updated 4/12/2007 11:22:16 AM ET 2007-04-12T15:22:16

Guests: Steve Capus, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Vivian Stringer, Richard Wolffe, Maria Milito

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

Don Imus, fired, his MSNBC show canceled immediately, even before his suspension was to begin, NBC chair Jeff Zucker and NBC News president Steve Capus saying their reasoning is clear.  The cancellation comes after, quote, “ongoing discussions with a number of employees and employee groups,” says Zucker.  “We are the guardians of the good name of NBC News, each and every one of us,” says Capus.

Reverend Jesse Jackson joins us for reaction, and the Reverend Al Sharpton, and the president of NBC News, Steve Capus.

And where‘s the other outrage?  Rush Limbaugh calls Barack Obama “halfrican-American.”  Michael Savage says the Voting Rights Act means a chad in every crack house.  Neil Boortz says Cynthia McKinney looks like a ghetto slut.  Why have none from the racist right been protested, boycotted, or fired?

Also tonight, the White House gives up.  The president wants a war czar to oversee Iraq and Afghanistan.  And reportedly, he can‘t find any retired general even willing to consider the job.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DANA PERINO, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  We‘ve been consulting widely to find out what people think about the possibility of having somebody of a higher caliber—I‘m sorry, of a higher profile come in and have that position.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Ex-NATO commander Jack Sheehan, a retired general among three who say they‘ve turned the job down, in his case, because Mr. Bush and company, quote, “don‘t know where the hell they‘re going.”  Why is Colin Powell‘s name not mentioned?

And war czar, isn‘t that commander in chief?  If this man isn‘t commander in chief, why is he still president?

And tonight‘s comic relief.  Sanjaya lives.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “AMERICAN IDOL”)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I‘m going to hate myself for this.  It wasn‘t horrible.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Sanjaya lives, but the audience is dying, down 30 percent from the season premiere.

All that, and the firing of Don Imus, now on COUNTDOWN.

Good evening.

He says he knew it was coming.  Don Imus did not even last until the start of his scheduled suspension.  And after all the protests, all the hand-wringing, and even all the sponsor cancellations, the top executives of this company are insistent on one point.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, that point, that the decision tonight, a week since Mr. Imus referred to the players of the Rutgers University women‘s basketball team as, quote, “nappy-headed hos,” to cancel MSNBC‘s simulcast of “Imus in the Morning” was forced principally by the reaction within NBC.

As NBC News president Steve Capus said in an e-mail statement to the company this evening, “I‘ve heard you loud and clear.”  He will join us in a moment, as will the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and the Reverend Al Sharpton.

Imus had been suspended for two weeks, effective next Monday, the delay planned because he is, or was, to host a charity radiothon beginning tomorrow morning.

Imus made a litany of apologies, and the Rutgers players agreed to meet with him to receive another apology in person.  That meeting, says Vivian Stringer, the coach of the team, tonight, is still scheduled.  She plans to join us as well, Imus telling an NBC executive tonight, he still plans to meet with the Rutgers team.

But the public firestorm did not abate.  Advertisers left in droves.  We will examine that in detail later.  But most importantly, perhaps, the internal dialogue within MSNBC and NBC apparently intensified and clarified.  As News Division president Capus said in his prepared statement to the media, quote, “What matters to us most is that the men and women of NBC Universal have confidence in the values we have set for this company.  This is the only decision that makes that possible,” adding, “Once again, we apologize to the women of the Rutgers basketball team, and to our viewers.”

A further statement from Jeff Zucker, president and CEO of NBC Universal, “After our announcement of the suspension of Don Imus, we have had ongoing discussions with a number of employees and employee groups within our business.  The result of these discussions has been very clear.  NBC Universal has a strong reputation for integrity, and our employees value that integrity tremendously.”

While no official long-term word has come from CBS Radio, syndicators of the actual Imus program, about its fate in that venue, a former NAACP executive now on the CBS board called today for his company to also sever ties with Imus, CBS tonight reiterating Imus has been suspended until April 16, and, quote, “During that time, CBS Radio will continue to speak with all concerned parties and monitor the situation closely.”

The Reverend Al Sharpton, who will join us in this newshour, revealed shortly after the NBC announcement that tomorrow he will meet with CBS executives to pursue similar action there.

We‘re joined now by Steve Capus, the president of NBC News.

Steve, good evening.

STEVE CAPUS, PRESIDENT, NBC NEWS:  Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  What happened between the time of the decision to suspend the Imus program, and the time of the decision to terminate it?

CAPUS:  An awful lot of conversation, and a lot of passionate words being passed around, all throughout this organization, about whether the punishment was appropriate.  And I took a number of meetings, received phone calls, e-mails, and I listened to those people, and I heard their voices loud and clear.

And within this organization, this had touched a nerve.  And the comment that came through to us time and time again was, When is enough going to be enough?  And this was the only action we could take, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  A variation on that first question, what happened between the time of, say, the Gwen Ifill incident involving Don Imus, or any of the other things in the past that had made many of us here over the years shudder, and the time of this incident involving the Rutgers players?  Was it a sort of straw on a camel‘s back, was there something cumulative here, or was it this particular remark?

