The following is a transcription of the April 16, 2005 edition of "FOX News Watch," that has been edited for clarity:
ERIC BURNS, HOST: This week, on "FOX News Watch": Is Tom DeLay (search) getting a fair trial in the media? Would you trust journalists more if you were a journalist? Maybe you could be. And we have something remarkable to tell you about the coverage of his trial, about the reaction of General Motors to some stories it didn't like and about a recent column by the most famous sports writer in America.
First the headlines then us...
BURNS: Britney Spears is pregnant. Yes, Britney Spears is pregnant.
Here to cover the coverage of the other stories in the news this week are 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.
You know the details by now: Tom DeLay's wife and daughter have made half a million dollars on DeLay's payroll. He is also accused of taking a lot of trips that were paid for by people who should not be paying for trips taken by members of Congress.
Neal, he says a lot of other members of Congress take these trips; a lot of others members of Congress have family members on the payroll. It seems to me that you are the least likely person on this panel to buy that. So let me ask you if you see...
NEAL GABLER, MEDIA WRITER: There is — it's not that great a defense to say other people have committed murder too. I mean, this is...
CAL THOMAS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: It's hardly the same.
BURNS: Do you see, when he blames the liberal media for this — which he has done in those terms — do you see any justification?
GABLER: Absolutely not.
Look at — the media actually were very slow to jump on this story. And this is the reason why, in my estimation: the mainstream media work on the principles of conventional wisdom and critical mass. And the left-wing media and the right-wing media can try and propel a story or a slant, or they can try and impede a story or a slat, but ultimately, until it hits critical masse, nothing happens.
GABLER: This is a story...
BURNS: How did this story hit critical masse?
GABLER: I think through an accumulation of sins. I mean, one after another. One wasn't sufficient. But one after another, finally, even the Republican media — The Wall Street Journal editorial page, The Richmond Times-Dispatch — everybody just decided — and this is interesting how this process works — I mean, it's rather mysterious. But everyone just decided, the conventional wisdom said, Look at: it's critical masse time. This guy is — is history.
THOMAS: Tom DeLay is being persecuted by the media because he is effective in advancing the conservative, especially the social agenda, and has spoken out against judges.
Nancy Pelosi took far more trips costing a lot more money than Tom DeLay. Is she on the front page of The New York Times?
GABLER: Who financed those trips?
THOMAS: The other thing is about — the other thing is about payroll. You mentioned payroll in the introduction. A lot of the media cover this as if he's on the federal payroll. This may be a lousy law, and I think it is, but it allows members of Congress to use campaign funds to put certain family members, if they wish, on the payroll and to take trips funded by supposed C3 organizations.
Again, it may be a rotten law, but so far, he has not been indicted or convicted or...
JANE HALL, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: Let me go back to the media...
BURNS: Jane, interrupt both of them.
HALL: OK. (UNINTELLIGIBLE)
You know, I — I agree with Neal. I think that this — Tom DeLay has been a story waiting to happen. I mean, relatives of mine in Texas who are — have often voted Republican said to me, When were the media going to get on to the whole redistricting thing where — where he was, you know, involved in all of that.
I think that he emerged on the Terri Schiavo story and made these very inflammatory remarks about judges, and I think there was a critical masse. He has been censured by the Republican-led several times...
HALL: And he has taken — he has taken the stance that's been reported that in meetings, he said....
THOMAS: Been admonished, not censured. There's a difference.
HALL: OK. He has — he has — there were stories last week that said — I mean, people like Newt Gingrich have said on the Sunday talk shows — I mean, I think what will be interesting to watch to see — President Bush has been distancing himself from this, apparently because of the Social Security fight, there's apparently no love lost, as "The New York Times" reported.
I think it's a sad situation when the partisanship means that if you blame somebody, they turn around and say, Well the Democrats did it too.
BURNS: You've had a lot of time to think of your first response.
THOMAS: Hit it out of the park, Jim.
