updated 5/12/2004 10:14:00 AM ET 2004-05-12T14:14:00

Guests: Michael Dibenedetti, Richard Bey, Bill Nelson

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST (voice-over):  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow? 

It was not a decapitation that is quick.  Twenty-six-year-old American in Iraq to help rebuild antennas is hacked to death by five men climbing ties to al-Qaeda.  They say it was in response to abuse of Iraqi prisoners. 

Underage drinking: Old problem, new reaction.  The police crack down on the bar, so the bar sues the underage drinker. 

And even for reality TV, it seems shameful.  Tell the audience not to boo the under performing contestants because they‘re all terminally ill.  Of course, they aren‘t. 

All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Good evening.  The terms being used or “decapitation” and “beheading.”  Horrific as those words are they do not describe what was done to 26-year-old Nick Berg of suburban Philadelphia.  Those words imply his murderers were quick, perhaps, in the smallest sense, humane.  They were not.  They killed Nick Berg by hacking and cutting him to death, first on one side of his neck and then on the other, and they videotaped it. 

Our fifth story in the COUNTDOWN tonight, the title of the images on the Islamic militant web site say it all, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi shown slaughtering an American. 

Our correspondent is Richard Engel.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  These were American Nick Berg‘s final moments sitting with hands and feet bound as al-Qaeda militants forced him to identify himself. 

NICHOLAS BERG, SLAUGHTERED BY AL-QAEDA:  Nick Berg, my father‘s name is Michael, my mother‘s name is Suzanne. 

ENGEL:  Berg, A 26-year-old from suburban Philadelphia may not have understood what the militants were saying in Arabic, their reason why they were about to execute him, revenge for what the mutants call the “satanic degradation of Iraqi prisoners” at Baghdad‘s Abu Ghraib Prison. 

(on camera):  What is shown next on the video is too graphic to broadcast.  The militant reading the statement pulled a knife from his shirt and pushed Berg, who could be heard screaming, to the ground, then slowly, deliberately he cut off berg‘s head and held it up for the camera. 

(voice-over):  The executioner identified by the web site where the video was released as none other than Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Osama bin Laden‘s top commander in Iraq.  This would be the first time a video has been released of Zarqawi.  U.S. intelligence blames the Jordanian born militant for about 1,000 deaths in Iraq in the past year, like the March bombings against Shiite pilgrims in Karbala and Baghdad. 

GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY (RET.), NBC NEWS MILITARY ANALYST:  We will probably see, in the coming weeks, an attempt to, by many of these terrorists groups, to exploit this disgraceful situation in the prison camp and to capitalize on it and use it for their own propaganda purposes.

ENGEL:  Berg‘s execution is remarkably similar to the beheading, also recorded, of “Wall Street Journal” reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002.  At the time it was also the leading al-Qaeda operative in the country, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad who personally carried out the murder. 

Berg, who ran a small company which rebuilt communications towers, traveled to Iraq in March looking for work.  He was arrested by Iraqi police for suspicious activity, but was later are he released after his parents filed a federal lawsuit and he passed an FBI security check.  On April 9, Berg decided to go home, but the roads were especially dangerous that day.  Nine other Americans, including former hostage Thomas Hamill were kidnapped or killed that day.  Berg had been missing since then.  Today family members said they were simply devastated. 

Richard Engel, NBC News, New York. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Nick Berg‘s last words were of his family:  “My father is Michael.  My mother is Suzanne.  I have a brother and a sister, David and Sarah.  I live in Westchester near Philadelphian.”  Our correspondent in the beaux of Westchester at West Whiteland, Pennsylvania is Ron Allen. 

Ron, good evening. 

RON ALLEN, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening, Keith.  It‘s really hard to put into words the feeling, the sentiment, the mood here in this community that is completely shocked and devastated by what happened.  We just saw Nick Berg‘s father leave his house for the first time today.  He jumped in his car, drove through this assembled group of media who have been out here in the street all day, and just drove off and then came back.  He was obviously very angry, very distraught about what‘s happened.  This is a family that expected to finally get their son home when they last spoke to him April 9.  And they had been involved, at that point, in a several week-long process of trying to find out where he was once he was captured, taken into custody Iraqi authorities some time in late March.  They‘d even gone so far as to file a suit with the U.S. Federal Court system trying to get more information because they believe that at some point U.S. authorities also had him in custody.  So, a lot of mystery, a lot of questions surrounding his final weeks.  A lot of anger, a lot of sorrow here in this community.  Earlier today, a family friend and neighbor spoke for the Berg family. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRUCE HAUSER, NEXT-DOOR NEIGHBOR:  The Berg family is devastated by this loss.  They wish to extend their sympathies to the other families who have also suffered.  They are asking the army to expedite the release of Nick‘s body so the family can make arrangements to put this behind them. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ALLEN:  It‘ll, of course, take an inevitable amount of time, a long time to put all this behind them, everyone here in the town, friends describe him as a great guy, an adventurer, who apparently had traveled to the third world, places like Ghana, in the past, trying to get his small electronics business up and running.  We‘ve spoken to his high school—former high school principal, band leaders, everyone has nothing but great things to say about this 26-year-old unmarried man who people just couldn‘t believe the fate that befell him, in Iraq, today. 

