By Ciro Scotti
Is that boo-hooing I hear coming from Fox News, just across 48th Street from BusinessWeek headquarters in New York? Well, maybe I'm hearing things. But it sure is heart-warming to imagine Fox's supersized boss Roger Ailes and his fair-and-balanced band blubbering from the slap in the face a federal judge delivered to them recently.
Fox had sued left-wing comedian and political satirist Al Franken for using the words "fair and balanced" in the title of his new book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. The network that has wrapped itself, mummy-like, in the flag tried to deny Franken his constitutional right to free speech and self-expression by contending that the words "fair and balanced" implied an endorsement of the book by Fox. It is, of course, the self-described "fair and balanced" network, at least by its own definition.
On Aug. 22, U.S. District Court Judge Denny Chin in Manhattan dismissed the suit, in essence telling Fox, owned by Aussie émigré Rupert Murdoch, to get a life and a sense of humor.
Now Fox, and especially its blustery everyman host Bill O'Reilly, are the laughingstock of Media City. Laughing hardest is Franken, a hilarious and sometimes abrasive ex-writer and performer on Saturday Night Live whose previous books include Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. With a little help from his enemies at Fox, Lies and the Lying Liars is now the #2 best-selling book on Amazon.com, as of Sept. 3, and has also just grabbed the top spot on The New York Times Best-Seller List.
Bullies always whimper when they get the bejeezus beat out of them, especially by a nerdy-looking guy with glasses (Franken's comedic persona), and especially when such a big crowd is watching the fisticuffs. But Fox isn't just a bully, it's a sorry sport. In deciding not to further pursue its complaint against Franken, the network said in a statement on Aug. 25: "It's time to return Al Franken to the obscurity he is normally accustomed to." Ooo! Ouch!
If the warrior network wants to show that it's man enough to take a licking in a fair fight and get on with being so balanced, it ought to hire Franken, not belittle him. Right now, the most liberal among all the conservative voices on Fox is Alan Colmes of Hannity & Colmes. He's the weak sister to Sean Hannity, the overheated patriot who has never pulled on a pair of combat boots.
Why not a political shouting show that pits Franken against one of Fox's conservative firebrands? O'Reilly, who is said to have badgered Fox to sue Franken, wouldn't do it. His own show is too successful, and in umpteen news reports about the suit, clips on rival CNN showed O'Reilly squaring off against Franken during a panel discussion at a book-industry convention -- and completely losing it. Fox, which suggested in its suit that Franken was "unstable," might want to look at those clips of O'Reilly brought to a boil.
Here's my choice: Ann Coulter, the cable talk-show uber-guest and blond-haired darling of the right. Franken would have a much tougher time goading this unflappable siren of conservatism. The Joe McCarthy-loving Barbie-look-alike has a book of her own out now, Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism, just like Franken. It's No. 47 on Amazon.com's best-seller list. A true-believing liberal vs. a true-believing goddess of whitebread would be a ratings-grabber for Fox. But perhaps it's far too risky for Ailes, O'Reilly, and the network's other cheesy-patriotism peddlers. What they don't want is to strike a balance by giving a forum to a lefty with a bruisingly funny left hook.
Scotti, senior editor for government and sports business, offers his views every week in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht