updated 5/4/2006 11:42:00 AM ET 2006-05-04T15:42:00

Guests: Katrina Szish; Jenny Elisev; Jim Verraros; Michelle Lee; Melissa Marcello; Alice Hoagland; Edward McMahon; Michael Smerconish; Jack Kingston; Jan Birger

JOE SCARBOROUGH, HOST:  From porn stars to what many believe is an obscene verdict for the crime we will always remember.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The World Trade Center tower number one is on fire, the whole outside of the building.  It was just a huge explosion.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCARBOROUGH:  A verdict the president would like to forget as his administration lets the 20th hijacker escape ultimate justice.

Welcome to SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY.  No passport required, only common sense allowed.

First tonight, Moussaoui lives.  And after escaping the death penalty, he shouts the mocking words, “America, you lost.”  The stunning verdict is yet another loss for the Bush administration, who wanted the 20th hijacker to die for his crimes against America.

Texas residents can be excused for scratching their heads tonight.  George W. Bush was, after all, the governor who executed over 150 people while running Texas from 1995 to 2000.  And yet, when the hijacker‘s trial was completed, Mr. Bush‘s administration faced another loss in its war on terror, this despite the fact that Moussaoui was found guilty of six conspiracy counts, committing acts of terrorism, destroying aircraft, and using airplanes as weapons of mass destruction.  Yes, they‘ve been found.

Perhaps if the terrorist had also knocked over a bank in Texarkana while conspiring with bin Laden, the Bush administration could have gotten him to fit snugly into an electric chair.  But no such luck tonight.  All Moussaoui did was conspire with al Qaeda‘s leaders to kill thousands of Americans, cripple the U.S. economy and launch an age of terror from which we won‘t soon recover.  And who knows, in a few years, maybe number 20 and John Hinckley can take weekend walks together in northern Virginia, chatting about holy war and Jodie Foster.

Mr. Bush, however, was not in a chatty mood today after the Moussaoui verdict was read, but he did offer this opinion.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE WALKER BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  It‘s really important for the United States to stay on the offense against these killers, bring them to justice.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCARBOROUGH:  Here to tell us exactly how the 20th hijacker escaped death is NBC News justice correspondent Pete Williams—Pete.

PETE WILLIAMS, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  We don‘t know exactly how the jury voted.  We only know this, that it was not unanimous, as it would have had to have been to impose the death penalty or recommend a sentence of death.  What we think happened here is that the jury split 9-to-3, with 9 members of the jury supporting the death penalty but 3 opposing it.  Three members of the jury said that the actions of the defendant did not result in the deaths of 3,000 people.  Three members of the jury said that Moussaoui‘s role in the 9/11 operation, if any, was minor.  And then three members of the jury actually wrote in—there was a sort of a write-in ballot section of this jury form that said that he had—Moussaoui had only limited knowledge of the 9/11 attack plans.

So therefore, those jurors concluded that his participation, his role in the actual deaths on 9/11 was not direct enough to justify the death penalty, and therefore, it wasn‘t unanimous, so the death penalty is off the table.  He‘ll automatically be sentenced to life in prison in a federal prison, probably the supermax prison in Colorado, and the formal sentencing will come tomorrow morning in Alexandria, Virginia, from the judge.

And then that is that.  The government cannot appeal this decision.  It would be difficult to think that they could.  So tomorrow, Moussaoui will probably speak in court, and then that is the last we will probably ever hear from, Joe.

SCARBOROUGH:  We‘ll see.  And maybe, Pete, he‘ll use the excuse to mock America and the president of the United States and the administration that let him get away again.

Let‘s go now to “HARDBALL‘s” Chris Matthews and have Chris tell us what the politicians are saying about the verdict and its impact—Chris.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, “HARDBALL”:  So who‘s to know how this is going to turn around and around in the next couple of days.  Of course, I‘ve noticed in all the politicians I‘ve interviewed tonight, they all say he should have been executed.  They are quite simple (ph) in that.  And they‘re good readers of public opinion, as you know, politicians, and if they‘ve read the wind correctly, you will hear a lot of people out there saying as we go through this coming weekend, Why did this guy get off?

That said, it was a little bit of a stretch to say that he was involved in 9/11, when his own words weren‘t credible.  Here‘s a guy who‘s saying, I was working with this guy with the magic shoes—you know, the guy with the dynamite shoes—and we were going to pull off another part of this thing on 9/11, and nobody really believed there was evidence to that effect.  In fact, the other guy said it wasn‘t a conspiracy involving him or Zacarias Moussaoui.

So this guy was gaming the jury, saying, Go ahead, execute me, and that‘ll make me a hero.  And then (INAUDIBLE) of course, he gets life, he says, Well, America, you lost, and clapped his hands.

I think a lot of people would be happy to know that years from now, 30 years from now, when we‘ve all forgotten about it, he‘s still in some can in Colorado.  Joe, back to you.

SCARBOROUGH:  All right.  Thanks so much, Chris.

And let‘s bring in right now to talk about the sentencing verdict Alice Hoagland.  Her son was one of the heroes of flight 93, and she testified against the death penalty at the Moussaoui trial.  Thank you so much for being with us, Alice.