Back to you, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Ron Allen at the Berg home outside Philadelphia on this most trying of nights.  Many thanks, Ron. 

The horrific news of Iraq landed right in the middle of the second week of the prisoner abuse scandal, there.  On Capitol Hill, the Senate Armed Services Committee focused on General Antonio Taguba once-secret report on the abuses at Abu Ghraib Prison.  Committee chairman, Senator John Warner, put the most basic question and put it plainly:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN WARNER ®, VIRGINIA:  Within simple words, your own soldier‘s language, how did this happen? 

MAJ. GEN. ANTONIO TAGUBA, U.S. ARMY:  Failure in leadership, sir, from the brigade commander on down, lack of discipline, no training whatsoever, and no supervision.  Supervisory omission was rampant.  Those are my comments. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  However, the committee‘s ranking democrats, Senator Carl Levin, made plain his belief that supervisory commission was also to blame. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), MICHIGAN:  These acts of abuse are not the spontaneous action of lower-ranking enlisted personnel who lack the proper supervision.  These attempts to extract information from prisoners by abusive and degrading methods were clearly planned and suggested by others. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And though the undersecretary of defense, Stephen Cambone, insisted that the Geneva Convention was enforced in Iraq, General Taguba found out that Abu Ghraib was an exception. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA:  But, you found clearly in your report

violations of the rules for the Geneva Convention for treatment of

prisoners of war, right in

TAGUBA:  Yes, sir. 

MCCAIN:  Including moving prisoners around to avoid International Red Cross inspections. 

TAGUBA:  Sir.  Yes, sir.  That was conveyed to us by those that we interviewed and comments we assess in our—in the written statements. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Despite the widespread condemnation from this government, just like the coalition intelligence officers who told the Red Cross that 70 percent or more of detainees in Iraq were arrested by accident, despite the public outrage here, quantified by a new opinion poll we will get to shortly, despite all that, not all of our leaders are convinced that Abu Ghraib was really any big deal.  During today‘s hearings, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma did some talking.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JAMES INHOFE ®, OKLAHOMA:  The idea these prisoners—you know, they‘re not there for traffic violations.  If they‘re in cellblock 1-A or 1-B, these prisoners, they‘re murders, they‘re terrorists, they‘re insurgents, many of them probably have American blood on their hands, and here we‘re so concerned about the treatment of those individuals. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Like all of the gentlemen we just heard from, Senator Bill Nelson of Florida is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and he joins us now live from Washington. 

Senator Nelson, thank you very much for your time tonight. 

SEN. BILL NELSON (D), FLORIDA:  Thanks, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  I‘m not going to focus on what Senator Inhofe said, but just the fact that he presented his viewpoint proximately.  In the last week, many others republican who were more critical of the handling of all this, did so and, of course, many democrats beside yourself, my point being, there‘s been a lot of talk here, but have the investigations really gotten anywhere closer to finding out how all this happened and why? 

NELSON:  Well, we learned something new.  We learned that—November the 19, that they put the military intelligence in charge of the prison over the M.P.s.  Now what we need to find out, were any of these heinous acts committed after military intelligence, and you see the attempts to blame all of this on five or seven Army privates, well I think what we‘re going to find is it‘s going to go up the chain.  Where it‘s going, I simply can‘t say, but we made a little bit of progress today. 

OLBERMANN:  There was one other detail if today‘s testimony that sent some shoulders down my spine, at least.  The lieutenant general who has been under investigation for some, I think, troubling, would be a good term for it, anti-Muslim remarks, General Boykin, it turns out, briefed a top Pentagon official last year and made suggestions as to how best gain intelligence from Iraqi prisoners.  Does this whole mess suddenly have a religious component to it? 

NELSON:  If it doesn‘t have an overt religious component, there clearly should have been the sensitivity of how it was going to affect the Muslim world, indeed the entire occupation of Iraq, we ought to have that sensitivity.  And, what is in the interest of the United States at the end of the day, it is, to have a stabilized Iraq that you can turn over to the Iraqi people.  And when we do these kind of things, whether it‘s religious or not, it certainly doesn‘t further us toward our goal of a stabilized Iraq. 

OLBERMANN:  Which leads almost inevitably sir, I guess, to the horrific death of Nicholas Berg, alleged retribution for the prisoner abuse in Iraq.  Obviously, this is a nature for everyone in this country.  But, does Mr. Berg‘s death figure, in any way, to your committee‘s investigations? 

