The following is a transcription of the May 14, 2005 edition of "FOX News Watch," that has been edited for clarity:
ERIC BURNS, HOST: This week, on "FOX News Watch":
Proof positive that journalists a more ethical than ever — or is it less ethical?
Is it ethical for a newspaper to set a trap for a politician whom it believes to be a homosexual pedophile?
How do the media use these two words: "liberal" and "conservative"?
Also, death, live in the afternoon?
And does Oprah have an audience or a cult?
"FOX News Watch": coming up after the headlines.
BURNS: There are some tough questions to be asked on this week's edition of "FOX News Watch." Jim Pinkerton of "Newsday" says he's up to it. Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas is equally confident. Jane Hall of the American University says, "Bring 'em on." And media write Neal Gabler has got several answers for each of the questions!
I'm Eric Burns. "FOX News Watch" is coming right up.
This week, "The Sacramento Bee" forced a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist to resign after coming to believe she had made up at least some of the people in her columns. And that makes eight journalists in the past six weeks who are either out of work or in limbo for transgressions of one sort or another. And that is a remarkable number, one that proves that journalists are more ethical than ever. Or, take two, it prove they're less ethical than ever.
You know how we never start the show with my opinion, Cal?
CAL THOMAS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Yes.
BURNS: I think — seriously — that they — it proves that there is more of an ethical concern than ever before. It's reasonable to assume transgressions have been happening for a long time. Post-Jayson Blair, I think we're watching more carefully, and it's a good sign. Now, tear me apart.
THOMAS: No, I — well, I think there's two sides to this question.
I think it is good; I think the blogs are causing a lot of journalists to be.
THOMAS: They are forced to be.far more accountable than they ever have had to be before. There were situations many years ago in journalism that never came up, that nobody was ever brought to justice, if you will, for, for ethical violations that are now coming out.
I am concerned, though, that there may be some witch hunts going on. Some of these people who have been fired or let go for alleged transactions or transgressions eight, nine, 10 years ago — I'm not sure that's fair — and some management people may be overreacting to slight mistakes.
BURNS: Yes, Jim, somebody was fired because she said, This information comes from a circus spokesperson; it in fact came from a Circus Web site. I wonder if that means we're going a little bit too far.
JIM PINKERTON, "NEWSDAY": Well, no — actually, I think it's just newspapers defending their brand. If you want a rock-solid impression — reputation for integrity, you got to do it this way.
But look, I think — just to answer the larger question — I think human nature is a constant. I think what does change is technology, and the same technology of Nexis and Google and databases and so on,that empowers us so much in terms of doing research, also can ensnare us because we can get nailed on plagiarism and stealing and so on. And the chief snarer, if you will, is Jim Romenesko, who runs a blog on the Poynter — that's Poynter with a "y" Institute — Web site, who has become, I think, required reading, including for self defense, for just about every journalist in the country now.
NEAL GABLER, MEDIA WRITER: Can I just say something here? That human nature may be constant [is clear], but I think the mission of the media has changed. And I think that's been one of the real factors here.
Almost all of these transgressions are of a particular sort. And that sort is, thatthese journalists see the need, under competitive pressure, presumably, to write more entertaining, more cinematic, more novelistic kinds [of stories].
BURNS: And, as you often say, Neal, to be more lazy. Some people are charged with not being on the scene; some with not actually conducting interviews. That kind of thing...
GABLER: But the result is that — you know, in this [environment] the pressure [is on] to write more entertaining pieces, [and] if the truth isn't entertaining enough, well then you just make it up.
JANE HALL, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: Well, you know, I think we have to differentiate among the cases.
I read for example, that Tom Squitieri (search) from "The USA Today," who called — in his defense — says he called and verified quotes, and then went ahead and used quotes from another newspaper.
You know, I think newspapers have not had the fact-checking in that that they should have. This is one of the things that's being recommended, is to have copy editors check up on things. Some of these mistakes, I think, were not in the area of entertainment. But I also think we need uniform standards. I mean, what about the reporters at "The New York Times" who echoed flawed reporting on the walkup to the war in Iraq? I mean, people should be fired for big transgressions as well as small ones.
BURNS: Speaking of "The New York Times," it has recently undergone a tremendous amount of soul searching, and come up with these suggestions to make it a more credible paper: use fewer anonymous sources; print fewer factual errors — that's a great one, isn't it?
THOMAS: Gee, that's a great step.
BURNS: Separate news and opinion more clearly; make it easier for readers to get in touch with reporters about their stories. And, Neal, give reporters media training so that when they're on cable talk shows, they are better spokespeople for the paper.
GABLER: If one needs another example of why "The New York Times" is in a nosedive, this report is it.
You know, they talk about spinning; they talk about preparing for the media — for television. What they don't talk about in this report, ever, is great reporters doing great reporting.
