The following is a transcription of the October 23, 2004 edition of "FOX News Watch," that has been edited for clarity:
ERIC BURNS, HOST: This week on FOX News Watch, the anti-Kerry documentary turns out to be less anti-Kerry than expected.
"The O'Reilly Factor." The media frenzy.
Jon Stewart (search ) on "Crossfire" and it's not funny.
A newspaper suspends two of its reporters for going to the wrong concert, and ABC says it won't miss Miss America.
First, the headlines. Then, FOX News Watch.
BURNS: There is big media news this week, and here are just the right people to fill you in on it.
That was a straight line, Jim. I sincerely believe that.
I'm Eric Burns. FOX News Watch is coming right up.
All right. Here's what happened this week with the Sinclair Broadcast Group's anti-Kerry documentary:
After Sinclair's stock dropped almost 17 percent since the announcement of the documentary, after Sinclair's shareholders threatened to sue the company for letting partisan policy interfere with fiscal growth, the company ran a modified anti-Kerry documentary on Friday showing parts of the documentary as part of a so-called newscast examining the role of documentaries in the 2004 campaign, as a result of which Sinclair's stock started to rise again.
Did Sinclair, Cal, do the right thing by pulling back, to the extent that it did pull back on this?
CAL THOMAS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, this was clearly an infomercial, if not for the Bush campaign, then certainly for a point of view.
However, having said that, the broadcast networks have been doing this sort of thing for years under the guise of documentaries, with selected sound bites, the kinds of people they invite on to interview, the way the questions are asked.
So it's really just a matter of degree. This may be more blatant than some of the broadcast networks and their so-called standards, but it's typical political fare for an election season.
BURNS: So is that — is that the main difference, that Sinclair was more up front about the fact that there was a built-in bias here or was intended to be, initially, Jane?
JANE HALL, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: I don't see moral equivalence here. I know that some people think that the networks have a liberal bias, and we've talked about that.
This was naked power grab. This was Sinclair, which has been allowed to order 62 of its stations to put on something. This was [turning] the whole idea of local news on its head.
You know, they've pulled "Nightline." They — you know, now they're portraying themselves...
BURNS: They pulled the "Nightline" show...
HALL: They pulled the "Nightline" show naming the victims [of the war in Iraq]. They didn't see that as a free-speech issue.
This is about media control, and I think it's — "The Columbia Journalism Review " gave them a media monopoly award because they've drawn attention to the potential for bad things that can happen either right or left in this situation.
BURNS: But the thing is, Jim, we did discuss this somewhat last week. The point here is the extent to which Sinclair changed its plans and the reason, not because of journalistic pressure, but it seems because of fiscal pressure.
JIM PINKERTON, "NEWSDAY": Well, the Democrats on the left had a racket going. They get shareholder protests. They stir up the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) employee union share — pension fund to get this...
BURNS: Well, why do you think it happened that way if it wasn't a more grassroots feeling by the shareholders?
PINKERTON Well, I've been feeling — when I see Bill Lerach (search ), well-known trial attorney who makes a living suing companies on shareholder issues, being part of the lawsuit, that tells me that's not just spontaneous grassroots.
But we have — look, the book burners, the free speech suppressors, the First-Amendment chillers won this one because Sinclair backed down. What Jane may think of this propaganda, other people think of as news. It is a free country with free speech.
NEAL GABLER, MEDIA WRITER: Oh, if this...
PINKERTON Hold on, please.
HALL: News has more than one side, Jim.
PINKERTON Free — no. Free speech is free speech.
HALL: Free speech is not the same thing as propaganda...
GABLER: Well, this is — this is a racket.
HALL: ... and the ability to...
GABLER: This is a racket that was helping stockholders. This is a business. Why in the world for the partisan beliefs of the people who run this station should [shareholders] have their interest in the company driven down?
I'll tell you the Internet really drove this. The Internet mobilized...
BURNS: Drove the decision to water things down?
GABLER: ... drove the — well, drove — they mobilized stockholders, they mobilized people to boycott advertisers, and that movement leaned on the station to...