NELSON:  Well, there is no excuse for the evil that was perpetrated in that—that awful, awful, savage beheading and we‘re going to hunt them down and we‘re going to find them.  We‘ll bring them to justice.  Now, how that will play out on the effect of all of this investigation, Keith, I just simply can‘t tell you. 

OLBERMANN:  Well, last question, Senator.  Is there any reasonable chance left that there are a number of random unconnected incidents in Iraq, as opposed to something resulting from a very bad decision somewhere on that chain of command? 

NELSON:  Yes, that is, Keith.  There are some 25 to 35 investigations going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, right now.  We‘ll see if there was a pattern of activity that occurred in other prisons, but right now we only know of this one prison. 

OLBERMANN:  Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, again, our thanks for your time tonight, sir. 

NELSON:  Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  How early the administration knew about all or some of this and how much is one of the side angles and there seems to be a murmur of “I told you so” out of the State Department.  The abuses at Abu Ghraib and possibly other U.S.-run prisons in Iraq were noted and reported privately to the Bush administration by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the ICRC.  And as Secretary of State Powell noted today, the list of those informed included himself and just about anyone else in the administration who really counts. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE:  He‘s been to the Pentagon; he‘s been over to the White House to see Dr.  Rice, and we kept ourselves informed and we also kept the president informed that the ICRC was looking at our facilities, and that from time to time they had concerns. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Despite the comments you heard earlier from Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma, a majority of Americans surveyed in a “USA Today” poll, say the abuse of Iraqi prisoners bothered them, quote, “a great deal.”  Fifty-four percent answered thusly, another 24 percent said it bothered them “a fair amount,” only nine percent said it did not bother them at all.

The three-day survey completed this Sunday, suggests that events at Abu Ghraib are impacting the country‘s overall view of the war and the president.

Asked, all-in-all, do you think it was worth going into war in Iraq or not?  Forty-four percent said it was worth it, 54 percent said it was not.  That is almost a complete reversal from the same poll taken just last week, as of May 4, 50 percent had said the war was worth it, on 47 percent said it was not. 

As to the president, asked if they approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling Iraq, disapproval is up to 58 percent.  A year ago, it was at 21 percent.  And for the first time, asked for an overall assessment of the Bush presidency, the majority says it disapproves -- 51 percent disapproval, 46 percent approval.

There were no questions asked about what to do with Saddam Hussein.  Then again, the head of Iraq‘s war crimes tribunal thinks that question has already been answered.  The Pentagon does not.  Salem Chalabi told reporters in Kuwait that the U.S. has pledged to hand over Saddam as well as 100 other former members of his regime to Iraqi authorities by the time of the scheduled June 30 transfer of authority, there.  But off the record, a Pentagon spokesman says, no date has been schedule forward turning him over, nor has it been decided when or where the trial of Saddam Hussein will take place. 

COUNTDOWN opening tonight with the fallout, gruesome and political, from the prisoner abuse scandal.  Up next, our No. 4 story:  This has been a month full of images, from the hideous execution of Nicholas Berg to the base sleaziness out of the Iraqi prison.  In a moment, the how and why of the impact of the image in Iraq and here. 

And later, Kobe Bryant back in court for only the second time he speaks, but he is overshadowed by a surprise from his alleged victim.  Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  COUNTDOWN‘s No. 4 story straight ahead, your preview:  The deep truth that hackneyed cliche that a picture is worth 1,000 words.  The images that have infuriated Iraqis and the one today horrified Americans.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  It has been overused to the point of meaninglessness; a picture is worth a thousand words.  What if it turns out to be worth a thousand lives? 

Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, tonight:  The videotape of the murder of the antenna specialist from outside Philadelphia, Nick Berg is best described as being worse than the worst seen, ever produced by the horror movie makers of Hollywood.  This all may change, the unspeakable act may be symbolized by one image, but history, recent and otherwise, suggest that film or video of a given event, even an atrocity, does not have the impact nor the import of a still photograph.  We are learning that anew in Iraq.  The photograph does not move, but as Bob Faw reports, it manages to move us. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BOB FAW, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  They are moments frozen in time, indelible images freezing our perceptions.  A 9-year-old Vietnamese girl violated by napalm, and the execution, point-blank, by a Vietnamese general helped turn millions of Americans against that war just as segregationist never recovered when police dogs snarled in Birmingham. 

In his 25 years as photo editor for the “Associated Press,” Had Buell saw how photographs sway, not just the emotion, but history. 

HAL BUELL, “ASSOCIATED PRESS” PHOTO EDITOR:  Film goes sort of in one eye and out the other, where as a still picture holds and freezes there, and people—a viewer can look at it and study it, and—and it just lasts. 