You want credibility? Here's some news to "The New York Times" — credibility comes from great reporters doing great reporting. You try that, and you might see the attitude toward the paper change.
HALL: Can I disagree with you on that?
I mean, I think it's not spinning. I — Dan Okrent says that, [he's] their first public editor, said that on...
BURNS: Which is to say, ombudsman.
HALL: Ombudsman — said that anonymous sourcing is one of the chief complaints of the average public. They were talking about bringing people more in on the transparency, how we go about things. I think all of that is to the good.
I've been on "The O'Reilly Factor" on nights when "The New York Times" refused to go on, and I was asked to defend "The New York Times."
BURNS: That's because you're a better performer.
HALL: ...they should — they shouldn't — I don't think this is spinning. I think there's some legitimate concerns.
GABLER: It does not make for a better newspaper.
PINKERTON: It could if they do certain things. For example, a good reform is to publish the transcripts of all interviews they use. A better reform would be to fire [NY Times reporter] Judith Miller, who is the most egregious...
THOMAS: Here, here!
PINKERTON: As Jane was saying earlier about the Iraq war coverage, she [Miller] got it dead wrong. And the fact that she's still on the payroll is a continuing sore on the face of "The New York Times."
BURNS: Cal, final word for us.
THOMAS: Dan Okrent also acknowledged that "The New York Times" is a decidedly liberal newspaper. If "The New York Times" really wants to get more credibility and more balance in its reading, it should hire more people from red states.
BURNS: We have to take a break. We'll be back with more tough questions and an even tougher topic.
ANNOUNCER: Is the mayor of Spokane a homosexual pedophile? How far should "The Spokesman-Review" newspaper have gone to make the case against him?
More "FOX News Watch" after this.
BURNS: The mayor of Spokane, Washington, Jim West (search), has taken a leave of absence. He says he needs some time to defend himself against charges that he's a child molester. The charges were made by "The Spokane Spokesman-Review" after it conducted a sting operation of a sort: The paper hired a computer expert to pose as an 18-year-old boy and lure the mayor into declaring himself in an online chat room. The result, says The Columbia Journalism Review Daily, was "public service journalism at its best."
Jim, is that how you'd describe it?
PINKERTON: I agree. I think this man, allegedly, had a 30-year history of molestation and consorting with convicted and molesters and so on— again, I mean, allegedly, I emphasize.
But for him to then use — become mayor of Spokane and use his position, allegedly, to entrap boys and cruise the Internet — underage boys, offering them city positions and city perks and so on — it's a horrible crime and scandal, and this — the paper did their journalism, and they also then — to totally cap off the story, to completely get all their facts right, used pratically, a kind of entrapment mechanism. But I think overall, it was a great public service.
BURNS: If it is a crime, as Jim says, that means it's the responsibility not of journalists, Cal, but of law-enforcement officials.
THOMAS: Yes, that was one of the things that interested me as we see on some of these shows like "Law & Order: SVU (search)," the cops have special units to go after these people: they have cops posing as prostitutes; they have cops now online, monitoring certain Web pages. How come they weren't out in front of this?
Normally, I'd be against journalists initiating a sting. But as Jim indicated, this was involving criminal activity, and as the — alleged criminal activity. And as "The Spokesman—Review" itself said, it's not just about the sex; it's about the hiring of interns, procuring of young men that he allegedly did.
BURNS: But Jane, a lot of people are opposed to this.
A lot of journalists, editor — "The Philadelphia Inquirer": "I don't permit deception," she thinks this was deception — "I would not allow it. "The Indianapolis Star": "I think there are other ways to get that information."
"Baltimore Sun": "This is a form of undercover journalism that thankfully went out of vogue in the early 1980s."
Obviously, it didn't go totally out of vogue.
HALL: I read a number of editors being quoted on that, and I initially agreed. And then when I read the editor of the Spokane paper talking about how they had one person who alleged this whole online chat thing, they wanted to verify.
I think when you get into undercover operations, you are into misrepresentation. But I really think, having read the story and the editor's rationale, that the public good that may come out of this outweighs this.
BURNS: But Neal, why not — all right, tell me if this is a good idea: the journalists decide they're going to do this, but first they call the cops and say, We'll give you a week. If you don't do this — it's your job — we're going to conduct our own sting operation.
Does that seem reasonable to you?
GABLER: Well, this was — you're dealing with a mayor who also happened to be a former sheriff's deputy. And I think the feeling of the newspaper was, look it, they're not going to investigate this guy.
I'm all in favor of undercover investigations so long as the issue that's being investigated is in the public interest, and it clearly was here; so long as there are no other means to do this — and there didn't seem to be any other means to do this; so long as there is not an ongoing law—enforcement investigation; and so long as it doesn't constitute entrapment. Which, in point of fact, though Jim used that word, this was not entrapment because the fellow who was posing as a — initially, a 17—year-old-boy, just went on to the chat room, and then allegedly the mayor came on to him.
