This is a transcript of the Saturday, May 29, 2004 edition of "Fox News Watch" that has been edited for clarity.
ERIC BURNS, HOST: This week, FOX News Watch: Segment One: "The New York Times" says it hasn't been tough enough on the president. Segment Two: This man violates the FCC standards for decency. -- Do these pictures violate them, too? And Segment Three: The Pope takes on the media; the new "Rosie" magazine for gay families; and possibly a new network for Walter Cronkite (search ), and you won't believe what it is.
First, the latest news.
BURNS: It was another tough week for the president in the press. "The Washington Post" said that his speech Monday was a bust, and "The New York Times" took the extraordinary step of, in effect, apologizing for being too favorable in its coverage of the war in Iraq, meaning it's another week of good topics for Jim Pinkerton of "Newsday," syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, Jane Hall of the American University, and media writer Neal Gabler.
I'm Eric Burns. FOX News Watch is coming right up.
First, "The New York Times," which said, in reviewing its earlier coverage of the war in Iraq, it found "a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then and seems questionable now was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged or failed to emerge."
In other words, Neal, what they did was they were too pro-war for their own good, they thought, and for the country's own good -- for the country's own good -- and they were terrible in applying basic journalistic fact-checking principles to their work.
NEAL GABLER, MEDIA WRITER: Absolutely, although I think this apology is way too little way too late. I mean, they were not sufficiently skeptical about the reports that they published in the ramp up to the war and then later in the weapons of mass destruction, and, in point of fact, I don't think they've been sufficiently penitent afterwards. Judith Miller (search), who wrote most of these articles, still works at "The New York Times." She has not been fired.
BURNS: And, by the way, when we had our end-of-the-year show, two of you on the panel -- I forget. Who was it?
GABLER: Jim and I.
BURNS: You picked Judith Miller, who was mostly responsible for what "The New York Times" was -- as the worst journalist of the year.
JIM PINKERTON, "NEWSDAY": So let's give her another...
BURNS: Let's give her another...
PINKERTON: I don't think that the "Times" as a newspaper was pro-war. I think they were clearly antiwar. However, they had a rogue reporter named Judith Miller who wrote all -- got all bad information, put it in the paper, and the "Times," for reasons I can't understand, can't bring itself to say Judith Miller made a mistake.
In that article that Bill Keller -- the editor's piece, he didn't mention her. He sort of -- they couched it in all those vagaries of editors, this and that and deadlines and so on. They should have said she did a bad time, and, if she had any honor, she'd quit.
JANE HALL, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: You know, it's so interesting. I mean, the main source on many of her stories, which she put in an e-mail that Howie Kurtz of "The Washington Post" got months ago, was this discredited guy [Iraqi Governing Council member Ahmad] Chalabi, and it seems to me it took the United States raiding his headquarters recently for "The New York Times" to finally apologize.
I think it's hard for Jim, if I may so, to understand because this flies in the face that liberal, dovish "New York Times." They were taking information, putting it on the front page, that helped lead us to go to this war, and I think that's a pretty serious offense, bigger than the Jayson Blair thing by far.
CAL THOMAS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: You could have taken this -- and it wasn't really an apology; it was more of an explanation -- and exchanged it for the same modified mea culpa the "Times" wrote on the Wen Ho Lee case, the Los Alamos scientist who was accused of taking home and doing Lord knows what with classified documents.
Now the question is: How many times is this going to happen before things really change? If this is a cultural problem at the "Times" and, as both of you have said, this woman who went over the top with some of this bogus reporting is still there, clearly they're not taking this seriously enough.
BURNS: Well, here's another question. How many other news organizations, print or broadcast, owe the American public, Neal, an apology? Certainly, the "Times" wasn't the only one who fell for certain sources.
GABLER: Yes. One of the only things I believe in the "Times" mea culpa was the fact that they were not alone. Let's face it. The entire media apparatus virtually in this country marched in lockstep to war, and the basis, I suppose, that they felt it would be unpatriotic to cHALLenge the Bush administration.
