Published February 04, 2005
The following is a transcription of the January 29, 2005 edition of "FOX News Watch," that has been edited for clarity:
ERIC BURNS, HOST: This week on FOX News Watch, the Iraqi elections. A big test not only for the Iraqis and the Bush administration, but for the American media.
And we'll cover the coverage of the week's other big story in the American media. We'll tell you about two more journalists taking money from the government.
And we'll tell you about a good, darn sports show.
First, the headlines. And then us.
BURNS: We know what's at stake for the Iraqis in this weekend's election, and we know what's at stake for the Bush administration. We have gathered here this evening to talk to you about what's at stake for the American press. Answers to that question will come from 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.
All right, Neal, what is at stake for the American press in this coverage?
NEAL GABLER, MEDIA WRITER: Well, you said it. The Bush administration has a huge amount at stake. The Iraqi people may have a huge amount at stake.
But, you know, I'd have to say, for the American media, I don't think there's all that much at stake. And the reason why, I believe, is that the American people are reasonably skeptical about the whole process. And the reason they're skeptical about the whole process is they've heard many, many times before when Saddam Hussein (search) was toppled, that was the historical moment, when Saddam Hussein was captured, that was the historic moment. When they handed over power to the Iraqi provisional government, that was the historic moment.
So it remains to be seen whether this is really going to be a historical moment or not. We're not going to know for another 10 years -- another year at least.
BURNS: Yes, but this is great, you get all these historic moments into a relatively brief period of time. Don't you think, Jim?
JIM PINKERTON, "NEWSDAY": Well, just to shift gears out from under Neal for a second, I think that every reporter, including the staff and the cameramen and camera -- and everybody else, has a lot at stake. Every time I see a reporter standing in front of a crater or a blown-up car, I'm reminded that a lot of journalists who got into, you know, cover Donald Trump's wedding are instead now stuck literally risking their lives. And I think although nobody enjoys trashing the press more than I do, you've got to give every one of them a lot of credit for physical courage of the kind that we're not displaying here by being over there.
GABLER: Well, I didn't mean to say that there wasn't something personally at stake for them, because it's almost an impossible story to cover. And you have -- do have to give them an enormous amount of credit for even being there.
JANE HALL, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: I think that's true. And I think that even the anchors, you know, you could say, well, gee, it's hard for them to go over, they haven't been there before. The anchors going over are risking something by going over. Not the people who have been there before who are out trying to talk to the Iraqi people.
Journalists are saying -- I mean, a lot of journalists have been killed there, along with a lot of American soldiers. I think what's interesting to me, though, is the advantage of print. I mean, I've been watching a lot of coverage on television of the war, and I have to say, even though I've been watching a lot, the "Time" magazine cover story laid it out in terms of -- they had Pentagon briefings, they talked about what the United States is hoping to do, to have advisors more there, questions about when we might get out, talking about the candidates, about -- you know, that there's something like I don't even know how many thousands of candidates on three ballots, and what's at stake for the American people in that.
I thought they did an excellent job of backgrounding in a way that television has a hard time doing.
BURNS: Isn't the toughest thing, Cal, for journalists here going to be how you cover the expected violence? Because if there's a little violence, good for the Bush administration. If there's a lot, bad for the Bush administration. So you have to define the terms, what's a little, what's a lot. This, it seems to me, is going to be one of the tougher chores that reporters have over there, this perspective.
CAL THOMAS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Yes, I agree with that. But I also think in the runup to the election there's been a lot of focus instead on the possibility of democracy than the possibility and the reality of the violence.
Much of the reporting, with a few exceptions -- and I will give Peter Jennings some credit on this because I've criticized him in the past -- he has actually done one segment in a three-part series on "World News Tonight" showing some of the positive things going on over there that we haven't seen much of. Sewers and water and all of these other municipal things that have been -- that have been fixed in some areas and that are doing quite well. I'd like to see more of that.
The second thing as far as media perspective is concerned, this isn't going to be just a one-time event. There was a piece in "USA Today" I think this week that said the national assembly could be in gridlock. There could be the two parties, the Sunnis and the Shiites, and each of them would be like the Republicans and the Democrats. So this is going to be a continuing coverage of media interest, a subject for sometime to come.
BURNS: Well, Jim, that's the thing. With any election, you don't know how it's going to work out on election day. You just know how wins.
PINKERTON: Exactly. And also, but there's the issue of sort of news and context. In other words, "The news is an American gets killed."
And I saw Peter Jennings say -- it was a quiet day -- and he said, "I mean that advisedly," because only one American was killed, as opposed to the previous day, when the helicopter had gone down. So he knew he was making a strange face with words when he said "quiet day." But the news inherently is going to be an American getting killed.