I don't think it was really a cave-in. I think it's a subterfuge because they actually got it on the air. But there is no a single instance that I can think of of any broadcast network, which is regulated by the FCC, which is owned by — licensed to people like the Smith brothers, who own, you know, Sinclair now — I cannot think of a single instance where you can propagandize before an election without having an equal time.
And, in point of fact, let me just add — let me just add here — that a Kerry supporter offered to pay $1 million — remember this went on the air for free — $1 million to air a pro-Kerry documentary [after "Stolen Honor" aired on Sinclair's stations] and they refused it.
HALL: But wait...
PINKERTON Dan Rather's running of fake memos before the election — that didn't count?
GABLER: It doesn't count. That was news.
THOMAS: Kerry was offered time on the program, and he...
HALL: He was offered...
THOMAS: But the interesting thing to me was that "The New York Times" gave this film a favorable review in the sense that they said it should be on all the broadcast networks because it really showed a concentration of angst and anger that the POWs felt.
They have made the case for years — and probably not more effectively than in this documentary/propaganda piece, whatever you want to call it — of the pain caused by those who went to North Vietnam while the war was going on and they were being hEld and they were tortured, and they say that their captors quoted people like John Kerry as giving them the incentive to continue the imprisonment and torture. — That deserves to be broadcast.
BURNS: As one point of view.
HALL: Usually, news is different from propaganda, and, usually, you have an obligation to get both sides. I mean, if someone wants to do a documentary with that side and try to verify the other side and have some balance internally, that's different from ordering your stations to carry a program, and the business pages in "The Wall Street Journal" said this was hurting their business. That's why they pulled back.
BURNS: What about the other Sinclair-related story this week, which is that Jon Leiberman (search ), the Washington bureau chief, early in the week blasted Sinclair, Jim, for running this propaganda/documentary and he was fired.
PINKERTON Well, it's his free speech to blast Sinclair, and it's Sinclair's free speech to fire him. Look, I've got — you guys have got to read the First Amendment. It just says, "Congress shall make no law." It doesn't say you've got to be fair and balanced. It doesn't say you've got to be evenhanded.
GABLER: And you...
PINKERTON You can say whatever you want.
GABLER: And you, James, have to read The Communications...
GABLER: ... Act of 1937 which requires...
PINKERTON The Communications Act of 1937 is...
GABLER: ... equal time.
PINKERTON And which (UNINTELLIGIBLE) on the person.
BURNS: ... We don't have time to go into that in great detail right now — The Communications Act, that is — or any detail because we have to take a break.
We'll be back with our talking points about all the pointed talking this week about Bill O'Reilly.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BURNS (voice-over): Charges of sexual harassment. Charges of extortion against the accuser. Just how big a story is this anyhow?
More FOX News Watch after this.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNS: You know the story: A producer for "The O'Reilly Factor" is charging Bill O'Reilly with sexual harassment. O'Reilly has said that the charge is — and I quote — "the single most evil thing I have ever experienced."
Neal, mainstream press not doing a whole lot with this. Tabloid-oriented press doing a lot.
And let me show all of you what I think is the tackiest example of this: Keith Olbermann's show called "Countdown" on MSNBC runs early in the show a clock in the lower left hand corner which is a countdown to "The O'Reilly Factor" segment. Look, it's coming up now in 27, 26 seconds.
Apparently, he thinks, Neal, there is so much appeal to this story that people will wait through the countdown.
GABLER: Oh, America wants to know.
BURNS: My question to you is: Is it as simple as O'Reilly. A celebrity. — Charges of impropriety. And that, in and of itself, makes it of interest to the tabloid-oriented press, or is there something more to it?
GABLER: Well, that — you know, celebrity and sex would be enough to make this a tabloid story. But let's face it there's a certain glee in the media right now — you can see it in Olbermann — and the glee is hypocrisy.
I mean, this is an Elmer Gantry (search ) story. Here is a guy who lacerated Bill Clinton for four years for a consensual relationship, extra-marital relationship — And I don't know want to prejudge this because I have no idea what...
BURNS: ...and is charged with...
