updated 9/21/2004 11:18:33 AM ET 2004-09-21T15:18:33

Guests: Deborah Potter, Barbara O‘Brien, Craig Crawford, Tom Squitieri, David Verklin

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

Kill the Killian memo.  CBS backs away from the dicey docudrama.  Its source outs himself.  Dan Rather apologizes.

How Dan Bartlett‘s non-quotation at the White House cinched the journalistic disaster.  How the bloggers contributed, and how the bloggers may not be as politically independent as they would like you to believe.

Al Qaeda wants John Kerry elected, says one politician.  Al Qaeda wants George Bush elected, says another politician.  The war of political words over the war on terror.

Advertising in the time of TiVo.  If the consumer can skip your pitch, how do you get your pitch inside the TV program?  And what does soap have to do with it?

And, “Get me.  I‘m an earthworm.”  A British performance artist. 

We‘ll wait to see if he turns.

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Good evening.  This is Monday, September 20th -- 43 days until the 2004 presidential election.

The White House says it has no reason to believe at this time that CBS News was complicit in the process by which it predicated a story about President Bush‘s Air National Guard service on the so-called Killian documents—documents away from which CBS stepped slowly back today.

After a week of controversy, anchor and managing editor Dan Rather of the CBS Evening News announcing, “I no longer have the confidence in these documents that would allow us to continue vouching for them journalistically.”

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN.  CBS says it was misled.  Others say CBS did the misleading.

And perhaps just as importantly, the two, key failsafes in the journalistic process that should have prevented the disaster, but did not, seem to have been identified.

The network says it will launch an independent inquiry into the Killian documents, which first saw the light of television day two weeks ago Wednesday.  Their source outed himself today.

He is, indeed, Bill Burkett, former Texas Air National Guardsman, who told CBS for its evening news broadcast tonight that he did provide those documents, and he did deliberately mislead CBS about where he got them.  Burkett has now changed his story about where they came from.

The network says it cannot verify his news story or his news supposed source.  But Burkett still insists he did not forge the memos, and CBS still is not saying that the documents are frauds.  They‘re in some hazy area in between.

“Based on what we now know,” wrote CBS News President Andrew Heyward, the network “cannot prove that the documents are authentic, which is the only acceptable journalistic standard to justify using them in the report.  We should not have used them.  That was a mistake, which we deeply regret.”

Dan Rather‘s separate statement added, “We made a mistake in judgment, and for that I am sorry.  It was an error that was made, however, in good faith.”

The mechanics of the process by which CBS was misled, or misled itself, seem to have hinged on two, key journalistic moments, the first, obviously, the solidity of the source.

The former guard official, Mr. Burkett, who was described on this broadcast last week by Mark Hosenball of “Newsweek” as having aggressively tried to offer various news outlets various versions of the Bush service story over various years, and winding up looking not very stable in the process.

The second key, as reported variously by the “Los Angeles Times,” the “Washington Post,” and now “Time” magazine, centers on how White House communications director Dan Bartlett reacted to the Killian memos when CBS presented them to him for comment, or more correctly, how he did not react to them.

Bartlett said the White House would not challenge their authenticity.  That statement has been compared to the exchange between Colonel Ross and Sherlock Holmes in the Conan Doyle story, “Silver Blaze.”

Investigating the disappearance of a horse, Holmes tells its owner of the curious incident of a dog in the nighttime.  The owner replies, the dog did nothing in the nighttime.  Holmes replies, that was the curious incident.

Twelve hours before the CBS broadcast on September 8, Mr. Bartlett was given copies of the documents.  Nearly nine hours before the broadcast, he conducted an interview with CBS.

“If the White House had just raised an eyebrow,” “60 Minutes” executive producer Josh Howard told “Time.”  “They didn‘t have to say they were forgeries.  But if there was any hint that there was a question, that would have set us back” to rethink the whole story.

