updated 1/17/2007 12:20:18 PM ET 2007-01-17T17:20:18

Guests: Robert Greenwald, Jonathan Alter, Michael Musto

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

The president on TV again.  Iraq isn‘t a broken egg, it‘s just cracked.  Failure there could mean a world blackmailed by oil prices.  He had a choice among slow failure, expedited failure, and what he chose.  The psychology of this country is somewhat down because of this war.  And apparently, nobody has told him what the people are approving or disapproving in the polls.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “NEWSHOUR WITH JIM LEHRER,” PBS)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  If you were to take and put me in an opinion poll and said, Do I approve of Iraq? I‘d be one of those said, No, I don‘t approve of what‘s taking place in Iraq.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Apparently, nor do the Saudis, briefed today by Secretary Rice, and certainly nor does Senator Obama, his exploratory presidential committee launched today, and on the Internet.

(BEGIN WEBCAST CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS:  We‘re still mired I the tragic and costly war that should never have been waged.

(END WEBCAST CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And the never-ending fictional war waged on TV.  Is “24” just entertainment, or is it propaganda designed to keep people thinking about domestic terrorism to keep us scared?

The rescue in Missouri.  They certainly saved one sharp kid.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MEREDITH VIEIRA:  What was your reaction when you saw them, Ben?

BEN OWNBY:  Great relief.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Meredith Vieira‘s exclusive interview with Ben Ownby.

What could be more tedious and tense than security screening at the airport?  Security screening at the airport with ads on everything.

Or maybe being in line with Donald Trump.  He‘s getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  How?  “The L.A. Times” says he paid for it.  All the stars are paid for.  Well, at least now you can walk on him.

All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

Good evening.

The sacrifice of the more than 3,000 U.S. troops killed in Iraq, the sacrifice of the more than 34,000 Iraqi civilians killed in just the last year, all of them dead from sectarian violence, equaled by, at least according to the math of the president of the United States, those Americans here at home who have sacrificed their, quote, “peace of mind.”

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, the president‘s attempt to sell this nation on his newest plan for Iraq going from bad to worse today with his latest interview, an assessment that could also apply to the secretary of state‘s efforts to sell the plan to America‘s closest ally in the Persian Gulf, the situation on the ground in Iraq deteriorating all the while.  That first.

More than 142 people either killed or found dead across the Iraqi capital, at least 65 of them murdered in two explosions outside a Baghdad university as students, many of them women, were heading home for the day, the Bush administration sending another 21,500 Americans in uniform right into the middle of this.

Four more U.S. troops killed yesterday.

Meantime, the Saudis expressing deep skepticism to Secretary Rice that the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki is up to the challenge of making the Bush plan work, a senior official traveling with Ms. Rice raising concern that if the situation in Iraq collapses, the Saudis, as a Sunni Muslim nation, would have to move in to protect Iraqi Sunnis, most likely in Anbar Province, Mr. Bush seen meeting today with the new secretary general of the United Nations, adding his name to the list of Americans now disapproving of how things are going in Iraq, that in an interview with Jim Lehrer of PBS, how the president feels about his own handling of the situation in Iraq, however, still not truly known.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “NEWSHOUR WITH JIM LEHRER,” PBS)

BUSH:  If you were to take and put me in an opinion poll and said, Do I approve of Iraq? I‘d be one of those said, No, I don‘t approve of what‘s taking place in Iraq.  On the other hand, I do believe we can succeed.

LEHRER:  Is there a little bit of a broken-egg problem here, Mr.  President, that there‘s instability, and there‘s violence in Iraq, sectarian violence, Iraqis killing other Iraqis, and now the United States helped create the broken egg, and now says, OK, Iraqis, it‘s your problem.  You put the egg back together, and if you don‘t do it quickly and you don‘t do it well, then we‘ll get the hell out?

BUSH:  Yes, I, you know, it‘s an interesting question.  I don‘t quite view it as the broken egg.  I view it as the  cracked egg.

LEHRER:  Cracked egg?

BUSH:  That where we still have a chance to move beyond the broken egg.  And, you know, if I didn‘t believe we could keep the egg from fully cracking, I wouldn‘t ask 21,000 kids to go in, additional kids to go into Iraq, to reinforce those troops that are there.

LEHRER:  If it‘s that important to all of us, and to the future of our country, if not the world, why have you not, as president of the United States, asked more Americans and more American interests to sacrifice something?  The people who are now sacrificing are, you know, the volunteer military, the Army and the U.S. Marines and their families.  They‘re the only people who are actually sacrificing anything at this point.

BUSH:  Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight.  I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night.  We got a fantastic economy here in the United States.  But yet when you think about the psychology of the country, it is somewhat down because of this war.

Now, here in Washington, when I say (INAUDIBLE), What do you mean by that?  They say, Well, why don‘t you raise their taxes?  That‘s, that‘ll cause there to be sacrifice.  I strongly oppose that.  (INAUDIBLE), if that‘s the kind of sacrifice people are talking about, I‘m not for it, because raising taxes will hurt this growing economy.  And one thing we want during this war on terror is for people to feel like their life moving on.