CAPUS:  I think this particular remark was way, way over the line, and this was—I think he—this is as—they had gone further with this one than they had ever gone before.  And there‘s no question that this was the final straw.

And it caused a lot of us to examine what was on that program.  And I

look, I take no delight in making this decision.  I believe, Keith, that Don Imus is a good man.  And I believe when he says to me that he‘s not racist, but I also believe that the comments that came out of his mouth were, in fact, racist.

And this wouldn‘t be happening were it not for those comments, and the cumulative body of work.  You‘re absolutely right.  We looked at it, and it became readily apparent that the body of work, and this on top of all of it, was too much.

OLBERMANN:  From the statement you issued within NBC and the one Jeff Zucker issued, I‘m inferring that if there really was some kind of cliched tipping point, it was internal reaction, that the people in this company felt this show was or had become something they could not abide.  Is that ultimately, even with all the outside external pressure, and not even pressure, but just comment, is that a fair inference?

CAPUS:  Yes.  This—those voices within NBC were louder than anything else.  And we place a tremendous value on the integrity of this organization.  At the end of the day, we have nothing but our reputation.  And if you sacrifice that, then what have you gained?  What‘s the purpose of going on if the sacrifice—if you‘ve sacrificed your reputation along the way?

This is not a financial decision.  The good financial decision would have been to leave him on.  He‘s been doing very well.  You know that.  You see the ratings reports as well as I do.  And this program has been doing very well from a business point of view.

But when you—when I sit across from employees of my own division, and they say to me, Steve, this could have been my daughter, how can I ignore that?  Those are the voices that have been ringing in my ears more loudly than anything else.  And believe me, I‘ve heard those comments over and over and over.

OLBERMANN:  Are the sponsor defections, if not a primary factor in this decision, are they sort of a tangential one, if only as another indicator of public reaction, of people‘s personal abhorrence, of saying, Enough is enough?

CAPUS:  I think that when you hear corporations saying they don‘t want to be associated with him, that goes back to the reputation issue.  If a corporation says, We don‘t want to be side by side with this guy, then, of course, I take that as feedback coming in from across the country.

This is—you know, Vivian Stringer yesterday said, I want to put a human face on all of this.  And she did that brilliantly and powerfully, as did Essence Carson and the other members of that team.  I listened to their words as well.  That was one of the other factors in all of this.

When you listened to that news conference yesterday, Keith, there was no way that you could walk away and not be moved by their comments.  And I think that those comments and the reaction of corporations and the reactions of—the reaction of people all across this country have been coming in here for days now.

I made a commitment to the people who work for me to listen to what they were saying, and to listen to that feedback, and we made this decision.  I take no delight in it.  I have been a fan of this program.  I‘ve listened to it for years.  He‘s poked fun at me.  But this is enough.

OLBERMANN:  You mentioned the team, and obviously that had an extraordinary impact, that news conference yesterday that they gave.

CAPUS:  Yes.

OLBERMANN:  And the eloquence and the pain that was on these faces and in these voices.  Is there a sense that because it was a group of women, who albeit national college athletes, were not necessarily in the spotlight the way the other public figures he may have joked about or intended to joke about in the past might have been?  Is that why this resonated in the way the other things did not, that there was a sense that these women were innocent bystanders, in a way that politicians, public figures, entertainers are not?

CAPUS:  Absolutely.  They didn‘t ask to step into this spotlight.  They didn‘t bring this on.  They didn‘t do anything to deserve it.  And I do believe that that‘s one of the reasons why there has been such a strong reaction to this.

And I just keep --  I would like people to watch Vivian Stringer‘s news conference from yesterday.  I would like people to watch that 20-minute conversation that she had.  I don‘t want to call it a speech, because she—there weren‘t any notes.  She spoke from her heart so powerfully and so—with such profound strength, that how could you not be moved by that?

I was sitting with a group of people, people with tears in their eyes at the strength of those words.  And I know—you know, I pride myself on looking at the e-mail coming in from viewers and things like that, and I know that people believe that NBC has caved to this or that, or that one person or another forced us to do this.

That‘s just simply not true.  We have listened to the words of people from all across this country, whether they‘re in the public spotlight themselves, or somebody like someone who happens to be the captain of the Rutgers women‘s basketball team.  And all of those words are so strong right now.  There was a tremendous amount of pain caused by these comments.  And I understand that.  And I‘ve heard that, and that‘s why we‘ve taken this action.

OLBERMANN:  Last question, Steve, and then we‘ll let you go.  Are you anticipating blowback?  To another one of our executives, when informed of this, Don Imus said he knew this was coming.  The quote was, he knew it was coming.  Are you anticipating reaction, or at this point does it not matter to you what the public reaction to your decision will be?

CAPUS:  Oh, I‘ll listen to the reaction, of course.  I just said that I pride myself on listening to what people are saying about what we‘re doing.  I understand that.  But I believe that there will be people who criticize us for taking this decision.

