This is a transcript of the Saturday, July 3, 2004 edition of "FOX News Watch" that has been edited for clarity.
ERIC BURNS, HOST: On this holiday weekend, we bring you an all viewer mail edition of FOX News Watch. Here are some of the questions that you'll be asking in the next half hour: can a journalist be a patriot, can a journalist be a conservative, can a journalist ask an intelligent question? Why do the all news network keep covering the same stories all the time? And what would Neal GABLER look like without a beard? These e-mails and more after two minutes of the latest news.
BURNS: This week, the FOX News Watch panel declares its independence from my questions. It will answer your questions from your e-mails. It, of course, means 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, here are three e-mails that didn't make into the show. We're not responding to the one that suggested the Fox News Channel cover more cricket. We're not responding to the one that suggested Cal be named to President Bush's cabinet as secretary of energy. And we're not responding to the one that demanded that the entire panel be replaced by retired politicians, cops and soldiers.
We are responding to this. It's from Curtis in Los Angeles: "I would like to thank Cal for pointing out that during World War II it was somehow possible for the media to show that our soldiers were in Europe to help the oppressed people. If the news media had reached their current level of `moderate reporting' during that war, I would not have flunked high school German because I would be fluent in it and would have flunked English instead."
Jim, were there -- and you know with the D-day anniversary, we had an awful lot of discussion of what the world was like back then. What about journalists? Journalists in World War II, journalists today, are they different?
JIM PINKERTON, "NEWSDAY": Well, there's no question that journalists today have a kind of post-Vietnam, post-Watergate adversarial culture to them. However, to go back and read the reportage of, for example, Ernie Pyle, the far and away most famous reporter of that era, who was actually killed in the Pacific in 1945, you're struck by how unheroic the reportage is. He's very sympathetic to the Americans. He's sympathetic to the GIs, the grunts, the Willy and Joes, this anti-officer. It really reads more like John Steinbeck in a sort of proletarian class consciousness, and it's full of discussions of dead bodies, not pictures, but print discussions of what it's like to be dead in a war.
CAL THOMAS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Yes, but the results of a lot of language in some of the reportage about our boys, our guys, we. There was the feeling that journalists were a part of a great effort that was at least in part designed to defend, preserve and protect that First Amendment we hear so much about.
BURNS: But is that the key, Cal, that back then not just journalists, but everybody thought the war was a great effort, and we haven't had a war since that had unanimity of opinion about whether or not it was a great effort?
THOMAS: Yes, that's true. And I do think though that patriotism is not necessarily just wearing a lapel pin and being rah-rah. It is reporting facts and not, as Jim indicated, approaching a subject, in this case, war with a particular bias or agenda.
NEAL GABLER, MEDIA WRITER: Well, I think a higher patriotism is giving the American people the facts. That's the higher patriotism. But I think you got to make a distinction -- I think Jim was making it -- between the kind of reporting that Ernie Pyle did in which he identified with the soldiers, which we get a lot of today. There are a lot of reporters who are embedded with soldiers as they were in Iraq and identify with the soldiers, and those who are supposed to cheerlead for the policy and the Bush administration. There's the distinction between that.
Conservatives, I think, are unhappy that reporters aren't out there carrying the flag for the Bush administration.
JANE HALL, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: I think.
GABLER: They are carrying the flag for our troops, and I think that's appropriate so long as you make the distinction between that and straight reporting.
HALL: I think patriotism means literally love of country. And I think that journalists serve a valuable patriotic role, which is to get information out and let the people decide. I'm still corny about that. I think during the early phases of this war in Iraq, we had an awful lot of we. I mean, it was on this network, a lot of other networks. People were wearing flag pins after 9/11. I think our role is to stand there as the person trying -- or the institution trying to help the American people get as much information as possible. And in certain climates, when a war is unpopular, then the press becomes unpopular.
BURNS: But there are some real differences. You know, Cal, back then there was, I think I've got the title right, an Office of Censorship. I think it was just called that.
