updated 12/20/2007 10:53:42 AM ET 2007-12-20T15:53:42

Guests: Richard Wolffe, Jonathan Alter, Tom O‘Neill

ALISON STEWART, HOST (voice over):  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

Tape-gate: The “New York Times” reporting at least four White House lawyers were involved in discussions with the CIA about destroying those interrogation tapes among those names—Alberto Gonzalez and Vice President Cheney‘s lawyer, David Addington.  The finger pointing begins, a retraction is demanded and questions arise: Did the White House cover up its role in this latest scandal?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DANA PERINO, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  The White House role was wider than it said in finding that I had either changed my story or I have some doubts that the White House had misled the public.  And said it‘s not true.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  This as fire breaks out in the vice president‘s offices. 

We‘ll have the latest on both.

Caucus countdown: It‘s a holiday fall dance.  With percentage points as abundant as fruit cake.  The latest numbers out show Clinton, Obama and Edwards all on top.  It all depends who you ask.  This as Rudy‘s popularity plummets.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANTA CLAUS:  I was with you right up until that last one.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  Shocking news for the Spears family.  Britney‘s 16-year-old sister, Jamie Lynn is pregnant.  As the star of a hit “Nickelodeon” series, what will this mean for her career and how will it be explained to her many young fans?

“Time Magazine‘s” will reveal their “Person of the Year” is Vladimir Putin?  Wait a minute.  Al Gore didn‘t win something this year?  No word yet on how Larry Birkhead is taking the disappointing news.  Maybe it has something to do with these fats, I mean pit.

Speaking of gifts that keep on giving: We‘ll take a look at this year‘s best of the Internet and revisit our own ceremonial nod to the video‘s most viral - the Kitty (ph).  All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

O‘REILLY:  Jack may have offers.

STEWART (on camera):  Good evening.  I‘m Alison Stewart.  Keith Olbermann has the night off.  In the only statement he has made about the CIA‘s destruction of those interrogation tapes, President Bush said, quote, “It will be interesting to know what the true facts are.”  Redundancy aside, our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN: The search for truth facts uncovers a dozy.  The “New York Times” reporting that Harriet Myers wasn‘t the only White House lawyer who discussed the handling of those tapes before they were erased.  There were at least three others including, Alberto Gonzalez.  No comment from President Bush on new development but his press secretary certainly was not happy about that report.  More on that in a moment. 

We‘ll also have more on the other burning issue on the grounds of the White House today.  Literally.  Burning.  Vice President Cheney‘s ceremonial offices going up in flames.  But, we begin tonight with the metaphorical heat with today‘s “Times” report that quote, “At least four top White House lawyers took part in discussions with the CIA between 2003 and 2005 about whether to destroy video tapes showing the secret interrogations of  two operatives from Al Qaeda,” end quote.  Officials telling the “Times” that those who took part included, Alberto Gonzalez who served as White House counsel at the time.  David Addington, who used to be Vice President Cheney‘s lawyer now his chief of staff.  John Bellinger, who was the senior lawyer at the National Security Council until 2005.  And Harriet Meirs who replaced Mr. Gonzalez as the White House counsel.  She is the only White House official that the administration officials have admitted knew about the tapes.  At the White House today, Press Secretary Dana Perino breaking with her “no comment” policy sort of to demand a limited retraction from the “New York Times.” 

The White House Press Office is not denying the substance of the story, or its headlines, only its sub-headline which read that the quote, “White House role was wider than it said,” end quote.  Specifically, Ms. Perino taking issue with the implication she might have been misleading when discussing any details related to the tapes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ED HENRY, CNN:  In fact, right after the story first broke, people within the administration did say privately that in fact, Harriet Miers had told the CIA not to destroy the tapes and that suggested the White House in fact, was, saying don‘t destroy.  Now, this “New York Times” story saying, four people in the president or vice president‘s inner circle actually talked to the CIA about it.  So, that does suggest a wider role.

PERINO:  I am not accountable for all the anonymous sources you turn up.  I‘m not.  I am accountable and I speak for the president and for the White House.  This says that I was misleading and I was not.

HENRY:  It doesn‘t say you, it doesn‘t you at all.  There were other

people the administration -

PERINO:  The White House does not comment.  The only thing that I have said from this podium is regarding to the president and his recollection.  If that CNN has different information that they want to provide to me that contradicts what I‘ve said, let‘s see it.

HENRY:  It isn‘t specifically saying it‘s you; it is talking about the

White House, the administration -

PERINO:  I speak for the White House.  I represent the White House.

HENRY:  Why are you taking it personally?

PERINO:  I am not taking personally.  I‘m taking it - I speak for the White House.  It‘s not a personal thing.  The White House asked for a correction.  And I would remind you, the “New York Times” is going to do one.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  The “New York Times” moving only the sub-heading.  The substance of its reporting stands.  When asked to comment on the article yesterday, before it was published, spokesman for the White House, the Vice President‘s Office and the CIA all declined to do so.

