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Joan Shaw
    Joan Shaw
Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them  
    A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right 

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What Do We do With Lying Liars?
As a run-up to writing this review of Al Franken's book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, I did some background reading on the subjects he covers.  Most telling in the material I read was a long article online at MediaChannel that demonstrated in a new way how media and political interests are entwined. The author, Danny Schecter,  contends that the political system in the United States has become a mediaocracy. In his words, "[Politicians] need attention, and media companies need access and favorable legislation." More succinctly, in the words of The New Yorker media writer Ken Auletta, "Communications is the United States' fastest-growing industry, and is highly dependent on the government's favor."

The needs of the media giants – Viacom, Disney, Time-Warner, GE, Murdoch's News Corp – consist of  further deregulation of the media industry by the FCC which would allow these already giant conglomerates to absorb more and more venues in order to cover more and more geographical areas, a situation that would result in – almost inevitably – the same message. This concentration of power, the power of message, is what bothers critics of any relaxation of FCC rules to pave the way for more takeovers. Even members of the Republican party view with alarm the possibility of only a few quite powerful voices in any national dialogue, political or otherwise.  The media giants describe consolidation as moving information to the American public more efficiently. And their return to the government for favorable FCC rulings is not only campaign contributions, which have been ongoing and generous, but flag waving and hyping in their respective media of the administration by a grateful client.

Since the government happens at this point to be Republican of a NeoConservative tint, the media, far from being liberal and biased against anything conservative as charged, has moved into the conservative camp itself. This transformation,
according to Schecter and others, did not happen last year or the year before, but happened over the course of the past fifteen years if not longer.

The director of the FCC, Michael Powell, dismisses cries of outrage over media monopoly. He claims that the American people, now largely connected to the Internet, have many more outlets for news and opinions than they had even a decade ago. The need for a broad range of independent media outlets, he claims, is no longer necessary. And looking at the situation superficially, his reassurance seems to have some validity.

But as many media watchdogs point out, the Internet itself is dependent on print and cable and network news which it then makes available on the Internet. I read news and opinion every morning originating from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, and from one end of the United States and Canada to the other. But what I read has been first published in the print media or, less often, are transcripts of radio broadcasts and cable and network television programs. Even original sites – like Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo, AlterNet, Common Dreams, and Working For Change  – do more editorializing on news that has first appeared in print more than act as news sources themselves. Besides, what of the large segment of the population in the United States that depends on network and cable TV exclusively for their news? And what of those that listen to talk radio which is dominated by right wing hosts like Rush Limbaugh?

    The Question of a Liberal Media

The battle with the FCC for control of the public's eyes and ears is still going on as of this writing. And the MediaChannel article mentioned above was an interesting, even fascinating, study of the relationship between media and politics. However, I don't remember President Clinton or his agenda getting hyped during his administration, sitting president as he was. Getting shafted seems the better phrase. The New York Times, especially, had seemed intent on keeping the Whitewater non-scandal alive long after it was given a decent burial by even the dedicated prosecutors – a flouting of journalistic rules (that is, "check your sources!") that has so far not been acknowledged by our Newspaper of Record.

Indeed, the media themselves were taking a definite slide to the right
even while a flurry of books were published about their perceived liberal bias. Now we're seeing a flurry of corrective books proving the liberal-bias authors wrong. Among these books is Al Franken's, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: a Fair and Balanced Look at the RightPublished this September, the book goes after the Conservative media, as my father-in-law might put it, "hammer and tong."

The most telling comment on books being published on the perceived liberal bias in the media, was the lionizing of their conservative authors, especially on cable and network TV talk shows. Al Franken speaks of Ann Coulter, the author of Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right (both her books and appearances consisting, as he puts it, of "nonstop rabid frothing") "Coulter," he writes, "has appeared on shows like ABC's This Week, Good Morning America, Hardball, Larry King Live, and The Today Show, to complain, among other things, that consevatives don't get on TV enough."

