This past weekend, I had a pretty unique opportunity to serve as host and MC for the Boston premier of Al Franken: God Spoke.
It's a documentary film which begins with the release of Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. The movie moves from the summer of 2004, through the formation of Air America Radio and the painful events of 11/02 to Franken's announcement that he was considering a move home to Minnesota where he might run for Senate in 2008 against Norm Coleman, the man who stole the seat from Paul Wellstone.
Balcony Releasing, the distributor, has teamed up with Drinking Liberally to promote the movie across the country, and DL definitely made up the majority of the audience, so it's working to some extent.
My job was to introduce the movie and then run a 20-minute "improvised Q&A" after it was over. What exactly does that mean? Good question. I wasn't sure how I'd pull that off, but seeing as I'm a political comedian, recently-trained improviser and Al Franken fan, I figured I could handle it.
I'm not going to talk much about my opening or the movie. Go see the film yourself. Go see me perform live yourself. I wanted, instead, to spend this space on the issues that came up after the film because I think some of it affects us all.
Issue 1: Why would Franken run for Senate? Isn't he more effective doing what he's doing now (satirist, radio host, rabble-rouser)?
The people who prefer Al to stick where he is had this to offer
- he's free now to say what he wants about whom he wants
- he has a national audience five days a week
- he can be as funny or outrageous as he wants; he's got artistic/creative freedom
- also, there was the idea that a celebrity might not be as effective in politics
in short, one democratic senator cannot affect as many people as one Al Franken
My take is this:
First, it's a good question. It's true that Al has a relatively national platform and artistic freedom to pursue the issues he wants and give a platform to other liberal voices (like CFAP, Salon.com and more). However, I think we're overlooking some important points merely focusing on the above angles.
Let's deal with celebrity first. Anyone can be an elected official, and anyone can be good or bad. It doesn't matter if you come from entertainment, business, politics, academia. I don't believe there's any correlation. Arnold had limited experience and is governing pretty well (ignore the politics and think, "does California function as well under Arnold as Gray Davis?"). Franken's effectiveness would have little to do with his origins in the entertainment biz. I'd also say he's proven himself to have a greater understanding of just about every issue than the average member of Congress.
Senator Franken would be incredibly fun to watch. I think he would do more for C-SPAN's ratings and civilian interest in politics than almost anyone else could. As a fan of C-SPAN, I would have to support his candidacy.
It's not quite accurate to think that one Democratic senator can't do a lot of good. The fact that he'd be replacing a Republican could tip the balance of power. One Democratic senator might allow the party to take over the Senate and control committees, lead investigations and maybe even pass a reasonable law or two.
There's an assumption built into this question about what "good" is. Yes, it's "good" to address a large audience for two hours a day, but it's also "good" to stop the US from starting an entirely unjustified war that has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis, not to mention dead and maimed US soldiers. If Senator Franken is willing to show the cajones that Senators Kerry, Edwards, Clinton and others would not (when they approved the war), I would say that's doing a hell of a lot of "good."
Finally, there's something demanding of the utmost respect when those from the sidelines who have been commenting and criticizing decide to put their money where their mouths are and jump in the ring. Howard Dean said it, and others have before him. If you've got a problem with the government, don't just complain. Don't just vote. Run! Using humor to highlight issues may not be far enough. This is a perfect segue to the next big question that came up.
Issue 2: What do you think is more successful/effective? Air America or The Daily Show and Colbert Report?
The premise here is
- Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are on the medium of television, not "just" radio
- The Daily Show has often been cited as the number one news source for young people and as good as "real news"
- Stewart-Colber `08 has garnered a lot of attention, though the men reject any attempts to draft them into office
This is a false premise, the idea that there's a binary choice between Air America and The Daily Show. Effective use of the media is about having a diversified platform to develop and disseminate a message. Do you think the Right asks, "is it better to have Fox News Channel or Rush Limbaugh?" Of course not! You have both plus an American Enterprise Institute and a Powerline Blog and some attack wenches like Michelle Malkin and Ann Cooter. Any machine requires many parts.
Air America is on the air for maybe 14 hours a day, and reaches a different demographic than TDS, which is on for 22 minutes a day. There's no time to get in-depth on TDS. And while it's popular among the young people, Air America (aka "just radio") reaches people with jobs and money who commute to work in their cars and listen from their cubicles. Also, I don't have time to do the research, but I imagine the Air America audience is bigger than TDS and Colbert.
Finally, Air America is explicitly partisan, and that's a good voice to have out there. Jon Stewart, on the other hand, has repeatedly distanced himself from the liberal camp and from actual activism. Note, this is not a judgement, just information. I had a chance to ask Stewart a question a few years ago at Harvard's JFK School of Government. The question was basically: "do you ever feel that humor isn't enough? That it's not an adequate response to the social and political problems it highlights? Do you ever feel the need to act?
His answer was short and to the point: "No."
That shocked me, and granted this was maybe 2-3 years ago, and he could have changed his mind, but I got the feeling he would never feel called to do anything beyond the humor. Personally, and as a comedian, I know I can't stop at the stage. I've campaigned for people. I've worked explicitly political or partisan events. This crap makes me so angry, I've gotta do more than get people to think about it through humor. I want folks to get up and move! Air America is about humor but also message, action and victory.
Issue 3: What's up with Air America financially? I hear they're bankrupt again.
There have been a lot of news stories, rumors and facts in the past week about the financial health of Air America. In fact, there have always been. Shortly after launch, AAR was off the air in Chicago and LA, reportedly for not paying rent. Seems the main fundraiser exaggerated the amount of funds raised. Then they fell off the air in NYC. And recently Franken himself said they were late on a check to him.
I have no idea what's up with the health of AAR, but I know what they are trying to do is difficult. In a medium dominated by the Right and facing fundamental challenges to its existence from time-shifting and Internet-based media models, who wouldn't have trouble launching a national radio network?
I just hope they make it, because we need them!
Issue 4: Question 2 on the upcoming Massachusetts ballot promotes "fusion" voting. Discuss'
This topic took a lot of time for the group to discuss, largely because the idea is confusing. Basically, the goal is to give issues more prominence in an election by allowing parties to endorse people that aren't their candidates. So the Green Party could endorse Ned Lamont, and so make a statement that it supports Lamont. The ballot would track people who voted for Lamont-Dem vs. Lamont-Green and in theory, if the latter is significant, he has to reflect their influence a bit.
New York State uses this. I have no idea how effective it is.
this is amazingly confusing and doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. The Green Party is more interested in fielding its own candidates, and if they like the Dem or Rep, they can say so via an endorsement. In the end the same person probably is going to win.
I'm in favor of more drastic election reform like proportional voting or maybe even vote-counting in certain circumstances.
Thanks for reading this. If you have questions or, better, answers of your own, leave'em in the comments!