LEHRER:  General Casey said yesterday—the commander said that it may be spring or even summer before we have any signs of success from the new program, from the new strategy.  And even then, I can‘t guarantee you that it‘s going to work.  That‘s the general, that‘s the guy who‘s the commander.

BUSH:  Well, I, look, I mean, I think that‘s an (INAUDIBLE), I think that‘s a sober assessment.  Well, it‘s a sober assessment.  I think he‘s not going to stand up and make guarantees that may or may not happen.  But he is also the general who felt like we needed more troops.  And he‘s also the general that believes this is the best chance of working.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  He would also be the general who insisted that he did not and would not need a surge in forces in Iraq, stating it might actually be counterproductive, the same General Casey who might be brought home early from Iraq.

The conflict in Iraq already paying a huge—playing a huge role, rather, in the rapidly burgeoning 2008 race for the White House, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois citing it today in his announcement that he is forming a presidential exploratory committee, the first step towards actually declaring a run.

(BEGIN WEBCAST CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS:  We‘re still mired in the tragic and costly war that should never been waged.

But challenging as they are, it‘s not the magnitude of our problems that concerns me the most.  It‘s the smallness of our politics.  America‘s faced big problems before.  But today, our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, commonsense way.

Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can‘t tackle the big problems that demand solutions.

(END WEBCAST CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Let‘s call in our own Jonathan Alter, also, of course, senior editor at “Newsweek” magazine.

Jon, good evening.

JONATHAN ALTER, SENIOR EDITOR, “NEWSWEEK” MAGAZINE:  Hi, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Well, let‘s start with Mr. Bush on sacrifice.  And one is almost speechless at the president‘s bungle of disconnects sometime.  But to equate deaths, just the 3,000-plus American deaths, to a loss of peace of mind at home, is this the new low-end measure of his tone-deafness?

ALTER:  It‘s pretty low, I mean, for him to claim that that‘s some kind of sacrifice.

Just to use a little historical context here, Keith, President Bush is the first president in American history to ever cut taxes in wartime.  The whole idea of raising an army, in every other war we‘ve had, big and small, Spanish-American, doesn‘t matter what war you‘re talking about, raising an army requires raising taxes.

Otherwise, you‘re having your children and your grandchildren pay for your war, instead of doing it contemporaneously.

And when he says, Well, raising taxes would shut down economy, it‘s important to remember that the last time taxes were raised in the 1990s, the country, in the immediate aftermath, instead of the economy going down, we actually started the largest and most sustained boom in American history.  So this idea has been slam-dunked by recent history.

So he was talking nonsense there about sacrifice.  And then he engaged in doublespeak, Orwellian doublespeak, when he said that General Casey supported this policy, and asked for more troops.  In fact, General Casey said the exact opposite of that, Keith, on many occasions.  He was the one who has said that we need to turn over responsibility to the Iraqis, otherwise things will just get worse.

OLBERMANN:  The Democrats decided to have the new Senator Jim Webb of Virginia deliver the response to the State of the Union address next week.  Does that mean that the Democrats are finally going to get an impassioned reply, a personal reply, about Iraq, given that Senator Webb has a son serving there?

ALTER:  I certainly hope so.  You know, I don‘t know how much he‘ll bring his son into it.  He did wear his son‘s boots during the campaign.  So he has shown some indications that he‘s willing to get personal.  He also, you know, is a decorated combat veteran himself from Vietnam.

And one of the things that has really angered Jim Webb and some of his colleagues from the war in Vietnam, his fellow veterans, is that this policy now in Washington at the civilian end is being determined by people who have never seen a shot fired in anger, once Colin Powell left the government.  So you‘re talking about people for whom war has been an abstraction.

OLBERMANN:  On to, on, on to Senator Obama.  At this point, is there something that could stop him from running for president?  Is there something that hasn‘t popped up yet that would make him drop out before some sort of formal announcement?

ALTER:  It‘s conceivable.  But right now, all systems are go.  The indications today were that he will announce his candidacy on February 10 in Springfield, Missouri, two days before the 198th birthday of Abraham Lincoln.

He likes to evoke that Lincoln comparison, not just because he‘s from Illinois, but, as Obama says, if he were elected, he‘d be the least-experienced president since Lincoln, who served one two-year term in the House of Representatives before becoming president.

Obama wants everybody to know that about Lincoln, because he needs to take this experience charge head-on, and he‘s not going to try to dodge it, he‘s going to say, Yes, I am inexperienced, but that‘s not necessarily disqualifying.  Just look at Abraham Lincoln.  That‘s why he‘s going to announce in Springfield.

OLBERMANN:  And sort of tangential to this, and certainly tangential to Iraq, but important in some sense, there was this rumor all day today that Senator Clinton had canceled her press conference this morning directly because of Senator Obama‘s announcement.  In fact, Mrs. Clinton‘s office had postponed today‘s conference yesterday afternoon because a member of the congressional delegation she‘d been traveling with in Iraq had become ill, putting the reason and the timing well ahead of Senator Obama‘s announcement.