JIM PINKERTON, "NEWSDAY": I was hoping I would get a chance to say anything at all.
When Tony Coelho, a Democrat from Congress — from California ran the Democratic Congressional Committee in the 80s, he used sort of legal Mafia tactics — legal Mafia tactics to kind of muscle campaign contributions. And the media thought that was cool.
When Tom DeLay became the — quote — the Hammer — the media thought that was terrible.
When Phil Burton, Democratic congressman gerrymandered California to help the Democrats in the 80s, people thought, Oh, that's really neat. How clever of him.
When Tom DeLay did the same thing in Texas, they said, Oh, there's another criminal activity.
I think the — Linda Chavez (search) had a great column where she said, Look, compare the coverage of Tom DeLay and whatever he's accused of doing and whatever he might have done, to the coverage of [former National Security Adviser] Sandy Berger (search), who stole and mutilated federal, secret, classified documents. And I went and — following up on Linda's column, I went to Factiva (search), which is a database company — they are 2,400 stories on Tom DeLay and 200 on Sandy Berger, a 12-1 ratio.
GABLER: I have never heard a more fatuous comparison than that.
THOMAS: Excellent comparison, Jim.
GABLER: Sandy Berger is not an elected representative. Sandy Berger is not accused of financially benefiting from what he did. Sandy Berger was brought to justice, which Tom DeLay has not been brought to justice. And — and Sandy Berger did not materially affect anything at this point.
PINKERTON: Sandy Berger would have tried — tried — desperately tried to distort and cover up what the Clinton administration...
BURNS: The point is in this that we have someone on one side accused of some kind of malfeasance, someone on the other side accused of some kind of malfeasance.
Would — would the DeLay story — let me ask you two this, because you're both defending DeLay. Is it worth some coverage? Is it worth this coverage, but of a different kind?
PINKERTON: Eric, I'm not here to defend DeLay. I'm here to say that let's have one standard.
PINKERTON: If they're — if they're — if The L.A. Times reports that 39 members of Congress have members on the payroll....
BURNS: Then they should all be covered.
PINKERTON: The Wall Street Journal finds millions of dollars of these freebie trips, which I think are all sleazy — of both parties...
THOMAS: I agree.
PINKERTON: Let's cover those equally too.
PINKERTON: One standard.
BURNS: ...final word in this segment.
HALL: I think that the partisanship in the media has become so great that you cannot have a — an ethics probe without people saying, Well, the Democrats did it too or the Republicans did it too. We need to get beyond that.
BURNS: Time for a break. We'll be back with this:
ANNOUNCER: Don't like journalists? Don't trust them to tell you the truth? Then be a journalist yourself. Stay tuned to "FOX News Watch." We'll tell you how.
BURNS: In this segment, we want to tell you about a fascinating new trend in journalism. And unless you trust journalists, the more you might like it.
Newspapers in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Bakersfield, California, are among a growing number of papers asking their readers to cover stories for them. They publish the readers' stories, after some minor editing, on their Web sites.
So Jim, it seems to me — and this is kind of a grandiose phrase and you can deflate me if you like — but maybe we're — we're in the beginning stages of a revolution in journalism: citizens' journalism. Bloggers you've discussed so much that we all roll our eyes here.
But this — which by the way is being done because of circulation woes, not because of a chance to give us a new kind of journalism...
PINKERTON: Well, it certainly saves money on reporters, doesn't it?
BURNS: It — it does do that.
PINKERTON: Which is unfortunate.
I mean, look, I think this is an interesting trend. I think that it's only a matter of time before the few thousand newspapers realize they are 8 million bloggers out there, and a lot of them, to coin a phrase, would love to see their name in the paper, even if it's online, and would love to be part of this.
It's an interesting experiment. I think the danger is — and I speak as an enthusiast for blogs — is that any blog — existing ones, future ones, whatever — in order to get anywhere has to build, in effect, a brand. They got to build credibility. If you're LittleGreenFootballs, if you're DailyKos, right or left, you have to get known and get credible with a quality of reporting.
