This is a transcript of the Saturday, May 22, 2004 edition of "Fox News Watch" that has been edited for clarity.
ERIC BURNS, HOST: This week, Fox News Watch Segment One: The media blast Bush for Iraq. The media back Bush for Iraq. And Segment Two: One newspaper goes to amazing lengths to be fair and balanced to Bush on Iraq. Segment Three: Will advertisers have an effect on war coverage? Will gay couples get their pictures on the front page? And MTV in the condom business?! First the news...
BURNS: Some amazing things are being said in the media these days about President Bush's Iraq policy by some very unlikely people. Speaking of unlikely people, here's 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.
Tucker Carlson (search), conservative commentator, CNN, says he was foolish to support the war in Iraq. "The New York Times" liberal editorial page is in favor of sending more troops to Iraq. Al Neuharth (search ), moderate, founder of "USA Today (search)" says this: "The war in Iraq is the biggest military mess miscreated in the Oval Office and miscarried by the Pentagon in my 80-year lifetime." Neuharth wants the troops out of Iraq and President Bush out of office. Neuharth says Bush should not run for re-election.
Cal, "USA Today," largest circulation of any paper in the country, not a liberal fashion by any means. What does it mean that the founder of this paper has turned on the administration?
CAL THOMAS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Nothing. He's no Walter Cronkite and this is not Vietnam. To make an over-the-top comment like Al Neuharth did that this is worse than ever, ignores Vietnam and the experience, which was a far worse war with far more casualties. Being an opinion writer is like being a perpetual adolescent. You can have opinions on everything and take responsibility for nothing. His opinions don't mean anything. They don't have all the facts.
BURNS: There are some shows on all-news cable in which the opinions do matter though, don't you think?
THOMAS: Oh yes, on ours, of course, and including the one I just I gave.
BURNS: Not to be too defensive.
JANE HALL, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: Well, you know, I think it's very interesting. I think it's a commentary on how polarized the climate is, usually, that we're surprised when conservatives are criticizing President Bush. I think that if you look at the most recent "Time"/CNN poll that showed his approval ratings below 50 percent, which is always the worrisome sign for someone up for re-election. Even his friends are -- who are -- and especially his friends, which some of these people are, are concerned about how he is going to be perceived, whether he's going to be getting us out of Iraq. The fact is that a lot of people -- Carlson said something very interesting, which is as a conservative who doesn't believe in big government, he said, "I feel foolish assuming we could export democracy and use the federal government in Iraq to do that in five minutes."
JIM PINKERTON, "NEWSDAY": I mean there's no question that the conservative thinking is fragmenting all over the place. And Mark Halperin, who is a certified blue-chip neoconservative writing for "The Wall Street Journal," said that the Iraq showed -- quote -- "deliberate contempt for history, strategy and thought." And this was in the Journal.
But Tucker Carlson -- I just want to correct Jane a little bit -- I don't really think counts as a conservative anymore. I think he is making that Arianna Huffington, David Brock, radical chic, off-to-the-Hamptons Latina Brown shift, which has gotten him of all things coincidence amazingly, a show on PBS.
HALL: Yes, but [the "Wall Street Journal's"] Paul Gigot (search) is also getting a show on PBS. I think it shows PBS is going to the right not he's going to the left.
NEAL GABLER, MEDIA WRITER: Maybe I can just put this in a different context here and.
BURNS: We could. I like the context it's in.
GABLER: You know I'm just going to give it a little larger context. How's that? I mean part of this, I think, is a reaction to the coverage in the wrap-up to the war and the early stages of the war, where the press was asleep, including the conservative press. They were in a daze.
BURNS: Too far to one extreme before maybe going.
GABLER: They didn't cover the debate. They didn't analyze the consequences. They didn't look at the centers. They were asleep at the wheel and now, all of a sudden, they've awakened.
PINKERTON: Now hold on a second. Let's just correct that. "The Wall Street Journal" ran probably the most influential op-ed on the run up to the war, the Brent Scowcroft piece, which was anti-Iraq war in the summer of '02. So just be a little fair.
GABLER: One versus, you know, thousands...
GABLER: ... of pieces that came out. Should Sinseki's -- you know, testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that we need 200,000 troops barely got covered.... in "The New York Times" it was buried, I think, on page 20.
BURNS: Let me return to the theme at the beginning of this segment though. And I'm pointing out a conservative journalist who posed a liberal paper in favor of part of.
GABLER: What I was saying though, Eric, is that I think conservatives feel that they got bit. They got, you know, hoodwinked. They looked at politics rather than ideology and this is the consequence.
THOMAS: I don't feel that I got hoodwinked. I'm still for the policy. I would like to see it implemented a little better. But look, we've only been.
GABLER: Just a little better, Cal?
