The following is a transcription of the February 5, 2005 edition of "FOX News Watch," that has been edited for clarity:
ERIC BURNS, HOST: This week on "FOX News Watch," the State of the Union, the state of the Iraqi elections, the state of the media in covering these stories. This story is going to be covered in a very unusual way.
Did two FOX News contributors do something they shouldn't have done? Did this bunny visit people he shouldn't have visited.
And Terrell Owens even on "FOX News Watch."
BURNS: Here is the first annual and last ever "FOX News Watch" State of the Union address. Jim Pinkerton of "Newsday" is brilliant and astute. Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas is perceptive and wise. Jane Hall of the American University is eloquent and unerring. Media writer Neal Gabler is thoughtful and all-seeing.
I'm Eric Burns. I need a new speechwriter.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Across Iraq, often in great risk, millions of citizens went to the polls and elected 275 men and women to represent them in a new transitional national assembly.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNS: President Bush in his State of the Union address this week on the state of Iraq's election day last weekend.
Jim, because of those two events I ask you two questions. Was it a triumphant week for the Bush administration? And did the media portray it?
JIM PINKERTON, NEWSDAY: Well, all of us in the news media hate it when the news is made for us. You know, because we all — all of us invest in the news and we get — you know, we get — and that's how we predict it.
But I would say this, Peter Johnson from USA Today had a headline. And it said, "For a Day At Least, Iraq News Changes Tone." And this was, in fact — and Tom Shales said the same thing in The Washington Post — this was a great news week for Bush both in Iraq, all the symbols, the fingers, the hug, as well as the State of the Union.
BURNS: Meaning that the media knuckled or the media accurately reported some legitimate Bush successes?
JANE HALL, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: I think I'd go for the fact that the media accurately reported some Bush successes. And I think that — that the news has been terrible from there. And, you know, I think the media rightly reported it.
The symbolism of this is — someone — one of the commentators I saw said it's hard to argue with the symbolism of a man wheeling his 90-year- old mother in a wheelbarrow up to vote for the first time in 50 years. I mean, that was very positive.
But I will say that we now have to move on to, OK, what next? And the Sunni — you know, the vote was very low in some parts of the country. And now we have to talk about that. That's the next thing we need to talk about, the security forces. The symbolism was extremely powerful.
CAL THOMAS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Here's the way the media played the game. Prior to the election, "They can't possibly have an election. There's too much violence there. It needs to be postponed."
The president says, "Not going to be postponed. We're going ahead." The media say, "Well, it should have been postponed, but it can't possibly turn out right."
It turns out pretty good in spite of some of the things Jane says. Well, then, it can't last.
Katie Couric gets on "The Today Show" two days after the election. As Jane points out, the finger, everybody's celebrating the hug at the State of the Union and says, "Well, couldn't this still go wrong?"
They're never satisfied. And if it really, really does go right, we'll go to Social Security and show how that isn't going to work.
NEAL GABLER, MEDIA WRITER: Look, it was really inspirational, but the media got carried away. They failed to verify the turnout, and even now the turnout keeps on sinking.
They failed to discuss, as Jane said, the low Sunni turnout and the ramifications of that for the future of the country. They failed to acknowledge that this doesn't settle anything yet. Hopefully this is a first step. But it's only a first step.
I think — you know, I was reminded, and, in fact, on the blogs you saw a lot of this, of the reports of the South Vietnamese elections, free elections in 1967, which reported, identically, identically, verbatim to the way this election was reported. And we saw the result there.
I have — for anyone who gets carried away, I have two words: "Mission accomplished." Let's take a step back and put this in some kind of perspective.
BURNS: Jim, how about your perspective?
PINKERTON: Well, I would say that Brent Bozell from MRC.org put it well when he said that there's a permanent quagmire core at work here on Iraq. And I think — but it's one thing to have an opinion. I think every reporter is entitled to have an opinion. They might not be able to call themselves "fair and balanced," but they can say what they think.