I needed to do it for the people of NBC News, and I needed to do it for the reputation of NBC News.  We have a trust that the country has placed in the news organization, and that trust is to respect the integrity that should go along with the leading news division in the country.

And I heard that message, and I understand that responsibility, and that‘s why we‘ve taken this action.

OLBERMANN:  Steve Capus, the president of NBC News.  Always great fun interviewing your boss in the middle of a controversy.

CAPUS:  Thank you, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Thank you for the decision, Steve, and thank you for your time.

CAPUS:  I appreciate it.

OLBERMANN:  Let‘s turn now to the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who has been one of the many voices raised in this controversy.

And we‘re going to talk about a couple of aspects about this in depth, but let‘s start, sir, with your overall reaction to MSNBC and NBC‘s decision today.

REV. JESSE JACKSON, RAINBOW COALITION:  Well, it is a victory for public decency.  The airwaves should not be conduits for racism or racist bigotry or misogyny or religious bigotry, and sponsors should not underwrite it.  That‘s one dimension of it.

But it‘s also (INAUDIBLE), many of the employees last week sent e-mails, and they felt powerless because they got no response last week.  The ombudsman should have perhaps caught this when it happened last week.  But it was not caught.

There was some combination of the internal uprising and public pressure that made NBC reevaluate this with its own standards, which is, of course, the right thing to do.

After all, this is a pattern of behavior.  It‘s not only to say these girls were hard-core hos, no nappy-headed hos, no likening them to Memphis Grizzly Bears, but he took a shot at Vanessa and Serena Williams—they shouldn‘t be in “Playboy,” they should be in “National Geographic.”  He took a similar kind of shot at Gwen Ifill, he took a shot at Maya Angelou, even when Hillary Clinton spoke to blacks to blacks in Selma, Alabama, that maybe next year she‘ll have cornrows and she‘ll have gold teeth in her mouth.

But this kind of lineage of pattern, this did not (INAUDIBLE).  I‘m glad MSNBC did step up.  But we can‘t stop here.  Because whether it is on NBC television, or whether it is and CBS Radio, or even music, we must raise a higher ethical standard for all the music, because we cannot allow these images of violence to continue, because if you can call a woman a ho and she will submit to it, that‘s the first step toward domestic violence.  That must stop.

OLBERMANN:  To that point, sir, can you do anything with this?  Can you turn to young entertainers who negatively reference women, particularly black women, and say, He can‘t do this now, he got—he did not get away with this, you shouldn‘t do this either?

JACKSON:  I think there is some momentum.  After Michael Richards‘ tirade about using the N-word, and the Comedy Store said, No one else can do that comment from our stage, and when a comedian did, they fined him.  So no more acts will be at the Comedy Store using the N-word.  That‘s a step.

A number of disk jockeys even no longer play records using the N-word.  That‘s a step.  This move today on the tirades on the Imus‘s show is another step.

I think when they have momentum to speak to artists, I mean, after all, Viacom, CBS owns BET, where much of this is transmitted, or Time Warner owns HBO, where much of this is transmitted.  So we cannot stop here as we seek to detoxify the airwaves.  There must be an ethical standard that all of us have to have some high regard for.

And this is not violating free speech, but there must be some decency in speech that‘s a reasonable and accepted standard.

OLBERMANN:  Relative to not music but news, entertainment, and the idea that Don Imus was not alone among those who have made remarks like this, let me go through a few names and then ask you a question in terms of momentum, in terms of fairness.

Comments by people like Rush Limbaugh, who calls Senator Barack Obama and actress Halle Berry, quote, “halfrican-Americans.”  Michael Savage, who asked whether the Voting Right Acts intended to counteract racial discrimination at the ballot box was trying to, quote, “put a chad in every crack house.”  There‘s Neil Boortz, the other radio talker, who said the black congressman Cynthia McKinney looked, quote, “like a ghetto slut.”  Glenn Beck from CNN and ABC, who referred to the largely African-American survivors of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans as, quote, “scumbags,” and who, when he interviewed the Black Muslim congressman, Keith Ellison, from Minnesota, said he felt like saying to him, “Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.”

Where is the protest, where have you been, why are there not efforts to remove them from the air for these things?

JACKSON:  Well, there have been other protests, but not quite this visible.  The air is toxic.  I mean, when people were on rooftops in New Orleans, the good guys called them refugees and not citizens, called them victims and not survivors.  So even the mainstream good guys saw us in a disparaging light.

But that (ph) of course (ph) has a certain acid dimension here.  I watched last week when Trump said to Imus, Will you have Hillary Clinton on your show?  And she—and he said no.  So this show was masked—politics masked in comedy.  I mean, Tim Russert on this show, and Chris Matthews on this show, and Brian Williams on this show, and Lieberman on the show, politicians (INAUDIBLE) on this show.

And so I think NBC has kind of slept this one for a long time.  And I think public protest and internal reaction, both of those forces, made for some changes.  But it cannot stop here.  The momentum to detoxify the airwaves to create a higher decency standard for our children, must apply across the board.  And no one group has an ethical right to lower the chin bar based upon some inside track.  No one should be able to do that.