Meanwhile: On Capital Hill, the man applying to be the number two official at the Justice Department was getting an earful about those destroyed tapes from lawmaker.  When Republican Arlen Specter asked Judge Mark Filip about the Justice Department‘s recent declaration that Congress should wait until the department has finished its interrogation of the torture tapes, Judge Filip hit it straight down the middle.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER, ® JUDICIARY COMMITTEE:  Wouldn‘t you agree that even if criminal prosecutions are jeopardized, that it is more important to acknowledge by the courts that Congress have primacy to proceed as Congress, ultimately concludes the public interest requires.

JUDGE MIKE FILIP:  I would hope senator I did not to have pick between the two.  I would hope to be able to try to work with Congress, such that Congress could perform its oversight missions and criminal prosecutions if they were there to be made could be preserved.

SPECTER:  But if it comes to a conflict and you have to make a choice, is there any doubt that the broader issues that we‘re facing which I‘ve enumerated for you, whether we‘re going to bind the CIA to the Army field manual, what we‘re going to do on interrogation practices generally, how we‘ll deal with our Geneva Convention obligations, international matters, all beyond the scope of the Department of Justice.  If you have to choose, doesn‘t Congressional primacy prevail?

FILIP:  Sir, I wasn‘t privy to the discussion you had with the attorney general.

SPECTER:  Well, strike that part.  Just deal with the litany of issues I‘ve given you above and beyond the criminal prosecution, whether Congressional primacy isn‘t pretty clear cut there.

FILIP:  Sir, I think, you and I very much share the view that Congress has broad oversight authority and we very much share the view that hopefully that broad oversight authority can be accommodated while at the same time not jeopardizing criminal prosecutions.  As to picking between two of them, I would work very hard to try to find common ground, so, I wouldn‘t have to make that choice.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  Time to call out our own Richard Wolffe, senior White House correspondent for “Newsweek” magazine.  Hi, Richard.

RICHARD WOLFFE, NEWSWEEK:  Good evening, Alison.

STEWART:  So, how effective was Dana Perino‘s defense, putting the onus on the “New York Times” that it had to issue this correction about a sub-headline even if the substance of the reporting was correct.

WOLFFE:  Well, this was an excessive response from the White House.  I mean, she used the language, pernicious that the story was.  And there are three ways to look at this.  Either, A, this is a distraction; she‘s challenging the sub-head of the story as a way to take away attention from the main thrust of it.  Or B, that they didn‘t like the substance of the story and without commenting on it, remember the substance here, is that the White House lawyers were saying, destroy the tapes.  Previous reports that said, suggested other people were saying, keep the tapes.  But if the White House is really ordering up the destruction of the tape, then maybe that‘s what she was reacting against, rather than the sub-heading.

STEWART:  Now, how is it the White House Press Office for a week has acted this “no comment” policy on the CIA tapes and then today, feels free to comment.

WOLFFE:  Yes, very curious here.  They have been under very strict legal opinion and advice not to comment because not just of what Congress is up to but because there are legal proceedings.  The judge is looking at what‘s happened.  And if there is a special prosecutor, appointed here, then as we saw from the Valerie Plame situation, everything revolving around communications could be part of a cover-up if indeed this was all a big cover-up.  So, very, very curious that they chose to comment at all, frankly, because she had such a strict policy and I have to say, behind the scenes, that policy was upheld as well.

STEWART:  Now, the “New York Times” report, I want to read this one, quote, “One former senior intelligence official with direct knowledge of the matter said there had been vigorous sentiment among some top White House officials to destroy the tapes.  But that no one gave an order to destroy them or to preserve them.”  So, without proof some of directory from somewhere, is this going to go anywhere?

WOLFFE:  Well, remember, “Newsweek” has also reported that Negroponte then, director of National Intelligence advised them to keep the tapes.  So, and you have the head of Covert Operations has hired a lawyer saying, he is not going to be the fall guy.  He got a green light to do what he did.  So, there‘s a lot of spinning going on here.  And obviously, these stories really don‘t match-up.

STEWART:  Now, the hottest story today as we mentioned reveal these four people - Alberto Gonzalez, David Addington, John Bellinger, along with Harriet Miers were aware of some sort of discussion about these tapes.  So, why this discussion reached this particular group of people?

WOLFFE:  Well, these are the lawyers you would expect to deal with it.  I don‘t think having these people involved was surprising.  But, to come back to your previous question, there is a certain pattern here of people not wanting to go on the record and saying, do this, do that.  There is a gray area that obviously makes it incredibly difficult for people at the CIA or anywhere else in the administration to figure out what to do.  I mean, make the comparison with the war here.  Where was the decision to go to war and invade Iraq?  People have still not been able to pin that down.  I don‘t think we‘ll ever be able to know what orders were given about these tapes.  That‘s just how they‘ve been running things in this White House.