GABLER: And is charged with, — you know, having a non-consensual harassment of an individual. So the fact that it's out there, I think, gives the media a chance to really kind of stick a knife, the knife of hypocrisy, into O'Reilly.
BURNS: Which is to say, Cal, this is a story then that a lot of people in the media. do you think, want to be true?
THOMAS: Well, yes. For at least a couple of reasons.
Number one, not only for the hypocrisy thing — which is everywhere — but also because Bill O'Reilly is the big Kahuna of cable television. Nobody draws as many viewers. And if some of these other networks that are not drawing any viewers at all, infinitesimal, can in their mind bring him down, they think that will accrue to their benefit.
But, look, let's also deal with another element, a political undertone here. You have Rush Limbaugh (search ) who is being investigated for prescription drug abuse, alleged, and a lot of people on the left would love to see these two major figures, O'Reilly and Limbaugh, brought down because they believe that they have done damage to their political world views.
PINKERTON: Frank Rich in "The New York Times" used the word "schadenfraude," which is German for "joy in other people's suffering," which is a universal feeling that we all have to confess.
BURNS: He used it in this context?
PINKERTON: He did, in this context, yes. But, look, the thing has to be borne in mind front and center is O'Reilly's ratings are up since this happened.
BURNS: All right. Somebody explain to me...
PINKERTON It's still my segment, Eric.
BURNS: Well, you could explain it in part of the rest of your segment.
PINKERTON In other words, look, this is a soap opera. This is a tabloid. If you watch what's on entertainment shows, look at all the trash that's on there, look at what's going — what's on the soap operas now? It's all incest. It's all sex. It's all everything.
This is such a "gimme" for reporters. They can talk about the story endlessly. There's no real consequences to it. I mean, let's face it. Nobody's gotten killed. There's no war going on. We're not going to drown in global warming. They love this, and they won't get enough of it.
And I suspect it's helping both O'Reilly, as I mentioned, and probably Olbermann, too.
BURNS: But don't you think, Jane, that the legal analysts being on the air on other networks at this point now, that that's a bit premature to be discussing this legally?
HALL: I think it's a bit premature. I'm not for full employment for Gloria Allred at all times on all stories. — I think she'd probably hate me for saying that.
It seems a little premature, but I do think, you know, let's be — let's at least speak about something in terms of the fact that these are serious charges. — And, with the Internet, everybody can read the pretty serious charges. I agree it's — you know, this is not for us to be dealing with at all in terms of who's right or who's wrong.
This woman, you know, has made charges. Why is she, frankly — I don't understand — I guess I shouldn't get into this— why she was on the morning shows talking about, and then O'Reilly files a suit. I mean, I think this should play out in a court, and I agree there's a gleefulness on the part of a lot of people over it.
THOMAS: We've talked about this in the context of other cases — O.J. Simpson, the Scott Peterson thing. For a year, the legal beagles were on all the television networks, especially cable, speculating about it before a single fact was in the courtroom. The same thing in this case.
GABLER: But let's face it. This is a little of a chicken's coming home to roost because this is exactly the kind of story that O'Reilly would be pushing the life out of on his own show.
PINKERTON: And watch. Eventually, he'll be running against the media, in the same way that Clinton did a little bit in '98, '99. I mean, the media themselves, O'Reilly aside, are a huge target and are full of hypocrites, and so this story will have more than one blowback.
BURNS: So it's kind of a testing ground for the media as well as...
PINKERTON: Well, it's just another — it's just saying that people understand that — what force the media is. The media can crush somebody or at least try, but somebody can play the media against — play against the media well and also be effected because that's such a huge target, and even more O'Reilly, people love to just sit there and pick at the media itself.
HALL: Well, you know, separate from O'Reilly, the whole way the Rush Limbaugh thing played out — I mean, this is a man who now is viewed as a victim by his fans. I mean, the Limbaugh story — he's viewed as the victim regardless of what the charges were or were not or whether — that's fascinating to me
THOMAS: Well, we're all victims, Jane. If you watch television, we're all victims.
GABLER: Hypocrisy is everywhere.
