Al Franken: “I’m A Liberal, Dammit!” (04/12/04)
By Reed Bunzel, Editor-In-Chief
For the last few years, the liberal left has looked upon humorist Al Franken as its talk-show-host-in-waiting, the progressives’ answer to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly — essentially, the counterpoint to all things conservative.
The conventional wisdom goes something like this: “The right wing has such a head start in political talk radio, liberals can never hope to catch up.” Add the notion that liberals take their politics too seriously to ever be able to be funny, and — as Laura Ingraham told Radio Ink last fall, “The liberals have National Public Radio…all the liberals I know listen to it.” The general conservative consensus here is: “Why would the left want to risk being unfunny on commercial talk radio, especially when they have NPR and all the rest of the ‘liberal’ media?”
That’s where Al Franken enters the picture. The New York Times best-selling author of Lies: And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, a self-avowed liberal, an Emmy-winning writer/producer and a political activist, Franken embodies the left’s greatest hope for making up the great lead that conservatives have built up in talk radio.
“Once Rush Limbaugh made the medium what it was, a lot of Rush imitators came in,” Franken observes. “The landscape very quickly became right-wing, and it became very difficult for liberals to get in there. I felt that the best way for this to work was to build a network and give people a place where they could go for liberal talk.” The result: Fledging liberal network Air America Radio last month announced Franken as the centerpiece of its talk show schedule, setting him squarely in the 12:00 noon-3:00 p.m. midday time slot.
Most people remember Franken for his contributions to Saturday Night Live, which he joined in 1975 with his comedy partner Tom Davis. He left the show in 1980, then returned in 1985 and remained for another 10 years, leaving after the 1994-’95 season. During his second stint at SNL, Franken honed his political satire and developed the character of self-help guru Stuart Smalley, who became the subject of Franken’s first book, I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough and Doggone It, People Like Me.
A prolific writer, Franken received four Emmys for his writing on SNL and a fifth for producing. In 1992, he anchored Comedy Central’s Indecision ’92, and in 1996, he teamed with Arianna Huffington to cover the party conventions and election night for Politically Incorrect. He also wrote and starred in the film Stuart Saves His Family, which received “two thumbs up” from critics Siskel and Ebert, and was co-writer of the 1994 movie When a Man Loves a Woman, starring Andy Garcia and Meg Ryan.
Franken’s second book, Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, spent more than eight months on >The New York Times bestseller list and was number one for five weeks. It was followed by Why Not Me: The Making and Unmaking of the Franken Presidency and Oh, the Things I Know! A Guide to Success, or Failing That, Happiness, both on The New York Times bestseller list.
Franken grew up in Minnesota, and he is a graduate of Harvard College. He has been married to Franni Franken for 28 years; they live in New York City and have two children.
Radio Ink recently caught up with Franken in Santa Rosa, California, and questioned him about what’s “left” for liberals in talk radio.
INK: There’s a widespread perception among conservatives that the mainstream media has a distinctly liberal bias. What’s your view of this?
FRANKEN: I just don’t think it’s true. The press used to be populated by people who used some kind of journalistic standard, but gradually that has completely disappeared. The mainstream media have a lot of other biases that seem to be much more important today: They have a pack mentality; and they focus on conflict, sensationalism, negativity and sex. They have a bias toward getting the easy story, getting stories quickly, getting cheap stories. There are all kinds of biases, so focusing on whether the mainstream media has a liberal bias is like asking whether the problem with Al Qaeda is that they use too much oil in their hummus. I think they do, but the problem with Al Qaeda is they want to kill us. And the problem with the mainstream media is not that there’s a liberal bias, but that they don’t adhere to any real journalistic standards.
You’re not particularly impressed with the quality of reporting today?
Because the media has been accused of having a liberal bias, many reporters now are scared of their own shadows. They’ve been cowed into thinking: “I’m not going to be liberal.” We’ve all seen what’s happened: In 2000, Gore got so much more bad coverage than Bush did, and last year, the media totally dropped the ball on covering the weapons of mass destruction. If the media have such a liberal bias, why did they drop the ball? Knight-Ridder was the only company in the lead-up to the war to cover it correctly.
If there isn’t a liberal bias, how has this perception been perpetuated?
Because there is a right-wing media, and the right-wing media has grown over the last several years. It includes the Fox News Channel, which is a right-wing cable network. It includes The Wall Street Journal editorial page, and the Weekly Standard. Then, of course, there’s right-wing radio. Conservatives have dominated talk radio for the last 12 years and, to their credit, we have not answered them. That’s what we’re trying to do at Air America.