BURNS: Well, it's not happening now. The Bush administration's being severely cHALLenged. As I mentioned at the beginning of the show, "The Washington Post" said that his speech the other night was a bust.
Jim, it seems to me that I have not seen such negative reviews in the press of a presidential address in a decade or more.
PINKERTON: Well, I thought back -- I'll show you how old I am -- to Nixon's -- President Nixon's speech about Vietnam in -- that was like late 1969 where we said we're going to fight the Vietnam War, we're going to stick to the course, and then Eric Sevareid, then famous CBS News correspondent and analyst, said nothing new, and this led to a firestorm.
People said, look, it's not the president's job to entertain the American people. It's the president's job to have a policy that he believes is true, and, for the press to simply say we do it like a Broadway show and say we're bored by this, caused a firestorm. Spiro Agnew got going shortly thereafter, and the whole backlash against the press, which is arguably still going on 35 years later, commenced.
HALL: You know, I thought it was interesting Bill O'Reilly, who describes himself as an independent, I believe, said on this network he didn't understand why people in the Bush administration didn't know that they were in trouble politically about this and that he should be out there more doing a better job of explaining the rational for the war. I mean, I think people who are in favor of President Bush were critical of this speech, and so that also colors the way it was received.
THOMAS: Yes, I want to return to something that Jim said, this whole idea that there's nothing new. Well, football players are supposed to master the fundamentals and do things in the fundamental way. It's not the press's job to determine whether something new or not or to be bored if there isn't anything new, and there is an interesting split in some of the editorial opinion.
The "Los Angeles Times" said that the president's speech this week lacked detail, but "USA Today" in an editorial said it was the most detailed speech they'd ever seen on this subject. So which is it?
GABLER: But it was the administration that he was going to lay out his policy here. So if you're going to lay that out, then you're going to have -- and those are the standards by which you're going to be judged, then you have to accept that. You know, there's an old joke about Freud that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes a bad speech is just a bad speech.
PINKERTON: Start with Clintonesque.
THOMAS: Well, it's not what Clinton meant. It's what Freud meant. It's what Neal meant.
BURNS: We have to take our first break. We'll be back with this.
The FCC has fined Howard Stern many times for being indecent. In the future, will it find news organizations for a different kind of indecency.
Stay tuned for more FOX News Watch.
BURNS: We have talked a lot on this program about the FCC (search) and indecency, but I don't think we've ever had a more interesting issue than we've got today. The Federal Communications Commission is now saying that news programs will be scrutinized for indecency. As a result, a group that represents some CBS stations has written to the FCC saying that they might have to run their newscasts after 10:00 p.m. when it's OK to show adult programming.
Jane, before we get specific, what about this general notion of the FCC examining indecency everywhere else now looking into news programs?
HALL: Well, you know, I covered the creation of the TV ratings systems for children, and it was on the table or off the table that news would be exempt. I mean, I think if they started doing this, they would have serious First Amendment issues and problems.
I mean, as Jim pointed out a couple of weeks ago, the pictures from Abu Ghraib (search) Prison could be considered obscene. We -- I personally think that this is a very bad trend. I mean, you can be outraged by content with starting to look at newscasts. I mean, it's very problematic.
BURNS: And, Jim, what they're really concerned about -- Jane mentioned the pictures, and that's true. They could come under the aegis of this ruling, but they're really concerned about live programming, and let me give you an example.
I don't know if you know about this, but a station in Phoenix, Arizona, was covering live the Pat Tillman (search) services, and, as might be appropriate, some of the speaking had a certain locker-room quality to it, and the station, fearing a fine from the FCC, immediately pulled out.
So, already, even though there are no fines for news programming, there are shockwaves.
PINKERTON: I've been saying for months on this topic that they -- you take the least likable people in America, Howard Stern, "Bubba The Love Sponge," you know, and then you move up, and you get rid of them, and you say, well, OK, nobody likes him anyway, only a few people do, and then they're coming.
