book. And that's a shame because there is some very important material here -- things that need to come to light, lies that need to be exposed.

Fortunately, there are plenty of places where Franken manages to better balance the comedy and the commentary. And when the mix is right Lies (And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them) is an eye-opening, disturbing expose that's well worth reading.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 10 July 2004

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