ALICE HOAGLAND, MOTHER OF 9/11 VICTIM:  Thanks for asking me.

SCARBOROUGH:  So you were actually pleased by the verdict that a man that may have been involved in the death of your son is not going to be executed.  Why?

HOAGLAND:  It took me a long time to arrive at that conclusion.  I wanted to make sure that my heart was making the right decision because in this case, even though I have spent time agonizing with mothers whose children were murdered by recidivists and I‘ve asked myself, Why didn‘t they execute that guy when they could have, in this case, since Mark‘s life was involved, along with nearly 3,000 other people, I asked myself to reach a higher and better decision, and I think that the jury has done that.

I do not believe that Mr. Moussaoui is convinced when he says America lost.  I think that America won today because we have demonstrated that we can transcend the kind of hatred that Moussaoui has shown us by allowing him to live.  As despicable and unremitting as he is, he is, as Chris points out, going to spend the rest of his life probably underground, and that‘s no choice fate for any person.  My brother Vaughan (ph) points out that he‘d rather die than to spend the rest of his live in prison, which Mr. Moussaoui‘s going to do.

SCARBOROUGH:  You know, Alice, it‘s very interesting, your response to this.  Again, your son a hero on flight 93 on September 11.  But as Americans look at the images—and Americans I‘ve been talking to, and I have been talking to politicians—but you look at the images of 9/11, the hell that so many people went through...

HOAGLAND:  Yes.

SCARBOROUGH:  ... 3,000 lives lost, an entire country launched into the age of terror—you know, so many Americans think this guy should have died for his sins against America.  How do you finally get to the point to say, He may have had a part in killing my son, but I want him to live?

HOAGLAND:  I know that he did have a part in killing Mark.  He was originally touted as the 20th hijacker, would have been aboard flight 93, along with Mark and Todd Beamer and Jeremy Glick and Tom Burnett.  As a matter of fact, the prosecution backed off from that.

Nonetheless, other 9/11 families have expressed the same view that I have, that I don‘t see how killing another human being is going to bring anybody closure.  He‘s despicable, he‘s miserable, he‘s hateful.  Still, none of us—as I said on the witness stand, none of us is beyond redemption, and we in the United States have a mandate to act better and more powerfully and with higher standards than he does.  I‘m glad that he‘s received life in prison instead of execution.

SCARBOROUGH:  Alice, thank you so much for being with us.

HOAGLAND:  You‘re welcome.

SCARBOROUGH:  And I‘m glad that you‘ve been able to reach to a higher level than this guy and so many others that are seeking revenge.  I personally—I‘ll tell you, I personally would like to see him get the death penalty, but I have great, great respect for you.  Thank you so much...

HOAGLAND:  Well, I have respect for your opinion.  Thank you very much.

SCARBOROUGH:  Thank you so much for being with us.

Right now, I want to go to Edward MacMahon.  He‘s one of Moussaoui‘s defense attorneys.  Mr. MacMahon, let‘s get your response to the verdict.  Were you shocked?  Your client, who was basically goading the jury into executing him, walked today.

EDWARD MACMAHON, MOUSSAOUI DEFENSE ATTORNEY:  Well, I was surprised at the verdict because I knew from the beginning this was going to be a very hard case.  But I told the jury at the beginning of this case that one thing I did know about Zacarias Moussaoui was that he‘d failed at everything he‘d ever tried to do in his life, and he was going to fail to convince them to make him a martyr.

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Was this guy a loser?  Was this guy—was it your opinion that this is a guy that wanted to be one of the hijackers, but bin Laden and al Qaeda wouldn‘t even trust him with that, that he was a loser and was basically left behind, and now he‘s trying to make himself a martyr?

MACMAHON:  That‘s exactly what I told the jury, that he‘s one of the biggest liars I‘ve ever seen take the stand in a court.  Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and everybody said Moussaoui was uninvolved, and he tried to aggrandize his own role in al Qaeda.  I also told the jury that wherever Moussaoui went in al Qaeda, after about a day, all anybody talked about was when he was going to leave and who was going to have to pay to buy him a ticket.

(LAUGHTER)

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, he‘s got a—he‘s got a one-way ticket to a life in jail now.  Thank you so much for being with us.  Edward MacMahon, you did a heck of a job defending your client.

Right now, I want to bring in Michael Smerconish.  He‘s a radio talk show host and also author of the new book, “Muzzled.”  Michael, I just cannot believe that the man known as the 20th hijacker, who was begging the jury to execute him, got away.  How did the Justice Department, the Bush administration, the entire federal government botch this case?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  They should have given him his wish, Joe.  You know, an hour ago, when your folks called me, I was in the middle of a book signing in the suburbs of Philadelphia.  Let me give you a report from the heartland.  And I said, I can sit here for the next hour and I can sign everybody‘s book, or I can go tell Joe Scarborough that this dog should have been put down.  And everybody said, Get out the door right now and deliver that message.  And I think that‘s the way it‘s going to play in the heartland.