HALL: Office of War Information.
BURNS: No, this is Office of Censorship, and it was journalists, I think the head of the AP, who set it up voluntarily.
THOMAS: It was voluntary.
BURNS: Now, these days, as we talked about on last week's show, that there is some government imposed censorship or attempts at it with regard to pictures of coffins. Back then, it was journalists who did this and they didn't report troop movements. In some cases, they didn't even report weather because they thought it might affect our troops.
THOMAS: Yes, there's a lot of confusion today, not only over policy but objectives. The points have been made that this is a narcissistic generation. We want the quick fix. We watch television shows, all crimes, all wars except on the History Channel are worked out in about 52 minutes plus time for station breaks and commercials. We're not used to a long haul, and this is what our enemies or the enemies of American forces are counting on and using them in the media to manipulate American resolve.
PINKERTON: I'm not aware of any reportage in Iraq or of troop movements, except for one that happened on this network where the reporter got bounced out of the country for doing it. I don't know that reporters betrayed the level of fidelity to the country that they showed in World War II on the specific issue of, like, troops and actions and things like that.
HALL: We have a new element now, which is live coverage. Many people have wondered whether if we had known that we were going to take live the causalities we took at D-Day, the American people would have had the stomach for that. That's an interesting question.
BURNS: We have actually one other question this segment about reporters and warfare. It's from Sharon in Carrolton, Texas. "Why is it considered bigger news when a journalist is injured in a war zone than when one of our soldiers is? Isn't this just another example of journalistic bias?"
I give it to you, Neal.
GABLER: Absolutely, and it's completely self-serving.
BURNS: And is she right? Do we, in fact, do this kind of thing?
GABLER: She is absolutely right. I mean when Michael Kelly, for example, a reporter, you know, died in Iraq when he truck overturned, it was the headline story. I mean, there were peons of praise for him. We lose soldiers, now, many soldiers on a daily basis, and they don't get the same kind of recognition.
BURNS: But it's just inevitable, isn't it, Cal? It's people who do what we do for a living. In some cases, we know the Michael Kellys?
THOMAS: Well, the news is also supposed to be the unusual. We're not used to journalists being killed in combat or even in accidents. That's not their responsibility, role. They're not supposed to be victims. Soldiers, as tragic as it is, are trained for this sort of thing, and we expect at least some soldiers to die, unfortunately.
BURNS: So it's not a bias then, it's just the fact that this is a different angle on the story?
HALL: Well, I think it does show a kind of -- you used the word narcissism. I mean, I was uncomfortable with the story after story about Kelly and about David Bloom. Wonderful though they were.
I will say the other side of this is that the lines between journalist and soldiers are getting blurred. There have been something like 30 journalists who have died in Iraq. A lot of people are risking their lives to cover this story. And because of the way war is being fought now, they are in more danger maybe than they've ever been.
PINKERTON: Look, it's a media war, and so, people with access to footage, whether it's reporters or hostages, prisoners, POWs, they get attention. They all -- Jessica Lynch -- they get attention in a way that's disproportionate to just some poor fellow that just gets killed stepping on mine.
BURNS: It's time for a break. We'll be back with this.
ANNOUNCER: Are most journalists liberals? Yes, says a new survey. It is true? If so, what does it mean? FOX News Watch continues after this.
BURNS: In our end of the year show last December, we asked you to write to us and tell us what you want from Fox News in the year 2004. Roy from Bothell, Washington said this: "What I want from Fox News in 2004 is somebody to tell us what `G-Block' means?"
Well, what better person to do it than the person whose name is synonymous with the G-Block, Shepard Smith.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SHEPARD SMITH, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Well, Mr. Burns, the G-Block comes after the F-Block. Seriously, seven blocks of news in an hour are labeled A through G. That's what we always call it behind the scenes, and one day I accidentally called it that on the air, and it stuck. And we made graphics, and now we have the G-Block. Do you have complaints about that, Mr. BURNS? I'm sure that you have complaints about that. So now, complain.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNS: Shepard Smith with his first and last cameo on FOX News Watch. But you can watch him in the afternoons on the G-Block and the other alphabetized blocks around that. For us, an e-mail now of somewhat greater significance. It's from Nancy of Roswell, Georgia. She says this, "I would like to see more unbiased reporting from reporters. It seems that 98 percent of reporters lean towards the Democratic Party always. Why in the world is that?"