FAW:  It works the other way to photos affirm and ennoble, a World War II flag hoisted forever, a hero saying good-bye, at Tiananmen Square a portrait of defiance.  Positive images resonate because they confirm who we‘d like to be.  Negative images wound because they contradict who we think we are. 

MARGARET ENGEL, NEWSEUM DIRECTOR:  This is a very tough situation for our culture to find itself in, to see visual proof that we‘re not the wonderful, upstanding citizens we like to think of ourselves as. 

FAW:  So, which Iraqi image will endure:  the exuberance here or ugliness here?  Years from now, will we ache when we hear “Abu Ghraib” the way we wince when we hear “Kent State?” 

KERRY ROBBINS, VISITING FORM NEW ZEALAND:  I think the people will probably have to look hard and long and consider all the ramifications from this. 

FAW:  No, the prison photos are not as gruesome as torture inflicted by Saddam or the Meli (PH) massacre by American soldiers, but in the Arab world and at home, they are drawing blood, piercing hearts, and changing minds. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I can‘t support that, and I‘ve been supportive. 

FAW:  A reminder, in the age of an Internet and 24 hour cable, that pictures which do not move do move profoundly, especially when their pain becomes ours. 

Bob Faw, NBC News, Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  The fourth story in the COUNTDOWN behind us now, and the power of the picture.  Still ahead of us tonight, some much needed levity.  We‘ll tackle those stories that will not get a COUNTDOWN number, but we feel compelled to show them to you anyway—“Oddball” just around the corner.  And, sir, I don‘t think that‘s how you work that thing.

And later, the William Hung phenomenon has sparked an unusual recording career and now an unusual, or perhaps the correct work “cruel” reality spin-off show, seriously.  Stand by.

OLBERMANN:  We rejoin you now with the COUNTDOWN and immediately bring it to a screeching halt for our nightly respite from the day‘s more grim affairs.  The brief trip down the chocolate aisle that is weird news.  Let‘s play “Oddball.” 

And we begin tonight in Lithuania where once again, man‘s eternal dream of flight seems nearly within his grasp.  Or dozens of men and their flying machines slip the surly bonds of earth and dance the skis on silvered wings.  Well actually, they were duct-taped to bicycles.  The winner was to get a cell phone, not all succeeded, in fact, none succeeded, but some, if only for a moment, flung their eager craft through footless halls of air and briefly touched the very face of god. 

Back on earth, now Australia, a remarkable display humanitarianism in action.  American dance instructor and former stripper Annette Loose has traveled to Australia to help Ausi men explore their sensitive side through the art of seductive dance.  And here‘s what that looks like. 

All of a sudden one is reminded of what might be the real horror behind the possible release of the 20-second digital video recordings we‘ve hear about from Iraq depicting the American soldiers have consensual sex. 

And,

By the way, if you‘re dumb enough to put yourself on tape doing that, try for something longer than 20 seconds, that‘s embarrassing. 

Finally, the folks at the Cape Fear Museum in New Hanover, North Carolina, have two things to say to the very generous local contractor.  First, thank you so much for your donation.  That‘s authentic civil war cannon ball, it‘ll make a final addition to our battle of Fort Fisher exhibit.  And second, it‘s still hot, run for your lives! Seventy people were evacuated; the bomb squad called to the museum today, the cannon ball is still active after 140 years.  It has been moved to a bunker at the police station.  Their experts are trying to diffuse it.  Cannon balls are not bowling balls, you know, they have explosive powder in them which is why they go “ka-boom” when you use one.  Evidently that was not known there. 

COUNTDOWN picking back up with the No. 3 story.  Your preview:  Kobe Bryant and his alleged victim.  Bryant makes a plea, but she makes an appearance.  We‘ll have a live report from Colorado. 

And later, the full-court press in the publishing world to get Bill Clinton‘s memoirs released.  The former president has now cleared the biggest hurdle, until the critics. 

These stories ahead, first here are COUNTDOWN‘s “Top 3 Newsmakers” of this day:

No. 3: Marco N. a would-be bank robber from Dusseldorf.  A German judge has given him a suspended sentence of one year and the advice: “you are clearly untalented for the job.”  Marco was already at the bank he intended to rob before it opened in the morning.  He was dressed in shorts and a woolen hat so as to be as conspicuous as possible, and then it took him three hours of marching up and down outside before he even had the nerve to enter the place and stick it up. 

No, 2: Cody Yeager, the 10-year-old from Hudsonville, Michigan, was surprised in the boys room in the elementary school, as he unspoiled the toilet paper to find neatly folded therein, a $100 bill.  Obviously, that roll was part of Mr. Trump‘s private stock.  Kid, ya fired. 

And, No. 1: Speaking of surprises, Brandon Buchan of good old Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, won an MP3 player on eBay.  Sent in his money, got the package back from San Francisco, opened it up—a handgun, a Smith & Wesson .22, which means somebody, somewhere is trying to hold up a band and he‘s got nothing more in his hand than a digital recordings of William Hung.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  If the Kobe Bryant case wore you out long ago, there is some good news.  The latest pretrial hearing moved so rapidly that Bryant actually entered his formal plea of not guilty late this afternoon. 

Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, we go for yet another tour of America‘s courts.  Please, do not wear your good shoes.  Beginning at the Bryant hearings, where perhaps the most unusual and unexpected twist in the case thus far, a story found not among the lawyers or the pleas, but in the visitors galley. 

MSNBC‘s Jennifer London is in Eagle, Colorado. 

Jennifer, Good evening. 

JENNIFER LONDON, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, good evening, Keith. 

You can certainly say it was a surprise when Kobe Bryant‘s accuser appeared in the courthouse yesterday.  It was such a surprise for many, in fact, we are told the defense did not even know that she was going to appear.  Now, the hearings yesterday were closed to both the public and press, so it is not entirely clear what part of the hearing she sat in for, but it was either one of two arguments being waged by the defense, one, to get parts of her sexual history admitted at trial or part of her medical history admitted at trial. 

Observers in the courtroom—or actually in the court hallway, I should say—noticed that when she left the hearing, she appeared to be shaken and was also clutching a tissue.  Now, today, for Bryant‘s arraignment, she did not appear in the courthouse.  However, her parents were here.  They were sitting behind the prosecution.  And Bryant, for his part, well, he seemed very relaxed as the judge read the charge allowed. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  How do you plead, not guilty or guilty. 

KOBE BRYANT, DEFENDANT:  Not guilty. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  A plea of not guilty will be entered. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LONDON:  The not guilty plea was certainly not a surprise.  The arraignment was very short. 

And immediately afterward, court adjourned until May 27.  The court telling us that they are not ready to announce a trial date yet because simply there are too many motions outstanding that need to be worked out first.  Among them, as I mentioned briefly, will the accuser‘s sexual history be admitted at trial?  Will her medical history be admitted at trial? 

And then there is also issue of these key pieces of evidence, the defense trying to toss out a reported statement by Bryant, as well as a T-shirt.  So, Keith, we may have to wait until May 27 at the earliest to learn when this case will in fact go to trial. 

OLBERMANN:  MSNBC‘s Jennifer London at the Bryant hearings, many thanks. 

To the Bryant case‘s tabloid twin now and a bid for a second change of venue in the Scott Peterson trial, Judge Alfred Delucchi denying a defense motion to move the trial once more from Redwood City in Northern California to Los Angeles.  Delucchi wrote—quote—“There is no showing this case would receive less publicity in any other venue, let alone Los Angeles, the media capital of the world”—unquote.  No truth to rumors that the next move by Peterson‘s attorney, Mark Geragos, will be to request that the trial be moved to another dimension. 

And two new cases of note tonight, almost identical, certainly novel.  Judges in Ohio and New York have essentially ruled that two defendants better not have any more children.  Sean Tulty (ph) has fathered seven children with five different mothers.  He was already $40,000 in arrears on support payments.  Two years ago, he was ordered by a judge to take—quote—“reasonable efforts not to get anyone pregnant for the next five years or he would be sent to prison.”

His attorneys sued, calling it pay up or zip up.  Today, the Supreme Court of Ohio heard oral arguments in the case.  Nobody said anything about the mullet. 

Meanwhile, in upstate New York, a judge has told the parents of four children, three of whom tested positive at birth for cocaine, that they have been barred from procreating until they have proven they can take care of their kids.  All four of their children are in foster care. 

That concludes the third story on the COUNTDOWN, our tour of the courts.  Up next, the revenge of the bartenders, successfully suing an underage drinker for thousands of dollars in damages.  Then later, from jilted groom to filling the room, sort of.  The wedding dress guy is back, his new passion ahead. 

But, first, here are COUNTDOWN‘s three sound bites of this day. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RYAN WESTON, CHAMPION TRAMPOLINER:  It‘s very satisfying to me to learn a new song on the piano, to dance with (UNINTELLIGIBLE), to learn a new trick on the trampoline, to challenge myself in school.

MATT LAUER, CO-HOST, “THE TODAY SHOW”:  Should I just throw the question page right out the window? 

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  And the other reason, tell them the truth why you

had us on.  We were the only cast that were still alive from

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)  

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  Most of us.  That was the only reason.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  Most of us. 

GEN. PETER PACE, VICE CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF:  On the other hand, potentially, to go to another part of your question, if you do not want to be caught doing something stupid, don‘t do something stupid. 

(LAUGHTER)

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE:  You can see how he got four stars.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Too young to drink, too big to ride, new restrictions on old pastimes, our second story on the COUNTDOWN.

Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) 

OLBERMANN:  It turns out the customer is not always right and American businesses are taking steps to deal with this jolting truth. 

