Battle of the Ads in the Sheehan Saga

The following is a transcription of a segment from the August 27, 2005 edition of "FOX News Watch", that has been edited for clarity:

Watch FOX News Watch on Saturdays at 6:30 and 11:30 p.m. ET and on Sundays at 2:30 and 6:30 a.m. ET!

ERIC BURNS, FOX NEWS HOST: This week, on "FOX News Watch," the battle of the ads: pro-Cindy Sheehan and anti-Cindy Sheehan.

A man of the cloth calls for killing a country's president, and then apologizes. How should the media respond?

Bob Costas says "no" to Natalee.

And should your local newspaper be taking a stand against the war in Iraq?

First the headlines, then us.


BURNS: Is Cindy Sheehan being censored? Should Pat Robertson be censored? And what about the radio talk show host in Washington who was fired for criticizing Islam?

Our uncensored responses today come from Jim Pinkerton of Newsday, media writer Neal Gabler, Jane Hall of the American University, and Rich Lowry of The National Review, sitting in for Cal Thomas.

I'm Eric Burns. "FOX News Watch" is coming right up.


Here is Cindy Sheehan (search) in a TV message that was seen this week on some stations in two states that President Bush visited. She addresses the president and refers to her son Casey, killed in Iraq.


CINDY SHEEHAN, SON KILLED IN IRAQ: Casey was so good and so honest. Why can't you be honest with us? You were wrong about the weapons of mass destruction. You were wrong about the link between Iraq and Al Qaeda. You lied to us. And because of your lies, my son died.


BURNS: Two other stations, one in Salt Lake City, and the other in Boise, refused to run the Sheehan message. It is, however, running on all-news cable, as is an ad opposing Cindy Sheehan.


DEBORAH JOHNS, MOTHER OF SON WHO SERVED IN IRAQ: I'm Deborah Johns, and I'm here to tell you that military families support our troops and their mission, in spite of what people like Cindy Sheehan say.


BURNS: The anti-Cindy Sheehan ad comes from a group called Move America Forward , which has been protesting against Sheehan today in Crawford, Texas.

All right, Jane; that's a lot of material. Let's go back to the beginning of it.

What about the notion of TV stations not running the Sheehan ad?

JANE HALL, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: I think the TV stations should run both ads. I'd be curious to know how many stations turned down the pro--ad, saying she doesn't speak for us. I mean, they should air controversial ads and let the public decide.

BURNS: But, you know, Rich, what a lot of stations say is, We're not in the -- we're in the business of providing news; we're not in the business of this kind of advocacy.

RICH LOWRY, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Yes, I agree with Jane though. And, I mean, these ads seem perfectly legitimate to me.

I hate them, personally. But they're powerful and..

BURNS: Why -- why do you hate them?

LOWRY: Well, I disagree with her. But we -- we don't need to get into that.

But also the word "lie" has been so degraded in our discourse, it doesn't really have the same charge anymore. So airing it seems fine to me.

BURNS: Neal, to you.

NEAL GABLER, MEDIA WRITER: Well, I think that the convolutions that these stations had to go through to explain why they weren't airing the Cindy Sheehan ad -- I mean, tells the entire story.

They hadn't vetted the ad to see whether the president had really lied. They were afraid that the people in Utah might be offended by the ad. I mean, ultimately, either you show none of these ads, or you show both of them, in my estimation.

JIM PINKERTON, "NEWSDAY": Look, TV stations accept and reject advertising all the time, whether it's liquor or sex or condoms. I mean, there's been a million different controversies about ads. This is just a choice they make. I really dislike the idea that we should sit here and say what a privately owned TV stations ought to be doing or not doing.

BURNS: Let's move ahead to the notion that these two sides now that are forming around Cindy Sheehan -- not that we didn't have pro--war and anti--war before that -- but forming around Cindy Sheehan -- are now using the media, Jim, in a different way. They are still trying, obviously, to be covered as news stories.

But what does it say about them that they are now turning to ads as well as media (INUADIBLE)?

