Archive for Monday, August 18, 2003

Fair and balanced’ off limits?

August 18, 2003

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First America had to endure Spike Lee's lawsuit against a television network that wanted to include the word "spike" in its call sign. Now a different television network is suing an author to prevent him from using the phrase "fair and balanced" in the title of his book. Pretty soon it's going to be impossible to have a conversation in English without violating somebody's copyright.

The Fox News Network has used the catchphrase "fair and balanced" to describe its reporting since 1996. Apparently, network leaders are so enamored of these three words that they somehow obtained a trademark for them. No one else is allowed to advertise their news coverage as "fair and balanced" except for Fox News.

Enter Al Franken -- a raging, unabashed liberal who lives to needle the conservative types who own and operate Fox News. He has a new book coming out called "Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right." The title is obviously a jab at Fox News and is no doubt meant to make light of its "fair and balanced" claim.

But Fox does not appreciate the subtle art of satire, at least not when it comes to its cherished self-description, and the network is suing Franken to prevent him from including the words in the title of his book. The lawsuit claims that Franken's book will "blur and tarnish" Fox's patented phrase, and executives also take issue with the book's cover design because it mimics the style of two books published previously by Fox icon Bill O'Reilly.

The complaint goes on to label Franken as a "shrill and unstable" individual whose views "lack any serious depth or insight." It also calls Franken a "parasite" who is trying dishonestly to capitalize on Fox's reputation. Fox execs seem to be concerned that its loyal customers may pick up Franken's book by mistake because of its misleading title and cover design.

Which is, of course, ridiculous. I doubt that very many loyal Fox News viewers are going to buy Franken's book simply because it has the words "fair and balanced" in the title and the cover design is similar to an O'Reilly book. Generally, one doesn't buy a book after just taking a cursory glance at the cover -- you've either heard something about the book that has piqued your interest or you pick it up and thumb through it to get an idea of what's between the covers. In either case, typical Fox News loyalists will know enough to keep Franken's book at arm's length even without Fox's paternalistic attempt at protecting them from being misled by a scheming liberal satirist.

The real reason that this lawsuit is being filed is that the suits at Fox don't like Franken, and they are torqued that he is using their catchphrase to ridicule them. This is just the latest installment of a long-standing spitting contest that's been going on between the two parties for some time.

The irony is that the lawsuit will provide Franken with reams of free publicity for his book and can only help to guarantee its debut on the best-seller list.

Of course, that may have been Franken's plan from the start, and the Fox people may be unwittingly playing a starring role in his marketing campaign. The guy may be "shrill and unstable," but apparently he's not stupid.

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