STEWART:  All right.  As we pushed this forward, move the story forward, the administration is going to answer questions before a judge Friday to find out if a court order was violated.  Congress not stopping in this investigation.  What options might the administration take advantage of to make this go our way?  Or at least take the sting out of it?

WOLFFE:  Well, I think you‘re going to hear executive privilege, time and again here.  If this comes down to who ordered what and who discussed what, they‘re going to say, this is confidential, it‘s super secret, it‘s White House advice that involved the president.  So, they can shut down Congress pretty much.  Whether they can do that with the courts is another question.

STEWART:  Richard wolf of MSNBC and “Newsweek.” as always, great thanks.

WOLFFE:  Thank you, Alison.

STEWART:  No matter how mad Dana Perino might have appeared about the “Times” story, when smoke was seen on the ground of the White House this morning, it was repeat, not coming out of her ears.  Unfortunately, the smoke was all too real.  Coming from a fire at the executive office building next door to the White House.  No one was seriously hurt but the damage was extensive.  Our White House correspondent, John Yang has the details.

JOHN YANG, NBC NEWS - THE WHITE HOUSE:  Alison, both President Bush and Vice President Cheney were here in the west wing this morning when the fire broke out just across the street here on the White House grounds.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

YANG (voice over):  When Washington firefighters arrived shortly after 9:30 this morning, there was so much smoke in the building, they immediately struck a second alarm.  About 110 firefighters and 60 pieces of equipment battled the blaze.  Nearly 1,000 White House staffers in the building were evacuated.  The only reported injury, a marine who cut his hand, breaking a window on the top floor and was treated in the White House medical unit.  Officials say the blaze began in a utility closet near a suite of offices belonging to Vice President Cheney‘s staff, an area without a sprinkler system.  They suspected there was an electrical fire.  Firefighters took about 30 minutes to control it.  Afterwards, the president and Mr. Cheney thanked them.

CHIEF DENNIS L. RUBIN, WASHINGTON, D.C. FIRE DEPT:  I would describe the overall picture as moderate to minor damage, meaning that the total amount of area, but one office did receive significant damage.

YANG:  The Vice President ceremonial office used for interviews such as this one in 2003 with NBC‘S Brian Williams, suffered extensive smoke and water damage.  Officials said everything in it is covered by a thick layer of soot, including the desks which has been used by six presidents, including Dwight Eisenhower.

DANA PERINO, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  It has a lot of historic artifacts in there and it‘s got a gorgeous wood floor that is currently underwater.

YANG:  The ornate 19th century executive office building is one of the largest stone structures in the world and houses most White House offices.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, NBC NEWS, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN:  The poignant thing is that sometimes it takes an event like this for us to appreciate the importance of a building like this.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YANG (on camera):  Workers still here tonight, cleaning up and

boarding up windows.  White House officials hope to have as many offices as

possible open for business tomorrow morning.  Alison -

STEWART:  NBC‘s John Yang, thank you.

Fifteen days to Iowa.  Talk about working the polls.  Various poll numbers are up and down like handy, sandy and Randy on the main stage.  Does anyone know who is actually in the lead?  And for once: Britney Spears is out of the limelight replaced by her now pregnant teenage sister.  You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Candidate break out the holiday ads as polls tighten the race for 2008.  Little Jamie Lynn Spears manages to outdo her sister in tabloids scandal,  and it is that time of year again, a look at the very best of the 2000 of the Internet.  That‘s ahead.  This is COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  In our fourth story in the COUNTDOWN tonight: A new poll leaves no doubt about who is leading the Democratic race in Iowa, the site of the caucuses, 15 days from now and in a significant surprise, the latest insider advantage puts John Edwards on top with 30 percent of the vote.

In our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN tonight: A new poll leaves no doubt about who is leading the Democratic race in Iowa, the site of the caucuses, 15 days from now.  In a modest surprise, the latest Washington Post - ABC Poll puts Barack Obama on top with 33 percent of the vote.