I‘m going to tell you something.  To me—and I have such respect for Alice Hoagland, but I can‘t buy into this logic of transcending hatred.  This is the sissification of America.  We‘re not looking for terrorists at airports who resemble terrorists.  The borders are completely porous.  A guy who the jury just two weeks ago found absolutely, if he‘d been truthful, we could have stopped short that which occurred on September 11, is going to be allowed to live on my dime at $100,000 a year!

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes, Michael, you‘re paying for him.  And again, those images from 9/11 -- I mean, let‘s show people again because, have they forgotten?

SMERCONISH:  They have forgotten!

SCARBOROUGH:  Have they forgotten what the 19 terrorists did?  Have they forgotten what this 20th terrorist wanted to do?

SMERCONISH:  What‘s mind-boggling to me is that as bad as the footage is that you‘re showing the nation right now, you‘re not even going to show the footage of the jumpers from the twin towers.  You don‘t have the ability to play the cockpit voice recorder.  This jury listened to that!

SCARBOROUGH:  Michael, they won‘t let us.

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  They will not let us.  They think that it is too objectionable to people.  I think that‘s a terrible mistake.  I think people need to be reminded every day about what happened on September 11, but you won‘t get a news network doing that because they think it will be too offensive and too shocking to the American people.  I don‘t know what is shocking about the truth.  I still see images from Pearl Harbor.  Maybe this is part of the—what do you call it, the sissification of America?

SMERCONISH:  Yes.  Yes.  Root word, sissies.  That‘s what we‘ve become!  Hey, Joe, go watch “United 93.”  The only conclusion one can reach in watching that movie is that we must kill these SOBs before they kill us and our kids!  Because that‘s all they‘re trying to do right now.  And I cannot take this touchy-feely mindset of trying to battle radical Islam!  They‘re cutting throats with box cutters, and we‘re sending a guy away to a can aboveground for the next 30 years!

SCARBOROUGH:  And I want to bring in right now Ian Williams.  Stay with us, Michael, but let‘s bring in Ian Williams from “The Nation” magazine.  Ian, I would guess you‘re probably against the death penalty, but I just have to ask you, how can George Bush execute 150 people, some of them possibly innocent, when he‘s governor of Texas, but he can‘t even get the death penalty for the 20th hijacker, who‘s begging the jury to kill him?

IAN WILLIAMS, “THE NATION”:  Well, because despite homeland security, there are still jury trials here.  If it had been left to a military tribunal, it might have been different.  But it was a jury trial, and the jury obviously was as sensible as Alice Hoagland.  Why give such an evil guy what he wanted?  He wanted martyrdom.  You‘re saying he should have been given it.  Why grant a guy who is not quite 10 dimes to the dollar, as you can see, who‘s definitely evil, why give him what he wants?  Why make a martyr out of him?

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Michael Smerconish.

SMERCONISH:  OK.  So now we‘re going to have a precedent—let me understand this.  Now we‘re going to have a precedent where we say, in a case where someone has pled guilty, All right, what does that person want?  And then we‘re going to try and give them some alternative to what they want?  That‘s not the way the system works!  It should not enter the decision-making process of the jury that he wants martyrdom.

And one more thing, Joe.  I‘m sick and tired of trying to anticipate the reaction and then determine what we should do.  These people...

SCARBOROUGH:  Ian Williams...

SMERCONISH:  Wait a minute, Joe!

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH:  These people are stone cold crazy!  They kill one another over a political cartoon with bin Laden with a turban with a bomb!  Forget what‘s on their mind!  They‘re nuts!

WILLIAMS:  It wasn‘t a cartoon with bin Laden with a bomb, it was Mohammed with a bomb.  And I think that was crazy, as well.

But let‘s get down to it.  The only other countries that impose the death penalty are Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, all of them you might call Islamic fundamentalist countries.  If you want to join them, that‘s fine.  But what that jury showed, what Alice Hoagland showed, is that despite...

SCARBOROUGH:  All right, Ian...

WILLIAMS:  ... the best efforts of the Patriot Act and people like you, that there is a justice system in America, and the people here do have a sense of...

SCARBOROUGH:  All right, Ian...

WILLIAMS:  ... justice and what is fair and what makes this country...

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  We‘re going to have to leave it there.  Thank you, Michael.  Thank you, Ian.  We‘ll be right back with Bush‘s problems on big oil.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  The secretary of energy admits America is in an oil crisis.  Ten states are suing the feds over fuel standards, and Americans are getting pounded at the pump every day, paying over $3 a gallon.  And the president‘s approval rating on handling the crisis?  It‘s collapsed to 22 percent, while Senate Republicans are backing off their embarrassing $100 rebate plan for high oil prices.  So what‘s next, a chicken in every pot?

Well, some on Capitol Hill are waking up and smelling the gas fumes, so much so that there are big oil allies who are finally seeing the light.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCARBOROUGH (voice-over):  There‘s nothing quite so stirring as a religious conversion.  Washington politicians have been known to beg for forgiveness while on their own political roads to Damascus.

WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I am profoundly sorry.