But the mistake a lot of them made was getting specific in predictions. And you cited Katty Kay from the BBC, David Hawkins from CBS, Jim Maceda from NBC all giving numerical predictions.
I agree with Neal. Who knows the predictions on — on the vote turnout in Iraq? Who knows what the turnout really was?
But it's always dangerous to make a prediction. For example, Bob Schieffer on — from CBS, said, oh, Bush has nine months to make all this work. Well, how does he know that Bush has nine months to make it work?
BURNS: And what happens in the...
PINKERTON: Yes. And after that — after that, Schieffer said Bush's successors could "evaporate."
BURNS: Now how does he know that?
HALL: I think...
BURNS: Because he's been in this business a long time.
PINKERTON: Well, OK. I'm saying, it's a free country to say it. But he might be proven wrong.
BURNS: And, by the way — hang on. As long as he's come up, since it's a full show, we didn't have time for it, we should acknowledge that we do know Bob Schieffer is Dan Rather's short-term successor on CBS. So he can make more predictions — Jane.
HALL: You know, I think that the people in the Bush administration are — must be considering this a win for his policy. And, you know, they have framed this as — as a march toward democracy.
We've sort of forgotten about whether — whether this was weapons of mass destruction. And the symbolism I think overpowers anybody saying, "Gee, what about these people that didn't vote?"
I mean, Cokie Roberts said we — they put us to shame, the percentage of people who voted. We don't know exactly the percentage of people that voted. It was very positive.
THOMAS: The cynicism of the media was on play again at the State of the Union speech, when a number of journalists questioned whether the hug between the mother of one of the men who gave his life and serves for freedom in Iraq hugging a woman from Iraq was staged. And I thought that was a little much.
BURNS: We have to take our first break. We'll be back to raise some very interesting issues about the media and the law.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHAEL JACKSON, SINGER: I deserve a fair trial like every other American citizen. I will be acquitted and vindicated when the truth is told. Thank you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNS: Michael Jackson was allowed by a judge to make that video statement because, said the judge, "Jackson has been victimized by leaks in the grand jury testimony about his child molestation case."
You went to law school, which I didn't know until you mentioned it on the air once.
GABLER: Yes. Yes, I did.
BURNS: What do you think of the judge's decision there?
GABLER: Well, I think — and I've said this on the show — that grand jury testimony should not be released unless it's authorized by the court or unless there is some overwhelming public interest that has to be served and the testimony won't come out otherwise.
BURNS: So should the judge have rectified the fact that it did leak by letting Jackson make this statement? That was...
GABLER: Well, I don't think any great harm was done. I think more harm is done, frankly, when you have grand jury testimony out there that, by the way, there is no defense attorney cross-examining these witnesses during the grand jury procedure.
BURNS: Right. Right.
GABLER: And that's important, because it gets information out there. It gets information out there that might be very, very prejudicial to Michael Jackson.
PINKERTON: But bear in mind grand jury testimony for the Jackson case is on eBay right now. I'm kidding — I'm kidding when I say that. But the...
GABLER: Not by much.
PINKERTON: But not by much — by the tabloids is so high that you're going to see a lot more of this.
HALL: I mean, a lot of people have already been prejudiced by what they read and what — what they think about what they read, and ABC's report and smoking gun. And it is prejudice. I mean, there's no way it's not prejudicial to him.
THOMAS: This is almost like a video game. It is a — it is an indictment and a caricature of itself.
Can you imagine those two hundred and some jurors? All of them are thinking, "Wait a minute, if I make the final cut and I'm among the 12, can I call my agent now and get a book deal and movie deal?" We're going to have five months...
THOMAS: That's right. Oh, please. You know, the jurors in the nude.
This is going to be the most obscene thing. This is — we're going to long for the days of the O.J. coverage. That's how bad it's going to be.
