updated 5/24/2006 12:46:44 PM ET 2006-05-24T16:46:44

Guests: John Ensign, Matthew O‘Neill, Jon Alpert, Bernie Goldberg, Carmen Rasmusen, Justin Guarini, Tom O‘Neil, Ant, Belinda Luscombe, Ed Hill, Katrina Szish

JOE SCARBOROUGH, HOST:  Right now in SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY, movies casting the Iraq war in the harshest of light.  But are these movies so real that they‘re bad for the troops and America?

Then the Dixie Chicks‘ new album is out and so are they.  Attacking the presidency, country music, Reba McIntyre and Toby Keith.  Will country fans put a boot in their you know what?

And “American Idol” showdown.  They‘re down to two but have the judges already decided who will win?  Welcome to SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY.  No passport required.  Only common sense allowed.

We will have those stories in a minute, but first images of war.  Supporters of the Iraq War have long questioned the wisdom of grisly images from Iraq to America and across the world.  Pro war forces criticized “Nightline‘s” 2004 program that showed the faces of those killed in combat and as a supporter of the war I said then and I say now if our cause is just we shouldn‘t be afraid to look into the eyes of the young men and women who gave their lives in this war.

But HBO‘s chilling new documentary “Baghdad ER” raises the ante, forcing Americans to stop looking into casualties‘ eyes and start looking at their war wounds.  And in the process to view the war‘s cost in a more harsh light.

So the critical question asked of this film is whether Iraq is worth it.  Does America continue sacrificing their young lives, limbs and minds to achieve victory in the Middle East?  The president may think so, but that belief is strongly challenged in this age of edgy cable programming, streaming video, 24-hour news coverage and remarkable war reporting from the likes of the “New York Times‘” Dexter Filkins and others.  Will the president‘s case be made more difficult because of “Baghdad ER” and other stark war movies?  Will Americans be less safe if our resolve is weakened?  No one knows.  But one thing is certain.  The tenor of the war and the movies covering the war has changed it forever.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN WAYNE, ACTOR:  Get those bodies down.  What are you doing leaving them up there like that.  Get them down.

SCARBOROUGH (voice-over):  During World War II, Hollywood was an unapologetic propaganda machine for the United States.

WAYNE:  Let‘s get this war on the road.  Come on, move, move.

SCARBOROUGH:  And on the big screen, John Wayne was America‘s greatest war hero.

WAYNE:  We have arrived.

SCARBOROUGH:  Hollywood kept fighting for the next 30 years and winning in movie theatres across America.  Until the disillusionment of Vietnam sank into the country‘s consciousness.  Hollywood responded with haunting films like “The Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now.”  It cast the darkest of shadows on America‘s Vietnam experience.

ROBERT DUVALL, ACTOR:  I love the smell of napalm in the morning.

SCARBOROUGH:  But those movies weren‘t completed until the last Americans escaped Vietnam.  Today with boots still on the ground in Iraq, they are depicting the current war have flooded the marketplace.

HBO‘s “Baghdad ER” is the latest movie to give viewers an up close and personal view from Iraq.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Epinephrine now!  Epinephrine, please.

SCARBOROUGH:  The war takes movie-goers on a brutal and terrifying journey through Iraq.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The day is here.  Life will change.

SCARBOROUGH:  It brings some soldiers closer together by the end.

“Combat Diaries” is an unflinching look at life and death in the war zone.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  That‘s why we do it.  That‘s why we are here.

SCARBOROUGH:  Taken together the movies may not force a president to rethink his position on the war.  But as Hollywood and popular culture gain nerve in confronting the horrors, expect millions of Americans to be influenced by the images they see at home and at the movies.

WAYNE:  What are you guys celebrating down there?  New Year‘s?  That‘s real ammunition you‘re shooting.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCARBOROUGH:  So do these new antiwar movies and reality style documentaries like “Baghdad ER” hurt America‘s efforts overseas.  In a minute we‘re going to talk to the two men who made “Baghdad ER” but first let‘s bring in Senator John Ensign of Nevada.  Senator, thank you so much for being with us.  Tell me, what do you think the impact of these movies and popular culture, you have got the Dixie Chicks now attacking the commander in chief again.

You have been to Baghdad and Iraq a couple of times.  Does it have a negative impact on the troops?

SEN. JOHN ENSIGN, ® NV:  Actually, Joe, I have been to the hospital in Baghdad a couple of times and have seen the extraordinary work that our men and women are doing over there.  Not only to treat our soldiers.  One of the things that‘s remarkable is that right down the hall they are treating the Iraqi insurgents and some of the terrorists that are over there.  These are extremely brave, dedicated men and women that are there to save lives.

