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Sierra Magazine

Sierra's March/April 2004 Let's Talk book selection:
Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right
A book by Al Franken

Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them What it's about
Former Saturday Night Live writer Al Franken might have landed atop best-seller lists without anyone’s help, but the Fox News Channel’s well-publicized lawsuit against Franken for trademark infringement formalized his position there. The scorn and ridicule that Franken heaps on his enemies will be uncomfortable for some (his chapter on cable television’s top-rated talking head is titled "Bill O’Reilly: Lying, Splotchy Bully") and a refreshing call to arms for those who have watched a conservative juggernaut rumble over long-valued public policies, including many environmental laws. For example, Franken’s chapter on George W. Bush’s environmental record juxtaposes the president’s glowing appeals from his Earth Day 2001 speech to the toxic realities of concentrated animal feeding operations in the heartland and mountaintop-removal mining in Appalachia. Franken wants us to laugh, but he also wants us to get very angry: "As you read this," he writes, "[Bush’s] self-interested coterie of industry shills are dismantling the protections that you and I take for granted."

Where to get it
To get a taste of what's in store, you can read an excerpt online at Al Franken’s official Web site, Try your local library, your favorite local or online bookstore, or take a very long drive so you can listen to Franken read the book aloud on an unabridged, ten-hour set of audio compact discs or audio cassettes.

About the author
Few would suspect that Al Franken grew up among Republicans. But his formative years in Minnesota were spent listening to his Democrat mother and Republican father debate at the dinner table. When Al was a teenager, Barry Goldwater’s opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act prompted Franken’s father to switch parties. But by then the importance of political discourse--as well as the obligation to keep the conversation entertaining--were cemented in the Harvard-bound adolescent’s mind.

Today Franken is best known for two books, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right (2003) and Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations (1996). Before making his mark as a political commentator, of course, Franken was known for the 15 seasons he spent writing and performing for NBC’s Saturday Night Live, honing oddly memorable caricatures of lesser -known politicos like Paul Simon and Paul Tsongas—along with Henry Kissinger, Pat Robertson, and his most endearing figure, the milquetoast self-help guru, Stuart Smalley.

In 1988, Franken provided political commentary for CNN at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. In 1992 and 1996 he anchored Comedy Central’s election coverage with then-Republican Arianna Huffington. (On the comedy network’s Politically Incorrect, Franken and Huffington delivered commentary while lying side-by-side in bed; the segment was called "Strange Bedfellows.") Franken has also written for Newsweek, the Nation, and Rolling Stone, among other publications. He recently announced that he would host a liberal radio talk show, an alternative to the proliferation of right-wing radio commentators like Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage. According to Franken, its goal is "to change the political landscape in this country, get rid of the right-wing president, and serve as a beacon of hope for Americans who work hard and play by the rules."

Discussion questions Printable version of questions

  • Much of the material Franken covers has been addressed ably by less satirical writers, such as Joe Conason, Eric Alterman, Paul Krugman, and Molly Ivins. (In fact, in his acknowledgements, Franken quips, "Eric Alterman, thanks for writing a book on bias that I could just add jokes to.") Does Franken’s wit help or hinder your understanding of the Bush administration and the political right? Do his punch lines get in the way of his punch?

  • If you've read other books critical of the Bush administration, how does this book compare? What would be the first title you’d recommend to a person interested in learning more? Why?

  • Franken is bluntly partisan, staking out what one reviewer calls "angry man territory on the left." Do you find the approach refreshingly honest and effective, or alienating?

  • Franken takes on what he calls the myth of a liberal media, citing his researchers’ study of the 2000 presidential elections. It found that of 1,149 stories from 17 leading news sources, the percentage of positive news stories on George W. Bush was double the number of positive stories on Al Gore. Do environmental stories suffer from a similar bias? If so, is the problem attributable to ideological bias or to other reasons? Though he launches a scathing criticism of ideologically driven media outlets such as Fox News, Franken says "the mainstream media at least try to be fair." Do you agree, particularly when it comes to environmental issues?

  • When describing the political efforts of the Bush administration, Franken cites a well-publicized letter by University of Pennsylvania professor John Dilulio, former Bush-appointed head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In it, Dilulio states: "What you got is everything—and I mean everything—run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the 'Mayberry Machiavellis.'" If you agree with Dilulio, what examples can you cite of politicization of environmental issues by the Bush administration?

  • In his chapter focusing on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), Franken says, "I’m not going to put you through a long list of horrible environmental actions taken by this administration. Instead I refer you to the Internet. For instance, a Google search of ‘Bush, horrible, environment’ yields 42,500 websites." If you’ve followed the litany of Bush administration attacks on the environment over the past three years, how do you introduce the topic to someone who hasn’t? What would you say to someone if they accuse you of exaggerating the facts, that it all seems unbelievable?

  • Franken quotes Robert F. Kennedy Jr., president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, who frames the problem of corporate-pork-farm pollution in a broad political context: "They cannot produce hogs, or pork chops, or bacon more efficiently than a family farm without breaking the law. They’re not in favor of responsibility, of democracy, or private property. It’s just about privatizing the air, water, all the things that the public’s supposed to own. . . . That’s the only coherent philosophy they have." Does a statement like this help issues gel for you—or do you worry that environmentalists will be accused of left-wing paranoia?

  • With a simple graphic matrix, Franken summarizes the ties between Bush administration officials and the industries they once lobbied for and now regulate. Do you find this snapshot device helpful? Can you think of other ways to telegraph complicated relationships between the Bush administration and environmental issues?

  • In his discussion of CAFOs, Franken admits: "To be totally honest, I wish the Clinton administration had done more to address the pig shit problem. But at least he was pushing in the right direction. Toward the end of his administration, the EPA issued stringent new CAFO regulations, requiring hog factories to take responsibility for their waste and initiating suits against some of the violators." Yet those rules were issued in December 2000, after presidential election results were known. Do you think we’d be nearing the end of a first-term Gore administration had Clinton and Gore been bolder on environmental issues?

  • For all his spoofing, Franken delivers a starkly serious message: "We have to be more than vigilant. We have to fight back. And we have to do it in a straightforward, plainspoken way." Does his book serve as an effective call to arms?

  • As an alternative to right-wing radio, Franken will soon be hosting a liberal radio show. Will you listen to it?

  • Links
    In addition to Franken’s Web site (, a comprehensive fan site can be found at

    Take action
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