The following is a transcription of the May 7, 2005 edition of "FOX News Watch," that has been edited for clarity:
ERIC BURNS, HOST: This week, on "FOX News Watch":
Which do you think is worse: Paula Abdul's alleged behavior, or ABC's news judgment?
For CBS, perhaps the worst ratings news ever.
Is it time for PBS to pay its own way?
Laura Bush tells jokes.
And Jennifer Wilbanks plays a joke. We won't waste much time on her though...
First the news, then us.
BURNS: If there were any justice in the world, these four people would be American idols: 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.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ANNOUNCER: A "Primetime" investigation into the shocking claims of coaching the contestant on the hit show "American Idol."
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNS: It was one of the most heavily promoted network news stories ever: the "ABC Primetime Live" allegations that "American Idol" contestant Corey Clark got special coaching and more physical forms of handling from "American Idol" judge Paula Abdul.
Jane, it seems to me there are two issues here: whether this story ever should have been covered in the first place — let's put that on the back burner for a few moments and talk about how it was covered.
Was the "Primetime Live" special good journalism?
JANE HALL, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: I think that it deserved a segment. I — I — you know, there was a lot of repetition. It basically comes down to did they sleep together, and his motives were not questioned very much. There was a lot of touring around Hollywood and a lot of playing of his single.
I think that they — they — they saw a chance to cash in on this — there are serious allegations, but frankly the Associated Press (search) did something about whether the call-in system worked. I think that's more significant, actually, than whether he and Paula Abdul slept together.
JIM PINKERTON, "NEWSDAY": All my....
BURNS: We're all waiting.
PINKERTON: My college professors, who were all Marxists from the 70s, are all cackling right now as they would say, "Look, we told you the media existed to bamboozle the public and take them away from important issues on to unimportant issues." So ABC News, which could be covering the Iraq war or Russia or China, is doing this instead.
It was — they treated it, however, like the Kennedy assassination, or, like, the origins of World War II. It was so serious — all this ominous music and, you know, John Quinones (search) saying, menacingly, And our next segment will have another revelation about Paula Abdul's cell phone.
On the other hand, if we just accept, as I'm sure Neal will say, that most of what's on the news is crap, then this fits right in.
BURNS: We haven't addressed the issue.
BURNS: Neal, we haven't addressed the issue yet of whether ABC, journalistically, made its case.
NEAL GABLER, MEDIA WRITER: Well — make its case in what way? That they actually had a relationship, or that the relationship had some effect on the outcome of the show, which is really the important thing.
They certainly didn't make the latter case, because he was booted off the show, and number one. And number two, those so-called judges don't have any effect on the final balloting. So they didn't make that case.
Did they make the case as to whether he had an affair or not? Well, I would say, So what? If he did have an affair, it makes no difference whatsoever. This guy is kind of the textbook definition of sleaze. And I'll go back...
BURNS: He's a criminal. He's a criminal. He's been arrested.
GABLER: He's a criminal, which ABC did not question him about.
But I get back to something that Jim said, which is — an hour of primetime television — it's so precious that it can't be squandered on Social Security or the Iraq war, but it can be squandered on a two-minute story stretched — thin gruel this was — stretched to an hour.
What does that tell us about our media culture?
CAL THOMAS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: It tells us...
BURNS: What does that tell us about the people who watch television, Cal? Because the preliminary ratings for that night's show, that the show did very well.
THOMAS: It's Trivial Pursuit on steroids is what it is. It's just the most amazing thing.
But look, let's — you know, we had these scandals in the 50s — you're old enough to remember these, Eric....
THOMAS: ....wanted to get you back — $64,000 — 21. But we didn't have any sex in that; these were just dull, older white guys who were getting fed the answers. This is a totally different thing.
Now one of the things that would have been interesting — I understand that ABC had in development an "American Idol"-type show and FOX allegedly stole the idea before. It would have been nice to have a little disclaimer there; in addition to the ratings sweep in May, they had a kind of an interest in doing a hit on FOX on this, to bring their rating and the show down.