Is it possible that the Republican talking points extend all the way into coverage of the race for the 2008 Democratic nomination at this point?

ALTER:  No, I don‘t think so.  I mean, I think that what‘s happening here is just the early, early spring training, you know, maneuvering.  And I don‘t think we should put too much importance on any of these things, I mean, even the whole idea of an exploratory committee.  Think about that word, “exploratory,” how ridiculous that is, the sort of nomenclature that we indulge in in these campaigns.

And all of this early scuffling is not relevant, unless somebody makes a terrible mistake.  And that‘s the question about Obama that‘s still out there on the table.  He‘s a blank slate.  We don‘t know how he‘s going to bear up under the scrutiny of a presidential campaign.

OLBERMANN:  Well, and obviously in 2012, we need a preexploratory campaign to give us an extra level of the possibility for that.

Jonathan Alter of “Newsweek” and, of course, of MSNBC.  As always, sir, thanks for your time.

ALTER:  Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  “24” is back.  It dropped the bomb, literally.  Al Gore makes a movie about global warming and gets smeared as a fearmonger.  Fox portrays a fictionalized America riddled with terrorists, which helps keep part of the real America convinced we really might be riddled with terrorists, and it wins five Emmys and two Golden Globes.  Gripping drama, or thinly veiled propaganda?

Meredith Vieira‘s exclusive interview with Ben Ownby, one of the rescued teens in Missouri.

That‘s ahead.  You‘re watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  It‘s a familiar tactic for grabbing and holding the public‘s attention, beloved by both the Bush administration and, just as another example, Fox News Channel.  Step one, fear, and if step one does not work, step two, more fear.

In our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, it is also evidently how the producers of the Fox series “24” plan to keep viewers during the show‘s sixth year, as evidenced in the first 30 seconds of the season premiere.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “24”)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  America has been victimized again.  Last night‘s terrorist attack in San Antonio is now the latest in this series of bombings that began 11 weeks ago in 10 different cities.  Over 900 people have been killed thus far.  And while no one is claiming responsibility for this wave of death, evidence points to Islamic militants.

Here in Los Angeles, the mood can only be described as tense and fearful, and the Department of Homeland Security is urging all citizens to report without delay any suspicious persons or activities.

We spoke with a department spokesperson who says, quote, “We don‘t want to start a witch hunt, but we would rather err on the side of caution than become the next target.”

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  If that wasn‘t enough to scare or outrage you, the rest of the four-hour, two-night show opener featured a mall attack, a would-be suicide bomber on a subway, and a successful suicide bombing on a passenger bus, not in places where these things have already happened, but in a country called the United States of America.

In case you missed the point, the show finished up with a nuclear weapon detonating in a major American (INAUDIBLE) city, literally conjuring up the administration‘s imagery for the war in Iraq, the good old mushroom cloud, right-wing Web sites leaving no doubt as to what they think viewers should take away from this fictional attack, case in point, Newsbusters.org says this scene, quote, “should be required viewing for all media members who question what‘s at risk and whether there really is a war on terror” and accuses the media of undermining the Bush administration and, quote, “downplaying the seriousness of terrorism.”

At least the rest of us didn‘t make it into a sitcom.

And by that logic, of course, somewhere in this country there really is a cheerleader who will never die, there‘s at least one real-life talking dog, and a mother and a daughter who patter back and forth like the “Gilmore Girls.”

Is “24” propaganda?  Is it fear-mongering?  Or is it a program-length commercial for one political party?

I‘m joined now by Robert Greenwald, who made the documentary film “Outfoxed.”

Thanks again for your time tonight, sir.

ROBERT GREENWALD, DIRECTOR, “OUTFOXED”:  Thank you.  Nice to be with you.

OLBERMANN:  Most people obviously recognize the show‘s fictional, but how well does the fictionalizing of seemingly actual terror events, like subway and bus bombings, and (INAUDIBLE), sort of templating them over the United States‘ landscape, work as a fear tactic?

GREENWALD:  Well, we know how susceptible people are to fear, some of it with good reason.  The tragedy, as we know, has been how this administration has played on people‘s fears, and how Fox News and Fox in general has used it over and over and over again.

As you say, people can tell the difference.  This is fiction.  What we‘re dealing with in the world at times is fact.  You know, of course, the question is, can this administration tell the difference, given that every day we get a different reason about who we should be afraid of, why we should be afraid, and why we went to war.

OLBERMANN:  And the old line, of course, seems to apply here, about people insisting TV does not impact the public‘s perceptions, and then you point out, Well, gee whiz, all those advertisers must have wasted every dollar they ever spent on television.

But if the irrational right can claim that the news is fixed to try to alter people‘s minds, or that networks should be boycotted for nudity or for immorality, shouldn‘t those same groups be saying “24” should be taken off TV because it‘s naked brainwashing?