BUSH:  And it is true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong.  As president, I‘m responsible for the decision to go into Iraq.

DONALD RUMSFELD, DEFENSE SECRETARY:  There‘s no doubt in my mind that people made honest mistakes.

SCARBOROUGH:  But usually, their altar call is triggered by political misfortune.  “The New York Times” front page story on tax breaks for oil companies suggested some of big oil‘s strongest supporters have found religion.

BUSH:  Prices of gasoline should serve as a wake-up call to all of us involved in public office that we have got an energy security problem and a national security problem, and now is the time to deal with it in a forceful way.

SCARBOROUGH:  If so, their conversions have been a long time coming.  When I was in Congress, California Democrat George Miller and I tried to abolish corporate welfare for the world‘s biggest oil companies.  Our efforts to kill royalty relief were crushed by Republicans and Democrats alike.  That decision may end up fattening oil companies‘ bottom lines by more than $35 billion, that according to “The New York Times.”

And earlier this year, big oil‘s biggest allies on Capitol Hill crammed through another $2 billion in tax breaks for oil companies, although these same oil companies were racking up record profits during the post-Katrina energy crisis.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I have never liked you.  Never.  I never will.

SCARBOROUGH:  Now, with gas prices are skyrocketing to record highs, these same lawmakers have seen the light.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I have sinned against you, my Lord!

SCARBOROUGH:  The only question is, will the American voters be as forgiving as Tammy Faye Bakker‘s followers were of her?

TAMMY FAYE BAKKER, TELEVANGELIST:  We are so happy to be back!

JIM BAKKER, TELEVANGELIST:  We really are.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCARBOROUGH:  Let‘s bring in Georgia Congressman Jack Kingston, who met with President Bush and other members of Congress this morning.  Congressman, hallelujah.

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  You sat there with President Bush today.  Has he seen the light?  Does he have any real plan to bring down gas prices?

REP. JACK KINGSTON ®, GEORGIA:  Yes, he does, Joe.  I got to compliment you.  I didn‘t know you were such a religious guy, but I‘m very impressed.  And I want to say everybody on Capitol Hill has religion.

What the president talked about is taking away some of these tax credits, that you‘re right, that we passed in hopes that they would explore for a new oil supply.  But they did not.  They just rolled it into profit.  We want to take those tax credits back.

We also want to change the state-by-state boutique fuel requirements, which is costing them a lot more money, and that‘s being passed on to the consumers.  We want to streamline that.  We also talked today about opening oil (INAUDIBLE) lease (ph) sale 181 in the Gulf of Florida that would bring in a great supply of oil, and we‘ve always had trouble opening that up.  But that was one of the things we talked about.  We talked about flex-fuel vehicles.  We talked about ethanol.  We talked about...

SCARBOROUGH:  OK, so...

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Let‘s say we start drilling—let‘s say we start drilling off of Florida, off of California, off of Alaska, which I—

Alaska, which I voted for.  Let‘s say—let‘s say we do all of these things.  Isn‘t it still going to be several years before there‘s going to be any change at the pump?

KINGSTON:  Joe, I think there would be, in one sense.  In another sense, what I would like to see, if we could all (INAUDIBLE) say we‘re going reduce our addiction to foreign oil—and I‘ve got a bill, bipartisan bill that reduces our consumption 10 percent in 10 years and 20 percent in 20 years and moves us towards flex-fuel vehicles, what would happen is I think Wall Street would start investing in ethanol plants and all kinds of other ways.  And I think we could cut—see a change at the pump almost immediately because, psychologically, if nothing else, the oil companies would realize, Hey, people have had enough.  Three dollars a gallon was a bridge too far, and people are serious about driving hybrids.

SCARBOROUGH:  Hey, stay with me, Jack.  I want to bring in right now somebody else to answer whether a big oil‘s a villain or just misunderstood.  Let‘s bring in Jon Birger.  He‘s from “Fortune” magazine.  I want to pick up on something that Jack just said.  Let‘s say all of these items are implemented, and you‘re drilling off of California, Florida, you‘re drilling in the ANWR reserve in Alaska.  You‘re doing all these different things.  Is that enough to shake up Wall Street and shake up the markets and drive the price for oil futures down, which would mean that we‘d see a pretty quick response at the pump?

JON BIRGER, “FORTUNE” MAGAZINE:  Well, I mean, I think the irony here is that a lot of the blame for the recent spike in gasoline prices actually lies with Congress.  The energy bill that your friends in Congress passed last year required or essentially required a switchover from a petroleum additive called MTBE to an ethanol-related additive.  And there‘s nothing wrong with that, but the timing they chose—they chose a deadline of May 5 for this, which is right—right in advance of the peak driving season.  And that‘s—and this is a technically complicated switchover.  If they‘d pushed the deadline back to the fall, which a lot of people thought was the right move, you probably wouldn‘t see the increase in gasoline prices...

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  So what does Congress do now to drive down gas prices at the pump?