THOMAS: Yes, a little better because I think a lot is going well that is not being reported. And we've said this before on this show, a lot of these stories that are being reported are snapshots. They don't take into totality the entire picture of what's going on.
BURNS: Yes, it's a call for context, which it is.
BURNS: ...what you're making. And it came from another, I think, surprising source, Abe Rosenthal (search), who used to run "The New York Times," said this just a few days ago, writing in "The New York Sun" now. He said, "Since the latest torture story, many editors have failed to present background stories about the millions killed by Saddam. These journalists are truly embarrassing." So what he's saying is that the stories need to go back years really and refer to what Saddam did by way of putting things into context now.
HALL: Well, you know, there were two stories in the press this week about how they're trying to get some of these horrible Saddam videos to be played, of some of the torture to try -- and the fact is -- you know I'm sure that's going to work. I mean President Bush went up to the Hill this week to try to get the Republicans to stay with him. Many of them on this issue. And I saw an interesting quotation. I think it was from a New York congressman saying he thought that the hearings and anguish over them, in a way, had played against them so strongly that they are trying to move beyond this, trying to change the subject.
PINKERTON: Well, this is a case where, again, as I said last week, if it's horrible, you put it on the air. If it's really horrible, you don't. So the Saddam videos, torture -- I've seen some of those on Fox where they have a guy who looks like he's about to get his head cut off or something and then they pull away. Now, I don't know if that's what the government released or what Fox -- the decision Fox made or other networks have made. But if you really want to show the horror of this, you got to show the horror. Otherwise.
GABLER: All right, Rosenthal -- let's get this -- let's put this in another context. Rosenthal is a conservative. He is not looking for context. He's looking for justification. Essentially what he's saying is every time we write a story about Abu Ghraib; we have to write about Saddam Hussein and his torture so that we can justify what happened in Abu Ghraib.
THOMAS: He's right.
BURNS: That's enough context for one segment. It's time for a break. We'll be back with this.
ANNOUNCER: What exactly does it mean to be fair and balanced when covering the president? Is it possible to be too fair and balanced? Stay tuned for Fox News Watch.
BURNS: In this segment the fighting in Iraq, the coverage in Appleton, Wisconsin. "The Post Crescent" newspaper in Appleton has been getting so many letters to the editor criticizing the war in Iraq that it asked for letters supporting the war. The paper's editors recently wrote an editorial saying in part "we would prefer to put forward a better sense of balance. If you would like to help us `balance' things out, send us a letter. We'd love to hear from you." And then, of course, came the inevitable charges that this was being -- this was a conservative response, Neal. And the paper's been very objective about -- abject about this saying no, no, we simply wanted to balance things out.
GABLER: Well, they certainly misstated things. But I think the primary question here is, you know, do letters to the editor -- are they intended to reflect the opinion of the community or are they intended to balance opinion within the community.
BURNS: All right. Let me ask.
GABLER: And that's the question that I think Appleton had to answer.
BURNS: Oh God, I hate to say something like this. Give me a one word answer. But just for the moment, one word answers. Would you have done this if you were the editor?
HALL: I know I would not and I think.
BURNS: That's more than one. Jim?
THOMAS: Done what?
BURNS: Would you have asked for letters to come in on.
BURNS: .the other point of view, ask.
THOMAS: Not that way, no.
BURNS: OK, why would you.
PINKERTON: Well, you wanted one word and I was ethical and followed your rule of only one word, but now I'll explain.
PINKERTON: It was somewhat ham-handed attempt to be, of all things, fair and balanced. Look, there are two political parties. There are two, broadly speaking, ideological polarities in this country, left and right. And it is perfectly plausible for a newspaper to say look, there -- let's see what the full voice of the communities -- however, they also should have said, here are the letters we're running and here's the statistical collation of all the letters so people can get a flavor for how representative or not the letters are. And then, OK, if we wanted to do it, I think we would have done a poll of the local area as well and said, now look, there's three different snapshots, letters, statistical and then a survey.
BURNS: What if, Jane, the overwhelming disfavor, overwhelming dislike of the war is the sentiment in the community?
HALL: Well, I think you go with your community. The interview that I read with him, with the program on public radio called "On The Media" said they print 80 to 90 percent of the letters they get. The letters are running strongly anti-Bush. It's a liberal community. And the interviewer said they got phone calls, which prompted this editorial, saying they were anti-Bush that -- which prompted them to do this. That says to me they were responding to pressure from people who may have been way outside the community. He said this was really only an issue on the Internet, which is another interesting aspect of this.
THOMAS: Well, the fact is, of course, most people only write for bad things, to criticize, to object and the rest. And as the editor, as Jane indicated, explained later, because of phone calls saying you're too one-sided, the editor said, look, anybody else who has different opinion, please feel to write. This is an open house letters to the editor page. But as Jim said, it was too ham-handed initially.