GREENWALD:  Yes, well, I don‘t think those groups have ever talked about brainwashing.  But it‘s a very good point, because I think one of the most devastating things that has happened with that show has been the narrative that torture works, where over and over again, they show that there‘s this ticking-bomb scenario, which is a false idea to begin with, right, that you have one second to get X information to save all these people lives.  And the only way to solve it is by torturing somebody.

We‘ve seen the results of torture.  It doesn‘t work, and you get false information.  And that‘s where the show and other shows like it really do a disservice, because they affect the kind of narrative and a way that people throughout the country start to believe.  Yes, well, I really don‘t like torture, but I better use it because it‘s the only way to save my country.

OLBERMANN:  John McCain did a cameo in the series and joked about torture afterwards.  Senator Cornyn has now done a promo on Fox News about this series.  And, of course, there was a lovefest at the Heritage Foundation last year starring the producers, some of the actors, Secretary Chertoff from Homeland Security, and comedian Rush Limbaugh.  I mean, we‘ve had lines between reality and TV blurred before.  (INAUDIBLE) the whole (INAUDIBLE) -- alternate universe quality to “The West Wing.”

But does this not begin to look at this point like the blurring of the lines here is deliberate?

GREENWALD:  Well, it certainly seems to be that way.  And, of course, when you have the vice president and the former secretary of defense saying this is their favorite show, it does give you pause to wonder about what really is going on here.  Now, I‘m not a conspiracy theorist.  But, of course, the fact that the show is on Fox raises all of our eyebrows.

Now, having said that, you know, there‘s some very good execution in this show, and that‘s what makes the sort of moral questions that you‘re asking even more important.  And more important that people tell the difference, and that we raise hell when they cross a line that shouldn‘t be crossed, blurring the fact with the fiction.

OLBERMANN:  Is there some tangible way that this could actually help a president who has relied, who has campaigned on, you know, our party will protect you, and the other guys, well, you‘re on your own?

GREENWALD:  Well, I don‘t know what‘s going to help this president, given where his ratings are.  I don‘t know that an angel coming down would save him right now.  But I think any time that one is using fear to create a concern among the electorate, to create a concern in our country, and to motivate and push people and say, you better be afraid, you better be very afraid, the more we keep hearing that message, I think the more we need to push back against it and ask the hard questions.

OLBERMANN:  Maybe “Touched by an Angel” can make a comeback, as you just suggested it.  Robert Greenwald, maker of the documentary “Outfoxed.”  Thank you for joining us tonight, sir.

GREENWALD:  Pleasure.

OLBERMANN:  Right now, at the airport, you face a far higher risk of dying of frustration, either trapped in a plane on the tarmac for eight hours because of the weather, or trapped in the screening line waiting for security and having to stare at ads.

Or maybe it could be worse, an angry Naomi Campbell could be your security screener.  The supermodel tips the scales of justice today.

That and more, ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  On this date in 1905, baseball‘s St.  Louis Browns reclaimed an obscure outfielder named Frank Hillsman (ph) from the Washington Senators to whom they had loaned him.  They immediately sold his contract to Boston, which immediately traded Hillsman back to Washington, the seventh time in eight months he‘d changed teams, from Chicago to Detroit, back to Chicago, then to St. Louis, on to Washington, back to St.  Louis, to Boston, and back to Washington.

Any wonder that 65 years later to the day, outfielder Curt Flood filed suit to stop baseball teams from making trades without the player‘s consent?

On that note, let‘s play Oddball.

We begin in Pennsylvania, where groundhog fever is gripping the greater Altoona metropolitan area.  Altoona was an area Frank Hillsman played in.  The mood outside the Logan Valley Mall was tense today, as dozens lined up to purchase the limited edition Punxsutawney Phil Beanie Baby.  Morons, your bus is leaving.  There are still two weeks until Groundhog Day, but folks around these parts take their Beanie Phils seriously.  And this scene could have turned ugly at any minute.

Just wait till they find out that the real Phil can‘t make a decision on February 2 this year, since there‘s yet to be a winter this year.

Of course, tell that to the people in Portland, Oregon.  Scary home video shot there after an ice storm has led to extraordinarily treacherous road conditions.  Nothing a driver can really do in a situation like this but steer into the skid.  And for the love of Joe, don‘t drive like this dope.

Not only is that extremely dangerous, it‘s really not so good to use your $40,000 Volvo in a real-life game of pinball.

Also tonight, young Ben Ownby, in his own words for the first time since he was rescued from his abductor late last week.  Meredith Vieira‘s exclusive interview with him.

And you know the drawback to having your own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame?  Dogs.  Mr. Trump will find out about that right soon.

Details ahead.

But first, time for COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of this day.

Number three, Tuan Tuan (ph) the panda at the Chiang Man (ph) Zoo in northern Thailand.  Why are he and his mate, Lin Huee (ph), still childless?  Because Tuan Tuan has gained too much weight.  Thus they‘ve put him on a giant diet.  No bamboo shoots any more, just bamboo leaves.  The latest in a series of strange solutions to this problem at the Chiang Man Zoo.  The previous was panda porn.