Well, your number is a little high, Nancy. But the Pew Research Center recently asked reporters about their political affiliation, and here is what the reporters themselves said. Among national, TV, print and radio outlets, 34 percent of journalists said they were liberal, seven percent conservative. Among local TV print and radio outlets, 23 percent said they were liberal, 12 percent said they were conservative.
Jane, it seems like a case of case closed. Or is there more to it than that?
HALL: Well, not exactly. You know, something like a third of the reporters self-identified as moderates, and also we've got people who put the polling together said that journalists have libertarian leanings, they actually -- they characterized as liberal. So I think these things are always open to a lot of interpretation.
PINKERTON: I think reporters have gotten smarter about answering this question. And they know that if they give their true answer, they're liberals, and the total gets up to like 80 percent, they'll get in trouble. So they say, oh, I'm a moderate instead. But Jane is on to something when she says there's a lot of libertarians. I mean, the reporters on economic issues do tend increasingly towards -- because they're in a higher tax brackets -- they're for free trade, they're for relatively low taxes, whereas off the charts on liberalism or equally libertarianism is on social issues.
BURNS: Neal, to help you with your discipline, I'm going to call on Cal next, and you're going to have to be the last one to comment on this.
GABLER: I'm holding fire here.
BURNS: Well, exercise some -- Cal, give him more to explode about when he does.
THOMAS: A poll, a survey taken, and we hear more of this stuff, it doesn't change anything. Liberals in the media don't wake up and say, "Well, you know, they're right. I got to be more fair and balanced." I'd like conservatives to stop spending so much of their energy on complaining about the way things are and developing strategies that they can invade, penetrate, even dominate the news business with their point-of-view.
Yes, I've got 580 newspapers that carry my column. I didn't take this as a fait accompli, that they're all liberal and never let me in. I just went out. I joined their organizations. I schmooze with them. I go and meet them. I know the name of their spouses. I send them Christmas cards or whatever. I mean this is what you have to do if you want to be successful in the business.
BURNS: You are really shifting here.
THOMAS: Oh, I am.
BURNS: No, no, Jane, no, no, no, no.
GABLER: The (UNINTELLIGIBLE) for liberalism has always been "The New York Times," and yet this year, I think undeniably "The New York Times" have two reporters on John Kerry who bash him on a regular basis, one of whom has written an e-mail, a secret email about how much he loathes John Kerry. They have someone who absolutely idolizes George Bush, Elizabeth Bumiller. In the last election, they had Frank Brunei (ph), who idolized George Bush, and they had Kit Seeley, who despised Al Gore.
Now, let's look at this study. First of all, it was self-described liberals, which is a real problem. They didn't ask people questions about how they felt about issues, and then determined from that whether.
BURNS: But why is that a problem, Neal, if 34 percent of the people describe themselves as liberal, 7 percent describe themselves as conservatives?
GABLER: Because it is a definitional problem, and I think, you know, both Jane and Jim hit it on the head. Many of the people who describe themselves as liberals are actually libertarians. The second problem with this is that the media is gerrymandered. So even though there may be very few conservatives or relatively few conservatives across the board, they're gerrymandered into several places like Fox News, MSNBC,CNBC, "The Washington Times," where their clout is enormous.
HALL: I think that people are so afraid of being attacked for being liberal that conservatives have been incredibly effective and people in the media are moving rapidly to the right across the board because of these kinds of attacks and polls.
BURNS: Dixie from Kent, Washington has written to us questioning the intelligence of reporters rather than their politics. "I would like to see more intelligent questions asked by the media at a press conference. It appears to me most of the questions asked are so stupid that I marvel at the patience of the people being questioned."