And I hope they portray them in the light they deserve to be portrayed because they are really doing heroic work and you can imagine seeing the trauma every single day and having the realities of war being confronted.  Because war is, as people have described it in the past, war is hell and should be only gone into as a last resort.

But at the same time whether this is going to be for the war or against the war, it really depends on how it‘s portrayed.  And I think that when the American people if they can see that these results are the results of an evil people, of this evil form of Islam that they are willing to do these horrible things to Americans over there in Iraq, they are also willing to do those same kind of horrible things to Americans right here at home.

SCARBOROUGH:  John, you have said before that you believe criticism not only from Hollywood, but also from people that you serve with in the United States Senate may actually hurt our war effort overseas.  What do you mean by that?

ENSIGN:  Well, what I‘ve said is political leaders need to be careful when we are at war on the words they say and how they say them because the insurgents and the terrorists that are around the world will use those words to recruit, they‘ll use those words to fund-raise and if they can think they are breaking our political will back here, it will just encourage them to carry the fight on.

SCARBOROUGH:  Give me some examples of some things that have been said on the Senate floor that have actually hurt our cause in Iraq.

ENSIGN:  Well, Senator Kennedy when he was talking to Abu Ghraib compared those to the Soviet gulags.  To compare Americans with the old Soviets I think is just outrageous and the Dick Durbin talked about Guantanamo Bay and compared us to the Nazis down there.

And I just think that comparisons like that do a real disservice as to American soldiers and marines everywhere.  And I think it‘s irresponsible and I do think it gives some recruiting efforts a boost to the terrorists.  It increases the fundraising and it gives them the political will to fight on saying they think that America is a paper tiger and if they stay the course, that they will break us.  They think it happened in Vietnam and they think it will happen here in Iraq.

SCARBOROUGH:  And of course, North Vietnamese generals said after the wars they knew they didn‘t have to win in the jungles of Vietnam because they were winning in the streets of America.  But again, let‘s talk about popular culture.  Of course there weren‘t a lot of movies out attacking the Vietnam War while the war was going on.  You had movies as we said like “The Deer Hunter” coming out after Vietnam was over.

Do you think that movies and I‘m not even talking about “Baghdad ER,” but these other movies that cast a very critical light on what we are doing in Iraq hurts our troops over there, hurts the morale at home and in the end may be playing into the insurgent hands?

ENSIGN:  I think any time a country is divided, it plays into the enemy‘s hands.  Lincoln talked about this.  A house divided against itself cannot stand.  Even going back to the civil war, General Lee looked at the press that was happening in the North.  It‘s a reason he took the battle to the North and figured if he just had one or two more victories up there, the political will in the North would be shot and he would have victory.

And the insurgents overseas are looking at our political will back home.  And they see a country that is divided.  And whether it is the movies, whether it is seeing the politicians say—those kinds of things actually can hurt our efforts going forward to winning the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and this whole global war on terrorism.

That‘s why as much as we can we need to stay united as Americans, not Republicans and not Democrats and not pro or antiwar, but people who are concerned about freedom and freedom-loving people and people concerned about the security of the United States and other countries.  We need to stay united in the effort against this evil form of Islam.

SCARBOROUGH:  All right.  Thanks so much.  Senator John Ensign.

John, it‘s great to see you again.

ENSIGN:  Nice to see you, Joe.

SCARBOROUGH:  Let‘s bring in now the men who produced and directed “Baghdad ER”, Matthew O‘Neill and Jon Alpert.

Matthew, let me begin with you.  What‘s so interesting about this movie form everybody that‘s seen it is it really doesn‘t take a position, a pro-war or an antiwar position.  It just shows the good, bad and the ugly.  Talk about what you were trying to do when you made “Baghdad ER?

MATTHEW O‘NEILL, PRODUCER/DIRECTOR, “BAGHDAD ER”:  We went over to Iraq with the intention of holding a mirror up to the situation in the Baghdad ER.  And I think that‘s why it has such an apolitical tone to it.  We tried to show it as it is.  We owed it to the American soldiers and the doctors who let us into the intimate moments in their lives to show just the truth.  Just reality as it is in Baghdad.

SCARBROUGH:  John, I understand the Pentagon at the beginning approved this project and thought it was a very positive thing.  But by the end they backed away.  Why do you think the military was concerned about your movie?

JON ALPERT, PRODUCER/DIRECTOR, “BAGHDAD ER”:  Well, I don‘t think they ever really backed away.  What‘s interesting is the military gave us total access.  If the people in the army didn‘t want you to see this film, we wouldn‘t have gotten that access.  They transported us, they protected us, they fed us and they also said show the American people what‘s happening here.