In our fourth story tonight: A new poll leaves no doubt about who‘s leading the Democratic race in Iowa, the site of the caucuses, 15 days from now.  No surprise, the latest Rasmussen Poll puts Hillary Clinton on top with 39 percent of the vote.  What?  No, Richardson.  No, if you get the point.  The truth is, in the national polls, Senator Clinton comes out on top pretty consistently.  Tonight‘s new NBC-Wall Street Journal Poll gives her 45 percent among Democrats to Obama‘s 23 and 13 for Edwards.  But that could all change in 15 days in Iowa.  And in Iowa, the polls are all order the map.  Is it Obama?  Clinton?  Edwards?  Is it “Washington Post” and ABC say?  Or is it Edwards and then Clinton with Obama in third as the Insider Advantage found.  Or could it be Clinton, Obama, and then Edwards, as Rasmussen reported.  How is the media supposed to avoid talking about all the real issues in obsessive poll numbers when no one can say how the horse race is going?  But if the numbers look squarely for the Democrats, petty the Republican front-runner, whoever that is, our poll shows the race tightening into a three, possibly four-way battle.  What leaders lag and late bloomers surge.  The former front-runner, Rudolf Giuliani dropping to just 20 percent among Republicans after spending the last few months in the 30s.  Willard Mitt Romney up sharply tying Giuliani at 20.  Mike Huckabee almost doubling last month‘s numbers up to 17 percent and John McCain holding steady in the mid teens.  And where is Waldo?  I mean Fred Thompson?  Well, don‘t you see him there?  You don‘t really, do you?  Let‘s bring in MSNBC contributor, Jonathan Alter, also senior editor at “Newsweek.”  Jonathan, nice to see you.

JONATHAN ALTER, NEWSWEEK:  (INAUDIBLE).

STEWART:  So, what does it say that we don‘t really have a clear picture of Iowa just two weeks out?

ALTER:  Well, we don‘t have a clear picture of Iowa, where I am tonight in New Hampshire.  You know, this whole thing is up for grabs.  All the polls are pretty much meaningless at this point, anything I could tell you or any other pundit could tell about what‘s going to happen is mostly just hot air and we should just kind of stipulate that at the outset.  So, all that we can really do is give people a very general sense of direction to warn them that national polls are close to irrelevant at this stage of the game because so much changes once real people vote and people like me shut up.

STEWART:  I can‘t believe you just told yourself to shut up.  OK.  So,

let‘s up a couple -

ALTER:  I mean, you know, the truth is that, yes.  There‘s too much kind of phony prognostication.  So, what I think is the best role for all of us in the media, is really do try to look at not just some of the issues that the candidates are talking about but some of the ways they operate and how that might reflect on what these folks would actually be like, should he or she become president which is what this is supposed to be about.  Not kind of making phony news based on often phony polls.

STEWART:  But let‘s talk about how the campaigning is going because you have to do that before you can become president.

ALTER:  That‘s right.

STEWART:  Let‘s put one scenario out there.  Senator Clinton‘s national standing.  Whatever happens with that, what happens to her campaign if someone beats her in Iowa?

ALTER:  She‘s in trouble.  You know, then she has five days to recover in New Hampshire and a lot of people think that would be, you know, tougher to do.  Unless, she has a good organization in New Hampshire and a lot of support up here.  So, if she doesn‘t win after all expectations, all the talk of inevitability, it would be a serious, although not total blow her chances.

STEWART:  All  right.  We had inevitability for Mrs. Clinton.  You have pragmatism when we talk about Giuliani and Thompson and McCain.  But now, you have a little more of the fuzzy faith-base appeals from Romney and Huckabee.  Do you think those are actually working?

ALTER:  Well, clearly, you‘ve got some movement from Mike Huckabee.  It might have stopped in recent days but he went from being an asterisk to being one of the top contenders on the Republican side.  And the polls are tightening some now in Iowa.  And the polls there, by the way, just to demonstrate my screen about this, particularly useless to poll for caucus-goers.  Very, very unreliable in the past.  You can depend on them a little more in New Hampshire and other states.  But in Iowa, Huckabee went from nothing to being in the lead even though Romney outspend 20 or more to one.  Now, it‘s tightening a little bit there.  You‘ve got to give Huckabee a good shot there.  His ads don‘t look very good in New Hampshire so, that will be on to Michigan and South Carolina to see how he does there.  McCain is kind of the story up in New Hampshire right now that should Huckabee wound Romney in Iowa, it gives McCain an opportunity to win New Hampshire as he did eight years ago.

STEWART:  Well, let‘s talk about something quite tangible.  Christmas ads.

ALTER:  OK.  Good idea.

STEWART:  We‘re going to follow up you know, after Mr. Huckabee released his uber Christmas ad.  In space of the last 24 hours, we received Obama‘s Christmas holiday card.  We got Senator Clinton‘s Christmas gifts for the American people.  Senator Edwards reminding those of less fortunate than us this Christmas.  And perhaps maybe the weirdest ad so far, we got this one from Rudolph Giuliani.  Let‘s listen to this one.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDOLPH GIULIANI, ® PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  With the primaries coming so early this year, I‘ve got to tell you, I‘m having a little trouble getting my holiday shopping done.  So, I‘ll be working to get everyone the same gift.  A safe America, lower taxes, secured borders, job growth, fiscal discipline, strict constructionist judges and probably a fruit cake or something.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  A fruit cake?