Number two is Flamman Ivanov (ph) and Ilko Boyajia (ph), Bulgarian emigres now in San Marcos in Texas.  In fact, they‘re in jail there after they were caught redhanded with $18,000 they stole from laundry rooms in various apartment complexes, all of it in quarters, 989 pounds worth of quarters. 

Number one, the unnamed Chicago Bears fan who posted an ad on Craig‘s List, reading, quote, I have two great sideline seats for Sunday‘s NFC Championship game.  I am looking to trade for any of the following, upper body laser hare removal, four to five treatments, a dilated eye exam with Lasik surgery, minor stomach lypo-suction, a 50 inch of bigger LCD DLP big screen TV, bathroom and kitchen remodeling, parts and labor, or you name it of equal value, but it better be good.  Who wrote that, well we‘ve got to look for Chicago Bears a fan with hair like a Sasquatch, bad vision, a bathroom that apparently, ruining his kitchen, after he had emptied his fridge, and destroying his crappy little TV. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Tonight, 13-year-old Ben Ownby is thinking ahead to which college he wants to be attend to pursue his dream of designing computer games.  Forty one year old Michael Devlin is looking ahead to his arraignment Thursday morning.  In our third story in the COUNTDOWN, details emerging about the man accused of holding two teenage boys captive. 

According to one report, Devlin allegedly kept the other boy, Shawn Hornbeck, in line by threatening to kill both him and his entire family.  Ben Ownby‘s family said they will not be talking to the media again for a while, but they sat down with Meredith Vieira this time to share the story of their reunion with their son. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MEREDITH VIEIRA, NBC ANCHOR:  It is so wonderful to see you all together again, reunited as a family.  When we spoke, Don, last Friday, Ben was still missing. 

Somebody who knows where Ben is could be listening to this, or Ben could be listening to this.  Is there anything that you want to say? 

DORIS OWNBY, MOTHER OF BEN OWNBY:  Just let him come home.  We love him and we miss him. 

VIEIRA:  How and when did you and Doris find out that he had been found? 

DON OWNBY, FATHER OF BEN OWNBY:  Actually, we were in the middle of an interview with a network, and a deputy came out to our home, and took us to the side and told us. 

VIEIRA:  Doris, what exactly did the officer say?  Do you remember the words? 

DOR. OWNBY:  We have him. 

VIEIRA:  We have him? 

DOR. OWNBY:  And I said, we have who?  Because I thought he was talking about the bad guy.  I didn‘t think he was talk about Ben.  And then he said, we have Ben.  And I think I screamed. 

VIERA (voice-over):  Doris Ownby‘s screams of joy came after the family learned of the amazing rescue of her 13-year-old son Ben, who had been abducted four days earlier after getting off his school bus near their home outside of St. Louis. 

(on camera):  What was your reaction when Ben walked into that room? 

DON OWNBY:  Well, you see, the whole time we were going there in the deputy‘s car, I even asked a couple times about how they were sure it was Ben.  I just—I wanted to know that it was really him, but I couldn‘t quite let myself go yet, until I actually seen him.  When he walked in that room, I finally knew it was OK.  His mom got to him first. 

DOR. OWNBY:  I grabbed him and just held on to him for a long time.  I just didn‘t want to let him go.  Finally I decided I had to share him with his dad. 

VIEIRA:  Amanda, were you there as well, or just mom and dad? 

AMANDA OWNBY, SISTER OF BEN OWNBY:  Yes, I was there too. 

VIEIRA:  So what was your reaction? 

A. OWNBY:  I was just so happy to see him.  I don‘t think I‘ve ever been happier in my life. 

VIEIRA: You‘ve heard what your folks and your sister has said about their first reaction when they saw you after missing you for four days and worrying about you, what was your reaction when you saw them? 

BEN OWNBY, KIDNAP VICTIM:  Great relief. 

VIEIRA:  What‘d you say to them? 

B. OWNBY:  Nothing much. 

VIEIRA:  Just kind of hugged? 

B. OWNBY:  Sure, yes. 

VIEIRA:  When you were gone, did you think probably people would be looking for you? 

B. OWNBY:  Yes, locally, not as big as I‘ve heard. 

VIEIRA: Oh yes, it was big. 

(voice-over):  But despite the nationwide response, the biggest break came from an older classmate of Ben‘s, Mitchell Halts, who spotted a pickup truck speeding away from where Ben was last seen and alerted the authorities. 

MITCHELL HALT, SCHOOLMATE OF BEN OWNBY:  I seen a white Nissan pickup sideways in the road down here.  I was coming down.  I guess it seen me coming and it took off down the hill. 

DON OWNBY:  And if it wasn‘t for what Mitchell seen, I don‘t know that we‘d be sitting here like this, talking to you right now. 

VIEIRA:  Do you think it was that piece of evidence that ultimately led to police finding Ben? 

DON OWNBY:  That was the piece. 

MITCHELL:  It‘s not one life I saved.  I saved two.  That was a shock. 

VIEIRA:  Ben, do you and Mitchell know each other very well?  Or, in the past, did you know each other very well?