Joining me now to try to make sense of the whole story, a pleasure to be joined by the executive director of NewsLab, the not-for-profit journalism training and research center in Washington, and formerly one of the most respected correspondents of CBS News and CNN, Deborah Potter.

Welcome.  Thanks for your time.

DEBORAH POTTER, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NEWSLAB:  Thank you, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  If those were the key moments—taking Burkett‘s word for where he got the documents and perhaps misinterpreting Bartlett‘s non-quotation, if you will, for those mistakes to have allowed something like this to happen—did people at CBS also not only have to believe the story was true, but also want it to be true?

POTTER:  Absolutely.  And I think when you‘re on the trail, on the hunt of a really exciting story with documentary proof of something that has been alleged for a long time, there‘s a tendency to sort of get into the chase, to want it to be true.

But someone at CBS, someone in a higher-up position, a news executive, had the responsibility to put the brakes on and make sure that it really was true.

I think there‘s an old rule in investigative reporting.  You try as hard as possible to prove your story wrong as you do to prove it right.  And CBS did not do that.

OLBERMANN:  Does the infallibility theory come into play here?  As an old CNN boss of mine once told me when I called him to say one of our sports stories was 100 percent wrong, he said, literally, if we‘re not being criticized by somebody, we‘re not doing our job.

POTTER:  Well, there‘s certainly a sense that, if you‘re being criticized by everybody—that is, people on both sides of an issue—you are doing your job.

But in this case, they clearly didn‘t do due diligence on these memos. 

No question about it.

OLBERMANN:  There are people—absolutely sincere, credible people—who say that we, right here, would be an example of the complete over-analyzation of this, and we‘ve made it more complex than it is, that their position is much simpler—Dan Rather made this stuff up.  He Xeroxed it in the basement himself, for all they know.

And when CBS admits to a foul-up of this proportion, it is—it becomes difficult to get any fully satisfying answer to those kinds of critics.

How does CBS disprove the big, broad question, that this wasn‘t just a mistake, but intentional?

POTTER:  Well, I think no one, at least in a position of authority, is suggesting that it was intentional.  CBS has finally come clean.

The question we might ask is, what took them so long?

And the problem for CBS is at least partly of its own making, that is, it defended these memos for an entire week when they were under serious assault and didn‘t really try, even then, to find out what the truth of the matter was.

And tonight, the source of the memos was pretty plain-spoken about this, and said that he had told CBS, you need to make sure that these are authentic.

And when your source tells you he‘s not 100 percent sure, that‘s a red flag.  And nobody saw it waving.  Nobody did anything about it.

OLBERMANN:  Lastly, I‘m putting you either in the nightmare position of everyone in our business, or the dream position in everyone in our business.

You‘re in charge of the independent investigation at CBS that the president, Andrew Heyward, promised.

What are your goals in that?  Are you going to fire people?  Are you going to cancel shows?  Is there a Jason Blair?  Is somebody going to wind up self-immolating as a result of this?

POTTER:  Well, I have no idea.  And thank goodness I‘m not actually in that position.

But I do think there are shoes still to fall.  There probably will be additional ramifications at CBS, because the company has to recognize the damage has been done, not just to Dan Rather and not just to “60 Minutes,” but to the credibility of CBS News.

And when this has happened, as you mentioned, at other news organizations like the “New York Times,” somebody had to pay the price.  I suspect we haven‘t heard the last of it.

But I am glad that CBS is taking the step of launching an investigation.  They just should have done it a long time ago.

OLBERMANN:  Deborah Potter of NewsLab, formerly of CBS News and CNN, a great pleasure and great thanks.

POTTER:  Thank you, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  It‘s party time in the world of blogs tonight.  Whatever the journalistic or political meaning of the Rather-Killian story, this is widely being viewed on the Internet as a triumph of new media over old media, as surely as if the bloggers were marching around tonight with Dan Rather‘s head on top of a pole.