GIULIANI:  What?  It would be a really nice fruit cake with a big red bow on it or something like that.  I‘m Rudy Giuliani and I approved this message.  Merry Christmas, happy holidays.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  I can‘t get past the sweater vest, I don‘t know about you.

ALTER:  Yes.  It looked like one of those ads for Home Depot or something at Christmas time.

STEWART:  Effective in any way?

ALTER:  Well, he got his message out at the beginning of the ad and you could say that - that might be effective for him.  But it‘s always real risky when politicians who are not you know, gifted actors like Ronald Reagan or who have a real instinct for humor when they try it.  Huckabee, Mike Huckabee did it in an ad and it work very well.  But I didn‘t, I doubt that Rudy in this ad sort of confirmed what some New Yorkers think about him which is that he is a bit of a fruit cake himself.  So, it might not have been the best way for him to go.

STEWART:  Jonathan Alter, senior editor at “Newsweek.” stay warm up in New Hampshire.

ALTER:  Yes, thanks a lot, Alison.

STEWART:  President Bush saw his soul and saw that it was good.  Now, Putin-Bush “Time Magazine” not to.  And here comes the bride.  All dressed in white, squeezably soft white.  That‘s ahead.

But first: The latest in the administration‘s 50 other scandals.  Number three: Gonzo-gate.  Attorney general Michael Mukasey signing order today reversing a practice of his predecessor, Alberto Gonzales.  From now on, staffers of the Justice Department will be sharply limited in their contact with the White House regarding any pending investigation, criminal or civil.  Contacts between such staffers and the White House were fueled and complicated the U.S. attorney firings scandal.

And number two: Contractor Assault-gate.  The testimony before the House Judiciary Committee today, Congressman Ted Poe, Republican of Texas, said that his office had been contacted by three more women about sexual assaults they sustained while working for KBR in Iraq.  Congressman Poe suggested that the alleged gang rape of Jamie Lee Jones in Baghdad‘s Green Zone by employees of KBR which is - was then the subsidiary of Halliburton might not be an isolated incident.  Meantime, the Justice Department today, refused to send a representative to answer questions about that issue before the House Judiciary Committee.

And at number one: Blackwater-gate.  The U.S. embassy in Iraq is now investigating another deadly shooting by Blackwater mercenaries that of the “New York Times” dog called Hentish (ph).  Reuters reporting that according to the “Times” staff in Baghdad, Blackwater bodyguards shot and kill the dog last week.  A Blackwater spokesman said the Hentish had attacked one of Blackwater‘s canines and the ensuing dog fight could not be resolve at which time the canine handler was forced to use a pistol.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Nine years ago, after 14 hours of debate, Congress impeached the 42nd president of the United States.  Ultimately, Bill Clinton was acquitted of perjury and obstruction of justice charges the following February.  But, we hear that he may still be in the dog house with the missus for wandering off that Heidi(ph) supermarket yesterday?   On that note, let‘s play “Oddball.”

We begin right here in New York City where nothing says I love you and want to spend the rest of my life with you than getting married in a public bathroom.  Or, at least, that‘s what Jennifer Cannon and Doy Nichols think.  They consented to get hitched in the Charmin restrooms in Times Square as part of a PR stunt.  Jennifer even wore a dress made solely of toilet tissue, glue, and tape. Which might explain why she is crying.

And to a Dunkin Donuts in Elmwood Park, New Jersey, where Dustin Hoffman is beating the jelly out of a robber.  Don‘t mess with Tootsie.  No, I am mistaken.  That is not two-time Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman, that is store clerk Dustin Hoffmann—Hoffmann with two Ns.  Attempting to thwart the robbery by bashing the crook over the head with his tip jar.  The crook got away with $290 and is still on the loose.  Hoffmann said he sprung into action because he didn‘t want to look like a wimp on “You Tube”.  And added that his Dad lets him drive slowly down the driveway every Saturday.  You don‘t want to mess with that.

Just when you thought nothing by anyone with the last name Spears could shock you again, 16-year-old Jamie Lynn reveals her impending motherhood. And her sister‘s biggest internet defender finds herself in the running for best web video of the year.  This story‘s ahead but, first, time for COUNTDOWN‘s top three “Best Persons in the World” today.  Number three, best gift for the person in your life who already has everything: edible crushed gold in a bite-sized capsule.  Just $275 for a three-pack.  And, they have absolutely no redeeming value except they make you poop gold.  Be careful what you wish for.

Number two, best wasted opportunity: an unnamed thief in Brixton, England.  Eying a truck with the keys in the ignition, the thief hopped in and drove off only to stop and take off 30 yards later when he spotted the owner‘s 126-pound Great Dane Diesel in the back seat.  Little did he know that he was never in any real danger.  Diesel‘s owner said he is a big softy. If the guy had hung around, he would have licked his hands and face.  He was very good with strangers.