It's like that train wreck in California. That's the -- all the trains that ran safely aren't news. That's context.
You can say we have a basically safe train system. You could say we have a lot going on in Iraq. But the news inherently is going to be focused on tragedy and discussion.
BURNS: But I disagree with you that that's context. Context is saying somebody was killed at the polls here, but at all these other polling places there wasn't any.
BURNS: This number of people...
PINKERTON: Actually, Eric, that's what I said. That's what I was just saying, Eric. I said the context is...
BURNS: No, no, but you were saying giving the numbers. But what I'm saying, Jim, is you've got to -- you've got to somehow -- did I miss -- have I missed this?
PINKERTON: Stop the show. Play the tape back. We'll settle this.
GABLER: Let me get between the two of you.
BURNS: Wait a minute. Instead of correcting him, then, I was just reinforcing the point that he made so well.
Neal, wrap it up for us.
GABLER: I think one of the big stories of the week was John Burns, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, story in "The New York Times," which got a lot of play over the Internet, in which he -- the headline, "Across Baghdad, Security is Only an Ideal," in which he says, starkly put, "Baghdad is not under control either by the Iraqi interim government or the American military."
BURNS: All right. We will take a break now. We'll be back with more on the Iraqi election. And when we're done, our colleagues will take over, starting with Shepard Smith and "The FOX Report" live from Baghdad 7:00 p.m. Eastern Time.
First, these messages.
BURNS: It is now, Jane, a little more than four hours until the polls open in Iraq. And I wonder in this country what expectations the media have fairly or unfairly raised about this election, how it will work out, what we might see in terms of violence. What are the media doing in that regard?
HALL: Well, I think that the media in many ways are reflecting what the Bush administration has said. I think they set this as a benchmark, the march towards freedom, which is the way President Bush has characterized it. But in terms of violence, I noticed that there was a report. Jim Miklaszewski at the Pentagon on Thursday night had a report quoting Pentagon officials saying...
BURNS: He's with NBC News, we should say.
HALL: NBC News, saying Pentagon officials say they do not expect the violence to drop off after the election. I think the problem is there's been an expectation that, oh, after they get a government that's the end of it. And that's not going to be the end of it. And it seems to me that military officials are telling reporters like Miklaszewski this so that the American people don't expect that...
GABLER: Of course they've been playing this game now for a month...
GABLER: ... telling us there's going to be tons and tons and tons of violence before the election so if there's any violence before the election the administration can say, well, we told you so.
BURNS: Well, listen, what...
GABLER: But there's another set of expectations here too that I think is really important. And one of the things that's made this really an untenable situation for the media is not only that they're in physical danger, but also that they don't really know what the benchmarks are in this election.
What makes an election successful or not in this situation?
PINKERTON: Well, the president has -- speaking like a politician, like every primary election in America is an expectations game. Bush said on Wednesday, "I think millions of people will vote" in the press conference. Then he said to Al Arabiya, "I think thousands of people will vote."
Of course everybody saw the thousands as well. So now...
GABLER: Dozens of people might vote.
PINKERTON: I expect it will be millions, but that's a huge increase from thousands.
THOMAS: Look, he's the American challenge (ph), all right? All right.
BURNS: Cal, what about -- I mean, we're talking here about how -- how the media are going to handle the election. What about how the Bush administration have prepped, or have they, the media, to handle this election in the way they want it handled?
Neal, that's what you suggest.
BURNS: What is the administration doing to the media? And are the media buying into it?
THOMAS: I think we'll have a reversal of the Vietnam syndrome. They'll declare victory and stay in.
There was this statement the last few days that the president said to "The New York Times" in an interview in the Oval Office that of course if they ask us to leave that we will leave. They're not going to ask them to leave. This is a support group that they've got to have.
It takes years. We had -- we had one of the leaders, the military leaders on Fox this week talking about how long it actually takes to train a battalion commander, along with his men. This is not going to be a short-term effort if violence continues. And violence will continue.
So we're going to have to have a presence there. The media better get used to that and cover it appropriately.
HALL: Well, but this is the reason I liked this "Time" magazine story this week, because it talks about, you know, the policy of perhaps having American advisers. It also talks about something that we haven't talked about enough in the media, which is what happens next.
What if they elect a theocracy there? What if they elect people who probably are going to have to distance themselves? Even Allawi may have to distance himself from us. I mean, we haven't heard enough of the what next, I think, in the media, reasonably so, because there's so much concern about the violence.
PINKERTON: But the Bush administration has already jobbed the press, it seems to me, because Bush has said, look, even the fact that they're holding the elections, that's the important thing. Forget what happens during the election, just the fact they're holding elections.
And the fact that we're getting so much media coverage of these elections proves in a way that the media's bought in to the Bush idea. They're there to cover the fact that there all elections.