Given a raft of no-one-could-buy-this publicity by Fox News' ill-considered lawsuit against Franken for his parodic use of their patented trademark phrase, "Fair and Balanced," the book still had plenty going for it before it even passed the draft stage. Al Franken is a comedian, a satirist, and this is his fifth book, all of them best sellers. He produced Lies under a 2003 fellowship with Harvard's Kennedy School of government with the help of fourteen enthusiastic Harvard student researchers he called TeamFranken. The book is – no surprise – funny. It's also deadly serious, full of facts not readily available to even news junkies dedicating two to three hours a morning at the computer. It is meticulously researched  and, in the chapter on Paul Wellstone's memorial service – so blatantly misrepresented in the media – it was wrenchingly sad.

    Franken on the "Liberal Media"

Franken laughs at the notion of liberal bias in the media but, aside from the obvious conservative bias that he hammers at relentlessly, he offers a long list of others – 1) the profit-motive bias, 2) the more-sensationalism-the-better bias, 3) the easy-and-cheap-to-cover bias, 4) the get-it-first bias, 5) the don't-offend-the-conglomerate-that-owns-us bias, and 6) the here's-hoping-we-have-a war-to-cover bias. Al Franken does not go easy on the media.

Nor does he go easy on the media's Right-wing Stars. Bill O'Reilly gets a full chapter. So does Sean Hannity of Fox News. Rush Limbaugh he's already covered in a full-sized best-seller (Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot). Ann Coulter, though – she gets three chapters right in the beginning  – "Ann Coulter: Nutcase," "You Know Who I don't Like? Ann Coulter," and "Liberals Who Hate America."

I actually read Coulter's (blessedly short -- 205 pages) Slander. It was like being caged up with a flock of  chickens, but never mind, she claims to have 780 footnotes. I was indebted to Franken for a section he included called, "How to Lie With Footnotes," because I checked quite a few of Coulter's. Especially intriguing – and this is only one example – was a piece she mentioned that was written in the Wall Street Journal's editorial page which I discovered in the citation as originating, not in the Wall Street Journal, but  on a TV program. Perhaps it was mentioned in an interview there?

Al Franken talks about Coulter's now-infamous assertions – "Democrats actually hate working-class people" and "Liberals hate America." These two phrases so astounded me, I couldn't wait to find them in her book and I did. I'm a Democrat, my husband is a Democrat, our parents were Democrats. And amazingly enough, we consider ourselves "working-class." Our parents certainly were, struggling through the Great Depression on WPA, in CCC Camps and worshiping Franklin D. Roosevelt. My father worked in the New York Shipyard. My mother, after his death, worked in a munitions factory. In retrospect, she was most certainly liberal, though she died shortly after my father and I was still too young then to understand the word. I know our own small family here in Utah is liberal, marching Heaven knows, to a different drummer in this conservative state, and what's more, we all love America. But we're all doubly damned by Coulter -- who is damned in turn by Franken in three chapters, and by her own words.

Franken also speaks about how George W. Bush vowed to "change the tone" in Washington. In fact, Franken dedicates four chapters to the subject – "Who Created the Tone?" " Did the Tone Change?" "Why Did AnyoneThink It Would Change?" "I Grow Discouraged About the Tone." The chapter titles are almost as funny as the text.

    The Wellstone Memorial

But the Wellstone Memorial Chapter –  not at all funny –  is the emotional high point of Lies, describing the outpouring of love and frustration among grieving supporters over the death of this respected Progressive politician who was fighting for his political life as a senator from Minnesota in one of the most negative senatorial campaigns in history before he was killed.

Al Franken grew up in Minnesota, his family and Wellstone's family were friends, and Franken did most of his free speaking engagements for Paul Wellstone's democratic rallies. He loved the man and was devastated by his death which occurred when a small plane went down in northern Minnesota on a campaign trip. Everyone on board was killed – Paul, his wife, his daughter, his driver, two trusted aides, and the two pilots.

My daughter, Ethy, has lived in Minnesota for over a decade. She and her husband, Steven, loved Paul Wellstone themselves. I learned of Wellstone's death through a phone call from Ethy who could barely speak for crying. Four days later, Ethy and Steven listened to the Wellstone memorial service on NPR. It had been hastily put together by the Wellstone family, Wellstone supporters, and close friends. And it was derided almost universally in the mainstream press and cable and network news as a disgusting show of partisan politics.

That's not the "show" that Ethy and Steven heard over NPR.