And, at number one, best reason to cut out the fat: skipper Pete Bethune.  Bethune had set out to break the speed record for circumnavigating the globe in a motorboat and promote the use of alternative fuel sources.  His eco-friendly vessel would run entirely on bio-diesel, some of which will be produced from Bethune‘s own body fat—the by-product of his elective liposuction procedure, quote, “I wanted to do a positive project,” unquote, he said.  Sure, you know. Lose the love handles before the holidays, too.   

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  In the world of celebrity-watching, come on, admit it—shock and putty(ph) is practically an Olympic sport.  But, sometimes, the news comes of someone who has fallen into a situation with such long-lasting implications that snarky comments are pushed aside by genuine concerns.  In our third story in the COUNTDOWN, 16-year old Jamie Lynn Spears is pregnant. The younger sister of Britney decided along with her mother Lynn to announce that news in the pages of “OK” magazine, a decision which her father Jamie reportedly abhors.  According to the publication, Ms. Spears said that her boyfriend, 19-year-old Casey Aldridge, is the father of her child. The two reportedly met at church. Spears also tells “OK” magazine, quote, “it was a shock for both of us, so unexpected.  I was in complete and total shock and so was he.” 

Tmz.com is reporting that Spears will be paid $1 million for baby photos in exchange for that interview.  She is 12 weeks pregnant but reportedly did not tell her mother until three weeks ago.  Jamie Lynn Spears is also the star of a popular teen-friendly TV show on Nickelodeon, “Zoe 101”.  A spokesman said that Nickelodeon respects Spears‘ decision to, quote, “take responsibility in this sensitive and personal situation.”

According to “Access Hollywood”, Spears and Aldridge want to get married though their respective parents are against that idea. Joining us now is senior editor of “In Touch Weekly”, Tom O‘Neill.  Hi, Tom.

TOM O‘NEILL, EDITOR, IN TOUCH WEEKLY:  Hey, Alison.

STEWART:  So we‘ll get to the details of this story in just a minute, but I want your honest opinion: do you think this announcement about Miss Spears will open a dialogue about teen pregnancy or will this story come and go like any other celebrity news?

O‘NEILL:  This is not any regular story of a trashy celeb having a baby out of wedlock.  This is a baby having a baby, Alison.  She‘s 16.  There are issues here—serious ones of statutory rape.  The daddy is 19 years old and the mother, Lynn, may be implicated here, too, if she openly permitted these two to, you know, carry on.

STEWART:  You know, aside from all judgments about the pregnancy and about their behaviors, there is a serious business angle to this story, as well. “Forbes” is covering it.  Miss Spears‘ show is on Viacom‘s kid channel, Nickelodeon.  A lot of parents are wondering, how will they even explain this to their kids?  How difficult a position does Viacom find itself in?  Should they just shelf the show “Zoe 101”?

O‘NEILL:  Today, outcry was growing all over America and the pressure

was building on Nickelodeon to shut this down.  Remember how they make

their money—what their big successes are.  Channels like Nickelodeon and

Disney—it‘s “High School Musical”, it‘s “Hannah Montana”, it‘s “Zoe 101”

these wholesome shows!  So, I don‘t know if they‘re going to have much of a choice. 

STEWART:  Strictly from a professional perspective, Ms. Spears‘ genuine mother giving the go-ahead to make the announcement in a glossy magazine and allegedly accepting money for future photos of the baby.  Is that just as damaging to Jamie Lynn‘s image, as well?

O‘NEILL:  I think so. But, I‘m sure mommy went ahead with Jamie Lynn‘s permission. I can‘t imagine that happened any other way.  But, I can‘t imagine Jamie Lynn protesting this, either, because Mommy has been hustling these girls since they were little kids. The most interesting thing about the story when you hear what happened behind the scenes is that when Lynn heard the news, she cried and cried and cried.  Well, Alison, I think that lasted about ten minutes until she started laughing, laughing, laughing all the way to the bank. 

STEWART:  Now, Jamie Lynn has reportedly said she wants to raise the child in Louisiana but, according to “Access Hollywood”, a source says the parents think Spears and Aldridge are too young and that Jamie Lynn has, quote, “the mind of a teenager. She doesn‘t understand the ramifications.”

But, couldn‘t in this case the kid be right?  Get out of Hollywood at this point?  Go underground?

O‘NEILL:  That‘s exactly what has to happen here.  Recently, a reporter asked Jamie Lynn what she wants to do in the future.  Remember, she‘s just a junior in high school. She answered, “I want to go to Louisiana State University.”  And that was just the right answer.  Remember Jodie Foster, kid stars like that who suddenly put their career on hold, went to college, resumed a normal life, and went back to Hollywood.  That is the way for Jamie Lynn, not to follow the path that her sister has. 