With all this fear about being labeled a liberal, what do you consider yourself? A liberal? A progressive?
I’m a liberal, dammit!!!
How have conservatives been able to get such a strong foothold in radio, and why haven’t liberals been able to make the same inroads?
It’s a number of things. Once Rush Limbaugh made the medium what it was, a lot of Rush imitators came in, and Rush imitators by definition are right wing. The landscape very quickly became right wing, and it became very difficult for liberals to get in there. The reason I went to this network is that I understood that if I were going to syndicate a program nationally, in most markets I would have to fit between two conservatives. But that’s not how radio programming works. You don’t do Hip-Hop, then Country, then Hip-Hop. A station has all Hip-Hop or all Country. So I felt that the best way for this to work was to build a network and give people a place where they could go for liberal talk.
Some conservative talk show hosts say that liberals don’t need a talk network, that they already have one in National Public Radio. What’s your take on that?
It’s absurd to compare Rush Limbaugh to NPR. And it’s ridiculous for someone to think that they learn anywhere near as much from listening to Rush for 30 minutes as they do from listening to 30 minutes of NPR.
Do you think there’s enough of a liberal radio audience to make Air America a success?
We’ll see, won’t we? But I do think so. There are a lot of people who listen to Rush because it’s entertaining, and I’m sure there are liberals who listen to Rush who just want to get mad. There also are a lot of people who listen to him because they want to hear some blowhard pontificate, and they find that entertaining. To Rush’s credit, he has appealed to a lot of people who don’t have a lot of political sophistication and had nothing else to listen to. So Rush came along, and they listened to him and went over to the dark side.
Fox News sued you last year for using the phrase “fair and balanced” as part of the title of your book. What does the term “fair and balanced” mean to you?
I didn’t claim to be fair and balanced in my book. Really. When I said ‘a fair and balanced look at the right,’ I meant it ironically. And I’m not going to be fair and balanced on the radio. My show isn’t NPR. NPR is fair and balanced. Fair and balanced doesn’t mean, as [New York Times columnist] Paul Krugman said, “If the Bush administration tomorrow announced the earth was flat, The New York Times would report: ‘Shape of Earth in Dispute.’” An actual fair and balanced reporter would say, “The Bush administration said something so crazy that every scientist we talked to says they’re wrong.” “Fair and balanced” has gotten to a point at which, if the Bush administration asserts something that just is not true, the press is afraid to say it’s not true.
How important is it to be fair, even when you’re talking about the “other side”?
It is very important, and to some extent, I always try to be fair. For example, we did a chapter in the book titled “Operation Ignore,” which is basically about how the Bush administration dropped the ball on 9/11. In that chapter I quoted a former Reagan official who said something like, “The Clinton administration paid too much attention to Osama bin Laden, and thus gave him more power.” We could have stopped the quote at “The Clinton administration paid too much attention to Osama bin Laden,” but I felt it wasn’t fair to the guy to not include the rest of the sentence. Now, people like Rush, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Laura Ingraham would never have included the rest of the quote. But I did because I don’t want to be like them. I included the whole quote to be fair to the guy and to be fair to the argument. Now, I wasn’t necessarily trying to be balanced, but I did try to be fair in the sense that I didn’t want that former Reagan official to have that part of the sentence quoted out of context. We all know what fairness is, and I believe in it. Fairness is certainly a quality that liberals believe in.
Do you think Fox believes in it?
No. They’re not fair. They’re deliberately unfair, and they’re deliberately unbalanced — in every regard.
Is there a tactic for program hosts to go after the messenger as much as the message?
Sure. It’s a bait-and-switch thing. If you can’t argue the merits of the argument, go after the messenger. They do that all the time; it’s definitely a tactic. That said, sometimes it’s fun to poke fun at personalities. When we did Saturday Night Live, that’s really how we would cover the presidency. It’s a way to do comedy. But there are fair ways to do that, and there are ways that are just ridiculous.
Are you nervous about making your new show succeed?
Oh, God yes. It doesn’t keep me up at night — not yet. I’m actually feeling very good about it, but if I weren’t nervous, I’d be crazy. I have a co-host, Katherine Lanpher, who is excellent. She was the host of a mid-morning show on Minnesota Public Radio for five and a half years, Before that, she did commercial radio, and before that, she worked as a journalist at Pioneer Press. She’s really a journalist. She interviewed me a couple times, and I really liked her. I have never hosted a show, but I have been a guest on a lot of shows, and I like being a guest. So if worse comes to worst, she can just interview me.