Because I agree with the senator.  I have never been so moved and so proud of Americans as looking at the people who day and night were trying to put our soldiers back together.  They are real heroes, but they also said you have to show the reality of the war.  And so you can‘t understand their heroism unless you understand the reality and the horror of the war.

And we‘ve talked to the generals and we‘ve talked to the privates and every person in uniform told us please let America see this movie.  The army wants America to see it.

SCARBOROUGH:  So you are not concerned, Jon, that if Americans see these amputees, if they actually see remarkable images of people suffering and some even dying, you are not concerned that that will hurt morale at home and overseas?

ALPERT:  The army doesn‘t seem to think that and in fact they said you showed remarkable restraint.  There are some very scary and some very horrific images in this film.  It‘s a war.  But I tell you that it‘s only this much of what‘s happening over there.  Because we just let enough of that to get the general idea and the rest of the film is about the heroism of our troops.

SCARBOROUGH:  Matt .

ALPERT:  I‘m sorry.

SCABROROUGH:  I‘m sorry, Jon, I was going to ask Matthew, what surprised you the most over there?

O‘NEILL:  I was most surprised by the service of these soldiers.  They were bonded like a family and the fact that they let us into their family.  I had never been an embedded reporter before and Jon had never been an embedded reporter and we didn‘t know what the experience was going to be like.  And the men and women in uniform that we interacted with from the moment we arrived in Baghdad they showed us absolutely everything.  They trusted us completely.

The army has an enormous respect for the very complicated truth of what they are doing over there.  And as a reporter it was the most cooperation we have ever received from an institution.

SCARBOROUGH:  John, I was hearing about this movie yesterday.  Actually in Pensacola, Florida.  Not on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, not in West Hollywood, but in the reddest part of red state America.  People were just floored by their reactions.  Talk about the reactions that you are getting from the millions of American that is have seen this on HBO.

O‘NEILL:  Well, we haven‘t found anybody yet who doesn‘t like the movie and doesn‘t think that it should be seen by as many people as possible.  All the soldiers that we‘ve talked to, every single one of them thanked us and said this was honest and this is the Iraq that they want America to know about.  They are tired and I must have heard 10 times yesterday, I am tired of being statistics on the bottom of the screen.  So many people died.

We are people, we are your sons and daughters and you need to know what we are going through.  And then when the American people have this information, they can make intelligent decisions.  I think that is what makes the democracy strong is when people are informed.  And I don‘t think the senator has seen the film yet.  He seemed to indicate he hadn‘t seen it and we really would like him to see it too and the soldiers would as well.

SCARBOROUGH:  And very quickly, we have to got to go now to break, but very quickly, we haven‘t been showing some of the more the horrific images, but there very graphic, grisly images in this movie.  Again, I feel like I need to say this.  People need to be warned that there are some things that is can be very disturbing in this movie, right?

ALPERT:  Absolutely true.  But people also need to know the reality of war and as a country we can‘t run away from that.  We are asking our sons and daughters to go over there and fight this war and we need to know more about it.  I would tune into HBO.  I really hope that everybody can see it and let us know what you think about it.  We are your servants, too, just like the soldiers are.  We went over there to bring this information to the people.

SCARBOROUGH:  All right, Jon and Matthew, I support the war, but I‘ll tell you what, I agree exactly with what you all have done.

ALPERT:  Thank you.

SCARBOROUGH:  Americans need to know the level of sacrifice these men and women are giving the heroic efforts of the people in “Baghdad ER.”  Thank you very much for being with us.  Greatly appreciate it.

When we come back, Bernie Goldberg telling us who is screwing up America.  He is here to talk live about his new list.

And the “American Idol” showdown.  The judges have rigged the contest and figure out who is going to win?  We‘ll talk about that more when SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Welcome back.  So who is screwing up America, you ask?  Well, we have just the man to tell us.  Let‘s welcome back best selling author Bernie Goldberg.  He has new people he is pointing his finger at in the new paperback version of his best selling book, “110 People Who Are Screwing Up America.”

Bernie, let‘s start with Katie Couric.  Because obviously there‘s this big network news shuffle.  In your opinion, do you think CBS‘ new anchor .

BERNIE GOLDBERG, AUTHOR:  Wait a second, Joe.  What does Katie Couric have to do with this book?  She not in the book and she has nothing to do with the book.  I wish Katie nothing but success.  Same with Charlie Gibson and same with Brian Williams. These people have nothing to do with the people who are screwing up America.

SCARBOROUGH:  So I guess Bernie, if we had two lists, if we had a piece of paper and drew a line down the middle, judging from your first answer you would put them on the side of these people aren‘t screwing up America.

GOLDBERG:  No but I would put your producers on the list of people who are screwing up America.