BURNS: Well, because things went so well with the O.J. coverage in the courtroom, despite the fact, Jim, that things were smashingly successful, there is no coverage in the courtroom of the Michael Jackson case. As a result, E! Entertainment Television, with a long track record of judicial accuracy in reporting, is going to do a nightly reenactment.
Do you know this? Or are you just...
PINKERTON: I do know this. You told me before the show.
BURNS: You don't always listen to me. They're hiring actors who are going to read the testimony of that day's proceedings. And apparently they have somebody who looks like Michael Jackson.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's frightening.
PINKERTON: I've got to tell you, I think it's pretty cool. I think that it's an interesting way to learn about the news.
We always talk about how to get people interested in the news and so on and so on. I am intensely curious, however, as to the race and gender of this actor who will be playing Michael Jackson.
HALL: Well, E! Entertainment says it all, it's entertainment. And, you know, it's so interesting to me that child molestation charges — you know, there's going to be a question about whether people are going to watch this as avidly and are going to read about it and follow it as avidly they did the O.J. Simpson trial. And I think that's even the scary thought.
You know, are you going to have a discussion about this with your children? This is a serious charge, and it's viewed as E! Entertainment Television.
THOMAS: I think you can count on the pedophile demographic tuning in. I don't think there's any question about that.
BURNS: But E! Entertainment might be the name of the network, but they say, Neal, their own statement, they're going to sit there, they're going to read it very objectively and just provide a public service.
GABLER: I mean, the circus has come to town.
BURNS: Third element in this Michael Jackson trial that I think is fascinating from a media point of view is that the people at the venue are saying that the media are going to have to pay to cover this perhaps as much as $800,000 because they're spending so much money, Cal, on this to provide the media with protection, to provide them with sites to do live shots.
What about this issue of charging the media to cover a legitimate — is this a legitimate news story?
THOMAS: Well, this has been going on for some time. I remember the first political convention I was at in 1964 in Atlantic City. It was mostly private then. I don't think the city was involved in it.
Hotels were selling rooftop space, parking lot space for camera space. However, this I think is one of the early times where the local governments are doing it because there is an awful lot of money that is put out by the local taxpayers to accommodate the media.
BURNS: Yes. Well, I think the issue here is what they're saying is, Jim, I believe, nobody in the press objects to paying something because they do know they're getting services. It's going to be a question of, are you — are you trying to make a profit?
PINKERTON: I think the issue is transparency. The city should neither make nor lose money on this. But, by the way, if we're talking about transparency, I can't resist noting that Geraldo Rivera, speaking of transparent lips, said that if Michael Jackson is acquitted he will shave off his moustache.
BURNS: And he has also said...
PINKERTON: Michael Jackson is convicted, my mistake. If Michael Jackson is — Geraldo is convinced that Michael Jackson is innocent. Talk about a cold (ph) shot. Either he's really right or he's really wrong.
BURNS: Yes, but it's another issue we've discussed before about making these predictions in advance and how this helps or hinders a fair trial. And this obviously don't help.
HALL: You know, I think there was a very interesting piece in my alma mater, the "LA Times," where the editor of the "LA Times" said he was uncomfortable with this because we are not covering this as a commercial enterprise. And I thought, you know what...
BURNS: Uncomfortable with what, being charged to...
HALL: Uncomfortable with being charged. And I think — you know, I thought about that, and I thought, you know what? I think this is a commercial enterprise for the media.
HALL: I don't think this is a matter of great import. They're satisfying viewers' interests. Is that a public service? I don't know.
GABLER: Yes, reasonable fees for specific services, I think. But why should the taxpayers subsidize CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, whatever?
GABLER: There is no reason why the taxpayers should subsidize that coverage.
BURNS: Oh, sure there is. They're getting a lot of great press, Neal — well, press.
It's time for another break. We will back with our "Quick Takes on the Media."
BURNS: It's time for our "Quick Takes on the Media."