There was the faint sound of booing, she reported to me afterwards, when Republican Senator Trent Lott came into the huge auditorium, packed to the rafters with Wellstone family and supporters. She'd deplored it, and deplored even more the talk by Wellstone's best friend, Rick Kahn, that ended up as a call-to-arms that she characterized as "going over the top."

Ethy pointed out, however, that the rallying cries did not appear during the eulogies of the others, the family members, the aides, the driver, all of which were touching, private, heart-rending. And these eulogies took up by far the greater part of the two-hour-long service. The rallying cries came when the eulogies started for Wellstone, and Wellstone was, first of all, a politician. They were expressing the energy and drive that Wellstone, as a consummate Progressive politician, brought out in the people who supported him, supporters who believed in what he believed in.

"And they were angry," Ethy said, "They were angry that they'd lost a great leader so absurdly. The feeling that prevailed was that these people were not taking this death lying down, not bowing meekly to fate, not accepting the conservative rule." To understand that rush of anger would be to understand how mean, how dirty the campaign had been up until Wellstone's tragic death. The Republican opposition had pulled out every trick in the book to defeat Wellstone, the campaign was blatantly negative, it reached to the US Congress, the Republican majority of which was determined to defeat Wellstone, it reached all the way to George W. Bush himself who not only hand-picked Norm Coleman to oppose Senator Wellstone but visited the state over and over again to push his candidicacy. And the negative campaign ads against Wellstone were frankly deadly. The Wellstone supporters could only resent all that, and resent that G.W. Bush's repeated stumping for Norm Coleman was funded by taxpayer dollars. "It was inevitable," Ethy said, "that some kind of rallying cry would erupt."

Franken describes the Wellstone battle and subsequent grief from his point of view and from that of the Wellstone family, and from the point of view of fair and balanced journalism. It remains a wrenching chapter in the book, and in American and Minnesota politics. For the harshest criticisms of the memorial came from commentators who hadn't even seen or heard the memorial, and this harsh criticism became the death blow to Wellstone's progressive replacement, the elder statesman, Fritz Mondale, and handed the senatorial election over to the Conservative Norm Coleman.

Franken's book is indeed a roller-coaster of emotions and I recommend it highly. One of the funniest chapters, by the way, is "Vast Lagoons of Pig Feces: The Bush Environmental Record."

"I want to draw you a word picture of a Lagoon," he begins. And at the end of 21 lines I was laughing so hard I had to pull off my glasses to wipe my eyes.

Buy this book.

You won't regret it.

– Joan Shaw

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Danny Schecter

The writer of the piece on media, Bushaganda 2003 – Behind "DC 9:11: Time of Crisis,"  is Danny Schecter, a specialist in media, editor of the site,, and author of books and essays on the subject of media.

Schecter is  also the founding partner along with Rory O'Connor of Globalvision, an independent media production company specializing in information, entertainment, and educational programming for local and international markets. In addition, Globalvision has recently expanded to the internet through the launch of a subsidiary company, Glovalvision New Media.

You can read more about GlobalVision here.

Blog links:

The Agonist - Late breaking news from around the globe
Americablog - Political news, commentary, leaning left
Atrios.Eschaton - Political and world news and commentary, leans left
Buzzflash - Daily headlines with a liberal slant
Common Dreams - Breaking News and Views for the Progressive Community
Crooks and Liars - Video clips of mostly political news, leans left
DailyKos -- Leading blog for liberal/progressive activists, lively
Democratic Underground - Articles, discussions, forums, links
James Wolcott's Blog - excellent writer on entertainment and political affairs
Mark Fiore - Great  cartoon animations on current topics
McClatchy News Outlet - Broad-based  and unbiased
Raw Story - Breaking news, a lot of it political
Working for Change - Progressive news and commentary
AlterNet - Commentary and news logs
Salon - Online magazine: news and politics, links to mainstream media
Slate - Online magazine: commentary, links
Talking Points Memo by Josh Marshall - Excellent site, daily posts
The Young Turks - Video, streaming, breaking news, commentary
U.S. news links:

LA Times
New York Times
The International Herald Tribune

United Kingdom news links:

BBC Online
The Electronic Telegraph
The Financial Times
The Guardian
The Independent

Canadian Globe and Mail
Toronto Star
Times of India

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All contents copyright (c) 2000-2009 by Joan K. Shaw. All rights reserved.