They're coming for the rest of us. If they get this -- the government gets this power -- and one of these days, I keep warning conservatives, they're going to -- it's going to be President Hillary Clinton, and she's going to say, well, you know, I just don't think that Fox News ought to be on the air, and, having set the precedent of censorship, they might get away with it.
THOMAS: He's right. The problem is with the FCC, which has been toothless for so long, letting people get away with what they say is pushing the envelope. Well, the envelope has been pushed so much that it's wide open now.
If the FCC had acted more responsibly along the way, I think there would be a better balance between government and broadcast. As a result, the networks -- the broadcast networks, trying to catch up with cable and "The Sopranos" and "Sex in the City," have gone far beyond what their old broadcast standards and practices once disallowed and have brought a lot of this on themselves.
BURNS: But, Neal, back to news specifically here. I mean, I can't think of a case to justify the FCC examining newscasts, can you?
GABLER: Neither can I. Look it, when rights collide, one of the rights has to yield in the cause of the public interest. But the right not to hear a curse word, in my estimation, it's a no-brainer that that has to yield to a free press...
GABLER: ... which is the very basis of a democracy.
BURNS: But, see, especially in the case of live programming, I mean, maybe you can make a case for saying to a news director, listen, we're going to fine you, you shouldn't have put that on the air on your taped piece, but you can't hold a news operation responsible because you're covering an important live event and somebody streaks in the background.
THOMAS: Yes, I was going to say that's what you're going to find, is if this gets -- some prankster, some college kid, some guy is going to streak or realize it's live television and scream an obscenity because he wants to get the station or the network in trouble. This opens the door for a lot of college pranks.
BURNS: Here's a new campaign: Fine the streaker, not the network.
THOMAS: Well, I like -- I think a new movie...
HALL: Wait, but you all...
THOMAS: ... "When Rights Collide," I think, is -- that would be -- that's good.
HALL: But you all were talking about sports. When you see somebody mouthing obscenity when they miss a field goal, I mean, are we going to start fining ESPN for what's on there? I don't think so.
BURNS: Well, listen to this. You know, the PBS show "Antiques Road Show"? They -- you know this story. They were -- I don't think they censored it, but they were very worried, Jim, a few weeks ago because up for -- not up for auction, but up for appraisal was a Marilyn Monroe pinup calendar, and they actually feared that this might have a problem.
I mean, I think what we can agree on is when you get into news, not that we should be above the standards of society, but you just can't have the same standards that you have for entertainment.
PINKERTON: Well, yes. I also defend entertainment. I mean, I'm just totally in favor of getting the Federal Communications Commission hosting "Saturday Night live." You know, just imagine the big building of bureaucrats. I mean, that's just going to be terrible. And let's be honest...
HALL: Well, they used to have that. I mean, they used to have movie codes in the '20s where people had to have separate beds. I mean, I don't think any liberal or conservative wants to go down that road.
GABLER: And let's be honest here, too. This is not some spontaneous, you know, outrage from the public. This is an orchestrated campaign by the Parents Television Council, which is a conservative organization, of people who haven't even watched this shows saying -- you know, lobbying to the FCC against this programming, and, thankfully,, since it's all political, after November, this is going to be a moot point.
PINKERTON: I'm not sure it's -- I don't think it...
HALL: I don't think so.
BURNS: Now did you just make an election prediction or...
HALL: I don't think it's..
GABLER: No, no, no, no. I mean, I think...
BURNS: You mean no matter who wins?
GABLER: No matter who wins, it's going to be...
HALL: I don't think it is.
PINKERTON: I think it's going to continue. I think we're going to -- some days we're going to have television sets without an off button.
THOMAS: Ponder that.
PINKERTON: I am pondering that. Propaganda. The government propaganda.
HALL: I don't -- I think liberal Democrats have been very happy to get ratings and exposure by beating up on television for other reasons. I don't think it's...