I would say, Cal, the problem isn't stupidity of questions. The problem is that so many questions seem to me to be essays; self-serving sound bytes for the reporters to put on an audition tape rather than true -- you know rather than showing a true desire to elicit information.
THOMAS: Yes, I think real information is gotten in different venues, not on television, because many reporters do posture. It is their moment in the sun, an opportunity to impress management, some of their friends, maybe, contract negotiations coming up. I remember that Calvin Coolidge started the first presidential news conference of inviting people in or -- not personally. I remember, I read about it. I saw that look in your eye.
THOMAS: Inviting reporters in.
THOMAS: .and giving them off the record information. Roosevelt picked up on that, Franklin Roosevelt. And -- but then when the television came in during the Kennedy administration -- it really started with Eisenhower, but that was film. But when live television coverage, it changed everything not only for the presidency and politics but also for the journalists.
PINKERTON: There's no question there's some showboats in television. But look, I think most reporters covering like the White House and so on and the like are very hardworking and earnest. And if it seems like -- if you watch the televised press conferences with Scott McClellan or something like that, they're asking the same question 30 or 40 times, it's because they've learned that these answers are so sculpted and so lawyered that you've got to ask.
I mean, like, with Bill Clinton, you know, recently with all the interviews about him and his book, we saw the old tape of 1992 of him on "60 Minutes" when Steve Croft asked him, "Did you have the affair with Gennifer Flowers for over 12 years?" And he said, "That allegation is false," which means he had an affair for 11 years and 11 months. But you had to be smart and you had to ask it 200 ways to finally figure out what the truth was.
HALL: I think Jim is right. I think there's far less access to the president today and it -- and the media are trying to get around basically being hamstrung in many ways.
BURNS: We're almost out of time, but did you and Coolidge get along?
THOMAS: He didn't talk much.
BURNS: It's time for another break. We'll be back with this.
ANNOUNCER: Do you keep seeing the same old on all news cable, the same old thing, the same old thing, the same old thing? Stay tuned for something different, more FOX News Watch.
BURNS: We begin our final segment this holiday weekend with Ross from Aberdeen, Scotland. "I would like to see Neal shave off his beard. I don't know why, but I would like to see him without his beard. Thank you."
Well, Neal says he doesn't know you well enough to shave off his beard for you, Ross. He did, however, authorize the Fox News graphics department to make this picture. So there you are, and please don't bother us with requests like this anymore.
GABLER: I look just like Brad Pitt, by the way, without a beard.
BURNS: You're right. I'll call on him less from now on -- if those are the kinds of perceptions you bring to this panel.
All right, now to an e-mail from Melissa who lies in Calway, New York and cares more about substance than facial hair. "Fox News Channel has all day to talk about stuff. Why can't you find more things to talk about, rather than talking about the same things again and again and again? If you watch for two hours, you're likely to hear the same news stories repeated twice and not much new unless something new happens during the day, and I wish you didn't do that quite so much."
Neal, does she have a point?
GABLER: She does. I mean, look, there's time to fill and there's an audience to serve. And to fill the time and to serve the audience, the same stories get repeated again and again and again.
On the other hand, I don't think that cable news was designed for someone to sit there and watch 24/7.
BURNS: I believe.
GABLER: .(UNINTELLIGIBLE) for 24/7.
BURNS: I believe statistics show, Neal, that there's a pretty big turnover in the all-news cable audience every 20 minutes. That being the case, it is a service to repeat at least to some extent, right?
THOMAS: Well, I don't know why she would say that. I don't know why she would say that because -- you're right. The turnover.
BURNS: You know, in Coolidge's day.
THOMAS: Yes, right. There have been turnovers before. But look, it's a great service, like all-news radio in your car, to be able to tune in and get the news of the day at any point of the day if you wait just a few minutes. It's a tremendous service. In the old days, we had to wait until the news -- until 6:30 p.m. Eastern Time.