BIRGER:  I mean, there a couple—I mean, there are couple—there‘s

long-term and short-term.  Short-term—you know, look what happened in

the immediate aftermath of Katrina last—you know, last summer.  The EPA

the government waives some emission requirements for gasoline, and that allowed foreign refiners to export gasoline to the U.S., even though their blends may not have met U.S. specifications.  After that waiver, gasoline prices fell considerably, up to $1 a gallon.  So that‘s what you could do short...

SCARBOROUGH:  All right.

BIRGER:  That‘s what you can do short-term.  Long-term, I know you don‘t want to hear this, but...

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Unfortunately, there‘s a hard break coming up.  I appreciate you being with us.  Thanks.  Also, thank you, Jack Kingston.  Got a hard break.  We‘ll talk to them some more in the coming weeks.

But coming Up next, it‘s “American Idol” time with Simon, Paula and Randy stealing the show and ruining the contest.  We‘ll get to that and much more when SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Welcome back to SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY.  It‘s “American Idol” time. 

The fighting on this show has gone from friendly banter to deeply personal infighting.  Simon Cowell is saying Ryan Seacrest would marry himself tomorrow because “he‘s the most egotistical person I have ever met in my life.”  This after Simon Cowell mediated a fight between Paula and Ryan last week. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PAULA ABDUL, “AMERICAN IDOL” JUDGE:  You know what?  Shut up for once. 

RANDY JACKSON, “AMERICAN IDOL” JUDGE:  Ryan, get on with it, please.

RYAN SEACREST, “AMERICAN IDOL” HOST:  The wheels are falling off already. 

SIMON COWELL, “AMERICAN IDOL” JUDGE:  Are you two talking yet, by the way? 

SEACREST:  We are speaking, yes.

ABDUL:  We love each other. 

COWELL:  Good to clear that one up.

SEACREST:  There‘s love at the core.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCARBOROUGH:  And today, Seacrest dropped in on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” to feebly explain the infighting between him and Paula. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEACREST:  Let me say that this season more than ever on “American Idol,” the wheels have fallen off, don‘t you think?  I mean, it‘s not only the singing competition, but the soap opera, too. 

ELLEN DEGENERES, HOST, “THE ELLEN DEGENERES SHOW”:  Yes.

SEACREST:  There were a lot of people outside, and I thought she was blowing me off.  And then we cleared it up on the radio, and so now we‘re fine. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes, whatever.  It is a soap opera on that show, and the question is:  Are the judge‘s egos getting in the way and ruining “American Idol” with all the fighting? 

Let‘s bring in now E! reporter Kristin Veitch.  We‘ve got former contestant Jim Verraros.  I‘ll get that better next time.  “Rolling Stone” contributor, we have Jenny Eliscu.  And we also have Katrina Szish from “US Weekly.” 

Katrina, what‘s going on with all the childish fighting at “American Idol” and is it ruining the show? 

KATRINA SZISH, “US WEEKLY”:  Well, once you have a group of people who work together for this long, everybody is enjoying a little taste of success, there is bound to be a little bit of drama behind the scenes. 

But I think, instead of taking away from the competition, it‘s actually drawing viewers to the show.  It‘s creating a little more of a drama, another reason to watch the show.  You‘re look forward to seeing the banter of these judges, and I think it‘s just adding to the allure of “American Idol.” 

SCARBOROUGH:  But, Jenny, aren‘t all the egos somehow getting in the way of the idea of this show, the concept that it‘s actually about the contestants and not about the big egos?  Jenny, can you hear me, Jenny? 

OK, I guess we‘re having trouble with Jenny. 

JENNY ELISCU, “ROLLING STONE”:  I can hear you.

SCARBOROUGH:  Let‘s go to Kristin, and I‘ll ask you the same question. 

Are the egos getting in the way? 

KRISTIN VEITCH, E! REPORTER:  Well, first of all, you know, I‘d love to say that Ryan Seacrest is actually on our program now at E! News, so he‘s a colleague.  And I‘m looking forward to the sparring matches that we‘re going to have coming up. 

I personally think, you know, you look at talk, daytime talk shows, you look at other reality shows, like “Survivor,” “The Apprentice,” people love to watch other people fight.  It‘s sort of a sick, you know, part of our human nature, and I think that it‘s actually adding to this season. 

This is the highest-rated season yet; 30 million people are watching.  And I think that a part of it is tuning in to see what Simon is going to say to Randy, what Simon is going to say to Ryan.  We‘ve known from day one that Simon is anything but an angel.

And it‘s no surprise that these guys are not necessarily getting along with him.  But I also think, at the end of the day, they are legitimately looking out for each other, and they realize that this is a way to sort of turn the spotlight on them a little bit.  You know, they get press when they start sort of taking jabs at one another. 

SCARBOROUGH:  When they start whacking each other. 

I want to show you all the “Rolling Stone” cover that may have started the whole feud.  Jenny, explain what happened with this shot that I think was a pretty good setup shot. 

JENNY ELISCU, “ROLLING STONE”:  Well, what happened was that originally the cover was going to feature all four of them, including Ryan, you know, all in the bed together. 

And, you know, decisions made by people with a lot more power than me ultimately led to Ryan being on the cover of the book that Randy is holding, as you can see.  But, you know, obviously, that was not something that Ryan was very happy about or that his people are very happy about. 