But are the blogs what they seem?  Are they anti-establishment, non-partisan truth squads?  Or actually just an electronic version of the oldest vortex between journalism and politics, what used to be called the house organ of the Democratic or Republican Party?

The “Chicago Tribune” revealing that the creator of one site, in this case, Rathergate.com, Mike Krempasky is the political director of American Target Advertising, a firm run by Richard Viguerie, a conservative strategist widely credited with making political direct mail what it is today, and a key player in the elections of Ronald Reagan and other Republicans.

His professional connections were not mentioned on that site till last Thursday.  And as we reported to you on Friday, the “Los Angeles Times” outed the blogger, credited with raising the first questions about the type faces and other details of the Killian memos on the Web site Free Republic.

Buckhead was not an attorney with a font fetish.  He is Harry MacDougal, a conservative activist, who helped draft the petition to suspend Bill Clinton‘s law license, and with direct work ties to Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell and former independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

Given that several new media advertising firms are paid enormous sums to drop product promotions into Web chat rooms, and not let anybody know that they are advertisements, are blogs any more politically neutral than the old media they frequently savage?

I‘m joined now by Barbara O‘Brien, author of the upcoming book, “Blogging America:  Political Discourse in a Digital Nation.”

Good evening.

BARBARA O‘BRIEN, AUTHOR, “BLOGGING AMERICA”:  Hi.

OLBERMANN:  Ms. O‘Brien, one of the pretexts of these blogs would be, you know, is—everything is biased in some way on the old media.

Is there a buyer beware quality to any of these blogs?  Or should there be?  Is there some sort of theme protecting the reader against the possibility that there‘s water-carrying going on there, as well as anywhere else?

O‘BRIEN:  Well, this is something that‘s being discussed now on the blogosphere.  We‘re not innocent anymore, it seems to be.

It used to be that we all saw ourselves as being these independent pirates who were all on our own, and we were going against the establishment.  And now it seems we‘re being infiltrated by the establishment.

So, it‘s going to be an interesting thing to watch.  I mean, most of the blogs that have been in the politics sphere for several—for the past couple of years—I don‘t think most of us are working for anybody.  It‘s really mostly just independent voices speaking on their own.

But we‘ll have to watch it.

OLBERMANN:  Political backdoor plays used to be limited to, you leak a news story to cooperative journalists.

Do we know if there have been incidences yet—is it sophisticated enough yet—that either party would be using blogs surreptitiously to get the political dirty laundry out there in a much faster way?

O‘BRIEN:  Well, it could be done.  I don‘t know that it‘s happened.

This incident we‘re discussing right now certainly looks suspicious, that there was some sort of coordination going on.  But who knows?

There are so many conspiracy theories flying around right now, I don‘t want to add to them.  We have enough to go on.  But, certainly, it could happen.

And one of the things I argue for in my book is that blogging and the bloggers are becoming more influential very rapidly.  The bloggers are turning into opinion leaders and do have some clout, and probably more so than most people give them credit for being.

So, I think that it seems to be that the parties, the political factions, are looking at them and saying, OK.  This is one way we can get our message out, is through the bloggers.

OLBERMANN:  Now, that reverse conspiracy theory on the Killian memos story is that CBS—I mean, we know this—gave Dan Bartlett of the White House the documents at 7:45 in the morning on Wednesday, the 8th of September.

And the first blog posts about type face problems and content problems and whatnot were about 12 hours later, or more, courtesy of this gentlemen, Buckhead.

Is there anything to suggest that that feed, that that line is actually something more than the imagination?  Or conversely, is there anything that says, in the blogosphere, hey, we have to make sure that there can‘t be lines like that, because we could be just as manipulated as we perceive old media to be?

O‘BRIEN:  Oh, absolutely.

I don‘t know any more than you do about the situation with Buckhead.

But I think it‘s interesting.  One of the things that I find fascinating is the fact that this story went from an anonymous poster on Free Republic, which is a radical site, to Drudge by mid-afternoon the next day to major media the following evening.