Headline no. 1: "Did Journalists Cross the Line?" Political commentators and FOX News contributors Charles Krauthammer and Bill Kristol were consulted by the White House in the early stages of preparing the president's State of the Union address. Both men say they offered advice to White House aides about the speech. Neither did any of the writing.
And Jane, apparently they did the same consulting with the inaugural address as well. No money changed hands. These are political commentators, conservative.
HALL: Well, it's not to me nearly as serious as the Armstrong Williams and other things we've talked about. But I think it probably should be disclosed.
I was watching Charles Krauthammer on Fox on the night of the State of the Union. And then I thought, gee, I wonder if the material he's praising about, Bush's stance on Iran, was something he suggested to them. I mean, I think you have to disclose it if you're doing it.
GABLER: We talked about transparency. Look, these are guys who were sitting with the White House speechwriters and then they go and comment on the speech.
They're partisan hacks. And they're partisan hacks who — before they're journalists. And I think that's the real issue here.
You're talking about crossing the line. The real issue is, where does partisan hackery leave off and journalism begin?
BURNS: And Cal Thomas, did you cross a line?
THOMAS: Wait a minute. I thought you were going to turn to me and say, "Are you a partisan hack?"
No, I was with the president for an interview for my column on Monday. And at the end of the interview he said, "Cal, I'd like to have your opinion on whether the government ought to be involved in controlling the content of programs." And I said, "Well, Mr. President, you know, after what has happened to several of my syndicated colleagues, I think I probably better not answer that question."
BURNS: How do you feel about — briefly, about Krauthammer?
THOMAS: All politicians — well, all politicians do this, as Tom Rosenstiel, the Project for Excellence in Journalism pointed out. They try to co-opt you by saying, "What do you think," as if they really care.
I wouldn't do it. And Krauthammer's also on the president's Bioethics Commission, which I think is another problem.
BURNS: So you — you don't think they're really giving much input? They're being stroked more than anything else?
Jim, quickly, please.
PINKERTON: Actually, I do think they're giving input. And I don't think they're partisan hacks. I think they are ideological pundits, not getting paid by the government. I think they have a perfect right to say what they want to anybody. That's what we all do.
BURNS: Not getting paid for it?
PINKERTON: Right. Right.
GABLER: But they're commenting on their own work.
BURNS: But we're not, because, see, I'm going to do "Quick Takes" number two now. But we have commented on our work.
Headline: "Bunny Visits Lesbians on Vermont Farm." That's Buster, a cartoon bunny, on PBS. But PBS is not airing that particular episode nationally, although it says the complaint from the Secretary of Education about PBS' spending government money to promote an alternative lifestyle had nothing to do with its decision not to air it nationally. However, about 27 PBS stations plan to carry the episode in question on their own.
Cal, should it be carried or shouldn't it?
THOMAS: You know, I think there are big issues to fight than cartoon characters. I'm sorry.
I agree with Frank Rich in his Sunday column in "The New York Times," where he talks about here is the vice president's openly lesbian daughter, openly attending the inauguration with her openly lesbian partner, Heather Poe. And nobody says a word about it. And now we're having battles over cartoon characters on PBS.
BURNS: The lesbians, we should say, in the show are not cartoon characters, but real human beings.
HALL: This is a show — first of all, I'm an expert on "Arthur." This is a spin-off from (UNINTELLIGIBLE). And I covered children's television for many years.
This is more serious than it looks. This is PBS caving over an objection by the new secretary of Education. They get funding for children's programming partially from this. This was a show to show different kinds of lifestyles, not to promote lifestyles. They are — they've got their head in the sand if they think there aren't gay people out there and that young children don't need to know there are different kinds of families.
GABLER: This program was specifically devised to discuss diversity in America. If you read the grant, that's exactly what it says. So now it's hypocrisy to say, wait a minute, we didn't mean that kind of diversity.
PINKERTON: I think both sides picked a fight. And they're both going to enjoy the benefits to their respective ideological polls.
BURNS: Because of the publicity?