Our No. 2 on the COUNTDOWN is in fact two separate stories with a common thread.  In a moment, the backlash from bar owners fed up with underage drinkers. 

But first, the fallout from a nightmarish accident at an amusement park; 55-year-old Stanley Mordarsky—or Mordarsky—died while riding the Superman Ride of Steel roller-coaster at the Six Flags in Agawam, Massachusetts, earlier this month.  According to his family, Mr. Mordarsky stood 5 feet, 2 inches tall, weighed 230 pounds.  He also had cerebral palsy and used a motorized scooter to get around. 

An investigation into the tragedy confirmed that two people were at fault, the attendant for not having properly secured Mr. Mordarsky into his seat and Mr. Mordarsky himself for being too overweight for the ride.  The accident prompted the Council For Amusement and Recreational Equipment Safety—in layman‘s terms, those would be the people in charge of roller-coasters—to issue a new safety suggestion.  Just as the height restrictions stop little kids from getting on dangerous rides, the council wants to put weight restrictions and size limits on adult riders.

Part two of the No. 2 story is only potentially less fatal, underage drinking.  Police in San Francisco slapped owners of a bar called Amante with $3,000 in fines for having sold liquor to a 20-year-old woman who was using somebody else‘s driver license as her I.D.  So the bar owners sued her and they won a $5,000 judgment in small claims court.  The owners, Eric Bordman (ph), Michael Dibenedetti, and Wiz Wentworth (ph), say they will now join with other Bay area barkeeps to keep underage drinkers in fear, if not in fear of their lives, then in fear of their wallets. 

Mr. Dibenedetti joins us now from San Francisco. 

Good evening, sir. 

MICHAEL DIBENEDETTI, BAR OWNER:  Good evening. 

OLBERMANN:  To the viewer who is taking, suing the underage drinker, that‘s a little harsh, can you explain why you‘ve done this? 

DIBENEDETTI:  Yes, I can, for two reason.

One was to recoup some of our losses, which were $10,000.  There was a $3,000 fine and then $7,000 lawyer fees.  And it was to send a message to the underage drinkers that it is not acceptable to us.  And just so they know, the first time was a $3,000 fine.  The second time would be a 25-day closure.  And the ramifications of that is that all my staff is out of work for 25 days.  We are out of business for 25 days.  And the third time, we are out of business totally. 

So they could essentially put me out of business.  And, again, it‘s all my staff as well out of jobs, just because they want to drink. 

OLBERMANN:  Has the process of telling who is underage and who is not suddenly gotten more difficult?  I guess that is a question that may have occurred to people watching this.

DIBENEDETTI:  Yes, it has. 

With the advent of the Internet and technology today, the fake I.D.s are so good, it‘s like anything else today—they are just doing a really good job on the fake I.D.s.  And, as I say, some people are using real I.D.s like, say, a sister‘s I.D., so that doesn‘t even show up as a fake. 

OLBERMANN:  The cynical might say again that your wanting to shift the burden to the kids who try to do this, the underage drinkers, so that you‘re not facing that $3,000 fine and conceivably the loss of income.  Are there other motives involved here?  What would you say to somebody who was sort of cynical in their outlook on this? 

DIBENEDETTI:  I would say to them first, we‘re the victims here.  We do everything we can to verify the I.D.s to make sure somebody is 21. 

And like I say, with somebody else‘s I.D. or a very good fake, they get by us.  They are the criminal.  They are the ones with the criminal intent.  And there is nothing we can do against something like that.  So we are just a victim here.  We are trying to prevent that. 

OLBERMANN:  Is there a public service element to this?  Is it not in everyone‘s best interest, including the people who own the bars, to keep people who are underage from drinking? 

DIBENEDETTI:  Oh, absolutely.  It‘s in everybody‘s best interests.

And, in fact, it‘s even in the underage person‘s best interest.  If they want to go into a bar and this is done, we are not going to be there when they turn 21.

OLBERMANN:  Michael Dibenedetti, one of the owners of Amante in San Francisco, it‘s an interesting story.  We wish you the best of luck in your efforts and we thank you for your time tonight. 

DIBENEDETTI:  Thank you very much. 

OLBERMANN:  Not in meaning, just in terminology, we get to segue deftly out of the No. 2 story to our news of celebrities, from the travails of a bar to “Keeping Tabs.” 

And first, finished.  That‘s not the right picture.  I‘ll just wait for it.  There it is. 

Finished.  His publisher‘s book agent, friends, and the Kerry campaign all breathing a sigh of relief as former President Bill Clinton delivers the finished manuscript of his autobiography, “My Life,” or, as it is also pronounced, “My Life.”

First print, 1.5 million copies, 900 pages.  That means it‘s at 1.35 billion pages all printed.  The audio version abridged will fill six compact discs.  It will cost $35.  So will the hardcover version and so will the R-rated video.  There‘s some escaped animals in the studio.  We‘ll be right with you. 