And then, you know, as you know, Paula Abdul was on Leno and made a couple of jokes about, you know, Ryan being mad that he got bumped off the cover of “Rolling Stone.”  And supposedly, this was what kind of precipitated the latest portion of this feud between them. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And, Jenny, you‘ve written a lot about this for “Rolling Stone.”  Tell me:  Do you think the egos are getting in the way of this show that‘s, again, supposed to be about promoting the next big star?

ELISCU:  I do—yes, I do think that egos are starting to get in the way a little bit.  I mean, you have to remember, when the show started, nobody knew who Randy Jackson was, nobody knew why Paula Abdul was back in the spotlight, and nobody had ever heard of Simon Cowell.  Same with Ryan Seacrest. 

Now, these people are so famous that it‘s kind of—and so highly paid—that I do think it‘s kind of distracting from the spirit of the competition, which is supposed to be on these kids and finding the best unfound singing talent. 

And it‘s enjoyable to see these personalities develop and this tension between the judges, but at a certain point it‘s not what the show is supposed to be about. 

SCARBOROUGH:  No, and it is—I mean, it has turned into a great soap opera.

But, Katrina, you think that‘s fine.  I mean, you‘ve got Simon Cowell, he‘s making $36 million, I think, a year, one of the most powerful guys in Hollywood.  But, again, his power—nobody would turn on the show just to watch him.  They love watching these talented singers, right?  So should he just sit down, shut up, and, you know, stop all the soap routine? 

SZISH:  Well, a part of I think what has drawn viewers to this show is Simon himself.  You do want to know what Simon says.  That‘s part of what made us kind of develop this love-hate relationship with him.  He did draw viewers to the show in the beginning, and I think he continues to do that.

And the other judges at this point are sort of cashing in on Simon‘s big mouth, so to speak.  But I do think there is something to be said for easing up on that a little bit, because, again, the goal is to find the next “American Idol.” 

But without those judges, without the bickering, it wouldn‘t be the same. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And, Jim, you were a star in the first season.  Why don‘t you talk about how you‘re up there trying to get America‘s attention, and you got these stars that, right now, of the show, the three judges, that seem to be tripping over each other, plus Ryan sort of stumbling over each other to get the next big headline.

Is that distracting from what you think the show was about the first season? 

JIM VERRAROS, FORMER “IDOL” CONTESTANT:  Yes, you know, I think it is.  Being a former contestant, you know, back on the very first season where the hype was nowhere near where it is right now, you‘re kind of put in this awkward position. 

You know, although our bickering was at a minimum, you kind of just don‘t know how to handle it.  You know, do you kind of continue?  Do you kind of pull into yourself a little bit, because these judges are fighting?  How do you react to that as a contestant?  You just want to get out there, perform, and do your best, not be stuck in all this argument. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And, Jim, it‘s gotten a lot worse, hasn‘t it, over the years? 

VERRAROS:  It definitely has.  You know, and I don‘t quite understand it.  I mean, this season we‘ve got the best competition thus far, in my opinion.  And that‘s who we need to be focusing the attention on. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And, Kristin, you know, it seem that Paula became a distraction last year with all of her problems, but that‘s really carried over to this year.  Do you think, if they took her off the show, the problems would go away and “American Idol” would keep rolling on? 

VEITCH:  You know what?  I think a lot of people were definitely surprised that they signed her on for three more seasons, because there was talk at one point that she may have been possibly getting fired, that they were talking about letting her go. 

But I think what they‘ve realized and what we need to point out is, although perhaps, you know, some might say that they are detracting from the attention on these stars, bottom line:  Whatever they‘re doing, it‘s working.  It‘s the number-one show on television.  They‘re getting 30 million people to watch. 

So in doing that and in creating this, you know, concept that so many people are so drawn to, they‘re actually helping these kids all the more, because that many more people are tuning in. 

SCARBOROUGH:  But, you know, Jenny, people are also attracted to a train wreck.  And Paula seems to be a human train wreck.  Last week, she started tearing up.  It‘s, again, a new drama every week, right?

ELISCU:  Yes, I mean, it kind of seems sometimes like they should take those four, you know, Ryan, Paula, Randy, and Simon, and just have them all live in a house together and film that, and you would get just as many viewers as you have for “American Idol” right now. 

SCARBOROUGH:  So do you think Paula plays into the success of this show? 

ELISCU:  I think yes.  Clearly, the Simon factor is huge.  I mean, I think Simon is the best among the three of them, in terms of really boiling down his criticism to something that you watch and you think, “Exactly.  He got it exactly right.”  And he doesn‘t even get enough time to talk anymore, I don‘t think. 

But, clearly, it‘s a dynamic between the three judges.  And I don‘t think it would be the same if you were to replace either of the other two, either.  They‘ve built up this relationship at this point.

SCARBOROUGH:  If this continues, though, if the infighting continues, if the soap opera continues the rest of this season, into next year, do you think it‘s possible that people could finally just have enough of it and turn “American Idol” off?  Or are these big wheels going to keep rolling for years to come? 