So to put anybody on the front page, it's really going to be up to the Greensville — The Greensboro News & Record (search) to say, We're still going to edit these things and still hold them to our standards so that our readers know they're going to get a quality product.
BURNS: But — but isn't that going to be tough, Jane? Because it seems to me the people who are most likely to want to be citizen reporters are people who have an ax to grind.
You don't have a passion to get out there and be neutral about a subject, do you? You're going to — you think you have a chance to get some newspaper space, it's because you have a point of view, you want to promote it.
HALL: Well, from what I've read of the stories that have been done, have been people writing about events that might not be covered. There was somebody writing senior citizen community — it seems more like community building.
And I think it's an — it's exciting and an interesting attempt by newspaper to build a two-way conversation. Newspapers are facing declining circulation. Obviously, blogs are growing.
From what I've read, I don't see it as — so much as a partisan thing so far as an — as an attempt to have roots in the community, and someone says, Here's an event that I want to write about. Here's an opinion that I have. And newspapers have got to open the closed circle. I think they've got to, because the environment is so different.
THOMAS: If the intent is to build readership, I think it's going to fail because it's going to be seen as just a gimmick.
I was at theAmerican Society of Newspaper Editors (search) convention in Washington this week. They have a big diversity committee, and they had a panel on bias. And of course, all of them denied that they were biased. So I guess that that settles it.
If you've got a constituency that feels aggrieved, whether it was in the past African Americans or women or whatever, and don't feel part of the mix, then you're not going to get those people to buy the newspapers. And the problem with the newspaper industry, just like television and so many other media outlets, is that it is a pretty much one-dimensional, among the biggies, point of view.
Now if they open that up and get more diverse ideas in there — and maybe this will help, I don't know — but I think you get conflict-of- interest potential in this, people promoting things that may — they may have a personal interest in, then I think that would help. But I don't this alone doing the job.
GABLER: And obviously I disagree with Cal that we don't have a pluralistic media in this country. I think we do have a fairly pluralistic media.
But I think is clearly an attempt by the old media to co-opt the new media, to co-opt the blogs.
I was reminded, however, of a line from the movie "To Die For" with Nicole Kidman, where she says, "Wouldn't it be great if everyone was on television all the time?" To which someone said, "Well if everyone was on television all the time, who would watch?"
And I wonder — I mean, who has the time or the inclination to read all of what are — all of these are — what are essentially neighborhood jottings.
BURNS: Well, since you mentioned television — you know, Al Gore's TV network, at least in its proposal, Jim, had a — had a show which was going to be those of you out there who have your cameras, go out and do a story, we'll edit it, put it on the air.
I wonder if this is the kind of thing that will come to television, that should come to television.
PINKERTON: I think it's an interesting experiment. We'll see what happens.
But I go back to: if you watch — if you're going to — in a universal media environment, you're going to say, I want to watch FOX News or CNN or Disney Channel or whatever — you're going to — you're going to want to be pretty sure that you're getting what you expect, which is news or entertainment or whatever — or a little bit of both, whatever.
And so I think the challenge is going to be the gate — we always talk about gatekeepers and how they're bad. Actually, in some sense they're good, because they help you build a brand that helps you build identity, so that people know where to find you and make the point of hunting you down in this fast media matrix.
BURNS: But maybe not because of your accuracy — maybe they don't care about that. Maybe there will be people out there — there will be some who just want their prejudices reinforced, which the bloggers and the citizen journalists can do, Jane.
HALL: Well, you know, it is interesting: the bloggers, to me, have been mainly attacking the mainstream media. I mean, primarily. I mean, that — those have been the big gets; the big heads that have been rolled have been that.
I think this is a very interesting experiment, and I've noticed television, now that Bob Schieffer is in Dan Rather's chair, there's more two way, there's more conversation, where he asks a question.