But by all of those standards, this passes muster. And it's disturbing, it seems to me, that editors don't believe in this kind of journalism. This is a perfectly legitimate kind of journalism that serves, as Jane said, the public good.
THOMAS: Worked for Woodward and Bernstein.
PINKERTON: Yes, I'll stand corrected on whether it's entrapment or not. But I will make one larger point, which is that technology now is changing so rapidly, that entrapment or whatever word you want to use, is going on all the time.
For example, Army recruitment is now under investigation because of all sorts of abuses of getting kids who aren't qualified to get in the Army and so on. And part of the reason that they're getting caught is the kids are now sort of videotaping some recruiting sergeant saying, "oh here's how to fake your diploma; here's how to hide the fact that you're mentally ill" and so on to get into the Army. It's just now the distance between the event and the coverage gets narrower and narrower thanks to blogs and the Internet and so on.
HALL: You know, I think that's an interesting point. I had a student do something about illegal online purchasing of drugs, and she got a lot of information from Web sites, and then called people. So maybe this is a tool that is going to be used more.
It is somewhat dicey, but I think it's worth it in this instance.
BURNS: You just heard Neal lay down some rules for doing this kind of thing. Anybody else on the panel — certainly, newspapers can't do this, television stations can't do this indiscriminately.
Cal, would you suggest any other guidelines? Because it seems to me, you've got to be real careful when you decide you as a journalist are going to act as a law-enforcement official.
THOMS: Exactly. Journalists are supposed to be covering what is, not participating in the story, as we have said on many occasions on this show.
This is, I think, a unique situation. Highly unusual. But there should be some guidelines, and I would like some more reporting on what the cops did and didn't do, and why they did or didn't do it. As Neal suggested, the guy's a former sheriff's deputy.
PINKERTON: And it was the tail end of a three-year investigation.
BURNS: By the newspaper.
PINKERTON: By the paper.
HALL: You know, one thing I think we should note: some of the best primetime TV newsmagazine pieces have been where they've done undercover investigations of elderly abuse, of child—care abuse, of even racial discrimination. And those were, in a sense, sting operations.
BURNS: And some of the worst too, when this kind of thing is abused.
All right. It's time for another break. We will be back to cover the coverage of death, live on the air. And our other "Quick Takes."
ANNOUNCER: The "L—word" (liberal); the "C—word" (conservative). Which one are you more likely to hear on TV and why?
And is she [video of Oprah] the host of a TV show or the head of a church?
Answers ahead on "FOX News Watch."
BURNS: It's time for our "Quick Takes" on the media.
Headline number one: "What's in a Name?"
The morning network news shows, and the evening network news shows, have used the words "liberal" and "conservative" in their stories a total of 454 times since last November's election. "Liberal" was used 59 times; conservative, 395 times. All of this according to a conservative group called the Media Research Center .
BURNS: We can assume that they counted properly.
BURNS: And if they did, and we are assuming they did, what does that prove, Jane? — Get the smirk off your face and tell us.
I'm always skeptical of these counts. And also, conservatives have been — they're the winners of the last — of the last political fight, so that may be a factor.
BURNS: Yes, but that's not the point. The point is, why is one group identified, Neal, so much more than the other?
GABLER: Well, first of all, to really understand this, you have to see how many times they have so—called right-wingers and so—called left-wingers on the air, and the percentage of times that they're labeled. They didn't even do that study.
But here's something that the clowns at MRC might want to think about..
THOMAS: They're not clowns.
GABLER: As Jane just said, conservatives won the election. Conservatives control the Senate and the House...
GABLER: There are more conservatives on television than there are liberals.
THOMAS: Look, here's another example. He just called them clowns. See, another label. Why do you have to do that? Why don't you just attack the substance of their argument?
The fact is that people are labeled. In the old days of journalism, when an African-American was involved in a crime, the newspaper would put "Joe Smith, a Negro." Well, thank God we've gotten away from that.
Why do we have to use labels at all? Why can't their just ideas be presented and let people make up their mind whether they're liberal or conservative?
PINKERTON: The oldest trick in the book is for journalists to say, "I'm a moderate, you're a crazy ideologue with the left or not, and therefore not to be listened to." The MRC performs a service.
BURNS: "Quick Take" headline number two: "TV Stations Carry Death Live"
At least two Los Angeles TV stations were live earlier this week when police shot and killed a man after a car chase, raising questions yet again about whether there is a place for coverage of this sort on live TV.
Jane, the FOX policy is not to show the actual shooting; that's why we didn't. What should have been the policy in Los Angeles?