STEWART:  Tom O‘Neill, senior editor of “In Touch Weekly”.  Thanks for checking in, Tom.

O‘NEILL:  Thanks a lot, Alison.

STEWART:  Do you want to get your loved one something they might actually use this holiday season?  Then, apparently, you should stay away from gift cards.  And they certainly provide with us the most provocative pictures of the year.  And, it seems “Time” magazine can‘t quit him either.  Up ahead.  This is COUNTDOWN. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  2007, the year of the gift card and retailers are smiling because they are making billions off your unused generosity.  2007: the year of put-id put or so “Time” magazine says.  And the year in viral videos: the wonders of the world wide web and your top picks for COUNTDOWN‘s favorite internet clips. All that and more ahead in COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Time is flying. Overnight shipping on internet purchases cost as much as per capita of a small former Soviet-block nation.  The mall will be the seventh ring of hell this weekend. What‘s a shopping procrastinator to do? Gift cards!  Our number two story. When cash seems too crass, a little decorative three inch by two inch plastic does the trick.  But, with a little news you can use, our correspondent Kevin Tibbles found out, a lot of you are throwing away money without knowing it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KEVIN TIBBLES, NBC NEWS REPORTER (voice-over):  It is the piece of plastic that this year, more than ever, is giving Santa a run for his money.

MAN DRESSED UP AS SANTA CLAUS:  Just offer gift cards.

TIBBLES:  Millions of gift cards, super-charged with billions in cash, as the stigma, they‘re bland and thoughtless, has apparently vanished.  DAVE SIEVERS, ARCHETONE CONSULTING:  This has been a big year and Archetone is forecasting $35 billion in sales for this holiday season for gift cards which is about 25 percent more than last year.

TIBBLES:  Retailers now compete for your wallet with cards tailor-made for almost every store imaginable. Toys R Us lets you personalize it.  Starbucks cards come with an ornament.  The Home Depot bundles its cards with a “how-to” video.  And Target has 36 varieties with values from $5 to $2,000.  Even the shopping centers have them.

SARAH BURROWS:  It is really beautiful. It does. It makes it feel like it is a gift. 

TIBBLES (on camera):  Wow, a purple tie again. Now, that‘s going to sit in the bottom of a drawer somewhere.  A gift card would not do that, now would it?

TIBBLES (voice-over):  In fact, in 2006, an estimated $8 billion went unspent as recipients either forgot about the cards or simply failed to spend the entire amount.  And unlike cash, with time, many lose value or assess penalty fees.  Right or wrong, Ron Lieber calls them “the gift that keeps on taking”.

RON LIEBER:  You‘re faced with a choice of either leaving money on the card which makes you feel foolish or spending more than is on the card. 

TIBBLES:  And that means extra money for the retailer. Still, the average American family is expected to spend $184 on gift cards for the holidays. Because for many this busy season, Santa just can‘t beat the convenience.  Kevin Tibbles, NBC News.

STEWART:  On to our nightly gift to the world of celebrity and entertainment, “Keeping Tabs”.  Beginning with “Time” magazine‘s person of the year. Last year, it was not a person at all.  It was you and me but our reign is over.  Behold: “Time‘s” person of the year for 2007 -- Russian President Vladimir Putin says “Time” because he brought Russia warring back. Even if he gives democracy a dope slap now and again and, of course, his public relations campaign of making sure no kid‘s belly goes unsmooched. 

Not everyone agrees with the choice of the man who recently shipped nuclear fuel to Iran.  John McCain saying, quote, “I look into his eyes and I see three letters: K, G, and B.”  Well, senator, maybe these snap shots will change your mind.  Feast your eyes on the man roughing it on horseback in Siberia this summer or bravely going shirtless against Siberian mosquitoes the size of canaries or fishing in his fatigues, the Siberian sun glinting off his pecs.  Now, that is cover boy material for sure.

From the Kremlin to those little gremlins that make us fall in love, who can explain them?  For instance, a report today says that Larry Birkhead may be smitten to the heart with none other than the brickster.  “In Touch Weekly”, quoting Larry as saying, “I think Britney Spears is sexy.  And “Insider” reportedly saying that he who fathered a child with the late Anna Nicole Smith had a thing for vulnerable blondes and is trying to get fixed up with Spears. According to “In Touch”, he would love to combine their families “Brady Bunch” style.  Yes, that‘s what you hear—

Robert Reid spinning in his grave.

The 20-minute cover-up conversation just won the top ten web videos of the year, picked by the same folks who put Putin as their top person, so be forewarned.  Up ahead.  This is COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  To the top of the COUNTDOWN and a subject dear to all our hearts and millions of bored office workers everywhere: viral video. And, for once, we didn‘t have to do any hard slam. “Time” magazine has done it for us. Compiling its lists of the top clips forwarded to inboxes all around the world in ‘07.  Starting at number ten with someone who had too much time on his hands, literally, ON HIS HANDS. That little piece, the $6 Million Man meets Kanye West. meets daft punk, meets daft digits—that‘s Daft‘s Hands.