BURNS: But we've talked on this show more than once about the fact that there's a scarcity of foreign news coverage in this country. And I don't remember, Jim, an election, a foreign election that's ever gotten this much coverage. I wonder, just in terms of a media standpoint, if this is going to start to get us in this post-9/11 world, thinking more and more that we have to pay more attention, the media do.
PINKERTON: I hope so, frankly. And I think we all agree the tsunami coverage was -- the enormous increase in that was in part due to the post- 9/11 feeling that we're much more connected to the world, Eric.
But again, look, nobody's blasted Dan Rather (search) more than me. If he -- I just read that he's been there a dozen times to Iraq. He's there now. He's a 72-year-old guy, he doesn't need to be doing this.
I give him and all his people a lot of credit for going over there. And I hope it continues in other places around the world as well. But this is a really momentous ordeal for all these people, and I just give them a lot of credit.
THOMAS: Back at the old days of NBC when we had all these bureaus around the world and someone like Wells Hangon (ph) would report from Tokyo on the Japanese economy, today that would be considered boring. I don't think it's going to happen. I wish it would. But only massive war or disaster is going to get the media's attention as far as foreign stories are concerned.
BURNS: Well, and this weekend an election.
THOMAS: Yes, of course.
BURNS: It's time for another break. We'll be back with our "Quick Takes" on the media.
BURNS: Time now for our "Quick Takes" on the media.
Headline number one: "More Tips of the Iceberg?"
Now it's syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher accepting $21,500 of government money to promote a Bush administration initiative to encourage marriage. And it's Michael McManus, a foreign "Time" magazine correspondent and now a syndicated columnist who was paid $4,000 to tutor marriage mentors.
The price keeps dropping.
BURNS: You had to get in on this at the early stage.
THOMAS: Look, I think when you're going to write a syndicated column, it's something like becoming a cloistered nun. Nobody's forcing you to do it. You go in, you take the vow of poverty, you take the vow of silence, or whatever it is. You probably shouldn't be out dancing in a strip club that night.
When -- it doesn't matter what else you do. If you're going to write a syndicated column that's in a journalistic established entity like a newspaper, then you have to abide by the ethics rules of that syndicate. There's a provision in my contract which says you're specifically prohibited from receiving any remuneration in exchange for advancing a policy.
BURNS: But does Maggie Gallagher get off the hook somewhat because most of what she did was behind the scenes? She was, we think, making policy. We know she was doing some ghostwriting.
I mean, her online column for "National Review (search)" did advocate what she was being paid for. But I wonder if there's any kind of ethical difference here, or are all these people in the same boat?
HALL: I don't draw a big ethical difference there. I mean, from what I've read, she said she was paid for research. And, you know, to me, the most spooky thing about this was her statement that she would have disclosed the $21,000 if she remembered it.
HALL: And I thought, no wonder people hate the media. Most people would remember if they got a check for $21,000.
BURNS: And she said, "I would have mentioned it if I remember it." And Mike McManus, Neal, said, "I don't see that it's relevant."
GABLER: It's totally relevant. I mean, she's writing and commenting about the people from whom she's taking money.
BURNS: And he. And he.
GABLER: And he. But the larger issue, and the one I've raised on this show for the last few weeks is, the Bush administration now, according to "USA Today," has spent $250 million of your money, taxpayers, $250 million to independent PR firms to propagandize the American people.
BURNS: But President Bush now says that's not a good thing, it shouldn't happen anymore. And there will be introduced in Congress this week, Jim, in the Senate, the Kennedy-Lautenberg Stop Government Propaganda Act.
You said last week the FCC shouldn't be involved in this. Should Kennedy and Lautenberg?
PINKERTON: Yes, they should be de-funding this from happening. The FCC shouldn't be investigating.
And I said last week that reporters would call each other up looking for other examples. And I was right about that. Now I'll say further, they shouldn't be investigating it, but they should be de-funding.
THOMAS: Cut the funding of the PR departments in government that are supposed to be doing this job. Why are they outsourcing?
BURNS: "De-funding" is not a word.
"Quick Take" headline number two: "Johnny Carson Dies at Age 79."
Carson left "The Tonight Show" in 1992, and for more than a dozen years hardly anyone even saw a picture of him. Until this week, when pictures of Johnny Carson were everywhere. The most coverage we've seen of a person's death since that of Ronald Reagan (search) last year.
Justified, that amount?
THOMAS: Absolutely. Johnny Carson was a great unifier in this country during a very turbulent period: Vietnam, Watergate, whatever. Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives could tune in at 11:30 at night and be entertained and laugh. And he was an equal opportunity jokester.