SCARBOROUGH:  Why is that?

GOLDBERG:  Because they specifically ask these questions before I came into the studio.  I specifically said this has nothing to do with the book and I have no interest in the subject and you ask me on live television the same questions anyway.

SCARBOROUGH:  No, Bernie, listen.

You wrote a book also called “Bias.”  It‘s a book that says CBC, ABC and NBC were biased news outlets.  Now are you unable to come on live television and tell me whether you think this is big news?  That Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson are taking over two of the top three networks.  Don‘t cop an attitude with me here.  Is that a not legitimate question to ask you?

GOLDBERG:  Only if that‘s the subject of the evening.  But it wasn‘t a subject of the evening.  You want to talk about these people, I wish them all well.  I don‘t have a problem with them in terms of bias, but I think they are part of news organizations that tilt to the left as we all know by now.  As we all know by now.

And I think more and more viewers each year turn away from the networks and they go to other places for their news and I don‘t think any of these three, as nice and as decent as they may be in real life, is going to change that problem that the networks have.  But I don‘t think they are screwing up America.

SCARBOROUGH:  All right, Bernie.  But I personally think the fact that you don‘t think they are.  I think that is positive.  In the past you have had news executives and other news people that have been on there.  I personally take that as good news as a consumer of news.

GOLDBERG:  I‘m not saying I don‘t think that their bosses are screwing up America.  That‘s another matter.  I think for instance one of the problems with television news even though the book is not about television news, I think one of the problems is that it‘s become entertainment.

And when you have primetime news programs that devote entire hours to the likes of Britney Spears and pieces on Leonardo DiCaprio, I think that cheapens news and I think the people who make those decisions, the presidents of the news divisions, for instance, I think they are screwing up America.

But I don‘t blame Katie Couric or Brian Williams or Charlie Gibson for any of that.

SCARBOROUGH:  Let‘s talk about because we have been teasing a segment we are doing later on on the Dixie Chicks.  You talk about dumb celebrities.  Now you list them down lower in the list if I remember in the 80s.  Why do you say dumb celebrities and you speak of and I believe they were Janeane Garofalo and Fred Durst and others.  You put them in the category.  Why do you think they are screwing up America?

GOLDBERG:  There three sections on that show.  One is dumb celebrities, one is vicious celebrities and another is dumb and vicious celebrities.  These are people who equate conservatism to just use one example with Nazis.

They routinely refer to conservatives and President Bush as Nazis and fascists and worry about how the country will be a totalitarian state.  This is just crazy.

You have Chevy Chase who went to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC to a gala and called the president of the United States a blanking moron.  A blanking moron.  The president of the United States.  This is nasty stuff.

And listen, I personally disagree with President Bush on a whole bunch of things, but to call the president of the United States a dummy or moron or blanking idiot and to cavalierly refer to people you disagree with as Nazis and fascists and liars which is another thing that the left does a lot in this country, I think that‘s a very bad thing.

You know what, it‘s made the culture wars really nasty and ugly and frankly there times when I would like to be a conscientious objector in the culture wars.  It‘s just too mean.

SCARBOROUGH:  It‘s getting uglier and uglier.  You know what, you‘ve been saying for quite some time, I don‘t think people believed you, but you weren‘t a Republican.  You weren‘t a conservative and your politics center or maybe even a little left of center, but that is borne out of this book.  You just don‘t go after people on the left.  You also go after people on the right, you go after Michael Savage, but you go after a guy who is actually up for election in the next week or so.  Judge Roy Moore who is running for governor of Alabama in the Republican primary.

You put Judge Roy Moore on the list a long time and he is a hero of a lot of conservatives in the Southeast.

GOLDBERG:  Absolutely.

SCARBOROUGH:  You would think this guy is becoming governor of the state of Alabama would probably be a bad thing, right.

GOLDBERG:  Yes.  The people of Alabama can vote for whoever they want, obviously, but I took a lot of flak from the right about Judge Roy Moore.  Judge Roy Moore, for those who don‘t remember is the one who the federal judge told him to move the 10 Commandments out of the state judicial building in Alabama.  He was the chief justice of the state supreme court and he said he wouldn‘t do it.

When a federal judge tells you to do it, you have to do it.  You and I, Joe, can practice civil disobedience, but a judge can‘t.  You would have anarchy of a judges practiced civil disobedience.  If I am going to criticize liberal activist judges and rightly so, then we also have to criticize conservative activist judges and conservatives out there who don‘t get that who like Judge Roy Moore despite the fact that he just decided the law was what he said it was and not what a federal judge said it was.  They are handing the liberals ammunition.