I think opinion is something that people like. And if you look at the Pew polls, younger people are less concerned about what we view as this tremendous difference between news and opinion. They're more likely to want opinion. And I think that's a fact here.
THOMAS: Eric, your line about people reinforcing their prejudices is a continued danger in our profession because people now have the ability to tune in only those things that reinforce what they already believe. I think that's dangerous to a free society.
BURNS: It's time for another break. We'll be back with our "Quick Takes."
ANNOUNCER: What exactly is the "ick" factor? And perhaps the most successful in America is having a problem with his journalism.
Stay tuned for more "FOX News Watch."
BURNS: It's time now for our "Quick Takes" on the media.
Headline number one: "The 'Ick' Factor."
According to editors at magazines like "People" and "US Weekly," and Web sites like smokinggun.com, the Michael Jackson trial is not as interesting to readers as they had initially thought. The reason? What Jackson is charged with is so disgusting that people just don't want to know it.
I don't mean to be facetious, Neal, but I would have thought, in a tabloid culture, there was no such thing as something so repellant that you didn't want to know it.
GABLER: This is an entertainment, and it lacks two — in my estimation, two of the fundamental elements of entertainment, or contemporary entertainment: voyeuristic sex — this sex is not voyeuristic. And it lacks a character with whom you can identify.
BURNS: You can't identify with Michael Jackson?
GABLER: Maybe Jim can.
PINKERTON: I can't either.
I kind of agree with Neal. I would add that the branding issue, again from the previous segment — you gross out your readers, they won't come back; you gross out your viewers and they won't go back.
I would also add a second element to this, which is the mystery about Michael Jackson has been kind of — whatever the legal implications of this case are, the mystery about who he is and what he is as a human being has been solved.
HALL: I thin kit's interesting; I know people at some of the networks who have been spent a lot of money to be in place to cover this. And I think people are saying, You know, now that the charges are out there, it ain't funny on the — it ain't funny on Leno; the charges on not funny.
THOMAS: Michael Jackson grossed me out before the trial.
BURNS: Think of what the trial's done.
BURNS: "Quick Take" number two:
"Memo to GM: You Might Want to Reconsider."
General Motors, the world's largest carmaker, has pulled its advertising from "The Los Angeles Times" because the Times published some stories that GM didn't like. The move could cost the Times as much as $20 million.
But it could end up costing GM too. Southern California is the largest automobile market in the country.
Jim, this kind of thing happens from time to time. Not just here, but there have been other cases. And it just doesn't seem to work for the aggrieved party, does it? Advertisers need advertising just as much as the papers need them.
PINKERTON: Well, I mean, I don't know. We just got through talking about newspapers and blogs and stuff. Something like craigslist — I mean, you know, I love newspapers; I don't want to trash the medium. But we'll just see what happens to GM.
But I do agree with Jane V. Steward in "The Wall Street Journal," who said I have a firm rule that calls for selling shares in any company that attacks the messenger rather than the underlying problem. I don't think that GM is going to get — get its way out of a problem by trashing the media. They got to make better cars.
THOMAS: Well, I understand that the tripwire on this was a auto columnist for the Times who wrote about the lousy management, in his judgment, at GM, not the kinds of cars. So apparently, management got peaked. Well, if they've got the problem, then they ought to solve it.
BURNS: GM's going to go back to the L.A. Times pretty soon, won't it?
GABLER: Eventually it will. But this a problem with sponsored content. I mean, if you take the money, in some ways, they call the tune.
HALL: That's a lot of money, and that's got to have a chilling effect the next time you write a column, if you think somebody's going to pull $20 million of ads.
BURNS: Well, but if they put it back soon — the money, that is.
All right. "Quick Take" headline number three:
"Nice Job, Mitch. But Journalism's Supposed to be Non-Fiction."
Mitch Albom is a publishing phenomenon. The two books he's written in the past three years have sold a total of more than 10 million copies. But he is a sportswriter by trade, and a recent column has gotten him into a lot of trouble.
