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Lies: And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them … a Fair and Balanced Look at the Right by Al Franken


Rating: (Recommended)


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Al Franken received a gift from Fox when that company sued because of the use of their slogan in the subtitle of the new book, Lies: And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them … a Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. Thanks to that added publicity, thousands more copies of this book were sold. In my case, it caught my attention, and I went ahead and read it, expecting Franken’s humor to dominate the book. Instead, while there are funny moments, most of the book counters the attacks from the Right with other perspectives and facts not often presented. Since Bill O’Reilly was the figure most incensed by the book (because of his splotchy face on the book’s cover), our excerpt is from Chapter 13, “Bill O’Reilly: Lying, Splotchy Bully,” (pp. 65-71):

Last time I saw Bill O'Reilly in person, he called me an "idiot" and screamed at me to "shut up!" He also said I was "vicious, with a capital V," which I suppose means that I'm especially vicious. This all happened on national television, if you can call C-SPAN national television.

We were in Los Angeles at an annual publishing hootenanny called the BookExpo America. We were both there to promote our books. Bill was hawking his latest. Living with Herpes,[1] while I was promoting (with evident success) the book you are enjoying right now. We were on a panel with the wise, witty, and wonderful Molly Ivins, who was there to discuss her newest, Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush's America.

I was concerned there might be fireworks between me and O'Reilly. A preliminary cover of my book had been blown up and prominently displayed at the convention center. And based upon what I know about Bill, it occurred to me that having to walk past a giant foamcore book cover calling him a liar might light his notoriously short fuse. Also, as you may have noticed, the cover features an unflattering picture of O'Reilly looking splotchy and ill-tempered. Blown up ten times, he looked ten times splotchier. For the record, I had been hoping to get a better picture, or at least have the cover artist remove the splotches.

I first saw Bill when he charged into the green room and accused, not me, but Lisa Johnson, my 109-pound publicist, of doctoring the cover photo to make him look bad. "This is what I look like," he said angrily, pointing at his nose. "I've never looked like that! You responsible for this?" he said, leaning his six-foot-four frame toward her and jabbing his finger menacingly. "That's a doctored photo. This is what I look like," again with the pointing. Which seemed a little unnecessary, since both Lisa and I recognized him from his many appearances on television.

I tried to calm him down. "Bill, Lisa had nothing to do with the photo."

"This is what I look like."

"I know, I know."

"I've never looked like that."

"Bill, Bill. This is a preliminary cover." I explained that, in fact, I had wanted to have the photo doctored to take out the splotches. I'd even wanted them to retouch my photo. "Look," I said, "I want hem to take about forty pounds off my ass." I thought that might lighten the mood.[2]

No sale. "I don't look like that. This is what I look like." Point. Point.

"Bill, we'd love to have a picture of you from The Factor. Something of you lying. Anything with your mouth open would work." Again, trying to lighten the mood. But I wasn't getting through.

By then the moderator of our panel. Pat Schroeder, was summoning us to the event, where seven hundred of America's best—our nation's booksellers—sat waiting for what promised to be a high-minded and civilized exchange of contrasting views between two men and a woman of letters. 

Molly went first and enchanted us all with her tart Texas wit. Next up, O'Reilly. After talking about his book for about five minutes, he began to talk about mine. Seeking to contrast his style with my own, he said, "I don't call people names.... I don't call anybody a liar. I'm not doing that. I'm trying to elevate the discourse . . . I don't call people big, fat idiots."

Nobody missed the reference to my book Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot.

Then it was my turn. Like the other panelists, I spent the first part of my allotted time describing my book in general terms. Then I got to O'Reilly. I felt a certain obligation to explain why a fellow panelist's face was on the cover of a book whose title included the words, "lies," "lying," and "liars."

So, I told a little story.

A couple of years ago, I was watching Bill O'Reilly on C-SPAN. He was being interviewed in front of an audience about his book The No Spin Zone. The interviewer reached back a few years into O'Reilly's career. "Now, you were the host of Inside Edition. That was kind of a tabloid show." (I'm paraphrasing here—1 don't have this one on tape.)