Because then liberals can say you criticize us because you think we are activists.  But you don‘t criticize one of your own?  That‘s why I picked Judge Roy Moore.  I stand by it today as I did when the hard cover came out 10 months ago.  The paperback just came out today and he is in it still.

SCARBOROUGH:  You caught a lot of flak I know from conservatives.  But you‘re exactly right, if you don‘t want from the left then you shouldn‘t want it from the right.

Final question.  This is one of my favorite entries as a parent.  I love the fact that you put Paris Hilton‘s parents and you talked about it before, but it‘s been a while.  The paperback‘s out.  Explain why you put Paris Hilton‘s parents in.

GOLDBERG:  That‘s the one entry that—actually there two entries, but that‘s certainly the one from the original that Democrats and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, black people and white people ought to be able to agree on.  That her parents are the worst parents in the United States of America.

And if they gave out Nobel Prizes for the worst parents in the country, those two would be on a plane to Stockholm to pick up their medal.

SCARBOROUGH:  They are absolutely .

GOLDBERG:  She is a useless, empty person.  I don‘t even know what she does besides go to parties and stuff like that.  And her parents—it‘s one thing that they love her, I‘m glad they love here, but that they admire her?  What‘s there to admire.

SCARBOROUGH:  At appears that they are very proud of her.  Thank you so much for being with us, Bernie, I always love having you here whether you like being here or not.

GOLDBERG:  It makes it interesting.

SCARBOROUGH:  It always makes it interesting.  Great book out in paperback today and we are grateful that you are here tonight.  Thanks a lot.  It‘s “100 People Who Are Screwing Up America.”  I haven‘t even read the subtitle yet.

Al Franken is number 37.  Thanks Bernie.

Coming up next, you are looking live at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, the site of “American Idol‘s final showdown.  Millions and millions of Americans asking who is going win as some say it doesn‘t matter how they sing.  The decision has already been made.  We will have a live report from the “Idol‘s” nerve center.

And later, remember the Dixie Chicks‘ apology to the president?  Well, never mind.  Seems when the president‘s approval ratings are up they are sorry they say bad things about them.  Approval ratings go down, they start bashing him again.

Talking about the chicks when SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  And then there were two.  “American Idol” reaching its climax.  We‘ve got two former idols out live in California, going to get us up to date with the very latest there.

And also, we‘re going to be finding out whether the judges have already decided who‘s going to win.  We‘ll be talking about that and much more, including the Dixie Chicks.  But first, here‘s the latest news you and your family need to know. 

(NEWSBREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  The Dixie Chicks are back, and they‘re bashing the president again as a part of a publicity stunt and it‘s a stunt that will backfire on America‘s airwaves. 

And when your career is winding down, what‘s a Madonna to do but return to the tried-and-true P.R. ploy of stock treatment?  See why Madonna is giving me and the Catholic Church issues. 

Welcome back to SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY.  We‘re going to be talking about those stories in just minutes.  But first, it‘s time for tonight‘s “Must See SC,” video that you just have to see. 

Up first, the joys of live TV.  All the BBC was trying to do was give out the nightly lottery numbers.  Apparently, a bad idea.  Enjoy as you watch. 

Members of a group called Fathers for Justice, they stormed on the set protesting Britain‘s divorce system which they say is biased against men.  Boy, that‘s one way to help your cause out.

Up next, the Czech Republic, where a conference for dentists turned ugly when this former deputy prime minister took care of some unfinished business he had with a health minister.  The two started throwing punches.  And before the fracas was broken up, it got ugly.

And finally to Cannes, France, where Bruce Willis got a rude surprise on German TV while promoting his new movie “Over the Hedge.”  A rogue wave from the Mediterranean soaked the action star and producer Jeffrey Katzenberg during the interview.  After getting hit, Willis proclaimed, “This interview is over!”  But it was just a joke by the “Die Hard” action hero. 

You know, after five months and more than 500 million votes—I said it right -- 500 million votes, it all comes down to Katharine and Taylor.  Tomorrow night, one of them is going to be named the new “American Idol.”  But do the judges already know who they want?  Do they have it in for Katharine?  She seems to think so.  Take a listen. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  She is incredible!

PAULA ABDUL, JUDGE, “AMERICAN IDOL”:  She is incredible. 

(APPLAUSE)

KATHARINE MCPHEE, CONTESTANT:  You made it hard on me the last couple of weeks. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCARBOROUGH:  So will the judges end Katharine‘s “Idol” dreams without giving her a fair shot?  Now, with me live from outside the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, former “Idol” contestants Justin Guarini and Carmen Rasmusen.  We also have Tom O‘Neil from “In Touch” magazine and Ant, the host of “Celebrity Fit Club.” 