PINKERTON: I think you're seeing, you know, thesis and antithesis. I mean, you're seeing -- I mean, look, the Cindy Sheehan people are creating kind of a Woodstock, if you will. They've got Joan Baez; they're getting Al Sharpton now.

And I think the reporter -- the journalist who first sort of pegged that the change is happening now was actually Pat Buchanan, who opposes the war but nonetheless made the point, There's going to be a backlash against this now. Two or three weeks ago he said, Look, if the anti--Iraq war movement becomes seen as countercultural, even anti--American, and there's -- and Cindy Sheehan has been quoted saying some pretty awful things that she's denied saying, but nonetheless those quotes are floating around out there -- then the -- not unlike Vietnam 35 years ago, the dynamic will go, Look are you -- are you going to agree with the protesters, even if you dislike the war, or are you going to stick with the president and the troops? That's a major dynamic that vexed American politics all through the late Vietnam War.

GABLER: I would frame it differently. Jeffrey Feldman actually, a blogger, said that what Cindy Sheehan -- and the media has obviously glommed on to this, is she's reframed the debate from one about policy and politics and ideology to one about people. She's personalized it. So that it's not about the counterculture -- I think the right--wing is trying to make it about that. But what she's saying is, It's about my son.

It's not about the ideology of whether the war is right or wrong; it's about my son and his death.

BURNS: It's also a very...

GABLER: The media likes that, by the way.

BURNS: I was just going to say, It's a very wise approach to take for the media; whenever you personalize an issue, Jane, you are probably making the issue more understandable and more sympathetic to people. So it's a smart way to go.

HALL: Well, it's a smart way to go. And, you know, obviously the opposition to her decided they needed other mothers to counteract her.

I mean, I think this speaks to a real laziness on the part of the media, though. I mean, the issue is about policy in Iraq, and whether our troops have -- have the support they need and what public opinion is. She's become a symbol, but I also think that she's an easy symbol at this point. And now the right is demonizing her and saying, Well, she used to be a grieving mother -- that's what Greg Mueller said -- but now she's far left and look at the people around her. She's duped -- which is also an old 1960s phrase.

LOWRY: Well, I think the story is in decline, because first of all, she has discredited herself with the crazy things she's said that make Neal look like a hawk.

And I think the media has pumped this story up based on two narratives that are basically false. One is that this is just an ordinary mother, just wants to question the president about why her -- her son died. She's a left--wing ideologue who knows exactly why her son died: for imperialism and for oil.

And also, the other false narrative is that she speaks for some substantial part of the country, which isn't true either. People have doubts about the war, but they're nowhere near where Cindy Sheehan is.


BURNS: Let me use an approach that does get attention -- I'm sorry I've got to -- I've got to stop you with apologies.

We have to take a break. When we come back, we will look at the press and the Pat Robertson controversy and more.

ANNOUNCER: First, he called for the assassination of Venezuela's president. Then he said he was sorry. Did the media make him eat his words?

"FOX News Watch" continues after this.


BURNS: On "The 700 Club" this week, Pat Robertson said it is time for Americans to assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.


PAT ROBERTSON, RELIGIOUS BROADCASTER: We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don't need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator. It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with.


BURNS: I guess, Rich, you would disagree with my use of the word assassinate, because first he apologized, then he said people misunderstood me, I meant "take him out," perhaps in a peaceful manner.

LOWRY: Yes, it was the least plausible denial perhaps ever in the history of media. You know, "take him out" to dinner, "take him out" to the ballgame.

You know, this is a story; he has an audience. But it did get overplayed because I think a lot of the media just loves holding Pat Robertson up and saying, "look at what idiots these evangelicals are."

BURNS: Yes, but don't you think, Jane, that anybody in the public eye, on either side of any issue, who advocated assassination, would be pilloried by the press?

HALL: Well, I would hope so.

And you can't forget the hypocrisy factor. You know, the "Today" show had a headline that said, "Thou Shalt Not Kill" question mark. I mean, it's a chance for people to say, Gee, is he a political figure? A religious figure? Has he been reading the parts of the Bible? Part of it is just the - there's some amusement.