B. OWNBY:  Yes, I‘ve known him since I was very young. 

VIEIRA:  What would you like to say to Mitchell? 

B. OWNBY:  Thank you for being such a great big help in this entire thing. 

MITCHELL:  I want to tell him I love him and I‘m going to keep a good eye on him. 

VIEIRA:  Doris, when will Ben go back to school?  Have you made a decision about that?

DOR. OWNBY:  No, we‘re waiting to talk to counselors. 

VIEIRA:  Ben, are you ready?  Do you feel ready to go back? 

B. OWNBY:  Yes, I‘m ready. 

VIEIRA:  You are. 

B. OWNBY:  I just need my backpack. 

VIEIRA:  Where is the backpack?  That‘s gone, huh?  That went away? 

Got to get a new one? 

B.OWNBY:  No, I‘ll get it back.  If I don‘t, they owe me. 

VIEIRA:  The instinct, as a mom, would be almost to tie a rope around your waste and one around his waste, you know, and never let him get too far away. 

DOR. OWNBY:  I‘ve been trying to think of a way I could go to school with him. 

VIEIRA:  What do you think of that, Ben? 

B. OWNBY:  No. 

VIEIRA:  Well I just want to thank you all for spending this time with us.  I know that you‘ve been through a tremendous amount as a family.  We‘re so glad that you‘re back, Ben, safe and sound.  We‘re so glad that you are able to start fresh from this point.  I hope you find that backpack, kiddo. 

And good luck to all of you. 

DOR. OWNBY:  Thank you. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Also tonight, airline passengers from the trip now known as the flight from hell.  Stranded on the tarmac, angry passengers, overflowing toilets, and as Churchill said, if you‘re going through hell, keep going. 

Especially if Naomi Campbell were to be chasing you, dressed in red and brandishing a cell phone in each hand.  She‘s finally run up in court.  Details ahead on COUNTDOWN. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Airport delays are tolerable, if there is at least the illusion of progress.  But in our number two story on the COUNTDOWN, meet the passengers of American Airlines flight 1348. 

They were trapped on the plane going nowhere for, how many hours?  More on that presently.  Meanwhile, the TSA has decided to take advantage of the long security lines at the airport, those plastic trays that carry your personal possessions through the x-ray machine, like shoes, watches, computers, cell phones, will soon, throughout the nation, display ads for things like shoes, watches, computers and cell phones. 

Selling advertising space at the bottom of trays has already been tested in Los Angeles.  And the TSA has now issued guidelines for other airports.  Advertisers will pay a fee, plus provide the plastic trays and tables and other non-electronic items at the security points. 

Critics charge the passengers don‘t need more diversions while they‘re trying to get through security.  On the other hand, if there are any terrorists trying to get through airport security, the inescapability of the ads might cause them to surrender. 

As for the American Airline‘s delay, turned debacle, our correspondent is Don Teague. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DON TEAGUE, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  What should have been a routine flight on a holiday weekend became a travel nightmare. 

KATE HANNI, FLIGHT 1348 PASSENGER:  Being, what I would call, held hostage.   

TEAGUE:  On the morning of December 29, Kate Hanni boarded American Airlines flight 1348 for a three and a half-hour trip from San Francisco to Dallas.  And despite leaving an hour late, most of the flight was uneventful, but nature intervened. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We‘ve had tornado warnings nearly constantly for the last four hours. 

TEAGUE:  Dangerous thunderstorms over Dallas forced 1348 and 13 other American Airlines flights to divert to Austin. 

HANNI:  The fact that they diverted us for weather is a good thing. 

TEAGUE:  It‘s what happened next that has passengers furious.  Instead of unloading the planes, American ordered its pilots to wait on the tarmac until the storms cleared in Dallas.  So they waited, and waited, and waited. 

GLEN SCOTT, FLIGHT 1348 PASSENGER:  We expected maybe a one-hour delay or a two-hour delay. 

TEAGUE:  But two hours turned into four, then eight.  On board 1348, passengers say toilets overflowed.  Water ran out and the only food was pretzels. 

HANNI:  The stewardesses desperately tried to keep the tempers and the temperament of the passengers down.  People were having medical issues.

TEAGUE:  Passengers say the pilot begged American to assign them a gate.  But the airline admits its controllers gave priority to keeping other flights on schedule.  So, other planes came and wait, while 1348 sat on the tarmac for more than nine hours.  The pilot finally ended the ordeal, taxiing to a gate without permission, and letting the passengers off 15 hours after they boarded. 

(on camera):  Airline officials declined our request for an on-camera interview, but admit something went terribly wrong in Austin.  They say there‘s simply no excuse for leaving so many people just sitting on planes. 

(voice-over):  American says it‘s reviewing what happened and will apologize to affected passengers, which for Katie Hanni is too little and, like flight 1348, way too late. 

Don Teague, NBC News, Dallas. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  We begin tonight‘s edition of Keeping Tabs, our roundup of celebrity and entertainment news, the way we also should, with the bitter sweet words, Naomi Campbell pleaded guilty today.  The charge, misdemeanor assault.  The perp confessed to bouncing a cell phone off the head of her maid, one Anna Scolavino (ph).  However, Campbell told the judge the assault was unintentional, because she did not intend to hit her maid. 