BURNS: We have to take another break. We'll be back with our "Quick Takes" on the media.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BURNS (voice-over): Jon Stewart gets cross on "Crossfire."
And the Miss America Pageant is now missing from TV screens.
FOX News Watch will continue.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNS: It's time now for our "Quick Takes" on the media:
Headline Number One: "Stewart Puts "Crossfire" Hosts in Crossfire."
Neal Gabler's favorite fake or real newsman was a guest on CNN's "Crossfire" recently, and hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson probably wish he hadn't been.
On the air, Jon Stewart called the two men partisan packs who's pro- wrestling approach to political analysis was hurting America. Stewart also said that Carlson was — and then he used a term, Jane, that normally describes the male reproductive organ.
HALL: That's my opening for comment?
BURNS: Yes, it is. That's your...
BURNS: That's your lead-in.
HALL: Well, you know, in the never ending quest to do research, I looked at this, and I — it was absolutely great television, which is, of course, the ultimate morality in television, but what was interesting to me was it had 670 downloads on Ifilm, the Web site where I saw it, which is about what "Crossfire" normally gets. I mean, it was very interesting.
And Stewart — I thought Stewart was kidding more in the beginning, and Carlson clearly got angry. They accused him of some pretty tacky behavior in his interview — saying he was too soft in interviewing Kerry. I think people like this because it points out that here's a guy, who's a comedian essentially, having serious criticisms of this kind of show, and bravo to him.
PINKERTON Yes, exactly. I mean, when a comedian is outwitting the two giants of CNN news coverage, then you know something's gone wrong. Look, I always try and watch "The Daily Show." I never watch "Crossfire." But, look, "Crossfire" was stupid to put on a comedian and expect him to be funny on their — I mean, it just how's you — what a spectacle, what a pathetic spectacle the whole "Crossfire" thing — that that live audience is just stupid.
BURNS: Why didn't Stewart get criticized in the press for being an ingrate? — I'm not saying he was, but, you know, he was invited on as a guest, Cal. He attacked the hosts. Yet he got a lot of good press from it.
THOMAS: Well, I think he can do that. Look, when "Crossfire" started with Tom Braden and, Pat Buchanan and a little black curtain backdrop with no set and no audience, it was really interesting. Yes, they were both partisan, but at least they had a modicum of journalism background.
This show has descended into farce. It is unwatchable. It is boring. It — I can't even begin to tell you how lousy it is, and...
BURNS: You are not getting booked again.
THOMAS: My history with CNN is finished.
BURNS: Take a quick final word, Neal.
GABLER: Yes. Look it, you know, politicians and pundits live within a bubble of delusion and lies. Jon Stewart punctures the bubble, and that's why he didn't get criticized.
BURNS: "Quick Take" Headline Number Two: "Rock 'n' Roll Is Here To Stay, But You're Not!"
Bruce Springsteen is among the headliners at a series of "Vote for Change" concerts, the aim of which is to change the occupant of the White House to Bush from Kerry.
Recently, two reporters from the Minnesota newspaper "The St. Paul Pioneer Press" went to one of the concerts, and the paper suspended them. Cal, should it have done that?
THOMAS: If there was a policy, as I understand, a memo, that they were not to go because of the political connection and what this would have done to their veracity and integrity as journalists, I believe so.
PINKERTON Look, I know tons of people who are going to this concert [among them are] Republicans. They don't care about the politics. They just want to see Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M. and...
BURNS: They want the music.
PINKERTON ... and whoever. However, if a newspaper says we don't want to make contributions — remember you had to buy a ticket presumably, unless these guys got comped — then you're making a contribution to moveon.org, which is probably not what a newspaper wants to do if it wants to retain its objectivity.
GABLER: If you go to a concert that is promoted by Clear Channel, which is a strong supporter of Bush, and by going to that concert, [you're] giving them money, are you then contributing to George Bush?
I think you have to look at the chain of causality. They wanted to see Bruce Springsteen. God bless them. So would I. And the fact of the matter is this was not a political decision.