Let‘s start with you, Justin.  This cultural phenomenon, “American Idol,” keeps growing by the year.  It seems to be bigger now than ever before.  Explain to us what it‘s like out there, what it‘s inside the taping of the shows, and what‘s becoming—rapidly becoming—and I know my Beatle fan friends are going to get me for saying this—but it‘s almost like it is the mainstream version of Beatlemania in the 21st century.  What‘s going on out there?

JUSTIN GUARINI, FORMER “IDOL” CONTESTANT:  It‘s absolutely amazing.  Most reality shows tend to fall off even after the first season.  We‘re on the fifth season now, and they‘re at record highs, I think, for the show. 

I mean, inside we were very fortunate to be at the taping tonight.  It was amazing.  I mean, the air is absolutely electric, and, you know, the people are just cheering for both of the contestants equally.  I mean, it‘s absolutely amazing, and it‘s great to be there.  And they did a good job tonight. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Justin, as it keeps getting bigger, talk about the difference between this season and, of course, when you burst onto the scene, when “American Idol” was a relatively new cultural phenomenon. 

GUARINI:  Sure.  I mean, if you‘re just talking about production value alone, now the set has spinning things on it, people come out from screens.  I mean, that‘s pretty cool, but, you know, I think people know what to expect now.  And they expect a really big show. 

When we first did it, it was sort of—everyone was flying by the seat of their pants, including the producers.  But, you know, with Carmen‘s year and years afterwards, I mean, it‘s just gotten better and better and tighter and tighter. 

CARMEN RASMUSEN, FORMER “IDOL” CONTESTANT:  It was karaoke when we performed.  We didn‘t have a live band behind us.  They‘ve got the gospel choir, and the band, the whole deal. 

GUARINI:  Good grief.

SCARBOROUGH:  Hey, Carmen, are you surprised by what‘s been going on, how it‘s just—again, how it keeps getting bigger and bigger every year.  I mean, people have been predicting every year that “American Idol,” this was going to be the last year.  You‘ve got the judges fighting each other.  You‘ve got controversies involving voting. 

And there you are, as “American Idol” reaches again this great climax, and people are more in tuned to it now than ever before. 

RASMUSEN:  I know.  It‘s risen 14 percent since last season.  It‘s insane.  This show shows no signs of stopping.  I think that it will become, as it already is, a cultural phenomenon.  People will tune in year after year.

And people that against “American Idol,” that didn‘t want to watch a couple of years before, are now obsessed with it and voting along with the rest of us.  So I think that this show will just keep rolling on and on.  As long as there singers, good and bad, and Simon Cowell, I think there will be “American Idol.” 

SCARBOROUGH:  So how do you think Katharine and Taylor are going to live up to the hype?  Do you think there‘s going to be a great finish here, a great showdown? 

RASMUSEN:  I do.  I do.  They‘re fabulous singers.  They‘re both fabulous performers.  They‘re got a huge fan base behind them, 30 million-plus viewers.  I think that they‘ve got a lot to live up to, but I think that they‘ll do it.  I think they‘ll do an absolutely wonderful job.  So I‘m excited.  Let the show begin. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Tom O‘Neil, do you think the judges already have a fix in on this thing?  Do you think they decided that Katharine shouldn‘t win? 

TOM O‘NEIL, “IN TOUCH WEEKLY”:  They have been so ruthlessly brutal to Katharine...

SCARBOROUGH:  I‘m sorry, was that Justin or Carmen? 

GUARINI:  No, no, neither.

O‘NEIL:  It‘s just terrible.  They keep beating up on Katharine for picking songs that they don‘t like, during weeks when she didn‘t pick them.

But the worst thing they ever did to her was Simon went after her one week for singing a Whitney Houston song just like Whitney.  And he said, “You‘re no Whitney.  You‘re calling upon us to make a comparison between you and her, and it only shows us who you‘re not.” 

Ten minutes later, Taylor went up and sang, “In the Ghetto,” just like Elvis, and, of course, “It was brilliant, brilliant.”  

SCARBOROUGH:  So what do you think it is?  Do you think it‘s something bigger here, that they‘ve decided that Taylor would make a better “American Idol,” would be better for the fan base to support this type of rags-to-riches story? 

O‘NEIL:  I don‘t think that is possible with Taylor.  I think this guy has enormous personality, and he knows how to whip up those crowds like church revival meetings.  And that‘s why...

ANT, HOST, “CELEBRITY FIT CLUB”:  I got to disagree on that.  I think he‘s just a really good karaoke singer. 

O‘NEIL:  I agree, but...

(CROSSTALK) 

ANT:  I really, really do.  You can go see him at the Brass Monkey in Los Angeles on Sunday night.