BURNS: But it's also a balancing act, isn't it? I mean, you do have to repeat for reasons we've just said, but Jane, you do have to have the new news.
HALL: Well, the new news.
BURNS: The new news, yes.
HALL: New news, yes, and the nuance about the new news. I think, apart from the fact that the presumption is that people are only with you for 22 minutes, unlike this letter writer and the rest of us who watch for hours on end, the fact is that there are these movies that, you know, the Kobe Bryant movie, the Scott Peterson movie, there are certain stories that are dial-stopping stories and the media come back to them -- the cable news networks are particularly guilty of this -- over and over. They're cheap to cover. They're -- I wish we had some of the resources devoted to some other kind of journalism. I think she has a point.
PINKERTON: Cable news is at its best when it's covering a live event like 9/11 is a good example of -- the Gulf War, the Iraq War, when stuff is happening and so there's not repeating because there's actually a story there to watch and you're actually curious what's going to happen as -- in a legitimate way. So let's face it, that's where cable news is at its best, and it's probably at its worst when it has to repeat shlocky stories.
GABLER: But because it repeats, I think it has had a tremendous affect on our media culture. It serves as a kind of amplification process. By repeating the same things every 20 minutes, it makes those stories more important. It brings those stories into the media forefront in a way that had never happened previously.
BURNS: Which can sometimes be good, sometimes be -- sometimes it can make something not terribly relevant seem more relevant than it is.
GABLER: Right. That would be a process of distortion. It can make the trivial seem momentous.
THOMAS: Well, look, you got 24 hours to fill. There's not a car chase at a given moment -- although in L.A., I'm sure there is. There's not somebody being beaten by a flashlight in Rodney King style at a given moment. You've got to fill the time, and so, in order to keep the viewers there, you have to sometimes make lighter stories, less newsworthy stories, more relevant so people will continue to watch. It is a business after all.
HALL: Well, as much as I'm critical of this kind of thing, you also have the obverse, which is the Ronald Reagan coverage where the entire country and the entire news media are focused on something in an intense way that creates this communal experience like 9/11 that can be something that's very interesting.
BURNS: So that was an example of a great deal of coverage, which you think had a beneficial affect?
HALL: I wish it had had a little more balance in the coverage of Reagan, but the events themselves, you get the country around a hearth in a way that you didn't.
PINKERTON: And let's also say, look, crimes are just sort of at the low end of the media food chain in terms of what reporters like to talk about, and think that they do for journalism, but it is what people care about. People are interested.
GABLER: And I would exempt Fox News from all of the critique.
THOMAS: Oh, yes.
BURNS: You know, we hear this talk about the 24/7 news cycle. Has it -- we're talking about how it affects news here. Neal, how -- has it affected politics? I mean, do politicians do what they do in a different manner now because of.
GABLER: I think now you can manipulate the news in ways that it was much more difficult to do previously, and we see that now. You can get a story into the media bloodstream and it will grow larger and larger and larger.
BURNS: All right. Our final e-mail today is from Valerie of Kaneohe -- well, I said that wrong, but it's somewhere in Hawaii, and she likes this program. "Thank you for the good thinking, the humor, intentional or not, and the passion that you all seem to have for good news and good journalism. Thanks for making my Saturday afternoon so entertaining as well as informative. The only other show that makes me think and laugh more is `The Best Damn Sports Show Period.' What is wrong with me?"
Something serious, Valerie, something very serious.
But here is our address, it's firstname.lastname@example.org. We hope you'll write to us. When you do, that you'll give us your full name and you'll let us know where you live. And I'll try to pronounce it correctly next time if it's Hawaii.
That's all the time we have left for this week. Thanks to Jane Hall and Jim Pinkerton, across the table to Cal Thomas and Neal Gabler. And I'm Eric Burns thanking you for watching and wishing you a Happy Fourth of July weekend. See you next week when we'll be back with a more conventional edition of our program.
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