Nevertheless, she must pay Miss Scolavino 363 dollars to cover the latter‘s medical expenses, perform five days of community service as well, and attend a two day anger management program.  Nothing about attending lessons from a baseball pitcher or a football quarter back. 

Miss Campbell said in a statement that her guilty plea was the best way she knew how to say sorry to her maid.  Although it is pretty widely known that most people prefer huge bags of cash. 

A sadder court appearance ahead for Anna Nicole Smith, that an official inquest in to the death of her son Daniel.  Bohemian officials said Smith will be among the witnesses required to testify once the proceedings get underway on March 27th.  A private pathologist concluded that Smith died this past September from a deadly combination of Methadone and anti-depressants.  The official police report is yet to be made public.  Smith originally went to the Bahamas seeking privacy. 

And Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have announced they‘re heading for another impoverished region, in desperate need of outside aid, New Orleans.  Jolie and Pitt and their three kids reportedly moved into a three and a half million dollar mansion in the French Quarter just five days ago.  “US Weekly” reporting that Jolie confirmed the move to them at the Golden Globes last night. 

COUNTDOWN has learned that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, is rushing to the couple‘s new resident with 288 trucks full of ice that have been driving around the country since Labor Day, 2005. 

Also tonight, it‘s gold and it‘s gaudy, Donald Trump must have bought it, a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, for what? 

That‘s ahead, but first time for COUNTDOWN‘s latest list of nominees for worst person in the world.

The bronze today to the White House Correspondent‘s Association, which after selecting such edgy performers for its annual dinner as Jon Stewart, Cedric the Entertainer and last year Stephen Colbert, it has announced this year‘s star attraction, impressionist Rich Little.  He still does a killer Calvin Coolidge. 

Our runner-up, Ricardo A. Nance Jr. of Monroe, Louisiana.  Mom told him, if he wanted to keep living at her house, he would have to get a job.  So, investigators say, he responded as any child would do.  He set fire to mom‘s house, burned it to the ground.  Little Ricardo, by they way, is 31-years-old. 

But our winner is your Department of Defense Surplus Auctions Division.  A Government Accountability Office investigation shows that the Pentagon auctioned off literally hundreds of lots of stuff to just about anybody willing to buy them, even though the items were not supposed to be sold to the public. 

Items included missile components, fighter jet parts, things like that.  And they‘re not going into the hands of collectors.  Chinook helicopter engine spare parts were sold to a guy already convicted of exporting U.S. missile elements to, wait for it, Iran.  He promptly sold the Chinook parts to Iran.  And investigators are terrified that the Iranians might also have been able to buy, from a guy who bought them from the Pentagon, parts for the F-14 Tomcat fighter.  Now why would Iran want them?  Because decades ago we sold Iran F-14 Tomcat fighters.  The Pentagon‘s Army Surplus Auction House, today‘s worst persons in the world!

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  If you‘ve ever had the opportunity to stroll down Hollywood Boulevard, at least the parts where it‘s safe to stroll down, you‘ll notice something strange about the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at your feet.  Robert Redford is not there, but Robert Cassadisus (ph) is.  Jane Fonda is not there, but Jane Froman (ph) is.  Al Pacino is not there, but Al Hibler (ph) is.  At least Cassadisus, Hibler and Froman, though somewhat obscure, were talented entertainers.  Miss Froman was a singer who survived a horrible plane crash while on a USA tour during the Second World War. 

But the subject of our number one story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, not quite as epic, not quite as entertaining, not quite as inspiring.  The latest celebrity to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is Donald Trump.  The 2,327 star this morning, right next to Kevin Spacey.  If you think he got the honors solely because of his contributions to the entertainment world, think again.  To get a star you must first be nominated, then chosen, and then whoever nominates you, which often is a studio or agent, they must pony up 15,000 dollars to the Hollywood Historic Trust for your star. 

And then all you have to do is schedule the ceremony, show up and, of course, alert the media.  According to the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, a man called Jeff Stafford (ph) from New Jersey nominated Trump.  And even though Mr. Stafford apparently wanted to pay for it, Trump refused and his organization fronted the 15 grand instead.  Perhaps he could afford that price tag thanks to some, so-called, friends and family, to whom he sold pre-construction units at his new Trump Tower in Chicago. 

Three years after giving about 40 of them a deal to buy the condos at a cheaper price, he‘s declared the agreements null and void.  The “Chicago Tribune” reporting that the buyers, some of whom paid only about 500 dollars per square foot, are now being asked to pay Trump more money, closer to the current asking price of 1,300 dollars per square foot, or lose the Condos, which still will not be built until 2009. 

As we always do when a so-called celebrity reveals a seedy underbelly we turn to the inestimable Michael Musto of the “Village Voice,” author also of “La Dolce Musto.”  Michael, good evening.

MICHAEL MUSTO, “VILLAGE VOICE”:  Hello.