O‘NEIL:  I think that where he‘s going to end up is in Atlantic City, sharing the bill with William Hung, performing for a bunch of gals with big hair, big butts, and a drinking problem.  I‘m absolutely baffled by this guy.

ANT:  I absolutely agree with you.  I can‘t believe that recently he‘s been compared to President Clinton.  I‘m like, “OK, this is crazy.”  Although I have friends that wish Katharine McPhee were eliminated a couple of weeks ago so that she would appear in “Playboy” a lot quicker. 

SCARBOROUGH:  That‘s awful.  That is so cold, so cold.  

ANT:  But so true. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, let me ask you, though, Ant, you look at Taylor, and, you know, a lot of people have said, “Well, he‘s nothing more than a karaoke singer,” but why have Americans connected with him so well? 

ANT:  I think it‘s the gray hair.  He‘s got that presidential look.  I mean, why else?  Because I really—I think he‘s a good singer, but is he on the level of Kelly Clarkson?  No.  I think Katharine McPhee is on that level.  I think she is the one that should win. 

And is there vote-rigging and judge-tampering going on?  Who‘s to say?  I don‘t think FOX would want to lose their broadcast license over something as stupid as a singing competition, but it clearly has boiled down to a favorite.  It‘s a popularity contest, and it‘s prom night. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Justin, I want to ask you about Taylor.  He‘s a fascinating character, but he does not look like the next “American Idol.”  I mean, he...

GUARINI:  Well, I think there‘s something good about that.  I think that, you know, a lot of people have blasted “American Idol” for, again, being a popularity competition, all about image.  And I think that Taylor, who I completely disagree with the comments about him being just a karaoke singer, he‘s worked very hard.  He‘s sung in bars.  He‘s done the sort of Billy Joel “Piano Man” kind of way... 

(CROSSTALK)

ANT:  I‘ve done that drunk on a Tuesday night.  That doesn‘t make me an “American Idol.”

(LAUGHTER) 

GUARINI:  Well, what you do with your time is your time, but he actually has gotten up there for his money for his living and gotten up there and sang songs, learned how to play an instrument.  He‘s not just singing on a microphone.  You know, he has actually has true talent, a true musician‘s gift. 

ANT:  And you think Katharine doesn‘t? 

GUARINI:  And, you know, really, the fact that he does break the mold I think is wonderful.  No, I‘m not saying that. 

ANT:  So you think Katharine doesn‘t? 

(CROSSTALK)

ANT:  What I‘m saying is I don‘t think the way that things are happening right now, the best singer is going to win, and that‘s a shame.  And if Taylor doesn‘t win, we‘ve got a spot for him on “Celebrity Fit Club.” 

SCARBOROUGH:  All right.  We‘re going to have to leave it there. 

Thank you so much. 

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  All right.  Thank you so much.  I appreciate you all being with us. 

Coming up next, the Dixie Chicks go after the president again.  And their country music fans, will their tough talk help sagging record sales?  Or will it backfire?  Well, you know what?  Probably not good to go after your fan base, but we‘ll talk about that when SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Will Natalie Maines and the Dixie Chicks take it all back?  In the latest issue of “Time” magazine, the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks says, “I apologize for disrespecting the office of the president, but I don‘t feel that way anymore.  I don‘t feel he is owed any respect whatsoever.” 

Maines is talking about the apology she made after telling a London audience just 10 days before the United States invaded Iraq, “Just so you know, we‘re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.” 

Many country music stations have banned the Chicks, and the first two singles from their new album are getting very little airplay. 

With me now to talk about it, we‘ve got Ed Hill.  He‘s program director at KBUL, a country music station in Salt Lake City.  Also, Katrina Szish from “Us Weekly.”  And Belinda Luscombe, she‘s “Time” magazine‘s arts editor. 

Belinda, let‘s start with you.  You put the Dixie Chicks on the cover this week.  Why? 

BELINDA LUSCOMBE, “TIME” MAGAZINE:  I think it looks good.  Well, first, they look pretty good.  Secondly, it‘s a great story.  It‘s a great American story about three women who stood up for what they believed in, and took a lot of trouble for it, and then, you know, are now trying to come back.  I think, you know, this is the kind of story that we love to do.  It‘s about America; it‘s about culture; it‘s tracking the way that the nation thinks. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, you know, the thing is, though, I mean, they also attacked their fans.  They attacked Toby Keith.  Who in the world would do that?  Reba McEntire. 

What gets me about this is, she apologized for attacking the president when he was at, like, 65 percent in the approval ratings.  He goes down to 29 percent, and she takes it back.  Is this about George Bush or is this is about the fact they‘re getting frustrated because they just can‘t sell their CDs and have them played on country music stations anymore? 