He would pull the chains of Democrats and Republicans, and he did it in a kind way. You never felt it was mean-spirited. He was a genius.
BURNS: And Neal, it seems to me now there's kind of a culture rift in terms of who you even think is funny. Young people have one set of idols, older people a different. Carson was one of those people -- and Bob Hope is in this category -- who seem to appeal to all people regardless of politics, regardless of temperament.
GABLER: You're right. And I'll tell you why I think. And I think a lot of the people who analyzed him didn't get it. The reason is that he had a kind of saturnine equanimity.
GABLER: He was opened to everything, but he was also skeptical at the same time. And when you place him between the gushy Jack Paar and the phony Jay Leno, there was this guy who seemed honest and legitimate, but again had that kind of skepticism at the same time.
PINKERTON: As Swifty Lazar said about Johnny...
BURNS: Famous agent..
PINKERTON: ... said Carson was a combination of extreme ego and extreme cowardice, which meant that he had that kind of quality of ambivalence, which -- but people loved him and he was great. And it's a common thread to a lot successful people on television.
BURNS: Final word, Jane.
HALL: It also was interesting to think about his sort of Midwestern leer. He would sort of stop and you'd get that joke. And when you compare that to some of the stuff that's on TV, you know, it makes you into a neocon if you're not careful.
BURNS: It does?
"Quick Take" headline number three: "Aren't We Maybe Going a Little Too Far With This?" On FOX Sports Net (search), which is on cable, there is a show called "The Best Damn Sports Show, Period." The Fox Broadcast Network is going to air a version of it as part of its Super Bowl coverage. But on that occasion, for broadcast, it's going to have a different name. It will be "The Best Darn Super Bowl Road Show, Period.
Cal, is this where we're headed?
THOMAS: Golly, gee whiz, I hope so.
You know, Neal and I are kind of in sync on this on the FCC and the government and all the rest. But look, they're doing this voluntarily, nobody has told them to do it. I think television has gone too far.
I mean, you can talk about body parts, various bodily fluids openly on broadcast television now. I think it's gone much too far. If they're doing this voluntarily, I say it's a strike for virtue.
PINKERTON: The trend, I think, is that broadcast is going to be sort of a red state-friendly medium. And cable and everything else will be blue state-friendly.
HALL: And guess what? Cable's not regulated. I mean, you can argue whether it should be, but that's one of the reasons between "damn" and "darn."
GABLER: My advice, keep the title, can the show.
BURNS: We have to take one more break. It's a good time, because we've just insulted the parent company. When we come back, it will be your turn.
BURNS: About the big media event that we discussed on last week's program, here is Kurt from Greensburg, Pennsylvania. "On the anti- Republican commentators for inauguration coverage, why have them? It's coverage of a celebration. Would you hire a party pooper to cover New Year's Eve?"
About soldiers undergoing media training as part of their military training, here is Andrew from Fort Bragg, North Carolina. "These young men and women have joined the military to support our great country and our way of life. Not to become spokesmen or women for the military. We don't ask your camera crews to pick arms against the enemy. Leave our service members alone, and don't ask them to do the job of your reporters."
But Karen, a master sergeant in the Army Reserve from Panama City Beach, Florida, says that soldiers need media training because "Reporters approach soldiers in airports on an individual basis. We tell our soldiers not to say, 'no comment,' because that would indicate we have something to hide."
About journalist Armstrong Williams taking government money to support a government program, here are Richard and Kam from Fuquay Varina, North Carolina. "You all missed the point of the story. Armstrong Williams failed to disclose that he was taking money to promote a government point of view that he was commenting on. His problem."
"Why is this an issue that needs to be investigated? Is it because liberals don't agree with the No Child Left Behind Act?"
No. It's because Armstrong Williams failed to disclose that he was taking money to promote a government point of view that he was commenting on. Journalist's problem.
Finally, from Bob in Mobile, Alabama -- and Bob, we hope you're not too drunk to hear this. "My wife and I have taken to watching you each week with a bottle and a shot glass on the table between us. Each time someone says something especially silly, we toss back a shot to dull the pain."
"Last week, Neal was at the top of his game and the level in the bottle was falling fast. When he said that you should not modify news for children's consumption, we decided that rated a double. The rest of the show is sort of hazy. Did we miss anything after that?"
Yes, Bob. Neal gave your phone number to Alcoholics Anonymous.
BURNS: Here's our address: firstname.lastname@example.org . Please write to us. When you do, tell us your full name and let us know where you live.
That's it for this week. Thanks to Jane Hall, Jim Pinkerton, Cal Thomas, Neal Gabler. And I'm Eric Burns, thanking you for watching.
We'll see you next week. And Shepard Smith from Baghdad will see you right now.
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then ahead to 2005 and when we'll all wish you the happiest of new years.