GABLER: May I separate two adjectives here? Fair and balanced? Fair is, I think, extremely important. Balanced is a very dodgy issue, it seems to me because you can have balance and distort something since not all positions are equivalent. Not all positions are equally valid. And I think this is a situation, which you want to reflect the community. Balance distorts the.
HALL: I doubt the conservatives.
PINKERTON: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) balance of left and right, Democrat and Republican.
HALL: But I doubt.
PINKERTON: Wisconsin is sort of a swing state. It's got, you know, Republicans and Democrats in Congress in both. But look.
HALL: A lot of conservatives would be clamoring for balance. You see, in my hometown newspaper, which has an air base there, I would bet the letters are running more favorable towards the war. And I don't think anybody would say they should run more left-wing letters.
BURNS: As what we're saying now indicates, there's a tremendous amount of controversy in this country today about the media's role in covering the war in Iraq. And it's reflected in a new Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll. Look at this: where are the problems being created? More people think that the problems related to Iraq are being created in the news media than in Iraq, in Washington D.C., or in any of those combined.
Cal, is this a typical blame the messenger syndrome or is there something more at work here?
THOMAS: I think there's part of that. But I'd like to see a debate on whether we should go back to a form of censorship during the process of war itself. To be able to show all of those pictures while it's going on -- the embedding during the war coverage was fine, I thought. But in the aftermath now, with all of these questions being raised, it's a political and election year, I'm not sure that some form of censorship might not be called for.
BURNS: You were -- wait a minute, Cal, you're advocating that?
HALL: These are our own soldiers, Cal. This was not a story brought to you outside the news media.
THOMAS: Yes, but it's being skewed and it's being slanted. It's a political year. A lot of things are being said and done in the media for the express purpose of bringing down.
HALL: The media didn't uncover Abu Ghraib.
GABLER: The war is not expressly for the purposes of supporting George Bush. I cannot believe that a conservative.
THOMAS: People are dying. People are dying.
GABLER: .is calling that they were put in harm's way.
THOMAS: Well, believe it.
GABLER: That a conservative would be calling for this.
GABLER: I'm astonished.
PINKERTON: Censor all of those reporters who were beating at the prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison, which a censor -- stop watching television, come beat them up just to get ratings and front page story.
THOMAS: Very cute.
GABLER: Mike Wilson has been slapping them around.
BURNS: We have to take another break. We'll be back with our "Quick Takes on The Media" during which I will ask, among other things, these two questions.
ANNOUNCER: Do TV advertisers like war? And why is MTV bringing out its own brand of condoms? Fox News Watch will be right back.
BURNS: It's time now for our "Quick Takes on The Media."
Headline No. One: "And Now A Word From Our Sponsor: The Word Is `Caution'."
Companies that advertise on television are worried about the effects of real-life violence on their bottom lines. Advertising industry analyst Jack Myers says the result of this in the year ahead might be fewer ad dollars going to the all-news networks and more for such networks as the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and Oxygen.
Does that sound plausible to you, Jane?
HALL: It sounds plausible except if you read further into this story, it quotes the advertising people at Fox News and CNN saying that they have not seen this happening yet and that the news is compelling. And I agree that advertisers are not known for their editorial courage, but so far I don't think that this is -- I think this is a possibility from what I've seen.
BURNS: But what they are known for, Jim, is their desire to have a lot of people see their ads. If they war heats up, if political tensions at home heat up, that's an important story. The more people who watch, the more people will see ads.
PINKERTON: I agree. I will agree that in theory. If you see a mushroom cloud on TV, you might be less interested in buying a squeaky toy for your dog. But it does seem that ratings -- that bad news -- back to our issue about bad news -- is good for this business.
THOMAS: We had a policy when we, you and I, were at NBC, Eric, you may remember that advertisers when they were airlines or the railroad, Amtrak, would pull their commercials if there was a story about a train wreck or a plane crash. This takes it a step further, I think.
GABLER: If you buy into this premise, here's my concern: my concern is that there will be pressure on stations to provide more good news to attract more advertising dollars. And you know you, particularly, on conservative outlets, are we going to get that kind of spin, more positive spin on the war to attract more advertising. I don't know.
BURNS: "Quick Take" Headline Number Two:
"Gay Weddings: To See Or Not To See?"
An informal survey from the industry trade publication Editor & Publisher (search) reveals that of the leading American newspapers covering the gay weddings in Massachusetts this week, a little more than a third used photos on their front pages. The great majority showed women not men. Only a few papers showed the couple kissing. And one of them, "The Sun" [of Lowell Massachusetts] later apologized.
THOMAS: I thought that was interesting that the Lowell, Massachusetts, "Sun" said that they needed to be more sensitive to their readers. Apparently, they were inundated with a lot of letters and phone calls saying how outraged they were to see people of the same sex kissing each other on the lips. And I don't know too many newspapers that would do that. Look, it's a new story. If -- I think, you know, we're not talking about beheading here. It happened. It ought to be covered. It ought to be shown. This is what gay marriage is or at least part of it.