BURNS: Well, Jane, they also had an interest some time ago — ABC News — in putting a hit on NBC because there was a report on Donald Trump, when "The Apprentice" was first popular — I think the report concluded that Trump might not be as successful as we all thought.
So this isn't the first time ABC, however rightly or wrongly, has gone after the competition.
HALL: Well, you know, in some ways — let me say something a little bit in defense of ABC. I mean, if this is true — the most compelling part I saw on the ABC special was the contestants who loved Paula Abdul, had necklaces from her — she's the sympathetic one, the one that loved them all. Their disillusionment was, in some ways, what this piece probably should be about: whether — whether the system is rigged, I think, is a bigger issue.
But I — I don't think it means that you can't cover the Iraq war; ABC is covering the Iraq war. But to take an hour...
GABLER: Not in a primetime hour, it's not.
HALL: Well, to take an hour like that, I do think — I mean — and then, let' say all the other networks — this cable channel, CNN, everybody else has been reporting on the fight between FOX and ABC on this. So everybody is feeding at this trough.
BURNS: We're off the hook, though, because this is a show that analyzes...
HALL: Because this is a media analysis show.
PINKERTON: Boo hoo. Did Paula Abdul broke the hearts of her fans?
Look, she gushes over everybody on that show. I mean, that's her — if Simon Cowell's the mean one, she's — she's the nice one.
We are seeing something interesting though, and that is — and the ABC Trump example proves it as well. You're familiar with the concept of tie- ins, or, like, one network will promote a show on the — you know, like, for the newspaper, or another show on the network.
Now we're seeing cross-network tie-ins. ABC is clearly capitalizing on the popularity of the Trump show and "American Idol." Who knows what they'll go after next. You know....
HALL: Maybe us.
BURNS: To me, journalistically — if we can discuss this show journalistically, Cal — the worst part of it was that — I don't remember a sound byte in that whole show indicating that there may be another side to this story — that Corey Clark may be lying, that Paula Abdul may not have done this.
And on "The Insider" — and if one of you during the break criticizes me for having watched "The Insider" as an indication of no taste, I will insist, as I'm doing now, that I did it because I wanted to see this — "The Insider" had two sound bytes from people taking the other side.
This was a whole hour — much too long — but on one side of the charges.
THOMAS: Yes, well, we are — we are slowing progressing, like some advancing disease in journalism — we are now at the, We don't care about the other side; it's all about entertainment, infotainment, and journalism be damned.
BURNS: Actually, there was some other really good stuff on "The Insider" last night.
GABLER: Pat O'Brien.
BURNS: We — we have to take a break. When we come back, we will change networks. We'll go from ABC to CBS and NBC.
ANNOUNCER: It has been one of the worst years ever for "The CBS Evening News." It was also a bad year for the "NBC Nightly News." Is the future of news in the palm of your hand?
Stay tuned for more "FOX News Watch."
BURNS: Recent ratings for "The CBS Evening News" with Bob Schieffer are the lowest in history — at least in Nielsen people-mete-it-recorded (ph) history, which goes back to 1987.
Also in the past year, ratings for "NBC Nightly News," now with Brian Williams, have dropped about the same amount, 7 percent.
ABC's "World News Tonight with Peter Jennings" has stayed about the same in the past year.
And Neal, of course, that — ABC News is not with Peter Jennings right now.
But it seems to me that something that nobody foresaw in predicting more demises for the nightly newscasts is the change of anchors. All three of them now — all three networks evening newscasts have different anchors from the ones they had four or five months ago. And this, in addition to the cable incursions, may be the biggest blow yet — the biggest challenge yet, don't you think?
GABLER: It expedited a process; I don't think it created a process.
You didn't mention the decline in newspaper circulation as well. You know, the decline in these ratings, the decline in newspaper circulation, to me, is a painful, even a tragic occurrence, and it leads to one conclusion: that people may want information — particularly they want to know who's screwing whom, or who killed Laci Peterson — but they don't want hard news anymore, particularly young people.