OLBERMANN:  Stipulating, sir, that I was one of those NBC employees who put it out to my bosses behind the scenes that this could not stand, that this change involving Don Imus had to be made, I can say that now, I respected my employers and did not say it until they reached this conclusion, which I applaud sincerely, let me ask you again about the other people.

Is someone like Rush Limbaugh—how have they kept their time slots?  Will there be an increased effort to either get them to contain themselves within the rounds of decency, or will there be a new sensitivity to them?  Are they on the ropes?  Are they on probation because of this?

JACKSON:  Well, then there must be—there must be a renewed sensitivity and a broader public outcry.  After all, this attack, you know, was not for blacks only.  This was about women, and that‘s why I‘m glad Kim Gandy and NOW stood up, because it‘s about misogynism.  It‘s about that.  It‘s about race, and it‘s about, in the case of Keith Ellison, it‘s about religion.

And so those who are entrusted to—with our airwaves, and those who are sponsors, have some responsibility for what they‘re financing, and what they‘re allowed to be conveyed across the airwaves.  I submit, this will be a momentum.  But it can‘t stop there (ph).  Imus is on MSNBC 1,040 hours a week.  Where are the black show hosts on MSNBC?  I mean, there—you look at yourself and others, from 3:00 at night to midnight, not a single black show host or Latino, all day, all night, all white.

Let‘s desegregate the media, let‘s diversify the airwaves.  Let the American people see the true breadth and depth of the American public.  Right now, there‘s a kind of cultural isolation in the media itself.

I think If you have a credible black person on that show, that conversation may never have taken place, taken place in the first place.  So I‘m saying now, we‘re going to meet with the NBC officials tomorrow, and CBS, about what about employment, (INAUDIBLE) horizontally, about show hosts, about writers ad producers, the whole range of let‘s desegregate the media, because the airwaves belong to the public.  And let‘s be fair to that public.

OLBERMANN:  I take your point.  And for the record, I‘d like to point out our guest host when I‘m away is Alison Stewart, who is African-American.

JACKSON:  Great.

OLBERMANN:  The Reverend Jesse Jackson.  Great thanks for your time tonight.

JACKSON:  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  More on our breaking news tonight, the firing of Don Imus by MSNBC, reaction from the Reverend Al Sharpton, and reaction from Rutgers University on the basketball team there.

And also tonight, the president appears for—appeals for help with his wars.  A war czar?

And all the troops in Iraq will have to stay in harm‘s way for much longer.

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Don Imus fired by MSNBC tonight.  His reaction to the NBC executive who informed him of this network‘s decision, when told his television show was coming to an end, quote, “I knew it was coming.”

Beyond how MSNBC‘s and NBC‘s decision to stop simulcasting that radio program will affect alternately both Mr. Imus and NBC News is the more important question contained in our fourth story tonight, how it will impact the women Mr. Imus targeted with his remarks one week ago this morning, the women of the Rutgers basketball team.

They and their coach, Vivian Stringer, having spoken so eloquently in an extended news conference just yesterday morning, and the story having taken a remarkable turn in the hours—yes, it is just hours—since then, perhaps no coincidence there.

Joining me now, Vivian Stringer, the coach of the Rutgers women‘s basketball team.

Coach Stringer, great thanks for your time tonight.

VIVIAN STRINGER, RUTGERS WOMEN‘S BASKETBALL COACH (on phone):  Thank you.  It‘s nice talking with you.

OLBERMANN:  Have you spoken to your players about this decision?

STRINGER:  No, I haven‘t.  I‘ve just asked them not to make a comment. 

I know that their intentions are, and they probably still are, to meet with Mr. Imus and put a face with this man that stands behind the mike and makes those kind of remarks.

OLBERMANN:  Yesterday, as I mentioned on the air here, the management within this company had asked that I withhold any formal comment or request of my own about this until you got the opportunity and your team got the opportunity to meet with don Imus.

Are—what worried me about that was that, once again, having been dragged into the spotlight unintentionally by all of this, your team was now, to some degree, getting the burden of what would happen with this man‘s television show put upon it.  Are you relieved that that meeting, if it indeed takes place, is now just going to be a meeting, it‘s not necessarily going to be a referendum on a guy‘s career?

STRINGER:  You know, Keith, to be honest, that was a statement that I was saying all along, that these young people shouldn‘t be responsible for the, you know, the fall or rise of Don Imus.  They were only responding to the comments that were made about them.  And we—that‘s all that we were all responding to.  We didn‘t ask for his resignation.

I think that what—I had faith in, and that is, the American public.  And that I think that really, this is the reaction to we, the people, not Mr. Imus, and I think that we put a face on the chairman or the president of MSNBC.

And all of us saying all along, whether it‘s a garbage trucker or a cameraman or a politician or a president, you know, we‘re all equal, we deserve respect and human dignity.  And I think that people were able to separate that wasn‘t Rutgers women‘s basketball so much as it spoke to the broader issue, it spoke to the degradation of women and calling women as such.  Every one of us has a mother and we had to, you know, put that in perspective.