How concerned are you that conservatives will be waiting for you to fail, or that liberals are placing so many eggs in Al Franken’s basket?
I’m more worried about the second. There’s nothing the conservatives can say that will bother me if I fall on my ass, but I hope that people’s expectations aren’t so unrealistic that I can’t meet them.
You’ve named your new show The O’Franken Factor. Are you anticipating — or counting on — a lawsuit?
God, I hope so. I’d be surprised if he does because, as they learned last time, in America satire is protected speech — even if the object of the satire doesn’t get it.
What will your program consist of? Will you be able to maintain consistent programming day in, day out?
We’re going to do original comedy. I’m a huge Bob and Ray fan; in fact, Bob has agreed to do Wally Balloo on the show. That’s an unbelievable thrill to me. Tom Davis (remember Franken and Davis?) will come on and do some stuff. We’re going to do original, stupid, silly political comedy. We’re going to have interviews, and we’ll bring on newsmakers.
Are you doing this show for the entertainment and information value of it, or is it primarily driven by a political agenda?
It’s all of those. It’s like everything I’ve done that’s political, like Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies and Lying Liars. If you’re smart, it’s pretty easy to tell what’s what. If you’re not smart, you’ll enjoy it anyway.
Based on recent polls, this country is more polarized politically than during any presidential election since 1948. Why is this?
I guess it’s because the president is a uniter, not a divider.
How important is it for you to push President Bush out of the White House?
It’s very important for the country. When I’m being flown around to speak to a corporation, they put me in first class, so I find myself sitting next to a lot of Republicans. And they’re really beginning to question the president. There are voters still in play, and it’s important that we fight back in the way that we’re doing, in the way that this radio network was designed to do. It’s critical to get information out there in a way that people enjoy receiving it and that makes them understand that this is a divisive president. Being a liberal is about realizing that we’re all in this together and that unbridled greed is not what America is all about.
Yet some conservatives believe that being liberal means being evil and having no morals.
We have to understand that morality is not simply about not having sex before marriage. Morality is about not taking as much money as you can if you’re a CEO, and it’s about not cooking the books so it looks like your corporation is making a lot of money when it isn’t so you can exercise your stock options. Morality is about making sure that everybody in this country has a good education and health care and job training, so we can build our economy, become more prosperous, have a clean environment and have a better quality of life for everyone.
Liberals have been accused of having no sense of humor when it comes to politics, that they’re too serious about issues. Are you the only funny liberal?
That’s ridiculous. And I actually would challenge someone to show me one moment in which Sean Hannity has been funny. I want you to print that.
Likewise, many conservatives also claim that liberals aren’t patriotic and don’t love their country. Do you love your country?
There’s a good kind and a bad kind of patriotism. I wrote a book chapter titled “Loving America the Al Franken Way.” I think liberals love America the way adults love their parents, and conservatives love America the way a 3-year-old loves his mommy.
Has media consolidation reduced the number of voices in the community to only those who own a radio or television license?
There’s a real threat. The consolidation of media is a threat to democracy; and to correct this, we need a new president and a new FCC chairman.
Since Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl, there’s been a push at the FCC and Congress to severely restrict “indecent” programming on the airwaves. How do you feel about this snowballing effort?
I have mixed feelings about it. I am personally offended by some of the stuff that’s on the air. But I also know that I offend people all the time, so sometimes it’s hard to explain. There are certain words I might use in a speech to a college crowd that I would not use on my show. And sometimes a particular idea might offend someone. Sometimes I’ll use dark humor, or I’ll use it gratuitously. For instance, there’s a line in my book where I refer to Karl Rove as “human filth,” but it’s in the context of the 2000 election. Al Gore had just conceded, and George Bush gave this speech about national unity and working together. In the book I say that I couldn’t sleep that night, not because the election was stolen by human filth like Karl Rove, but because I agreed with the president on this need to come together. Now, right-wingers always say that I refer to him as “human filth” — but I did it in the context of the situation.
Still, you used the term “human filth” as an adjective to describe him.