At number nine, Clark and Michael, the office‘s web comedy from ‘07 Break-out Star Michael Serra. Then this is at number eight.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAN RATHER, TV TALK SHOW HOST:  Jeff would prefer to do without the coat. On the other hand, I would prefer not to be the frozen anchor man.  Let me take it off, I think, we need to be consistent. Absolutely. Nobody wears his coat with his collar down.  Jeff is insistent that I keep my collar down. I never wanted that. Now, we need to make a decision. Coat or no coat?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  That was Dan Rather‘s twenty-minute meditation about whether to have his collar up, collar down, coat on, coat off while waiting to anchor the evening news.  For the recorded, he ended up with coat on, collar down. At number seven, a mash of cheesy music and current events.

A current event that Florida kid getting tased with the back beat of Hammers‘ “You Can‘t Touch This”.  Staying with the musical theme at number six:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(Singing)  You belong to me. Like—

STEWART:  SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE‘s and December‘s storm quiet love ballad to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Yet, more music at number five.

The inmates at the Cebu prison in the Philippines getting rehabilitated through the magic of Michael Jackson.  At number four, the 1984 commercial 2.0 with Hillary Clinton replacing big brother, made by a guy who works for a company that works for the Obama campaign. He says it was all his own idea. The company fired him for it.  At number three: map for Americans, related to Miss Teen South Carolina‘s explanation for why so many citizens can‘t find states on a map.

MISS TEEN SOUTH CAROLINA:  I personally believe that U. S. Americans are unable to do so because so many people out there in our nation don‘t have maps. And, I believe that our education such as in South Africa and Iraq and everywhere such as and I believe that they should, our education over here in the U. S. should help the U. S., or rather, should help South Africa and should help Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future.

STEWART:  How do you beat that?  Well, at number two, such as, a cute kid with a drinking problem.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN:  Hi, bro.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD:  Where‘s the rent?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN:  You don‘t to have raise your voice.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD:  You pay now!  I want my money, bitch.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN:  Don‘t call me bitch, I‘m a grown man!

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD:  Bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN:  Oh, you‘re mean!

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD:  I‘m going to smack you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN:  Ok, you know what?  You need to relax.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD:  I want my money!

UNIDENTIFIED MAN:  But, why do you need your money so fast? Come on.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD:  I need to get my drink on.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN:  You scare me. You‘re an alcoholic.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD:  Can I have four beers?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN:  Seriously, you are an alcoholic.  Yes, you‘re drunk. I knew it. You‘re already drunk.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD:  I‘m just buzzed.

STEWART:  The 2-year-old daughter of Will Ferrell‘s long-time collaborator Adam McKaye showing him up in the great landlord skit. And finally, at number one, this:

UNIDENTIFIED LADY:  Leave her alone!  You‘re lucky she even performed for you, bastard!  Leave Britney alone!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  Chris Crocker defending Britney Spears‘ abysmal performance at the MTV music awards.  A two-minute video that earned him instant fame and a reality TV show.  But we here at COUNTDOWN say, “Pearl, you were robbed.”

Of course, back in March, COUNTDOWN held its own prestigious web video  awards, the ‘Keithies”—not just for 2007 but since the internets began.  And you, the viewer, got to decide.  Which explains how Pinky the cat won the best animal category.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN:  A very loving cat. 

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL:  Pinky, whoa!  Whoa!

UNIDENTIFIED MAN:  We‘ve got a wild cat on our hands. Pinky, settle down, girl.  Be careful.  Yes. I‘m not going to grab it.

(INAUDIBLE)

STEWART:  Pinky is so not happening. These dudes won best everyday idiots award for their attempt to get their car out of a snow drift. As for the award for best internet superstar, not involved in porn. That went to this little lady.  She should have won for best actress.  And winning the final category, stuff from the TV that made the internet famous. None other than possibly the most brilliant Howard Stern prank in history.

BILL O‘REILLY, TALK SHOW HOST:  “Mr. O‘Reilly, I see the new Fox definition of fair and balance means interviewing DNC Chief Terry McAuliffe at both conventions.”

Well, right you are, Mr. Mehoffer.  Newt Gingrich appeared with us at both conventions so did Mr. McAuliffe.  What‘s the beef, sir?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  And that will do it for this Wednesday edition of COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Alison Stewart in for Keith Olbermann.  Until we meet again, join me weekday mornings at NPR‘s “Bryant Park Project”.  Thank you so much for watching.  Our coverage continues now with “MSNB LIVE” with Dan Abrams.  Good evening, Dan.

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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