And I think that that‘s what touched us.  And I think that it‘s important that we, you know, we‘ve become so desensitized that we‘ve allowed a lot of things to pass, and we‘ve not been happy.

But it‘s been important that we as adults take a leadership role, that the corporate executives are the people that are there, because the corporations are what they are because of we, the people.  But unfortunately, we, the people, haven‘t understood that, you know, too often politicians, leaders, and whatever, religious leaders (INAUDIBLE), whoever speak for us, and we sit back and don‘t realize the power in numbers, and that when we have had enough is enough.

I really think that this was reduced to the very human element of decency, you know, to make sure that these kinds of things are stopped.  I hope that it doesn‘t stop with Mr. Imus, because he‘s not the only culprit.  I think that some of us as adults, as parents, are responsible for some extent, because we haven‘t stepped up, you know, that the corporate executives have dealt with the color of all of this being green, and it‘s OK.

We see these things over time, you know, a kid that steals something with a plastic cap pistol, to spend 10 years in jail, and yet you see, you know, the white-collar workers, you know, thieves that still millions of dollars.  I think that we‘ve just got to come back, we‘ve got to come back to some level of human decency.  And I do think that if people stood up, and politicians don‘t wait for a poll but are strong enough to make a decision and stand.

And what people saw is these young ladies, you know, these 10 young

ladies who had done nothing wrong, but been stellar students in the

classroom and had a great story to tell about, you know, the fact that you

it doesn‘t matter where you come from, and it doesn‘t matter how you start, but how you finish.  This team lost by 40 points to the number one team in the country on national television, first game of the season.

But you know what?  Six months later, they defeated this team, the number one team in the country, there in North Carolina.  That was the story.  And it was such a special story, and this was a glorious moment. 

This is something they never should never have forgotten.  But instead,

they find themselves coming back to defend that they are these derogatory -

you know, to defend themselves against these derogatory remarks.

And I think that that‘s what touched people, because they were able to not see them in a basketball uniform, but they saw them as their daughters and their nieces and their grandmothers and their mothers, and people began to say, Where is our sense of human decency?  Tell me anyone that can listen to this and absolve themselves or insulate themselves from the hurt that was, you know, you know, that was thrust upon these young ladies.

And that‘s why I said it crossed everything.  It crossed, you know, the female issue, you know, it was sexist, and it was biased, and it was racist.  And aside from the fact that, you know what, it made trite the great event that took place for the game.  Does anybody even know that Tennessee just now won a championship, that Rutgers and Tennessee played?  No one even knows that, but no one cares because his reference to being cute was, you know, lessening the talents and the skills and the hard work of these individuals. 

So it touched so very many people and I really do think, as I thought about this, no, I didn‘t expect Mr. Imus to be fired and we certainly didn‘t, you know, approach this with that idea.  We really just wanted to have a face-to-face meeting with him.  He needed to make a personal apology.  And much to the players‘ credit, they wanted to see this man.  They wanted to understand this man behind a mike and how could you say such things.

But we wanted to also say here‘s who we are.  You know, I happen to be the daughter of a coal miner.  My father lost both his legs in a mine.  He worked hard each and every day.  He only stayed out of the mine six months until he got prosthetics.  I know what it is to work hard and this has been a lifelong pursuit and passion.  I‘ve coached for 36 years and, you know what, to have gotten to a final championship—the last time I was there was 25 years ago. 

Would I have liked to have won a national championship?  I haven‘t won a championship yet.  I‘ve been a coach that has taken three different teams four times to a Final Four.  But, you know, this was a special moment because it was the most unlikely of teams.  It was a great story to be told.  And I was so very proud of these young women. 

And it means so much to me that I can honestly say to you that, you know, as a person of conscience, I really do—have seen so much, you know, that I would like to see changed, like I said, with everything, so much of the language and that, that, really and truthfully, I would gladly exchange winning ever a national championship if we, as young ladies, would stand and allow the country to somehow be empowered and that we take back our country, and we start talking about moral decency.  And when that happens—and we have to continue on.  If it goes on, guess what?  This was all good. 

OLBERMANN:  Vivian stringer, the coach at Rutgers.  Those who may not be familiar with women‘s college basketball cannot perhaps appreciate the esteem in which she‘s held.  It‘s extraordinary.  Our great thanks for your time tonight Vivian. 

STRINGER:  Thank so you very much, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Also tonight, the president looking for help fighting his war.  Unsurprisingly there are few takers to the job of war czar.  And we called it two days ago.  Now everyone else realizes that the president was not even close to blowing himself up with a hybrid car fuel line.  Details ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  In our continuing coverage of the dismissal of Don Imus tonight by NBC News and MSNBC, one brief correction.  The Reverend Jackson identified the venue of the Michael Richards comments as the Comedy Store.  It was, in fact, the Laugh Factory.  We‘ll keep you updated with further information about Imus‘ radio future during the rest of this hour. 