I also think it shows that the left is monitoring television in a way that the right and The Media Research Council have been doing for quite some time. I think that's what got this story out there.

PINKERTON: There's a group called, which is -- I guarantee is watching FOX News right now and they'll have our transcript published within five minutes of when we say it. I mean, there is a lot of -- there is a lot of scrutiny (INUADIBLE).

Robertson is a lot of ex-politicians - remember his father was a U.S. senator and he ran for president himself. Once they get in the media eye, they just can't let go. And they know they have to say things to keep getting themselves interested..

BURNS: He had to know that the media interest in this (INUADIBLE).

PINKERTON: But I think that in Robertson's mind, I believe this, he's 75 years old -- seeing his name in the paper, as long as they're spelling it right, pleases him in some way.

He's got things to sell. Remember, he -- what -- The Virginia Pilot newspapers reported...

LOWRY: You're giving him way too much credit.


PINKERTON: The Virginia Pilot had a fascinating article -- he's got some diet product.


PINKERTON: ...that he's selling. It's a diet.

HALL: It's the "get-right-with-God" diet.

PINKERTON: It's like all these other products. Anyway, he's selling it on the air all the time. It's an interesting issue on the tax side of whether or not you can use a tax-exempt thing for a for-profit business. He's looking for publicity at all times.

GABLER: Did the media oversell this story, as Rich says? Absolutely I think they did. They always oversell stories like this.

And I think they missed, in some ways, the real story, which is the political story about whether the Bush administration had really disavowed this. I mean, they called it inappropriate. But we haven't heard anything from the White House.

So is he expendable? Is he not expendable? That's an interesting question.

BURNS: Actually, we have even more to discuss on controversial speech on the airwaves. Michael Graham, a conservative radio talk show on WMAL in Washington, D.C., was suspended after he said on the air: "We are at war with a terrorist organization named Islam."

Now, station management asked Graham to retract his statement; he refused. He was fired.

What would you have done, Rich?

LOWRY: It's a tough one. I mean, I'm friendly with Michael, and I think he's a bright and entertaining guy. But this statement was indefensible, and ABC was fully within its right to fire him. I'm not sure.

BURNS: ABC, which owns WMAL.

LOWRY: Correct. I'm not sure whether I would have fired him.

But what bothers me most about these kind of stories is, whenever someone says something controversial or dumb, and then they get criticized or fired or whatever, they're free-speech rights are being violated, which is nonsense. He had all his First Amendment rights; he can stand on, you know, the roof of his house and shout, Islam is a terror organization. But he just doesn't necessarily have a right to say it on ABC's airwaves.

PINKERTON: I agree. Just as I support the right of TV stations not to run ads, I support the right of WMAL to fire this guy.

However, he made a good point. He said, Look, If I said that the Catholic Church is sort of a haven of pedophiles; if I said that right-to-lifers are terrorists because of Eric Rudolph, nothing would have happened to me.

GABLER: That's not true.

PINKERTON: The only reason I'm being-- Well, that's what he said. And I agree with him. The only reason he's being fired.

GABLER: That's ridiculous.

PINKERTON: because he went after a PC thing, which is the sanctity of Islam.

BURNS: Well, but also, wasn't he fired, Jane -- he was initially, as I said, suspended. But a group called The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) was so insistent toward management -- in other words, they applied more pressure - maybe than - and made the issue bigger than management would have made it by itself. o it was after these complaints that the suspension turned into a firing when he said he wouldn't retract his words.

HALL: Right. It's a little hard to read there, but that's a group that has - that had a letter-writing campaign. They're an advocacy group for their point of view, and it seems that they had some effect.

GABLER: Listen, if intemperate remarks and stupidity were ground for being fired, there would be no talk radio. In point of fact, there'd only be a couple of hours of primetime news cable.

So I think there's a little bit of duplicity on the part of ABC in getting rid of this guy. Because they're shocked that he said something outrageous. Oh my God!

BURNS: But Jim, that's sort of what you were suggesting, Jim, in pointing out what kinds of topics might get a guy fired and might not.

But it's a real - it has to be case by case, doesn't it?