Meanwhile, only a tell-all book detailing secret love between Crockett and Tubbs could save actor Don Johnson from bankruptcy.  The “Miami Vice” and “Nash Bridges” star filing for Chapter 11 protection.  That was last month.  Now his creditors are lining up to collect outstanding bills.  Among the petitioners, an Aspen, Colorado, grocery store, which claims Johnson owes it more than $5,000.  There‘s an energy company looking for $1,600 and a $1,200 bill from a rug company, the on-the-floor kind, we think. 

And we welcome back to COUNTDOWN the one and only Larry Star.  He‘s the man who achieved brief fame on this program and some of the morning shows by auctioning off his ex-wife‘s wedding dress on eBay.  It was not so much the sale as the pitch, big, harry, rock ‘n‘ roll playing Larry Star himself posed in his auction in the dress, launching, believe it or not, a shot as a career as a stand-up.  He got a tryout and some instruction at the comedy club the Punchline in Atlanta. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LARRY STAR, COMEDIAN:  I get one e-mail that said, you know, you covered your face, but didn‘t cover your tattoos.  “America‘s Most Wanted,” they might be watching. 

(LAUGHTER)

STAR:  I‘m a guy in a dress.  I am not wanted for war crimes.  How many people want me to put this dress on? 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Larry, stick with what‘s funny, big hairy exes wearing their wives‘ wedding gown.  That‘s humor. 

And by coincidence, that is not our last wedding dress story of the day.  Lynnwood, Washington, Ryan Snow (ph) was enjoying a springtime day of fishing when he found something really heavy at the bottom of Martha Lake.  That‘s a body of water, by the way.  You guessed it.  It‘s a wedding gown, empty, as they said, blue beads along the hem, a little rusty in places.  So how did it wind up in a lake?  Well, there was already one on eBay. 

Tonight‘s top story, the awful truth about lying in the unreal world of reality TV. 

But, first, here are COUNTDOWN top two photos of this day. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  On a reality performance TV show, good may no longer be good enough, or at least not different enough.  Producers are now evidently looking for contestants so bad, they are good. 

Our No. 1 story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, call is the William Hung factor.  In a moment, how one network solved the dilemma of getting spectators to cheer for crappy singing. 

First, the inspiration himself.  In case you thought William Hung was due exactly 15 minutes of fame, the man has evidently stopped the clock.  Saturday, he will be at the Rose Bowl, up on the same stage as Jessica Simpson, Janet Jackson, Lenny Kravitz, and OutKast.  And he is neither a roadie, nor security.  He‘ll be singing.  And, oh, by the way, he‘s gotten himself a local New York area TV commercial. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  I‘m coming out, so you better get this party started. 

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  Whoa, dog, dog. 

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS:  I don‘t know what to say. 

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  I told you, she‘s speechless.  We got that last spot. 

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  All right, let‘s just get what‘s his name back in here.  He loves it. 

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  We were awesome. 

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  Are you sure? 

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  Who could possibly beat us?

WILLIAM HUNG, SINGER (singing):  She bangs, she bangs. 

I made it.  How did you guys do? 

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  Apparently not so well. 

HUNG:  Maybe you should try radio. 

NARRATOR:  Scott and Todd morning on PLJ.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Have you ever lived in New York, you know that was not good advice. 

Now, this is where the Hung factor and the reality show “Superstar

USA” come in.  It is described as a bogus talent contest for the WB Network

·         well, the WB stations—with the motto, only the bad survive.  The premise, as conceived by the same guy who dreamt up the shell game “The Bachelor,” was that the winner would be the worst singer. 

The problem, what do you do if worst is bad enough to cause the studio audience to boo or laugh?  Solution, one of the producers tell the audience members beforehand that they should be supportive and not critical, because all the contestants are terminally ill and were there thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.  There have been apologies left and right and sober distancing by Make-A-Wish, but the show is still in production.

And “The Los Angeles Times” is reporting that producers are still playing tricks, this time not on the audience, but on the contestants, like lowering the volume of the music to which they sing or shifting its tempo to make these guys seem even worse than they are. 

So a new high in low?  Richard Bey is my former colleague at the ABC Radio Networks.  He hosts a talk show there.  Before that, he was the host of one of the wildest shows on television, “The Richard Bey Show.”

Richard, thanks for your time tonight. 

RICHARD BEY, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  Thank you, Keith.  It‘s good to be here. 

OLBERMANN:  As a veteran yourself of the TV talk and TV reality wars, telling the audience that the contestants are all dying, is this over the deception line, I mean, if there is one still to go over? 

BEY:  Well, do people really care? 

We‘ve come a long way from the “Quiz Show” scandals of the ‘50s, when it was a scandal, when the public itself was deceived.  But I think at this point, most people in the audience don‘t care if it‘s real or not.  It‘s like pornography.  What matters is getting the jolt, not whether it‘s real. 