ELISCU:  I think its popularity will continue at this level, at least for another season or so.  But, as I said, yes, there‘s something distracting and disturbing about the increasing tension between the judges. 

And Paula, in particular, you know, last week, and there are weeks where you watch her and you just kind of feel really sort of embarrassed for her, and that could make people change the channel, I think. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes, Katrina, I‘ll ask you the same thing.  Do you think, if the infighting continues, it might drive viewers away from “Idol”?

SZISH:  Sure, if there‘s anything that you watch that starts out being a little bit kind of juicy and delicious very quickly gets old.  And I think this is one of those scenarios. 

If they keep this same, old fighting shtick going on for too long, everyone‘s going to get sick of it and not want to hear about it anymore, so they have to do the balance. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And, Jim, I‘ll ask you the same thing.  What‘s the shelf life on “American Idol” if these judges keep making it about themselves and those egos keep getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger every year? 

VERRAROS:  You know, Joe, “American Idol” has become such a huge phenomenon.  I mean, I thought it was huge back in 2002 when it all first started, but it‘s clear that it just continues to keep growing. 

And as far as Paula is concerned, she‘s that great equal dynamic to Simon.  She‘s the one who‘s encouraging and supportive, and I think viewers like to see that, that there‘s someone of the three judges who is really pushing these contestants to be their absolute best. 

SCARBOROUGH:  All right.  Hey, thanks so much.  I want to thank the great group.  We‘re going to be talking more about “American Idol” in just a minute. 

But first, I‘m joined by Rita Cosby.  She‘s host of “LIVE & DIRECT.” 

Rita, what do you have coming up for us tonight? 

RITA COSBY, HOST:  Well, Joe, on “LIVE & DIRECT,” we will have one of the most successful losers of “American Idol.”  She will tell us what life has been like after “Idol” and how she recently landed a big job. 

Plus, I‘m going to conduct one of the most unusual and interesting interviews that I‘ve ever done.  Illusionist David Blaine will talk to me while he‘s still underwater trying to break a world record.  Everybody, you have to see this.  What he is doing is unbelievable.  We‘re going to have that and a whole lot more at the top of the hour, Joe, on “LIVE & DIRECT.”  You‘ve got to tune in for David Blaine. 

SCARBOROUGH:  I will, Rita.  I will.  Thank you so much.  I can‘t wait to see that interview. 

Make sure you tune into Rita Cosby, “LIVE & DIRECT.”  That‘s next, at 10:00 Eastern. 

We‘ll be right back with more SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY and more on “American Idol” when we return. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Critics say a bad song choice helped do in Kellie Pickler, but are the producers of “American Idol” using song selections to manipulate the vote?  It certainly seems to be a favorite criticism of the judges.  Take a listen to their comments from last week‘s show. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)         

JACKSON:  That song was completely the wrong song for me, for you.  I didn‘t get it.  It wasn‘t half as good as the original.  It looked like weird karaoke to me. 

COWELL:  By choosing that song, it is like coming out here and saying, “I am as good as Whitney Houston.”  You‘re not. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCARBOROUGH:  With me now, we‘ve got Jim Verraros, a former “Idol” contestant from the first season.  Also, Kristin Veitch from E!  Entertainment.  We have Michelle Lee, and from “In Touch” magazine.

I want to—let me start with you, if we can, Kristen, and talk about song selection, because it seems to me a lot of people are suggesting that the songs they select determine who the winner is. 

VEITCH:  I think that the judges and the producers certainly can select certain genres that will be much more conducive to a certain person‘s voice than someone else‘s.  And I know that, definitely in the first season, there was a lot of talk, when it got down to the final two—it was Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini—the song that they chose, which became a number-one hit, was “A Moment Like This.” 

That was written for Kelly Clarkson.  A lot of people had said that they had actually met with her when they developed that song.  So that song was clearly chosen for her to win. 

Ruben versus Clay, that song was more suited toward Ruben, so he won, and yet Clay has been even more successful than Ruben.  So I definitely think that it does play a factor.  Obviously, America is voting.  You know, ultimately it‘s up to them.  But they can certainly steer the way that this thing goes. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, Sure.  I mean, if you make a redneck sing an R&B song, you‘re putting him behind the eight ball at the beginning. 

Michelle, what do you think?  Can the “Idol” producers actually tamper with the results by forcing somebody to sing a song in the genre that they‘re just not comfortable with? 

MICHELLE LEE, “IN TOUCH” MAGAZINE:  Absolutely.  There was a big voting scandal a couple seasons back, so now people are kind of watching the voting system like hawks.  So I don‘t think that the voting system itself can be tampered with, but the producers themselves really can help to sway the vote in one way. 

For example, you know, Chris having to sing a country song, it‘s incredibly difficult for him to do, but in a way it actually can impress more viewers, because if Chris can pull off a country song, they think, great, he can really come out of his comfort zone. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Jim, let me ask you—I‘ll ask you the same question.  Do you feel like, if they force you to sing an R&B song or a country song, whatever, that by telling everybody, “These are the types of songs you‘re going to be seeing this week,” in effect they determine the outcome of that contest, and maybe even who the next “American Idol” is? 