BURNS: "Quick Take" headline no. 3: "Good News! Terrell Owens Stories Almost Over!"
BURNS: And not the Terrell, Nicolette Sheridan, "Monday Night Football" story. That is over.
What's almost over are the "Will Terrell Owens play in the Super Bowl?" And "How much and how good will he be" stories.
This man, Neal, has an astonishing knack for gathering publicity. How does he do it, and how are the media complicit?
GABLER: Well, I mean, he does it because he knows how to push all the buttons and know how to say outrageous things and do outrageous things. But also, I mean, he's got the perfect venue for it because your Parkinson's Law was that you could spread manure to fill any space.
Well, you could also spread manure to fill any time segment. And now you've got two weeks between the conference championships and the Super Bowl. And Terrell Owens is the manure that's filled it.
BURNS: And always tough to fill these two weeks with non-manure stories — Jim.
PINKERTON: Kevin Manahan from the "Newark Star-Ledger" said that this leg of Owens has gotten more attention than any leg since Marilyn Monroe stood on top of the subway grate...
PINKERTON: ... in that "Seven Year Itch" movie. Look, Owens is clearly a genius. When I got curious about the story, I went to, of all things, his Web site and read all about it.
HALL: Well, he's a show-boater. And the Super Bowl is a national holiday right up there with Thanksgiving as far as, you know, most people are concerned.
BURNS: And he's the turkey?
HALL: And — well, I don't know. I don't know that he's the turkey. But, I mean, there's a lot of media interest in it. The question of whether he might get hurt is a serious question.
THOMAS: Go Patriots.
PINKERTON: Just one point. There's a certain amount of drama, though. And the guy has a broken leg. Whether he plays or not, that's like what they make sports movies out of.
BURNS: All right. That's enough. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) too much times on their hands.
We have to take one more break. "We" don't. When we come back it will be your turn.
BURNS: Gary from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, gets us started with our viewer mail segment.
"The American people are waiting for an apology from the press and the Democrats, who said the election in Iraq could not be held and would not be a success."
Same topic, Steve from Montevideo, Minnesota, "In your discussion about the elections in Iraq and the media coverage, you missed the essential question. Why did the western democratic media provide so little positive coverage and support either editorially or in news coverage of this historic opportunity for democratic revolution in the Middle East?"
About Maggie Gallagher and Armstrong Williams and other journalists who have taken government money for their points of view, here is Bob from Russellville, Arkansas. "I most certainly agree that Armstrong and Gallagher should not have been paid tax money to promote an administration position. But to stay fair and balanced, how about a discussion on the millions of tax dollars that are spent on PBS and NPR to promote biased liberal positions?"
And Charles from Waco, Texas, "Frankly, I don't mind the government using PR to get their message out. When you have the majority of the media spinning and twisting and failing to report accurately, critical facts about policy, what's a government to do?"
About Fox's "The Best Damn Sports Show, Period," here is Ken from San Antonio, Texas. "Neal's 'Keep the title can the show' was the best damn comment I have ever heard him make."
BURNS: Finally, here is an email that is sort of about Johnny Carson. It's from Mark in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Excuse me. "Neal and Jane are just like Johnny Carson's Carnac the Magnificent. They always put the answer before the question."
"As for the other late-night comparisons, Jim is a little like Conan O'Brien, tall, thin, funny. Eric is like Ed McMahon, straight man, cop, traffic cop. And Cal sort of reminds me of that guy (I forget his name) who hosts 'After Hours' on Fox."
BURNS: Here is our address for your emails. It's email@example.com. Please write to us, tell us your full name and let us know where you live.
That is all the time we have left for this week. Thanks go to Jane Hall, Jim Pinkerton, Cal Thomas and Neal Gabler. And I'm Eric Burns, thanking you.
I'll accept the clown who compared me to Ed McMahon for watching it. We hope you'll do it again next week. Ed McMahon talks better. We'll be back next week.
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