OLBERMANN:  You and I may have seen all we need to see of that end of television, but even that most jaded viewer probably assumes that stuff like lying about whether or not the contestants are dying is, I don‘t know, isolated, overzealous, incident, unconnected to the patterns of the industry.  Is it, or is it a standard for the people who run these shows? 

BEY:  Well, I think it‘s systemic. 

I think—you‘re talking here about a medium that has the moral aesthetic of P.T. Barnum, not the Moscow Art Theater.  What matters is getting the show on the air, getting the ratings.  And the audience doesn‘t care whether it‘s real or not, any more than that guy in “The Matrix.”  Remember the movie “The Matrix,” where he turned traitor against his friends and he said: “I don‘t care if it‘s real.  As long as I have money, as long as I get the babes, as long as I have a good life, I don‘t care if it‘s real or whether it‘s the fantasy the robots are putting into my head”?

I think that the TV audience these days are so jaded, is so jaded, that they don‘t care anymore. 

OLBERMANN:  Fantasies the robots are putting—I‘m thinking of just another possible pitch for a new show. 

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  Fantasies the robots are putting in my—all right.

BEY:  But Keith, going beyond this...

OLBERMANN:  Yes?

BEY:  We just went into a war where the media also presented to people information that was not credible in the end, that was hyped, that was—that was uncorroborated or didn‘t have a basic foundation.  That sent this country to war. 

I mean, there are other areas throughout the media where hype and stepping over the line or not investigating things or following a proper moral code are (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and there are more severe consequences than a silly, you know, reality game show like this. 

OLBERMANN:  Which way does the line go?  It‘s not chicken and egg, obviously.  It‘s not WMD and “Average Joe” there, something—they‘re not side by side on the moral path, but where does that—does that deterioration of society begin, in your opinion? 

BEY:  Well, you know, it‘s hard to say whether it comes from the things that are more important to the things that are less than important, or if it comes from the things that are less important to the things that are more important.  You know, it is fairly obvious I think that we‘ve worked our way across, you know, from of the things that are less important to this point, but it doesn‘t seem like the American public really cares whether it‘s important or unimportant as long as it‘s packaged correctly. 

What‘s inside the package does not have to have credibility.  What‘s inside the package does not really have to have worth.  It just has to be an exciting package. 

OLBERMANN:  Last thing, last quick question about packaging.  What was the worst example you ever heard of out-and-out lying to the studio audience or the home audience? 

BEY:  Well, I would say what happened during the six months before the invasion of Iraq was the worst. 

OLBERMANN:  Ah.  A different kind of game show. 

BEY:  Yes. 

OLBERMANN:  Richard Bey, we‘re out of time.  By the way, I‘m waiting for the awful truth about William Hung, that he‘s actually a Juilliard-trained singer and he‘s pretending. 

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  Thanks for joining us, sir.

BEY:  Oh, thank you Keith.  It‘s my pleasure. 

OLBERMANN:  Before we leave the world of TV reality and replace it with actual reality, one more thing you need to know about our No. 1 story, the man, the inspiration, William Hung himself has now been our No. 1 story on COUNTDOWN five times since he made the world known of his presence in January of this year.  It seems like just the other day.

Before we end the news hour, let‘s recap the five COUNTDOWN stories, the ones we think you‘ll be talking about tomorrow. 

No. 5, execution on videotape, 26-year-old Nicholas Berg, an American who was kidnapped in Iraq, shown at a radical Web site, his captors making him identify himself before reading out a statement in Arabic.  They read it out.  Then they brutally behead him.  And that is a kind description of what happened.  On camera, he was slowly and horrifically hacked to death.  The video, at least on the Web site, identifies the actual killer as al-Zarqawi, who is Osama bin Laden‘s chief Iraqi operative.  It is not clear whether or not al-Zarqawi did indeed commit the crime. 

Four, the other images of abuse, the graphic pictures taken in Abu Ghraib Prison, now part of the enduring imagery of the war in Iraq and why the still photographs seem more impactful than moving video.  Three, not guilty, Kobe Bryant offering his plea in the sexual assault case one day after his accuser unexpectedly showed up in court.  Today, her parents were there.  According to her spokesperson, she wanted to show him and the judge that she is not afraid. 

Two, the revenge of the bar owner, a San Francisco bar successfully suing a 20-year-old underage drinker for showing a false I.D. that landed the bar with a fine for serving minors.  And, No. 1, “Superstar USA,” a new reality shows that fools bad singers into thinking they are good, complete with producers who fooled the audience into believing that the bad singers were terminally ill in hopes that the audience would not boo or laugh. 

We hope you didn‘t boo or laugh.  That‘s COUNTDOWN.  Thanks for being part of it.  I‘m Keith Olbermann.  Good night and good luck. 

END   

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