VERRAROS:  You know, I think, as contestants, we don‘t really even think about that.  You know, we‘ve got such a small time frame to memorize these songs and to deliver them, you know, without error.  And there‘s a lot of pressure. 

So I think that these genres that they‘re kind of coming up with, you have to be, as a contestant, kind of go with the flow, and just go with it. 

SCARBOROUGH:  You know, there have been several examples of bad song choices sending contestants home.  Last year, Nadia Turner went home after she sung Crystal Gayle‘s “When I Dream,” a fairly obscure song.  And judge-favorite Mandisa was sent packing after she sang Shania Twain‘s “Any Man of Mine.”  And Simon said it was simply the wrong song.  And just last week, Randy Jackson told Kellie Pickler “Unchained Melody” just wasn‘t the song for her.

Katrina, weigh in on this.

SZISH:  Well, I think it‘s interesting that these songs have so much play.  I really look—when I‘m watching the show, I really look to these young, rising stars to see if they can pull off any song in any genre.  To me, that almost ups the ante of the competition; it‘s more of a challenge for these people who we‘re looking to make into big stars.  So I do think having a range is important.

SCARBOROUGH:  So what you‘re saying is, you‘re looking at variety.  The judges should be able to throw them anything.  The producers should be able to throw them anything.  And if they‘re the next “American Idol,” they‘re going to excel, right? 

SZISH:  That‘s what I believe.  I do believe—I mean, of course, if the song is not catchy, if people at home don‘t recognize it, I think that can be a problem, because it won‘t hold viewers‘ attention.  But I think, if you‘re the next “American Idol,” you should pretty much be able to sing anything and make it your own. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Kristin, do you agree? 

VEITCH:  I absolutely agree.  And I actually think that this is not the only way in which the judges might be able to sway the voting a little bit.  I‘ve noticed that, at times when someone gives a pretty terrible performance, on occasion, Simon and the others will not be all that honest with them. 

And I think what they‘ve realized is that sometimes, when Simon beats up on a person in a way that the viewers think is too harsh, that actually encourages people to call in.  So song choice is definitely not the only way that they can kind of guide people to do what they want them to. 

SCARBOROUGH:  How else do they do it, Kristin?  You mean, just by what they say or what they don‘t say? 

VEITCH:  Right.  I mean, I think obviously we are really looking to their evaluation and, in particular, Simon‘s.  I think a lot of people put a lot of weight into his criticisms.  He tells it like it is.  He says what a lot of are thinking. 

And so if Simon, you know, chooses to really sort of beat up on someone or praise someone, I think that really can sway the voting.  And he‘s aware that every word coming out of his mouth is going to affect, you know, the 30 million people watching the show. 

SCARBOROUGH:  It does.  It makes a very big impact.  And, in fact, we‘re going to talk to a pollster coming up next about what these judges say impact tens of millions of people, and why they vote on “American Idol” the way we do. 

That and much more when SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Let‘s bring in Melissa Marcello.  She‘s the president of Pursuant Research.  She conducted polls about “American Idol.”

Let me ask you, Melissa:  Why do people vote the way they do on this show? 

MELISSA MARCELLO, PURSUANT RESEARCH:  Well, I think it‘s really surprising, particularly because I think there‘s a lot of speculation.  And what we found is that people were really interested in:  Does this person have a great voice?  Do they have star quality?

You know, it‘s far more about the potential to be a—to sell a double-platinum—you know, go double-platinum, or to win a Grammy, I think, than it is about a personality contest or even about the judges. 

SCARBOROUGH:  So the judges don‘t play—I mean, it‘s nice to see, if 35 percent say a great voice, so actually quality still counts in these voting processes, right?

MARCELLO:  I think so.  I really think that people go home, and they sit around their couch with their family, and they‘re thinking about:  Who can sell records?  And who is going to be a future star?  Much more so than some of the other things that we thought going into this study. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And star quality, also, makes a big difference, too.  I mean, if they think if somebody looks, and acts, and carries themselves like a star, they‘ll vote for them for that reason as much as a good voice. 

MARCELLO:  Absolutely.  And, quickly, I‘ve got to tell you, my grandmother in Rhode Island, 80 years old, votes on this show, and she votes for Chris Daughtry, not because she likes his genre of music at all, but rather because she says he‘s the most consistent performer and I really see him making it big. 

You know, that‘s just anecdotal, obviously.  We did a poll which was scientific, but I think it stands—you know, it‘s a good example of how people calculate who they should vote for. 

SCARBOROUGH:  It is fascinating.  Thank you so much, Melissa Marcello.  I appreciate it.  And thanks so much to our great panel.  A big night for “American Idol.”  We‘ll be right back in SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY in just a minute.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  And if you want to get the most of your e-mails, well, just e-mail me at Joe@MSNBC.com.  Tell me what you think, what‘s bothering you, and how together we can make America a better place.

That‘s all the time we have for tonight.  Now let‘s turn it over to Rita Cosby—Rita?                                                                                            

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

END   

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