And you can repackage it in any way you want, but unless you repackage it in such a way that it no longer is news, it's through.
BURNS: But the morning news shows don't do news and they have, in the last year, dropped about 300,000. So part of it may be...
GABLER: Even soft news, then, is vulnerable.
BURNS: Yes. Part of it may be, Cal, is the lure of new technology?
THOMAS: Yes, the explosion of information sources.
But as the old guys leave their anchor chairs, these are men who were the brand name for the networks. And most people couldn't get — think of getting their news from any other place. They have a half hour on at night — that was the network newscast before cable, before everything else.
BURNS: And do you know what, Cal? People would say — the proof of that — people would often say, I'm not going to watch NBC News. I'm going to watch Chancellor. I'm going to watch Brokaw.
THOMAS: Right. Exactly.
BURNS: I wonder what Rather's going to have on his show.
THOMAS: Now I will say about the newspaper decline that Neal brought up — I looked on the list of the papers. All but one of them don't carry my column. There's the lesson. There's the lesson.
BURNS: Did you know he was going to do that when you brought up the newspaper decline?
GABLER: Not a clue.
HALL: Can I speak in defense of young people? A lot of my students get their news online, and I do — a lot of them go to "The Washington Post," "The New York Times" online, and I don't think it has to be profiles of J.Lo and who's having sex with whom for them to get interested.
I think there are some attempts to — I mean, they're much more visually oriented; they're not home when the nightly newscasts are on. I think the old idea that they were going to grow into watching news is one that you can't count on. I mean, when I used to ask this question 10 years ago, they'd say, Oh, well people will grow into watching this.
I do think that — that this is a fractionalized universe. There are some attempts — the newspapers — "The Chicago Tribune" as this "Red Eye" — there are attempts to have younger, hipper version of the news.
BURNS: What's the — what's "The Red Eye."
HALL: It's a giveaway — it's an attempt to reach a younger audience.
GABLER: Shorter stories that essentially destroy the whole idea of the news.
HALL: Well, OK, but I don't think that you have to have mindless stuff to reach young people.
PINKERTON: I tend to actually agree with Jane. I think that technology — technology changes; we don't have town criers anymore; we don't have smoke signals; we don't have semaphores; we don't have carrier pigeons.
What we do have is computers and these things — I read recently that there are 700 million cell phones sold last year, compared to only 50 million laptop computers. The cell phone is going to be communications and I believe news mechanism of the future. It won't be — we won't even call it a cell phone. We'll call it like a — just a PDA. And it'll have a screen that blow up in your face and so on....
BURNS: Actually, we have one of those already, because recently — at least we have it visually if not in a — in real life there — my God, you can carry (INAUDIBLE) Shepard Smith around in your own pocket.
But this is Bill Gates' prediction, Jim: six to eight years, the primary source of news in this country will be from a device that you hold in your hand.
PINKERTON: Right. And that's got infinite potential to do things — as things like "The Drudge Report" (INAUDIBLE), which is restore text to its place, because people do read those things.
GABLER: But what you're talking about is repackaging the way it's distributed. You are not getting to the content of the news itself. And I think the real problem here is entertainment.
You know, in our culture today, news doesn't compete with other news; news competes with everything else in our monoculture, which means it competes with entertainment. And I'll tell you that when news competes with movies and other television shows and records and everything else — and games on...
PINKERTON: Would you say that about 9/11? Would you say that about the pope's funeral?
GABLER: All right, every five years there's a major news story...
THOMAS: But here's the thing about 9/11: we heard, after 9/11, people complaining — Tom Fenton, who was interviewed on this network — saying that he tried to get stories on before 9/11 and was turned on by his producers at CBS who said there were too many foreign names in it.
After the attack: why didn't we know about this? You didn't know about it because you didn't allow the stuff on the air; you didn't pay any attention to it.
GABLER: And now we're right back to square one...
HALL: Well, that's what's — what I think is a real tabloid time, you know? I would rank with the Lindbergh kidnapping except I don't want you to say, Cal remembers it (INAUDIBLE)
THOMAS: Thank you very much.