In the interim, if you have ever thought that certainly you could do a better job running the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than anybody inside the Bush administration has, now may be your chance.  Odds are, if you simply want the job, it could actually be yours.  Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, the secret is out.  The White House has been quietly attempting to appoint a, quote, according to the “Washington Post,” high-powered czar to oversee the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with authority to issue directions to the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies, a job that, at face value, sounds an awful lot like commander in chief. 

Under President Bush‘s command, the U.S. military now stretched so thin that the Pentagon today announced plans to extend the tours of duty for every active duty soldier now stationed in Iraq.  If only President Bush could command someone to take the job of war czar.  It appears to be an extremely tough sell.  At least three retired four-star generals have turned him down, apparently unwilling to claim ownership of Mr. Bush‘s failures in Iraq. 

The White House‘s sudden explanation for why it needs a war czar, some four years after the conflict began, not even close to passing the proverbial smell test.  That claim, that because a deputy to national security advisor Steven Hadley is resigning, the White House is exploring whether a higher profile war czar might be the best way to replace her, making Meghan O‘Sullivan the apparent linchpin of U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan all these years. 

The White House today denying that there is anything unusual about its decision to seek a czar, nor in its inability to find one, nor in the state of the war itself. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DANA PERINO, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY:  The president is the commander in chief.  He has had no trouble attracting very high caliber talent to positions across the administration, even late in the administration.  And I think that it is a responsible thing to consider whether or not a restructuring is needed.  I think it behooves us to consider a wide variety of opinions and consult widely to see how we move forward to make sure that these policies are implemented for the benefit of our men and women on the ground fighting for us. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Meanwhile, over at the Pentagon, this afternoon Defense Secretary Gates announcing that, effective immediately, all active duty soldiers will serve 15-month tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, three months longer than the 12-month stretches they were already scheduled to be there.  Secretary Gates citing a need to shoulder the burden evenly among all. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GATES, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE:  Without this action, we would have had to deploy five Army active duty brigades sooner than the 12-month at home goal.  I believe it is fair to all soldiers that all shared burden equally. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Let‘s turn now to our own Richard Wolffe, senior White House correspondent for “Newsweek” magazine.  Richard, good evening. 

RICHARD WOLFFE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Good evening, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  War czar, is that not commander in chief?  Is Mr. Bush no longer commander in chief?  And if not, why is he still president? 

WOLFFE:  Yes, you know, I‘m surprised the White House didn‘t accuse of these retired generals of trying to embolden the terrorists.  Look, any job with the word czar in front of it has got to be a turkey.  I mean, the intelligence czar was a nightmare of a job.  The drug czar didn‘t really get much done.  These are impossible jobs and they speak volumes for the kind of disarray, confusion, and, frankly, the disputes that are still going on about this war four years on.  So it‘s a poisonous job. 

OLBERMANN:  What ever happened to generals on the ground running things, never mind a commander in chief?  Why would there be an additional player of bureaucracy required at this point? 

WOLFFE:  Yes, well, obviously that phrase is no longer operational.  And remember, he fired the generals on the ground.  That was the whole point of this policy review.  The White House went to great pains to say that the president was finally in control of the policy.  He was talking to these great State Department people and these reconstruction teams.  You know, given the collapse of the rest of the Bush agenda, I think he probably has the time to keep his eye on this policy.

You know, whether they want someone to go out and do news media stuff, or they really don‘t have the people to keep control of the policy, it‘s just a surprise. 

OLBERMANN:  Why has the name of General Colin Powell not raised its - been raised in this, given his experience within this administration, although obviously not a happy one.  But more importantly, given the respect with which he‘s held, certainly unanimously from a military point of view, if not a political point of view?  Are things just so strained, broken between General Powell and the administration that that‘s not even a possibility? 

WOLFFE:  Well, having reported closely on Colin Powell and knowing people who are familiar with his thinking, let‘s just say that Powell would be the right person to put into this job, if you wanted to withdraw all your troops from Iraq right now.  So let‘s just say he‘s not in tune with their thinking. 

OLBERMANN:  And the problem with that would be—never mind.  I won‘t put you on the spot there.  On the deployment extensions for the active duty soldiers in Iraq, is there any possible way the administration could spin that as good news?  It sounded today as if Secretary Gates, to his enormous credit, did not even bother to try.  There was no ramification from the president, saying about the Democrats holding back funding, that this would cause lengthier stays for the troops on the ground in Iraq.  Did they just give up, in terms of spinning this one? 

WOLFFE:  I think the clarity is admirable.  I think his style is a breath of fresh air.  But one thing that I think people have overlooked here, everyone has been talking about this going on for six months, and six months or so, well no, maybe nine months.  Look at the length of these extensions.  This is a war that is going to go on well beyond this presidency. 

OLBERMANN:  Our own Richard Wolffe, chief White House correspondent for “Newsweek” magazine.  As always, Richard, great, thanks. 

WOLFFE:  Any time.