HALL: Well, you know, I saw that Mark Fuhrman was on this network talking about how this was a deterrent to crime. think it is sensationalism. I don't see that there's a compelling public interest. Maybe in this instance. But the policy leads to a lot of innocent bystanders being hurt in a lot of these car chases.
BURNS: A five-second videotape delay has been suggested, Jim, for covering these kinds of events that might end in violence.
PINKERTON: I think — I used to support them just on the grounds they were news and free speech and First Amendment and so on — now I've changed my mind. I think they are now an attractive nuisance; it's a kind of performance art for these car chases to go on. If, after the fact, there's a shooting or something like that, that is news, you got to cover that. But I would not do it in real time, or even on a five— second delay.
THOMAS: Well, there's been a tremendous debate about whether we should televise capital punishment, people are on both sides of that issue.
I don't think moments of death are worthy of being featured on network television, at least without a delay of some kind.
BURNS: What would you do, Neal?
GABLER: Well, sad to say, this is why you cover car chases, because you're hoping you're going to have this kind of grand finale. It's "good TV," as they say, in the parlance of the business, and it shouldn't be on TV, in my estimation.
BURNS: "Quick Take" headline number three: "Church of Oprah"
That is the headline of an article in "The Washington Post" this week, which says that because of the success of her TV show and her magazine and her personal appearances — she's on tour these days, something called the "Live Your Best Life (search)" tour — Oprah Winfrey has become almost a deity to her fans. And perhaps the most powerful TV personality ever.
And what does that tell us, Jim, about the people who have made her powerful? First of all, was that an exaggeration?
PINKERTON: I think Eugene Robinson, who wrote that piece in the Post, got it right. He said, Look, middle-aged, middle-class women need self-esteem too. She's found her audience and serves it very well.
GABLER: I think it's absolutely right.
When you watch that show, watch the faces in the audience, of those women. They look at Oprah with rapture, and rapture is what you think of in religious terms. You don't think of it in entertainment terms. She is a deity.
THOMAS: Speaking of religion, Oprah has achieved something no other person has ever achieved: she's achieved sainthood without dying first.
BURNS: Certainly not dying in the ratings, Jane.—After all of these years, that show is still immensely successful and she is more of a seminal figure in this culture than ever before.
HALL: Well, I think that she has become some kind of a spiritual guru. I think that's dangerous; if she starts to believe she's a deity, we've got a problem.
But I also think that she has a generally positive message, which is the thing that a lot of women's magazines do for women. And I wouldn't sneer at that. I mean, it's certainly better than, you know, people hitting each other over the head with chairs, which is on a lot of other talk shows.
GABLER: Oprah has lost weight for our sins.
HALL: Very funny.
BURNS: We have to lose the rest of this segment. We have to take one more break. When we come back, it'll be your turn.
BURNS: About our lead story last week, here is Curtis, who lives in Palmdale, California: "Eric, it occurred to me that you and the panel are probably by your FOX News Channel contracts to watch some tripe as the ABC probe into the `American Idol' scandal — while I, as an ordinary citizen of the USA, can choose to do more productive things, such as trim my nose hair or watch paint dry. My sympathies to you all."
And Curtis, our sympathies to you.
R.E. from Seabrook, Texas, criticizes Cal for making fun of the runaway bride's wide—eyed stare, and then points out that she also has an enlarged Adam's apple. And he goes on, in one of the most remarkable e— mails we've ever received on this program: "As I am sure you know, embryologically, the thyroid gland forms at the base of tongue and migrates downward. It usually between the larynx and the sternum, but may be found anywhere between the base of the tongue downward to the sternum. The runaway bride's massive Adam's apple conceivably could be a combination of her larynx and an enlarged, aberrant thyroid."
You're right, R.E. We know. (Laughter) Jeez...
According to Daniel from Laurel, Mississippi, the reason for the huge drop in ratings for the broadcast network evening newscasts ".is that we can pull most of the information off of the Internet without having to watch an entire program."
And Jason from Baghdad, Iraq: "I agree that news has had to turn into entertainment to get people to pay attention. I say if they need entertainment to pay attention, there's a Cartoon Network they can switch to. The news is supposed to be just that, THE NEWS!"
Finally, this week's fashion critique, from Connie in Fort Worth, Texas: "The last couple of weeks, we have seen alternating hair colors on Jim. And this week Cal is wearing a shirt that looks like a tablecloth from the corner diner. Not to mention Eric's beach towel shirt. What's the deal with Neal and Jane? Aren't they playing?"
We won't let them, Connie. They're too traditional.
Here is our address. We would you like you to write to us; do so at email@example.com. When you do, please tell us your full name and let us know where you live.
That's it for this week. Thanks to Jane Hall, Jim Pinkerton, Cal Thomas, Neal Gabler. And I'm Eric Burns, thanking you for watching. See you next week.
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