There was a reason for it artistically. And I don’t mind someone reading that passage and saying, “I see why he used it,” or just getting mad. I don’t think they do get mad when they read why I used it, but the right takes something out of context, and I open myself up to that all the time. That’s why we’re going to have a lot of liberal people from show business on my show saying, “I’m a liberal and I hate America because…I want gay people to be able to marry chickens.” Because I know at some point Bill O’Reilly will say, “Franken’s got these liberals on, and they say they hate America.” You just have to say, “Yeah, he said those words, and it’s ironic, and you a—, you know it.”
Do we need broadcast standards covering on-air broadcasts?
I’m really a First Amendment guy, but I do think there should be standards. People ask me if I think I’m going to have problems with censorship, and the answer is “no.” I worked on television, and I worked with censors all the time on Saturday Night Live. They were my best friends, but I had fights with them all the time. Still, it’s nothing like what you can do on radio, so I’m not going to have any problems. I don’t feel I’m in position to determine what’s obscene and what isn’t. Much of what I hear on Rush or Hannity I feel is obscene. It upsets my moral standards, but they have a right to say it — and people can always choose not to listen.
Do you anticipate being invited to participate in “Talk Radio Day at the White House” this fall?
I don’t know. Do they invite people other than their jackals? I have a feeling I probably won’t be invited, but I would certainly be honored to come to the White House and be part of it. After all, the White House is the people’s house — that’s why I’d be honored.
In addition to doing comedy sketches and other humorous bits, Al Franken says he intends to invite high-profile newsmakers on his daily program, The O’Franken Factor. Radio Ink asked the self-proclaimed liberal about several particular guests, and how he might hypothetically begin an interview:
If President Bush came on your show as a guest, what would your first question be?
‘How are you doing today, sir?’
Then what would your second question be?
‘In May of 2001, you announced that you were appointing Vice President Dick Cheney to head the counter-terrorism task force, and you said that from time to time you would chair a meeting of the National Security Council to review their findings. If you added the number of times you chaired such a meeting with the number of times that the counter-terrorism task force chaired by Cheney actually met, and multiplied that times the federal debt, what would the product be, and why?’ That would tell us a number of things: whether the president knew that the task force never met, and whether the president knows that zero times anything equals zero. Then he could explain why they never met — and why they totally ignored the terrorist threat.
What would be your first question to John Kerry?
‘How are you doing today, sir?’
Okay, your second question?
‘How are we going to beat this guy?’ Or I could give him a softball like ‘The Bush campaign says you voted against these 13 weapons programs. How is that a lie?’
What would you ask Ralph Nader?
‘Are you crazy?’
Is that before or after ‘How are you doing today, sir?’
That’s my first question to him.
Al Franken On Iraq, The Military, And Saddam Hussein
Several months ago, Al Franken toured military bases in Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Uzbekistan, for which he was both loudly applauded and criticized. “It was my fourth USO tour,” Franken told Radio Ink. “I do them because I didn’t serve in the military, and I want to give something to them. I love our military, and I love the people in the military. Right now, they are unnecessarily in harm’s way, and by that I mean that this administration deliberately misled the American people as to why we had to go to war. Now, there’s also no doubt that Saddam Hussein is an evil f---, and I was very happy to celebrate the second day of Chanukah in his palace in Baghdad and light the candles as a ‘f----you’ gesture.”
Franken insists, however, that the ends — removing Hussein from power — far from justify the means. “The Bush administration really blew it,” he says. “It was a huge achievement for them to use the United Nations to get the inspectors into Iraq, and I applaud them for that. But once we had the inspectors there, Bush deliberately used misinformation to get us into that war — and in such a way as to alienate most of the rest of the world. They did not get a true international coalition. It includes England; every other country was bribed in some way. El Salvador? Come on. These are countries to which we paid money so they would send a few troops in so we could say it was an international coalition. Your taxpayer dollars at work, and our troops are bearing the burden.”
Additionally, Franken insists that “the way this administration deliberately ignored the planning for a post-invasion Iraq is a sin. The State Department was told in an incredibly prescient report that it had to prevent chaos in that country after the war, but the report was willfully ignored by Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and the president. It was total hubris. Remember what Rumsfeld said when people were looting? He said, ‘People in a free society are free to do what they want.’ Well, I’m sorry, but if they had read those reports, they would have known that what the looting did was make people feel that this occupying force was not keeping order and that they only cared about oil. It was a step toward what we have now. Because of that, we’ve lost more troops since the invasion ended than we lost during the invasion. That is the fault of Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, and, ultimately, the president. But I don’t really blame him, because I don’t think he paid any attention.”
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