OLBERMANN:  COUNTDOWN helps President Bush to get an apology over the bizarre story about him almost blowing himself up on the White House lawn, when it didn‘t happen.  And the train wreck, if not car explosion, that is “American Idol.”  After a ho-hum night, the ratings reflect a big drop off.  Sanjaya mania; it may be curable.  That‘s next.  This is COUNTDOWN. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Well, you heard it here first on COUNTDOWN, after an exhaustive and an exclusive investigation this past Monday night.  Contrary to rampant blogging across the Internets, all of it traceable to the business insider column of the “Detroit News,” President Bush did not, repeat, did not, almost blow himself up, self-emulate nor shoot off any sparks while checking out alternative cars on the south lawn of the White House. 

And now we know how the rest of the media got that wrong.  Our number two story in the COUNTDOWN, it was a joke, only a poorly delivered one, so poorly delivered that reporters present gave no indication that there was even a chance that it was a joke.  On Saturday, the “Detroit News” had reported the CEO of the Ford Motor Company, Allen Mulally, saved the president from plugging an electrical charger into the hydrogen tank on a hybrid car, a potentially, literally, explosive situation. 

The newspaper even quoted Mr. Mulally as saying that he grabbed the president, moving him out of danger.  Hundreds of blogs, even the “Financial Times” newspaper took the story seriously.  But if any of them had bothered to look at the videotape of the event, as we did, you are now, they would have realized nothing happened. 

It turns out the comment was meant as a joke.  Mr. Mulally was playing off a Jimmy Kimmel sketch that pretended that the president had blown himself up when he plugged in the cord, as you see.  Quote, “I tried to tell a joke about it, and I proved I am no Jimmy Kimmel.  It never occurred to me that it would get such wide play, or be taken seriously.”

The Ford Company has now apologized to the White House, insisting Mr.  Mulally did not intend to make fun of the president.  As to why so many media outlets did not even feel the need to even check if the president had truly nearly made such a buffoonish mistake, the White House has no comment. 

The saga of Sanjaya on “American Idol,” evidently losing its appeal with viewers.  Maria Milito joins me next.  First time for COUNTDOWN‘s latest list of nominees for Worst Person in the World. 

Our bronze tonight, John Kossner (ph), senior vice president of ESPN.com, who has now advised the thousands of fans participating in his website‘s fantasy baseball statistical league that a technical glitch that made trading players or adding new players to their fantasy teams cannot be fixed without erasing all the trades and all the additions made in all the leagues since opening day April 1st

So if you, say, got smart that day, and traded the rights to Albert Pujols, the national league MVP, for, say, the rights to Alex Rodriguez, you not only get don‘t get credit for the six home runs and 15 runs batted in Rodriguez has accumulated, but the guy who traded Rodriguez to you does get those statistics and you get the one homer and two runs batted in Pujols has produced. 

And the other guy in your league does not have to trade Rodriguez to you for Pujols now.  What are you guys using there, an abacus? 

Tonight‘s runner up, Dick Morris of Fox noise, after reading a Fox Noise poll indicating that 26 percent of respondents would be scared if Senator Clinton were elected president, Morris offered this insightful gem, quoting, you have to ask yourself, the first black man is running for president and nobody is afraid of him, because everybody is afraid of Hillary?  Does the name Don Imus mean anything to you? 

Back in our saddle again as our winner, back in his own world about immigrants, Bill-O, back to the two teenage girls killed by an illegal alien drunk driver in Virginia Beach, Virginia.  He not only called the mayor of that city, quote, limited in her intellectual capacity, but added, quote, she should be home baking pies.  And he returned to the tragedy in New York, in which he said the kids in the Bronx all burned to death because the city, the sanctuary city of New York doesn‘t regulate how many people you can cram into a slum, even though there is still no indication that the victims there were undocumented aliens and no explanation, except in Bill‘s mind, as to how that possibly could be relevant. 

Sir, would you please, as Shakespeare wrote, assume a virtue, if you have it not.  Let these families mourn for a while without exploiting them for your own twisted political agenda.  Bill O‘Reilly, today‘s Worst Person in the World. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  And now the cartoons, another week, another chance for “American Idol” execs to wonder if Sanjaya might blow their house down.  And whether or not Sanjaya was actually good last night, or merely not bad, one thing certain in our number one story on the COUNTDOWN, he has now managed to offend us in two different languages. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(SINGING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  But, compared to past performances, the judges were wowed, almost. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RANDY JACKSON, “AMERICAN IDOL”:  That was actually really good. 

SIMON COWELL, “AMERICAN IDOL”:  I couldn‘t understand a word of it.  You sang like a 14-year-old.  And I‘m going to hate myself for this, it wasn‘t horrible. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And he can grow facial hair.  Meantime more evidence that Idol ratings, though still large, are sagging.  Early reports put last night‘s viewership at 26 million people in total, nearly a million less than last week, four million less than the same week last year, and 11 million less than this year‘s January premiere. 

Let‘s turn once again to COUNTDOWN‘s own “American Idol” princess, also the mid day host New York‘s classic rock station Q104.3, one of New York‘s remaining employed radio personalities, Maria Milito.

MARIA MILITO, Q104.3:  Thank you very much.  First of all that line is hysterical, now that he offended us in two languages.  Very funny.