HALL: Well, I think it's — it's — to me, it's a much — it's a different issue by gradation than giving a contribution, which — an awful lot of journalists give direct contributions to political candidates in violation of their news organization's policies.
BURNS: You think they should have gone and not been suspended then?
HALL: I think if they were told not to go, they might have protested and had it out before the went.
"Quick Take" Headline Number Three: "Not Even Skimpy Bathing Suits Could Help."
ABC announced this week that it is dropping the Miss America Pageant (search). The reason: The ratings have been dropping. In 1996, 25 million Americans watched. This year, less than 10 million watched it, despite the fact that this year's bathing suits were less encumbered by fabric, Neal, than ever. — Fifty years this has been on the air.
GABLER: Yes, yes. Honestly, this was sex for prudes in a more innocent time. I am surprised...
BURNS: Sex for prudes?
GABLER: I am surprised that it lasted this long.
BURNS: Is — maybe this is Neal's way of saying that we're in a less prudish time so we need less fabric even, Jim?
PINKERTON Well, I was actually — I think what Neal was saying was that this is how people got sex in the past.
PINKERTON I think if you look in the old days, people looked at "National Geographic," looked at medical textbooks...
THOMAS: The Sears catalog.
PINKERTON ...[they don't need to do] those things anymore. So...
BURNS: Will it get back on the air? Will someone else pick up the Miss America Pageant?
HALL: Well, yes. Somebody has to give away the "Miss Congeniality" award, and somewhere on television there should be a home for it.
BURNS: If there were a Mr. Congeniality award?
THOMAS: I would win it, of course, but, you know, I think the only way this is going to get back on the air, if you change the name to "Desperate Beauty Queens."
GABLER: I want to — who's going to work for world peace now?
BURNS: Well, they'll still do it. You just won't hear the televised speech thing that they'll do it. That's all.
We have to take one more break. When we come back, it will be your turn.
BURNS: About the Sinclair Broadcast Group's anti-Kerry documentary, here's Ronni from Mount Laurel, New Jersey, "I find it odd that some on the panel thought it unfair that Sinclair Broadcasting is airing the movie 'Stolen Honor.' It is no more unfair than NBC's 'Today' show having Kitty Kelley appear for three days with her Bush-bashing book or Mr. Halperin's ABC memo. Political bias is everywhere. Maybe even on 'News Watch.'"
Same topic, Beth from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, "I don't mind at all that Sinclair is preempting regular viewing for this documentary. If someone doesn't want to watch this program, they don't! There are plenty of other shows to watch, but they ought to at least hear their story. Chill out and let us make up our own minds without the journalists trying to persuade us how to feel and think for a change!
But the just-turn-it-off argument does not work for Rudy of Chester, Connecticut, who comments on the FCC's proposed largest fine ever against FOX Broadcasting Network's reality show, "Married by America."
"I've heard Cal's statement to just turn it off before and likely will again. But if I hear my neighbor screaming and beaten, do I have the option to put in ear plugs, essentially turning it off? I still know it's there. If I sense an injustice, is there a duty to report and express this to someone, like the FCC, for example, or does freedom of speech give an unlimited license to those who broadcast?"
Joanne, Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, "Cal seems to be the only there with a brain. While you guys and gal can click off the whipped cream prostitute licking, the children can click it on."
About the suggestion that Oprah Winfrey (search) host a debate in 2008, a presidential debate, here is Jim from Oak Park, Michigan, "Please keep in mind that your program comes on at dinner time in the East. When I heard the question, 'Will Oprah moderate a presidential debate someday?', I almost lost my chicken marsala."
Finally, and most provocatively, here is Mike who refuses to tell us where he's from: "Go to hell."
You go to hell, Mike.
BURNS: There. It was great to have a chance to communicate with you. I hope we can do it again.
Here now is our address for those of you who would like further or different kinds of communication. It is firstname.lastname@example.org . Please write to us. Please tell us your full name, and let us know where you live.
That's all the time we have left for this week. Thanks to Jane Hall, Jim Pinkerton, Cal Thomas, Neal Gabler. I'm Eric Burns, thanking you for watching. We hope you will do it again next when FOX News Watch is back on the air.