PINKERTON: Well, you have to know the rules.

For example, you could say a lot -- you could say the word "redneck" on the air, and nobody will have anything to say to you. You say the N-word, and you get fired. You just have to know the language.


LOWRY: Well, also, I think we're -- Sorry, Jane -- where Graham has a case if you look at the timeline of what happened. It's not as though he said this one day, and the station said, Oh my gosh, you can't say that on air. He kept on saying it, you know, serially, repeating it day after day. And it was only after CAIR, which is a pretty odious group if you see the kind of protests they generate -- it was only after CAIR kicked in that he got fired.

HALL: Also, it's interesting: he's not syndicated. So I think unlike Rush Limbaugh (search) or Sean Hannity or other people, I think he's more vulnerable, and the station's more vulnerable to a protest like that.

GABLER: If the market works, he'll be back on the air.

LOWRY: And he might - might be bigger.

BURNS: Yes, with this as a publicity boost, as opposed to something negative, which is the way it often works out.

All right. It's time for us to take another break. We'll be back with our "Quick Takes."

ANNOUNCER: Her mysterious disappearance continues to frustrate and fascinating Americans. So why did he refuse to talk about Natalee?

And should newspapers be doing more to end the war in Iraq?

Stay tuned for more "FOX News Watch."


BURNS: It's time now for our "Quick Takes" on the media.

Headline number one: "Saying No to Natalee."

Bob Costas has a deal with CNN to fill in for Larry King 20 times this year. But recently, when producers wanted to do a show on Natalee Holloway, Costas refused. CNN had to find another host that night.

Neal, what do you think about that?

GABLER: Well, first of all, I - we owe apologies to Bob Costas, because several weeks ago we talked about the coverage of steroids, and we didn't mention the fact that Bob Costas was way out in front on that story.

BURNS: An early journalistic voice against them.

GABLER: An early -- exactly.

Secondly, I mean, I think Costas, in exercising his judgment and using his power and not pandering to the audience. And let's - I mean, however one feels about Natalee Holloway and her parents, this story is pure pandering.

I give him kudos. I think he's doing something really...

BURNS: Jim..

GABLER: ...amazing.

BURNS: .I want to give him credit too, for simply -- and you can take issue with Neal, not with me...


BURNS: ...for simply being so restrained.

No, Costas did not make a big public issue of this. A lot of people have written about it; Costas did not give reasons for it. He downplayed it. So he wasn't looking to make a big point of controversy.

PINKERTON: I don't agree.

I think -- I don't think.

BURNS: With Neal. You don't agree with Neal.

PINKERTON: No, I agree with Neal. I don't agree with you. I read about it in The New York Times. That's not exactly hidden.

Look, Costas wasn't -- in refusing to "pander" to the audience - quote, unquote - he was actually pandering to people like Eric Burns and Neal Gabler.

BURNS: You don't know what I think about this!


PINKERTON: I think I divined it from what you said.

BURNS: Why wasn't he just being true to his own views?

PINKERTON: Well, he might -- he might have been. It's also true that the critics were looking for somebody who would trash the Natalee Holloway coverage. But, in fact, he's getting more ink this way, as a Web site called The Cable Game said, criticizing the coverage of Natalee Holloway is the same thing as covering the Natalee Holloway case.

HALL: You know, it would be really interesting to see what his stance would be if he become the next Larry King, if he's going to continue this.

BURNS: Quickly, Rich.

LOWRY: That was brilliant. I think there's a lot to that.

Look, I think he should get over himself. You know, I love his work. But at the end of the day, he's a sports broadcaster and a TV interviewer, and people are interested in this story.


LOWRY: So there's nothing wrong with covering it. Well, that's fine. You know, he can walk off the set or whatever.

BURNS: And he did, and everything seems to be.

LOWRY: But there's nothing wrong with "pandering" to the audience.

BURNS: And everything seems to be fine, by the way, at CNN. He has since hosted Larry King.

PINKERTON: And Larry King interviewed Pamela Anderson, talked about her breasts. Good journalism.

BURNS: OK, I don't know how to transition from that, so I'm just going to simply, straightforwardly say, "Quick Take" headline number two: "Is the Time Right?"