BURNS: All right. This -- it seems to me -- I mean, I -- this is worth discussing because it amazes me that the FCC's even considering it, but does anybody here think the FCC might actually take any action relating to the content of news programs.
THOMAS: I don't think so. I don't think they can! I mean, go back to electioneering. Once again, look at the song lyrics, the rock 'n' roll stuff. There was a big brouhaha, a big political thing. Then Al Gore's wife, Tipper, was involved in this. Then when we ran for president, they did a backtrack. Nothing happened. You got a few labels out there. That's it. It's all political. It's an election year. I agree with Neal. It goes away next year.
PINKERTON: The FCC responds to pressure. They've -- they went from leaving Bono alone to saying -- to fining him when under pressure. So if the pressure is enough, they'll do whatever they're told.
BURNS: It's time for another break. We'll be back with our quick takes on the media.
And you thought Felix and Oscar were the odd couple. What about Walter, as in Cronkite, and P., as in Diddy? We'll explain when FOX News Watch returns.
BURNS: It's time now for our Quick Takes on the media.
Headline Number One: Pope to Media: Shape Up!
Well, that's a paraphrase, but, like the FCC, Pope John Paul wants the media to be more tightly regulated. The Pope is especially troubled by media images of family and morality.
Jane, is this something he should be speaking about?
HALL: Well, I'd like to see his comment on the news coverage of the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. I doubt if he liked that either. I don't want any politician, any pope, any FCC commissioner weighing in on this without a very serious discussion of the implications.
PINKERTON: Bernard Cardinal Law (search) of Boston used to criticize the press coverage of the pedophilia scandal, and then the Catholic Church has promoted him to Rome. I mean, there's something going on here. Just leave it alone. Stick to religion.
GABLER: I can't make heads or tails of what he actually said because he was...
BURNS: Well, it was sort of general, for one.
GABLER: What he called for was more truthful depictions. What is truthful? Is divorce truthful?
THOMAS: What are you, Pontius Pilate or something here?
GABLER: Or, you know, as depictions of the sex scandal, is the Catholic Church truthful? I don't even know what that means.
BURNS: Quick Take Headline Number Two:
If At First You Don't Succeed, Publish Again.
Rosie O'Donnell's first attempt at a magazine was a failure, ending in lawsuits and namecalling. She now says she will try again, that she's developing a magazine for gay families.
Cal, what do you think? Good idea?
THOMAS: Thank you very much for throwing that hot potato to me. I mean, in America, it used to be if you failed, then you went and did something else. But, in certain circles, I guess -- look at Ellen DeGeneres. She failed in a number of things and came back and won, I guess, a daytime Emmy or host of the show or whatever it was recently. So...
BURNS: It will still hit some people who are not lesbian.
THOMAS: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. It's a free country.
PINKERTON: The title, I think, is "Our Family." I think the real title soon will be, "Mom, You're Embarrassing Me."
BURNS: But it -- I mean, it's -- look, there are gay families in the country. As far as I know, Neal, there's no magazine aimed at their specific concerns, so why not, right?
GABLER: I think you put your finger on it. This is not a Rosie story. This is a gay family story, and I think it's very interesting that there might be a market to support a magazine, a market of gay families. That's a very interesting thing.
HALL: I think it's interesting, too, and, you know, just as people are marketing to gay -- if there's a market for it, then I think that's going to trump a lot of other concerns advertisers may have.
BURNS: Quick Take Headline Number Three:
Is Uncle Walter About To Become Bro' Walter?
Earlier this week, Walter Cronkite appeared on an MTV political program called "Choose or Lose: Work It." Both Cronkite and MTV say they are looking into the possibility of Cronkite's covering the political conventions and the 2004 elections for MTV. Wouldn't that be something?
THOMAS: Well, they got Tony Bennett on there on MTV now. So maybe the young people are reaching out across several generations. Look, Cronkite's got a great reputation. He's a liberal, and so is much on MTV. But he needs to work. It's Viacom that owns the same network as CBS. So why not?
BURNS: He's 87. Does he need to work?