OLBERMANN:  And thank you again for being here in our hour of need.  It‘s not like he‘s the only guy who ever, essentially, bought his own spot on that Walk of Fame in Hollywood, and it‘s not like he avoids self-promotion, but there‘s something particularly pungent about this Donald Trump story.  Is there not? 

MUSTO:  Look, you‘ve got to pay for the star, even if it involves screwing over your investors.  And he didn‘t just get any star, Keith.  I mean, he‘s got prime real estate there.  He‘s near June Allison with her exploding bladder, and Rin Tin Tin, who had his own problems.  He‘s close to Jamie Far and the guy who played (INAUDIBLE) in “Beauty and the Beast.”  He must have tipped somebody.  He didn‘t just pay 15 thousand for that. 

OLBERMANN:  One thing he will never be accused of is subtlety.  These most recent PR stunts include sending Miss USA to rehab, insulting first Rosie O‘Donnell and then Barbara Walters, and now getting this star on the Walk of Fame, yet the new season of the apprentice, the ratings are in, the early part, it‘s pretty much a tank job.  Are people sick of the series or could it be that they are sick of the constant self-promotion. 

MUSTO:  They are sick of the show, but they are also feeling that they are getting the reality show for free every time they turn on the TV and see Donald spouting off, pulling a crown off a beauty queen, calling somebody fat.  He‘s giving it away for free, which is very atypical of him.  As a result, people are tuning in to “The View,” to see Rosie‘s rebuttals, and they‘re not tuning into “The Apprentice,” because you don‘t get that on that show.  It‘s boring. 

OLBERMANN:  SO when he promotes “The Apprentice,” when that theater goes on, as you suggest, and it‘s a great point, that he‘s giving it away, but when people hear about the dubious business practices, like asking for more money from friends and family in Chicago, does that help or hurt his public image or don‘t people care? 

MUSTO:  It hurts.  It takes it to a whole (INAUDIBLE) level.  I mean, he went from kind of a meany and a bully, with a savvy sense of staying in the headlines, to a total is snook, who nulls and voids his own friendships.  I personally will never buy another condo in Chicago from him, or even souvenir ash tray at the Trump Taj Mahal, mark my words.  

OLBERMANN:  Back to Hollywood here, he‘s only done reality TV and you could argue whether or not that‘s the case, but does this mean that we‘re going to see other reality stars, like the naked survivor, Richard Hatch, or Julie from the “Real World” getting stars, or what? 

MUSTO:  If you have every reality stars who ever lived getting a star on the Walk of Fame, it would stretch all the way to Anchorage.  We can‘t have that.  We have to keep this limited to maybe just the first five seasons of “Survivor” and maybe ten people each from “Big Brother,” “Biggest Loser,” “The Bachelor,” plus the Geicko Gecko, Judy Sweeton (ph), I don‘t know, Chad Lowe.  Keep it special. 

OLBERMANN:  Go up and down.  There‘s one, El Centro Boulevard, that we be a good place to put all of these throughout the Hollywood Hall of Fame. 

MUSTO:  Yes, that‘s where load their trash.

OLBERMANN:  Regardless of how he got this star, is he now the least qualified guy there?  I mean, Jim Hill has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  He was a sports caster who proceeded me and then followed me on Channel 2 in L.A., but he looks the same today as he did in 1980, and at least that will get you a free dance the Hollywood Tropicana strip club.  There‘s some talent there. 

Is this the least talented guy on the Hollywood Walk of Fame? 

MUSTO:  And I know Jim.  He gives ten percent off on cocktails after 9:00.  But this guy Donald is even worse than Godzilla.  He‘s less groomed than Godzilla.  He‘s less of a gentleman than Godzilla.  I think in importance, Donald rates somewhere between Rick Dees, who did Disco Duck, and bin Laden, who I hear has applied for a star.  And they‘re thinking about it.  It‘s looking.  No Keith, I like the idea of walking on Donald. 

People are lining up for the privilege of stepping on the Donald and

bringing their dogs to relieve themselves, June Allison style, on the

Donald.  I tie it all together/

OLBERMANN:  Well, for the dog‘s stake, I hope you do tie it all together.  If all this takes ultimately is 15,000 and a vote for the Hollywood Walk of Fame committee, to get the star, do you think, are you ready, should we just get together and start looking for 30 grand and each get a star on the Hall of Fame? 

MUSTO:  No, because for just 10,000 I can get myself a Golden Globe, you know, or at least my picture in the bathroom of the (INAUDIBLE) and a People‘s Choice Award. 

OLBERMANN:  An if we‘re going to get Julie from the “Real World,” I want to see Julie from “The Love Boat” as well.  I liked her.  The one and only Michael Musto, as always, and this time it was me with the non-sequitur at the end, great thanks for your time Michael.

MUSTO:  Thanks Keith.

OLBERMANN:  That‘s COUNTDOWN for this the 1,3654th day since the declaration of mission accomplished in Iraq.  I‘m Keith Olbermann, good night and good luck. 

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

END   

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