Greg Mitchell, a columnist for the trade publication, Editor & Publisher, wrote this week that is now time for newspapers to start editorializing for America to pull out of Iraq. Polls show that most Americans are opposed to the war, Mitchell says. Time for newspapers to reflect that opinion.

LOWRY: Follow the polls. You know, that's the -- that's the leadership we've come to expect from the nation's newspapers.

Well, I mean, if these editorial boards really think it's a good idea to pull out now, of course it's their right to do it.

BURNS: They should say it.

LOWRY: But they -- they overwhelmingly, I believe, won't. Because I think everyone realizes that whatever you thought of the war originally, it would be a mistake to pull up stakes right now.

HALL: The supposedly liberal Washington Post supported this war, as did many other publications. And they are behind public opinion.

What they should do about that, it's their call. But they are behind, and they were out front for the war in ways that belie this liberal-media notion.

BURNS: Editor & Publisher is a major publication within the print trade industry. Jim, what about them taking a stand like this?

PINKERTON: Again, I hate to deflate the theory this segment was going to cause some controversy here. Maybe Neal can stir things up.

I think it's a free press. I mean, they have a right to their opinion -- nobody has to buy their paper. But they have a right to say what they want.

LOWRY: I think you're "pandering" to Neal.


BURNS: All right, Neal. You've been pandered to. It seldom happens on this show.

GABLER: Let's make it unanimous.

I mean, I don't think Greg Mitchell has the right to tell editorial boards, you know, what they ought to feel about the war. On the other hand, I do think that editorial boards have some responsibility for being so uncritical in the ramp-up to this war. They have a lot to account for, namely 1,880 American lives.

BURNS: We have to take one more break, on a controversial note. When we come back, it will be your turn.



BURNS: About our lead story last week, here's Nancy from Castaic, California: "Cal Thomas is the only one on your panel who sees the Israeli evacuation from Gaza and the West Bank for what it is: an invitation for Arab terrorist to continue their murderous goal to completely destroy Israel, with the U.S. to follow."

About newspaper editors discussing ways to make their coverage of Iraq more comprehensive, here is Joyce from Sherman, Texas: "It seems to me that if reporters can film and cover bombs exploding and people being killed, they shouldn't be in any more danger covering schools being built and other positive situations in Iraq."

And, same topic, Lloyd from Grand Junction, Colorado: "I was very disappointed in Neal's views and comments as to what is really going on in Iraq. It is one thing to see the glass as only half full. It is another to claim there is nothing in the glass at all." About the TV doctor in Pittsburgh who pitches his own pain cream on one of the cable shopping networks, here's Michael from Memphis, Tennessee: "How hypocritical of you to criticize the doctor in Pittsburgh for selling his product on an unrelated channel. None of you would have any problem selling your products - books, memoirs, or any other written words - on your own channel."

About the carton advocating same-sex marriage, whose creator had to provide an alternate version to papers that found this one too controversial, Gregory, from Opelouses, Louisiana, says there is a precedent - the longtime favorite Pogo, drawn by Walt Kelly, who, according to Gregory, ".once stated that for the Sunday papers he often wrote two strips, one political and one just funny, and let the editors choose which one to publish. He understood that with freedom of the press, there comes responsibility."

Finally, from Brett in Atlanta, Georgia: "Dear Eric: I am a zookeeper, and I wonder if you might be interested in trading jobs with me for one week. I believe I am sufficiently articulate and insightful to host a quality news program. You in turn, by handling Cal, Jim and Neal have demonstrated your consummate skill in caring for exotic wildfire. Care to try it?"

I already do, Brett. I already do.

LOWRY: Boy did he let you off the hook.

HALL: I guess - well, I won't say it.

BURNS: No, you won't say it.

Here's our address for your e-mails: it is Please tell us your full name; let us know where you live.

That's all the time we have left for this week. Thanks to Jane Hall, Jim Pinkerton, Rich Lowry, Neal Gabler.

And I'm Eric Burns, thanking you for watching. Hope to see you next week.

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