Al Franken came to Portland today in the service of both Air America affiliate AM 620 KPOJ and the Democratic Party of Oregon. In between the two events, Franken squeezed in some media time with local television, print and online journalists (including an ersatz reporter or two).
During our brief conversation, an understandably fatigued Franken quickly ranged across the landscape of talk radio and politics. Ever gracious, fair and balanced, Franken gave kudos to the good guys, blasted the evil doers, and offered a Clintonesque close-but-no-cigar to the rest.
The discussion, to his apparent relief, started on a lighter note. Asked to name his favorite political irony during his time as a commentator, Franken replied immediately and without hesitation, "Rush being a drug addict, Bennett being a gambling addict, and O’Reilly being a phone sex harasser." These turnabouts are all the sweeter because "they all talk about traditional values."
Of Limbaugh, the man who said that drugs addicts "should be put away," Franken said simply that that the serial abuser of painkillers "should be gone." Franken then went on to offer a recital of the greatest hits of Bill Bennett, author of The Book of Virtues and problem gambler extraordinaire. Al noted that Bennett, who went through $8 million during his binge, said "I won more than I lost," a point Bennett said was lost on the public as "casinos don't like to advertise when you win." And special venom, of course, was reserved for Fox host and traditional values advocate Bill O’Reilly. "I didn't know that phone sex was traditional. I didn't know the phone was around long enough to be traditional. Maybe telegraph sex…"
The success of Air America and the struggles of the Democratic Party in fighting the conservative movement were also key discussion topics. Dismissing one reporter’s suggestion that National Public Radio (NPR) already represented liberal radio, Franken retorted, "NPR is not advocacy or liberal radio. It's RADIO. It's actual news."
Acknowledging that today's 24/7 "infotainment" media provides conservatives with a "terrain that gives advantage to people who are unscrupulous with the truth," Franken said his mission on Air America mission is not to get on "their level. I fight back clean, but that doesn't mean I won't fight hard." For Franken, the contrast with conservative talk radio couldn’t be more stark:
"Their [conservative talk radio] level is lying. We don’t manipulate our audience. We serve our audience."
When it comes to the potential for marketing Air America and, by extension, Democratic messages, Al was much less enthusiastic. "The thing that interests me least about the radio business is the radio business." As for what passes for marketing and "branding" within the progressive movement, Franken was blunt. "We have George Lakoff [author of the current progressive bible Don't Think of An Elephant] and they have Frank Luntz. Lakoff is a terrible framer." While Democratic advisor Lakoff might conclude that "I've discovered that melody is important", the Republicans "have Paul McCartney."
Before parting, Franken urged the media to cover two key stories he claimed were still flying under the radar. First, he said, was "corruption in Iraq. $8.8 billion is missing. The money went somewhere. Because of it, our soldiers are dying." The second, Franken insisted, was the issue of foreign aid to developing nations. During the just concluded British elections, "every party talked about aid to the developing world. We don't talk about that here. The Christian Conservatives who are supposedly so compassionate don’t talk about it."
For them, Franken concluded with both resignation and a smile, "life begins at conception and ends at birth."