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Local cartoonist has hand in Franken's right-wing roast

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

If I were to take a wild guess, I'd bet that Bill O'Reilly and his colleagues at the Fox News Channel spent the weekend, as many of us did, reading Al Franken's "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right."

He may never admit it, but I'm betting that O'Reilly is vain enough to read every word ever written about him, especially those penned by a critic as caustic and funny as Franken. No matter how much he tries to "spin it" -- to use a slightly hackneyed phrase -- O'Reilly probably bounced Franken's newly minted best seller off the walls several times over the weekend. And who could blame him?

Unlike his lantern-jawed stable mate Sean Hannity, O'Reilly is smart enough to be embarrassed by Franken's revelations. For instance, prior to reading about it in "Lies," I had no idea that five years ago, O'Reilly published a lowbrow suspense thriller, "Those Who Trespass," that featured a fairly graphic sex scene between a serial killer and a tabloid reporter.

Because this is a family newspaper, I can't be too specific about the scene except to say that the rappers O'Reilly mercilessly mau-maued for years have nothing on him when it comes to depicting, um, the transgressive nature of certain sex acts by unmarried people.

If Ludacris and Snoop Dogg had known about O'Reilly's book when he was pimp-slapping them last year for foisting immoral lyrics on America's youth, it would've brought a new dimension to the debate, along with countercharges of hypocrisy.

Obviously, O'Reilly has walked the same mean streets as Snoop in the darkened corridors of his imagination. But unlike the star of "Doggy Fizzle Televizzle," O'Reilly hasn't been able to make a lot of money packaging soft-core porn for the masses.

The laughter at the expense of O'Reilly and Fox News officially began Friday. A federal judge in Manhattan refused Fox's request for an injunction against Franken and his publisher, Penguin Group. The cable channel had alleged violations of its exclusive trademark of the term "fair and balanced."

Fox argued that the presence of the phrase on the jacket of Franken's book along with O'Reilly's picture would be interpreted as a tacit endorsement of the book's content. Legions of satire-impaired television viewers would buy it, reflexively thinking they were picking up the latest installment of "The No Spin Zone."

Even as U.S. District Judge Denny Chin was dismissing the request as "wholly without merit, both factually and legally," Franken's book -- already a hotter commodity thanks to the ineptitude of Fox's lawyers -- was filling up store shelves all over the country.

Starved for a humorous but factual dissection of the histrionics of right-wing pundits and the politicians they shill for, Americans are gobbling up Franken's book. Yesterday it clocked in as the No. 1 top seller at Amazon.com.

Fox, meanwhile, dropped its lawsuit yesterday, saying it was "time to return Al Franken to the obscurity that he's normally accustomed to."

Fortunately, "Lies" isn't just about O'Reilly and his compatriots at Fox. What "Lies" does best is profile notorious right-wingers from columnist Ann Coulter and Attorney General John Ashcroft to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Pittsburgh billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, putting their contributions to the coarsening of political discourse into context. The author even outs himself for a cruel, though hilarious, prank that he and one of his 14 Harvard research assistants played on the guileless folks manning the admissions office of Bob Jones University.

Along with wage slaves he picked up in the Ivy League, Franken also recruited some local talent: Don Simpson, a nationally known comic book artist who lives in West View. Simpson illustrated two of the book's most important chapters -- a subversive parable called "The Gospel of Supply Side Jesus" and a brutal satire called "Operation Chickenhawk: Episode One."

The first thing that Simpson, 41, did when he got his hands on a copy of the book was check the resolution of the drawings. Because this is the highest-profile gig he's ever had, he was vaguely worried that pages would be printed in the wrong order or upside down.

"That could really kill a cartoon," he said with mock seriousness. Finding his name in the credits along with Franken's flattering tribute to his talent made him smile. All the last-minute hustle and anxiety connected with the book was worth it.

Simpson got the gig in early June after PG editorial cartoonist Rob Rogers recommended him to Franken, who was then scouring the country for an artist who could turn the assignment around quickly.

After submitting samples of the first five panels of "Supply Side Jesus" to Franken, Simpson assumed it would be days before he even got a reaction from one of his assistants. Instead, Franken responded immediately. "This is fabulous," the satirist wrote in a terse but encouraging e-mail. "Keep going."

Two months and one futile court challenge later, the book is on the shelves. As a result, Simpson -- a Charlie Brown type if ever there was one -- expects good things to happen. "This is the biggest audience I've ever had," said the artist, who is best known in the comics world for his "Megaton Man" series.

"This won't be restricted to comic shops and niche markets like my other projects. People I respect like [NPR's] Terry Gross will run their eyes across my drawings. That's pretty exciting. The worst thing that could happen is that right-wing critics of the book will ignore my contribution in their rush to get Al."

Meanwhile, the only mistake I could find in Franken's heavily fact-checked tome is a relatively minor one on page 34. In a footnote referring to a story in this newspaper, Franken refers to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette without its patented hyphen.

Because the hyphen is as much a part of this paper's trademark as the motto "One of America's Great Newspapers," we trust that Franken will see to it that a hyphen is inserted in the paperback edition. If not, the lawyers that Fox News hired are standing by.


Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.

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