HALL: But, you know, I think we (INAUDIBLE) to tabloid and crime and, you know, that's cheap and easy to produce.
This other stuff — and I do think there's something about how compelling entertainment is. I mean, "The Washington Post" this week about how we're unprepared for a nuclear attack in Washington. I didn't hear anybody on television talking much about that story.
BURNS: We have to take another break. We'll be back with our "Quick Takes."
ANNOUNCER: The runaway bride: is she still in the news?
Is the first lady of the United States also the first lady of one- liners?
Answers ahead, when "FOX News Watch" continues.
BURNS: Time now for our "Quick Takes" on the media.
Headline number one: "The Size of the Eyes Was Such a Surprise That the Size of the Lies Was Bigger."
BURNS: Thank you.
THOMAS: Nice (audible).
BURNS: Jennifer Wilbanks, the runaway bride, turns out to be unharmed, not to mention unstable. A grateful nation sighs in relief.
Of all the people on this panel, the only one who I think could possibly explain why this story got so much coverage is you.
PINKERTON: Well, it — we are sort of in between the Michael Jackson and the Bill Cosby stories and looking for something.
Look, I must say that this is — this — the media does wind up with egg on its face on this. They were prepared for...
BURNS: Something much more dire.
PINKERTON: ...like Laci Peterson, and they didn't get it.
BURNS: But then, once it turned out to be a hoax, Cal, it turned out — I'm sorry, Jim — what were you going to say? It turned out to be an even bigger story.
PINKERTON: I was going to say, though, that just take a moment to talk about the PR industry and them — she issued a statement last week saying, Nothing — this had — my run away had nothing to do with cold feet. I cannot wait to Mrs. John Mason.
I don't think that's strictly speaking true. I think they must think when they write these PR press releases that people will just fall for anything.
THOMAS: Well, she certainly had anchor eyes. I mean, you know, if you want to be an anchor you have to look like this anymore.
BURNS: So you think this was all an audition.
THOMAS: Probably an audition.
But look, this — this story — first of all, it was a woman, and the — the tabloids and much of cable TV loves the woman-in-distress in storyline. This is the big thing.
But I think unconscionably, there were several people, including on this network, I'm sorry to say, who went overboard and speculated, Well, of course she's been kidnapped; probably she's been abused or murdered — without any facts at all.
GABLER: Look, they were hoping for another Laci Peterson case. They wanted her dead. Let's — let — bottom line.
BURNS: "Quick Take" headline number: "Should PBS Stop Getting Taxpayer Money?"
Yes, says columnist Jack Schaeffer in the online magazine Slate — especially now that a Republican administration might try to force the network to the right.
The usual charge, Jane, is the liberals try to force and have forced PBS to the left. Anyhow, to the issue.
HALL: Well, I think that...
BURNS: Taxpayer money for PBS.
HALL: Well, I think his point was the editorial independence, which I would be for.
I mean, I think, frankly, the bigger story is the one "The New York Times" wrote, which is that this guy commissioned a study of the guests on Bill Moyers' show "Now" and this is a...
BURNS: This guy — this was the...
HALL: This guy Tomlinson, who is...
BURNS: CPB, which is the funding arm.
HALL: I go back long enough that I was covering 1992, when the same idea was floated that there should be objectivity and balance within every program. I think this looks very, very partisan. And whatever you think of PBS, I don't think this is the way to go.
PINKERTON: Camille Paglia, who is a self-described atheist, lesbian, John Kerry supporter, said last week in Washington that, Look, if PBS and NPR can't be fair, they shouldn't exist.
People should understand that the media — the government-controlled media — will be a tool of whoever runs the government, whether it's conservative or liberal. Liberals should — now should realize that Jack Schaeffer and Jonathan Chait in the "The L.A. Times" are right — there shouldn't be a public...
HALL: What about all the corporate-funded shows? All the business shows that are on — on PBS? They're never counted by anybody who's doing these counts.
THOMAS: Cut it loose and let it stand or fall on its own, based on ratings. That's the free enterprise system.