In about 24 hours, it went from one anonymous poster to major media and was cemented as conventional wisdom.

And people are making noises at Dan Rather—rightfully so, it seems

·         that he was careless.  But what about everyone else?

No one knew who this Buckhead was.  And there were reasons to think some of his arguments purely on typography had—could be argued in another way.

You know, I spoke up because I have some expertise in typography.  I spoke up and questioned his arguments last weekend.

And I got hit with threatening phone calls, and I had to shut down my blog‘s comments, because people were leaving obscenities.

I mean, they‘re really after anyone who doesn‘t like George Bush these days.

But whether this was directed by anyone of any particular faction, or whether it just happened, who knows?  I‘d like to know, too.

OLBERMANN:  It‘s new territory.  I guess we‘ll all straighten it out.  The only thing we can say for old media is, at least most of us guys still wind up using our real names all the time.

Barbara O‘Brien, whose new book, “Blogging America,” will be out shortly, thanks for your insight.

O‘BRIEN:  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  Many thanks for your time, too.

COUNTDOWN opening up with the facts about the CBS docudrama.  Up next, more on the conspiracy theories.

Have we gone from vast right-wing conspiracies to vast left-wing?  Is it simultaneous ones?  Do they merge?  Do they cancel each other out?  Craig Crawford joins us.

And later, Hurricane Ivan may be gone, but the damage is not.  What about Tropical Storm Jeanne and Florida?  The latest from the Gulf Coast coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  As we reported earlier, those few CBS people speaking on the record tonight insist that the go, no-go moment of the Killian memos story was when correspondent John Roberts reported that White House communications director Dan Bartlett said his office would not contest the memos‘ authenticity.

Oops.

Our number four story in the COUNTDOWN.  There was already a conspiracy theory going in the Killian CBS case—the Democrats did it.

The Bartlett angle then fueled the alternative conspiracy theory that the Republicans either set CBS up, or quickly took advantage of a network mistake in progress.

First, Mr. Bartlett today appearing on MSNBC, as he earlier did on CNN and FOX News.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAN BARTLETT, WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR:  Who created them?  Who offered them?  Who worked with him on this?  Who are the ones that developed this story?

There have been conversations with members of the Kerry campaign and Democrats with, for example, with the source, Bill Burkett.  That‘s come out in recent days.

There‘s been communications between Ben Barnes, who is a Democrat—who was involved in this story in the first place in saying, claiming that he got the president in the guard, when that‘s not the case—and his communications with the Kerry campaign.

So, there‘s a lot of different questions that are circling and swirling on this.  Each day seems to bring a new revelation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  For the battle of the conspiracy theorists, I‘m joined now by MSNBC political analyst and “Congressional Quarterly” contributor, Craig Crawford.  Craig, good evening.

CRAIG CRAWFORD, CONTRIBUTOR, “CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY”:  Hey, maybe the Clintons did it.

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  By way of full disclosure, Craig also contributes to the CBS program, the “Morning Show,” but he had nothing to do with Killian reporting.  And he does not Xerox documents in his spare time.

CRAWFORD:  Not by a long shot.

OLBERMANN:  Let me start with the least believed explanation of them all.

Is it possible that neither theory is correct, and this was just terrible journalism, and not politically manipulated journalism?

CRAWFORD:  It looks like a case of a lone ranger activist who gave these documents to CBS, and they were eager for the story to be true.

It‘s like the old newsroom joke, Keith.  A story too good to check.

We‘ve always heard that line.  You get a good, hot story.  You‘re just afraid to check it, because you know it might just be not true.

And, but you‘ve got to check it anyway.  And apparently, that just wasn‘t done well enough here.

OLBERMANN:  All right.  The two political theories here.

At the White House, Mr. Bartlett points out he had only 3.5 hours with these documents before he sat down for the interview with John Roberts, and he said the White House won‘t contest the authenticity of the documents.