BURNS: But the debate is do you tell it, do you show it, and what do you show, hand holding, kissing?
HALL: Well, you know, I think it is sort of a subtext here, which is, I think, most people would rather see two women kissing than two men kissing. And that may be an unconscious bias.
BURNS: Do you want to explain why?
BURNS: We can picture that one.
THOMAS: Oh boy!
BURNS: You're getting into territory that doesn't normally belong to this show, Jane.
HALL: Well, I'm just saying if I'm editor picturing which picture is going to be more palatable to my readers, I'm going to go with the two women kissing. And I think that's a culture and news papering issue there.
PINKERTON: Two women kissing? I'm going back to my college dorm.
BURNS: Could you get away from your college dorm and just analyze the thinking here about.
PINKERTON: I think picture matter -- again, the power of choice and diversity. I mean look, "The Boston Globe" or "The San Francisco Chronicle" can do one thing and "The Salt Lake City Tribune" will do another. That's good.
BURNS: "Quick Take" Headline Number Three:
"Must Wear TV."
MTV is now in the condom business. It sells its own brand of condoms in Germany and Austria, and this week is launching the brand in England. Right now, MTV has no plans to sell condoms in the United States.
What do you think about this, Neal?
GABLER: Oh, this gives a whole new meaning to I want my MTV. But I understand that Fox News is actually thinking of branding a condom, but you can only stick it to a liberal.
THOMAS: I ain't touching that one either.
BURNS: Geez, are you at the Improv tonight?
PINKERTON: Well, MTV has been agitating and publicizing sex and encouraging people to have sex all along. Why not get the benefit? Why not reap the profit? They've been doing PSAs on safe sex. Why not this?
HALL: Yes and why not advertise something other than promoting sex? Why not advertise safe sex? If they're going to do it, they ought to do it in this country.
THOMAS: Maybe it ought to come in a free music video.
BURNS: Are you in favor of this or opposed to this, Cal?
THOMAS: I don't watch MTV anyway. I'm several generations away from that.
BURNS: No, but MTV is.
THOMAS: Yes, but I think it says a lot about the kind of music they promote and the content as well. They ought to have it over on BET [Black Entertainment Television], too, where it seems to be "booty time" 24 hours a day.
BURNS: So you watch that?
THOMAS: Oh, absolutely.
HALL: Only to condemn it. Just to condemn it.
BURNS: I would like now to bring to a close one of the strangest Fox News Watch segments ever to go to a break. When we come back, it'll be your turn.
BURNS: About the media and the Nick Berg video, we have conflicting opinions. First, Betty from Hamden, Connecticut: "Just hearing the verbal headline that Mr. Berg was beheaded was enough news for me. I did not need pictures or detailed descriptions of the horror."
But Cheryl from Hawaii writes "I think you should not try to protect us from the horrible truth."
And Fred from Kansas City, Kansas: "As to whether the Berg video should be shown, should the Zapruder tape be shown? Yes, but not via broadcast media that may ambush viewers who tune in midbroadcast."
About editorials urging that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (search) resign, here's Bob from Shawnee, Kansas: "How can we get the media to resign? I'm willing to bet that the majority of Americans, if asked, would like to see this happen."
About the head of the Associated Press calling for less secrecy in government, here is John from Columbus, Ohio: "Who cares if this White House is secretive. And for the AP to cry about it is laughable. For 30 years, the press have been protecting their sources."
And Jim from Floyd, Virginia: "It was interesting to hear Cal THOMAS say that the problem is too few energetic journalists to dig for stories. I agree, but please let us know the first time Fox News digs out and breaks a story that the administration doesn't want."
About CNN's hiring of a former POW to report on the war on terror, here is Chuck from Raleigh, North Carolina: "Since your show airs on the network that is fair and balanced, let me join Neal's concern about an ex-POW becoming a journalist even though he admits to being motivated towards pro-military coverage. He should not be called a journalist. But neither should anti-war activists named Koppel, Brokaw, Jennings, Rather, et cetera."
Finally, here is Ester from Hanover, Indiana: "You might want to change how you `ask for our names and where we live'. It sounds like you will be hunting us down like dogs!! If you do ever hunt me down, send Cal, Monica or Jim, OK?"
Sorry, Esther. We're sending Jane and she's staying for dinner and bringing slides of her vacation.
BURNS: No, she's not. She's staying right here.
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 all the time we have for this week. Thanks to Jane Hall, Jim Pinkerton, Cal Thomas, Neal Gabler and... thanks to me. Thanks to you more than anyone for watching. We'll see you next week when Fox News Watch will be back on the air.
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