BURNS: If they do that, Neal, it would probably fall because now that we have the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel, places like that, there's more competition for PBS types of programming.
GABLER: If the alternative is right-wing propaganda on the one hand and no public television on the other, I'd say no public television. And that seems to be the alternative.
BURNS: "Quick Take" headline number three — actually, let's make it joke number one:
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LAURA BUSH, FIRST LADY: George and I are complete opposites: I'm quiet, he's talkative; I'm introverted. He's extroverted; I can pronounce nuclear.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNS: Jim, I've heard two amazing extremes of reaction to this. One of them is that the media are so anti-Bush that they keep playing these jokes to make Bush look bad all week. The other I've heard is, This is a seminal event in Laura Bush's life — it's her coming out, it's her — why can't we just cover this?
PINKERTON: Why can't we just say...
BURNS: If it's entertaining, if someone in high office, so to speak, being entertaining, and leave it at that?
PINKERTON: It was a moment — it was fresh. It was not the president getting up there and telling jokes, it was her getting up and telling jokes. And it was a little bit different.
You get to debut once, and you get a big splash. She might have a hard time doing it a second time.
HALL: I think it was charming and funny and I think that the role of the first lady is one that it's good to have a first lady who can make a few jokes as opposed to standing there looking up, the way Nancy Reagan and others have done over the years.
GABLER: This is an example of a media gone crazy. These jokes were all scripted.
GABLER: This was not Laura Bush unleashed, which is the way the press has put it. This was Laura Bush scripted by Karl Rove to help her husband.
THOMAS: She could pronounce nuclear, but she couldn't pronounce "pronounce."
BURNS: I noticed that, making it all the funnier.
One more break for us. When we come back, your turn.
BURNS: About American TV networks buying tape of terrorist acts in Iraq from Al Jazeera, here's Bill from Charlotte, North Carolina: "Do you suppose that U.S. news organizations' money is going to terrorist to buy the materials and actually promote terrorist acts?"
But from Rick in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: "News is news. A helicopter was shot down, the film of the incident is newsworthy no matter who shot it under what conditions."
And George from Winter Springs, Florida: "I agree with Neal Gabler on his comments on Al Jazeera. I would go a step further, though, declare it a propaganda outlet of our enemy, then blow it to hell."
About the lack of coverage of the sexual-abuse charges against Bill Cosby, here's Lou from Fairport, New York: "You make all kinds of ridiculous excuses for why no one is covering the Bill Cosby accusations. Would the media cover Rush Limbaugh the same way if it were he that was accused as Cosby was? I doubt it."
And Tony, High Point, North Carolina: "Obviously, the reason Bill Cosby has been relatively free of scrutiny by the media for his sexual- assault charges is that they thought it was Bill Clinton."
There was no lack of coverage of this story, however — or, I should say, this picture.
Jill, Grand Saline, Texas: "President Bush offered a helping hand to an 80-year-old man as a gesture of respect for an elderly gentleman. In Texas, we call that being kind and having respect for elders."
And Lenn from Bethesda, Maryland: "It was reported on the spot by a reporter on the scene that President Bush assisted the Saudi prince while walking on uneven terrain. What do you think the price of oil would be if the prince fell on his tuckas?"
We can only guess.
Finally, here is Mary, who lives in Roselle, New Jersey, and she wrote this to us last Saturday. Remember last Saturday?
"All day long I have seen stories about runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks. Will she eventually get married? Does the couple need counseling? Then you go and lead off with a story about Al Jazeera and the war in Iraq. How dare you remind me that there are real stories going on in the world that deserve serious attention. What's wrong with you people?"
Ah, Mary. If only all the criticism we got was like yours.
Here's our address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please write to us; tell us your full name, and let us know where you live.
That's all the time we have left for this week. Thanks to Jane Hall, Jim Pinkerton, Cal Thomas, Neal Gabler.
And I'm Eric Burns, thanking you for watching. We'll see you next week, when "FOX News Watch" will be back on the air.
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