"Tabloid show?!" O'Reilly was indignant. "We won two Peabodys!"

"Well, still. It was a tabloid show."

"I beg your pardon, but the Peabody is only the most prestigious award in journalism," O'Reilly answered with great umbrage.

"But you have to admit. Inside Edition was something of a tabloid show."

"So you want us to give the Peabodys back?" O'Reilly smirked. "We won two Peabodys, the most prestigious award in journalism."

Watching at home, I knew O'Reilly was right about one thing: The George Foster Peabody award is the most prestigious in broadcast journalism. But what on earth could Inside Edition have won a Peabody for? For its "Swimsuits: How Bare Is Too Bare?" story? Or maybe its three-part series on the father of Madonna's first baby, Carlos Leon?

So I went to my Nexis, and put in "Peabody Award" and "Inside Edition." I did get three hits.

They were all Bill O'Reilly claiming that Inside Edition had won a Peabody. Or two. If you read these O'Reilly Factor excerpts closely, you'll see an interesting progression.

August 30,1999:

O'REILLY: I anchored a program called Inside Edition, which has won a Peabody Award.

May 8,2000:

O'REILLY: Well, all I've got to say to that is Inside Edition has won, I—1 believe two Peabody awards, the highest journalism award in the country.

May 19, 2000 (with guest Arthel Neville):

NEVILLE! You hosted Inside Edition . . .

O'REILLY: Correct.

NEVILLE: Which is considered a tabloid show.

O'REILLY: By whom?

NEVILLE: By many people.

O'REILLY: Does that mean . . .

NEVILLE: And even you . . .

O'REILLY: . . . we throw the Peabody Awards back? . . . We won Peabody Awards.


Next I went to the Peabody website, which lists all their winners throughout the years. No Inside Edition. Still, to be thorough, I called the Peabody people, and asked the woman on the other end of the line, "Yeah, did, by any chance, the show Inside Edition ever win a Peabody?"

She laughed. "No, Inside Edition has never been the recipient of a Peabody Award."

I decided to call Bill. He was nice enough to get right back to me.

"Yeah, Al, what can I do for you?"

"Well, first of all, Bill, congratulations on all your success."

"Thanks. What's up?"

"Okay. I saw you the other night on C-SPAN, and you said Inside Edition had won a couple of Peabodys."

"That's right. We won two. "

"Well, maybe you should check that out with the Peabody people. Because they don't think you did."

There was a pause on the other end of the phone. Then, "I'll call you back."

About ten minutes later. Bill was on the line.

"It was a Polk."

"A Polk?" I asked.

"Yeah. Just as prestigious as the Peabody."

"So, there are two most prestigious awards in journalism?"

Bill didn't appreciate the sarcasm. "Al, it's a very prestigious award."

"Fine," I said. "But, Bill, don't you think it's little ironic that you got it wrong about a journalism award ? "

"Okay, Al, go after me if you want," and he hung up.

And, by the way, that Polk? Inside Edition won it over a year after O'Reilly left the show.

I thought Bill's reaction was odd. He hadn't said, "Omigod! How embarrassing! I can't believe I've been saying that! Thank you so much, Al, for calling me. Now I won't humiliate myself by making that mistake again. Thank you so much for calling me rather than taking it public." Instead it was, "Go after me if you want."

So, I did. I called Lloyd Grove at the Washington Post's Reliable Source column. Lloyd ran with it on March 1, 2001, checking Nexis. He also offered Bill the opportunity to respond and quoted him saying, "Al Franken is on a jihad against me. So I got mixed up between a Peabody Award and a Polk Award, which is just as prestigious."

Okay. So that was over. He got caught making a mistake, was kind of a jerk about it. Fine.

Hang on.

A couple other papers picked up the Peabody story from the Post. Newsday ran a March 8 column by Robert Reno titled "Some Factors About O'Reilly Aren't Factual."

On March 13, 0'Reilly introduced that night's Personal Stories segment: "Attack Journalism." "This is personal to me, because some writers are really violating every tenet of fairness in what they're saying in print about your humble servant."