OLBERMANN:  The Idolites who insist on keeping me update on this now claims that Sanjaya was actually good this week.  Come on. 

MILITO:  No, he was.  He was.  I was even impressed.  He was decent.  He was not horrible, like Simon said.  I was very surprised.  I felt for sure that he would flub the words in Spanish.  But he actually sang very nicely.  I know.  I have to give him credit; he was decent.

OLBERMANN:  So, now of course, the first evidence that the ratings are plummeting, what do we make of this?  Thirty seven million for the premiere, 30 million at this stage of the race last year, 26 million last night, is it this guy?  Is the premise wearing thin?  What‘s happening here?

MILITO:  Well, according to all the blogs around the country and all the message boards, people say they don‘t want to watch anymore because of him.  Maybe there is some truth to it.  Maybe he is very slowly bleeding the show to death.  maybe he‘s killing it.  I don‘t know.

OLBERMANN:  I knew I liked this kid. 

MILITO:  I know.  He‘s still in your office pool, right?

OLBERMANN:  Yes.

MILITO:  Yes, see. 

OLBERMANN:  We have speculated previously here about whether or not the producers of the show might be getting a little desperate.  Last night, they had him as the final performance, as if they were saving the act with the biggest draw for last, like it was the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.  But, you know, those ratings seem to be telling us something.  Are they forced, in a twisted sort of way, to play up the one contestant who could most screw up the machine that they have running? 

MILITO:  I think so, definitely.  It is almost like an old cops and robbers movie.  We know we‘re going to die anyway, so let us go out in a blaze of glory.  You know what, make the best of a bad situation, put him on last.  You know what, people wait for him every week, to see how bad he is going to be, or what hairdo he‘s going to come out in, or what outfit.  So, maybe, if you can‘t beat him, join him.  Let‘s put him on last, and milk it for all we can.

OLBERMANN:  Lord knows we put him on last here.  Let me switch topics.  Let me try a non-Sanjaya question for a change.  Simon Cowell critiquing another one of the singers, and then I‘ll ask you the question. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COWELL:  I think you have a very good tactic at the moment, Hailey wear as least amount of close as possible.  You can‘t do well in this competition based on your voice.  So all you can do is have fun.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  He managed to dial that back there at the end, but might Mr. Cowell consider sticking to his usual put downs, like cabaret act and karaoking, rather than coming close to calling someone a stripper? 

MILITO:  Well, I think, what he said to her, that is Simon being true to himself.  I mean, that‘s the true Simon.  It seems like, with Sanjaya, he walks on egg shells around the kid, because it‘s backfired, that every time he‘s brutally honest about hi, you know, the country votes for Sanjaya because they feel bad for him.  But what he said to Hailey is what he would normally say to any of to any of the contestants, even during the auditions.  I mean, that‘s the real Simon Cowell, I think. 

And it‘s true.  Her clothing is getting shorter and shorter, and smaller and smaller. 

OLBERMANN:  I just think this week, it might have been an unfortunate kind of inference there.  Don‘t you think?

MILITO:  Well, you know what, I think he was just being true Simon, that‘s all.  And you what, I kind of think—and maybe I‘ll be wrong on this—I think she is the one to go tonight. 

OLBERMANN:  Really? 

MILITO:  Yes, because they were all pretty negative about her. 

OLBERMANN:  Maybe she‘s not wearing any clothes at all.  We‘ll see how that plays out.

MILITO:  Maybe she should come out naked next week.  What do you think? 

OLBERMANN:  Our very own “American Idol” princess, Maria Milito, of course, of New York‘s Q104.3.  Great thanks as always.  And good night, Maria.

MILITO:  Bye.

OLBERMANN:  Let‘s recap our top story of this hour.  Of course, NBC News President Steve Capus announcing this evening that instead of suspending MSNBC‘s simulcast of Imus in the Morning for two weeks, begin next Monday, this network has terminated its connection to the controversial talk-show host.  When informed of that decision by another NBC News executive, Donald Imus said, quote, I saw it coming, and added he still hoped to meet with the players from the Rutgers women‘s basketball team.

Its coach, Vivian String, telling us here tonight her players also want that meeting to take place.  It was a week ago today when Imus described those players as, quote, nappy-headed hoes.  In announcing the end of Imus‘ run on MSNBC, NBC News President Capus said he had, quote, countless conversations, e-mail exchanges and phone calls with people throughout this company.  I have heard you loud and clear. 

We are the guardians of the good name of NBC News, he continued.  Each and every one of us, there has been a trust placed in us.  We must honor and respect that trust.  Coach Stringer, in the interim saying this was a triumph for decency and that she hoped that there would be more of it in the immediate future. 

CBS radio saying tonight Imus is still scheduled to return to its airwaves on Monday, April 30th, after a two week suspension, but that it would be monitoring events in the interim.  Tonight the Reverend Al Sharpton said he was scheduled to meet with the national syndicators of the program at CBS tomorrow morning to ask that they too discontinued Don Imus. 

That is COUNTDOWN for this the 1,459th 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   

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2007 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2007 Voxant, Inc. ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

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