LUSCOMBE:  Joe, have you ever had a girlfriend that you liked a lot one week and then the next week you didn‘t, you realized that she wasn‘t exactly what you thought she was?  I think that‘s what happened here, that she—you know, Natalie apologized, and then she saw what Bush did after that, and she continued to disagree with it, and she continued to disagree with it, and she continued to disagree with it. 

And so she said, “You know what?  I‘m not sorry.  I‘m not sorry.”  And I think that‘s legitimate.  Do they want to sell albums?  Oh, yes, they want to sell albums.  They would like very much to continue to have a career in music. 

But I don‘t think it‘s purely a P.R.  I mean, she got so attacked for the first thing she said.  She had letters written to her with the time, method, and date of her assassination.  I don‘t think she‘s welcoming that again.

SCARBOROUGH:  Hey, Ed Hill, it‘s not going to be easy for the Dixie Chicks to ever win their way back into the hearts of country music fans, is it?

ED HILL, COUNTRY STATION PROGRAM DIRECTOR:  Oh, it‘s going to be incredibly difficult, let me tell you.

SCARBOROUGH:  How about impossible?

HILL:  Impossible is a good word.  The vigor and the passion against the Dixie Chicks, I think, is insurmountable.  I think their release was an ill-timed, poorly worded song, “Not Ready to Make Nice.” 

Country music and country music fans across America and in Salt Lake City have embraced the Dixie Chicks for years.  They‘re formidably talented.  They are wonderful.  They write beautiful music.  But what have they done, is they‘ve turned on us.  They‘ve turned on country radio.  They have turned on the country music fan, and they have basically said, “Thanks for buying my album.  Thanks for supporting us.  We don‘t need you or want you anymore.”  And that is fatal. 

SCARBOROUGH:  You know, Katrina, that‘s exactly what they said, isn‘t it?  I mean, I thought the snottiest comment was:  “We don‘t want to be in the same CD changer with Toby Keith and Reba McEntire.”  Why are they going after their country music base?  Is it because they feel like their country music basic has abandoned them over these remarks? 

KATRINA SZISH, “US WEEKLY”:  You know, I think actually they‘ve abandoned their country music base.  I think they‘re really having an identity crisis.  They want to be pop stars so desperately.  It‘s like they‘re these young kids in junior high who really want to be part of the popular club.  And right now, the popular music is everybody in pop music. 

So let‘s go along with what everybody is saying, which right now we‘re against Bush.  And it doesn‘t matter if we‘re waffling, just like politicians do, but we‘re going to do it because it‘s going to make us look cool. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes, trying to look cool by attacking their fans, it doesn‘t make too much sense to me.  And what‘s so cool about attacking a president with a 29 percent approval rating?  We‘ll be right back with more SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY talking more about the Dixie Chicks, when we return.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  We‘re back, talking about the controversy surrounding the Dixie Chicks, their new release, and their new attack on President Bush. 

Ed Hill, talk about the level of intensity of anger, some would say hatred, towards the Dixie Chicks among hardcore country music fans. 

HILL:  Well, it‘s amazing.  It is scary, and it is also validated with a lot of I would say more moderate country fans.  We play a country music song on the radio by the Dixie Chicks.  They inundate the phone lines with an amazing amount of complaints.  Some are incredibly violent, and some are not so violent, but they are very betrayed. 

SCARBOROUGH:  But, I mean, there‘s so much anger there.  And, Belinda, do you agree with Katrina that they‘re going to have to make a switch from country to pop music?

LUSCOMBE:  You know (INAUDIBLE) that‘s what they want to do.  You don‘t want to stay in the same genre.  They what we encourage our artists to do.  We want them to change. 

They obviously had a bigger base than country.  You don‘t sell more—they‘re the best-selling female group ever, so you don‘t get to be that place without having a lot of fans who are not just country fans. 

And, yes, they want to, I think, move beyond country.  And I do think that country fans have treated them perhaps a little harshly.  Neil Young criticized the president.  Eminem criticized the president.  Kanye West criticized the president much more strongly.  But their fans didn‘t turn on them.  You know, I think they may have a point. 

SCARBOROUGH:  All right.  We‘re going to have to leave it there.  Ed Hill, Katrina Szish, and Belinda Luscombe, thank you.  And we‘ll be right back. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Hey, we want to hear from you in SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY. 

Send me an e-mail to Joe@MSNBC.com.  That‘s Joe@MSNBC.com

Hey, thanks so much for being with us tonight.  I greatly appreciate it.  We‘ll see you here tomorrow night, same time, same bat channel.  Stick around, because Rita Cosby “LIVE & DIRECT” starts right now.

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

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