His guest was Michael Wolff, the terrific media columnist for New York magazine. O'Reilly and Wolff began by discussing the definition of "attack journalism." O'Reilly, it was clear, considered himself an expert on attack journalism, but not for the reasons you might think.

March 13,2001:

O'REILLY: If you lie about someone it goes right up on the Nexis, where everyone can read it. . . . I'll give you an example. Guy says about me, couple weeks ago, O'Reilly said he won a Peabody Award. Never said it. You can't find a transcript where I said it. You—there is no one on earth you could bring in that would say I said it. Robert Reno in Newsday, a columnist, writes in his column, calls me a liar, all right? And it's totally fabricated. That's attack journalism. It's dishonest, it's disgusting, and it hurts reputations.

WOLFF: It's also incorrect journalism, if it's wrong . . .

O'REILLY: It is wrong.

WOLFF: Okay, well, then the guy made a mistake.

O'REILLY: No, come on. He made a mistake that's—lives forever in the Nexis. And did he write a column the next day saying he made a mistake?

WOLFF: Well, obviously, obviously, obviously he should—usually, I find, if someone's made a mistake, if you ask them to correct it, they do correct it.

O'REILLY: No, not in this society anymore.


So that was the story I told the seven hundred booksellers at the BookExpo America luncheon. Bill O'Reilly "mistook" one Polk that the show won, after he left it, for two Peabodys that, as he put it, "we" won. But then, not two weeks after conceding his error both to me and to the Washington Post, he attacked a journalist for accurately describing what he had done. I'd found four separate incidents where he had claimed to have won Peabodys, three of them in Nexis transcripts. O'Reilly bellowed: "Never said it. You can't find a transcript where I said it . . . it's totally fabricated. That's attack journalism. It's dishonest, it's disgusting, and it hurts reputations."

So, O'Reilly had lied to cover up his "mistake," and he had called an honest reporter a liar.

The entire crowd seemed to enjoy all the ironies of the story. With one exception. Bill O'Reilly, sitting three feet to my right, had become so angry he had developed another splotch. As I was telling the story I could see him stewing, gripping his pen with seething fury. My wife, watching on television three thousand miles away, thought that Bill was going to jam the pen through my eyeball and into my brain.

But I was having fun. Not because I enjoy attacking people gratuitously. But because O'Reilly is a bully and he deserved it. Everything I had said was true. On his show, O'Reilly cuts off anyone who disagrees with him. If they stand up for themselves, he shouts them down, but this wasn’t his show.

When I concluded my remarks, O’Reilly went nuts. First, he called me an “idiot,” fulfilling his earlier promise to “elevate the discourse.” Then the King of the No Spin Zone, where spinning is prohibited, started deliberately mischaracterizing what everyone in the room and watching at home had just heard me say. “All he’s got in six and a half years is that I misspoke, that I labeled a Polk Award a Peabody. He writes it in his book, he tries to make me out to be a liar …”

Of course, that wasn’t the problem. The problem was what he did once he was confronted with his “misstatement.” He went on the attack and lied. And here he was doing it again. “No, no, no,” I tried to interrupt.

“Hey, SHUT UP! You had your thirty-five minutes.” (I had spoken for twenty.) “SHUT UP!!!”

Tempers flared. A moment later, O’Reilly was spinning like Ari Fleisher’s dreidel. “This guy accuses me of being a liar, ladies and gentlemen, on national television because I misspoke and labeled a Peabody a Polk.” Vintage O’Reilly. I had accused him of the ultimate sin. As he had said on a C-SPAN call-in earlier that day, “Once you lie, you’re out of the box. That’s the No Spin Zone.”


[1] Actually, the full title is Living with Herpes in George W. Bush’s America.

2 For the record, the ass on the cover belongs to male model Tyson Beckford. Thanks, Ty.

Readers who are weary of the rhetoric of the Right will embrace Lies. Any reader interested in a variety of points of view will find Franken’s presentation fascinating.

Steve Hopkins, October 28, 2003


ã 2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the November 2003 issue of Executive Times

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[1] Actually, the full title is Living with Herpes in George W. Bush’s America.

[2] For the record, the ass on the cover belongs to male model Tyson Beckford. Thanks, Ty.