HALL: I think it's great. You know...
BURNS: Do you really?
HALL: Yes, I do. I think -- because MTV should get credit for helping trying to get votes out. Dave Sirulnick is the guy who brought him there. His dad, interestingly enough, was the guy who ran CBS's NASA coverage which Cronkite pioneered. I think it's not a bad thing to bring on sort of the elder statesman of news to -- these kids probably never even heard of him. I think it's a good thing.
PINKERTON: It's a hustle to get attention from people like us. For every minute of Walter Cronkite, there's going to be an hour of P. Diddy who's got his own news...
BURNS: Well, that's what I was going to say. P. Diddy is about to do a public affairs show on MTV. So I wonder if, at this stage of his career, Walter wants to be paired, you know, with P. Diddy in terms of...
GABLER: Well, I agree with Jane. Give credit where credit is due. Look, most of the stuff on MTV is subwatchable. But you've got to commend them for trying to create socially responsible people, and the fact that they're taking somebody who's 87 years who couldn't get on virtually any other network broadcast now means that there's hope for Cal Thomas.
THOMAS: Thank you very much. Thank you. I'll get you for that. P. Diddy says he wants to interview President Bush. That's what I want to see.
BURNS: But with Cronkite, Jim, it's kind of a reverse chic thing, isn't it? I mean, if you get someone, say, who's 50 or 60, he doesn't play on MTV. But if you're old enough, it's...
PINKERTON: It's a joke. Remember, he retired in 1981. That was before most of the people watching MTV were born.
HALL: I think the grandfather thing is a key thing in it. Tony Bennett's renaissance is a fun thing, too.
BURNS: The Yoda of MTV.
We have to take one more break. When we come back, it will be your turn.
BURNS: We got a lot of mail this week about something Cal said last week. First, Shirley from Carmen, Idaho, "I have to agree with Cal Thomas that some of the news about Iraq should be censored. Some of the reporting only divides Americans and aids and abets the enemy."
But from Larry in Seattle, Washington, "As a former Navy officer, I consider any suggestion that we should censor the news out of Iraq appalling, especially the news about our abuse of Iraqi prisoners."
And Ron, Stevenson Ranch, California, "Shame on Cal for advocating censorship in Iraq. If Neal would like to yank off Cal's mustache as punishment, I'll watch. But should they then kiss and make up, yes, bring on the censorship, unless, of course, they've gotten hitched. After all, that would be news."
They're not getting hitched. They're just friends.
That reference, of course, is to media coverage of same-sex marriages and photos of the couples kissing on the front pages of newspapers about which Duane from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has this to say: "As a 37-year-old gay man, I have been disgusted many times throughout my life by some of the normal heterosexual displays of affection that our society seems to accept unconditionally. Recently, Al and Tipper come to mind."
About the newspaper in Appleton, Wisconsin, asking for letters to the editor supporting the president's Iraq policy for the sake of fairness and balance, here's John who lives in Appleton: "My opinion of the editor's plea for balance is that it is a stunt to make believe they actually print conservative opinion."
About MTV selling its own brand of condoms, here's Nate from Clovis, California, "Your condom discussion was priceless. I vow to watch every week and every rerun if you can convince Cal to say 'booty time' before the conclusion of every episode."
THOMAS: Booty time!
BURNS: The things we do for ratings.
Finally, here is Ron from White Oak, Georgia, "Thank you for a great show. Last week's was the very first one I've watched when I didn't want to throw something at one of the panelists."
Well, we are delighted to have earned such high praise, Ron. But just in case you feel like taking aim this week, here's our address: firstname.lastname@example.org . Please write to us, and, when you do, let us know your full name. Let us know as well where you live.
That's all the time we have left for this week. Thanks to Jane Hall and Jim Pinkerton. You look better that way, Jim. To Cal Thomas. To Neal Gabler. You're not saying it twice. He just wanted to hear it once.
And I'm Eric Burns thanking you for watching. See you next week, when FOX News Watch will be back.
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