Albom wrote about two former Michigan State players who were in the stands watching this game at the Final Four. He described their clothes, told how they were behaving. Only one problem: they weren't there.
THOMAS: Oops. That's always the big danger.
BURNS: He had talked to them a few days before the column; they told him they'd be there, and he went with it.
THOMAS: Yes. I have had people, where I go out to speak at an event or something. They'll — a newspaper reporter will call me and interview me in advance — what are you going to say, this sort of thing. They kind of frame the story, but they don't publish it until after I'm there. This is a really dangerous thing to do.
Now, if it had just been that, he might have gotten away with it. But then, as you say, he described the clothes they were wearing. I mean, total fiction. Terrible.
BURNS: Can you imagine doing the interview with these players? You'll be at the game? What will you be wearing?
I mean, didn't they think something was strange, Jim, about the question?
PINKERTON: I imagine that — look, The Detroit Free-Press (search) has a choice to make. We talked all show about branding and protecting the quality of the journalistic product. If "The Detroit Free-Press" lets him off with a slap on the wrist, that's a major statement about them.
When The Wall Street Journal had a case like this a couple years ago where a reporter claimed he called for a comment and hadn't called, they fired it. And I had great respect for the Journal as a result.
BURNS: What would you do?
GABLER: I'm not sure it's a firing offense because this is a matter of laziness, and if you fired journalists for laziness, we would have no journalists at all.
But he's a star, and I think he got good treatment — better treatment because he's a star there.
BURNS: Jane, what would you do?
HALL: I would probably not fire him. But I think it is a serious offense.
The interesting thing to me is it reminds me of best-selling novelists who, you know, we find that plagiarize some of their historical research. He's too busy, probably.
BURNS: We have to take one more break. When we come back, your turn.
BURNS: About coverage of the royal wedding, and the royal attitude toward the press and small reptiles, here's Joseph from Toms River, New Jersey: "Most cold-blooded lizards warming themselves in the sun sitting on top of a rock have more media `skills' than Prince Charles will ever have...It's a job, Chuck! And you're getting paid pretty well to wave at the cameras."
And Frances, Altamonte Springs, Florida: "It isn't any wonder that the news media LOOOVED Diana. She was more dysfunctional than they were."
About Jane Fonda's apology for her Hanoi Jane phase, and the comment on our program last week that it was a youthful indiscretion, here is Rinaldo from Chicago: "Getting drunk at a college frat party is a `youthful indiscretion.' Providing aid and comfort to the enemy is not."
And Jerry from Fairburn, Georgia: "Cal has it right. New movie, new `apology.' Anything for a buck!"
Maybe, Jerry, but it was Jim who said that, not Cal.
About the possible demise of ABC's "Nightline" and its possible replacement by an entertainment show, here is George from Roswell, Georgia: "Jane said it all when she complained that the biggest problem with news groups is that they want profits. Excuse me? Where does she think her money comes from? The media fairy?"
David from Covina, California, knows that the network news anchors don't believe in the media fairy: "Why do these anchors ask for so much money (many millions a year). They don't think about public service when it comes to payday. Let's be real. It's a business, and it would probably be more public service if they were paid less."
Bill from Toledo, Ohio: "Does Cal Thomas moonlight playing the trombone on the Letterman show?"
Yes, but only because he did not get a role in the proposed new ABC series "Desperate Columnists."
Finally, here is the most literary insult that a member of the "FOX News Watch" panel has ever received. It is from Alain. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona. "If you must have a Gabler on your show, I think I would prefer Hedda."
Hedda doesn't know squat about the media, Al. We're keeping Neal.
Here's our address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please write to us. Give us your first name, your last name and let us know precisely where you live.
That's all the time we have left for this week. Thanks to Jane Hall, Jim Pinkerton, across the table to Cal Thomas and Neal Gabler.
And I'm Eric Burns, thanking you for watching. We hope you'll do it again next week, when "FOX News Watch" is back on the air.
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