Is that enough time to hear the knock of political opportunity?  Let them blow themselves up with this.  Or have I become now completely jaded by exposure to this Machiavellian world of modern presidential American politics?

CRAWFORD:  You know, Keith, I don‘t think we can be near as cynical as the people we cover, to tell you the truth.

And I don‘t know.  My guess is, I really have to wonder if when the White House looked at this document, if they thought it might be true.

You know, there‘s plenty of evidence that the president did get preferential treatment in getting in the National Guard, and they probably feared that it might have been an accurate document and didn‘t raise it.

But there is the question.  Is—did CBS get set up here?  This guy who gave him the document, though, doesn‘t seem like an operative of Karl Rove, by any measure.

OLBERMANN:  But we still don‘t know.  He, obviously, claims he got the documents somewhere.

We don‘t know where that was or who he changed it to, or why that would have impressed CBS so much.  That‘s the question that‘s still out on the table.

But let me ask you a final one here about winner—the winner-loser question.

Dan Rather looks like an amateur.  CBS looks like a journalistic streetwalker.  The Democrats look guilty by association.

All of the other solid reporting on Mr. Bush‘s service record by the “Boston Globe,” by others, tarnished today by what CBS did.  And the White House looks wounded, invaded, schemed against.

Is there any question of which side came out in the winner—as the winner in this politically?

CRAWFORD:  No, I don‘t think so.

In the great war between politicians and the media—which is actually a book I‘m working on to come out next year—the politicians won this one, as they often do.

And I think the media as a whole suffers, not just CBS.  And as we move along in this campaign, the Bush campaign has a perfect opportunity to blame the messenger, no matter what story comes along that‘s negative for them.

They will be able to say, ah, it‘s the media out to get us again, and distract the discussion.

OLBERMANN:  Craig Crawford of MSNBC and “Congressional Quarterly,” and CBS, but the “Morning News,” not “60 Minutes” or the “Evening News.”  And now working on the first-ever 244,000-page book on the media versus politics.

Many thanks, as always, Craig.

CRAWFORD:  Never ending.

OLBERMANN:  Up next, a break from the serious news of the day, for the stuff you just have to see to believe.  Oddball is straight ahead.

This is Worm Boy.  Hello, Worm Boy.

And later, first, it was the squeals of joy in Oprah‘s studio audience.  Now the squeals of joy among the top brass at the car company that gave away the free cars.  Extreme advertising, coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  It‘s time to pause the COUNTDOWN, per se, to bring you the news of no socially redeeming value.

No, not politics.  We‘ve done politics.

It‘s all the weird stuff that happens when I say, let‘s play “Oddball.”

Paul Hurley is a 25-year-old performance artist from Devonshire, England.  First he covered himself in lubricant and became a human slug, then he broadened his appeal a little bit and portrayed a snail.

He sat in a greenhouse for two hours, licking the greenhouse.

Now he‘s trying something daring and new.  He‘s covered in plastic wrap and slithering in and out of mud puddles.

He‘s an earthworm.

Next, Mr. Hurley says, he‘s going to break the mold and get away from the whole slug-snail-earthworm thing.  Instead, he will portray an insect.

How about a caterpillar?  That way, when you come out of the cocoon as a butterfly, it‘ll look really fitting when the guys finally chase you down with them butterfly nets.  Needs to find a performance artist who pretends to be a shrink.

Mr. Hurley was not invited to participate in this, the annual cannoli eating contest in New York City‘s Little Italy.  The winner was Robert “Badlands” Booker, all 6‘5”, 390 pounds of him.

The prize for eating 16.5 of them in six minutes—a championship belt.  Just the thing after you scarf down 445,000 calories in 360 seconds.  Jeez Louise!

“Oddball” now safely behind us.  Up next, a return to the serious news of the day.

Terrorists in Iraq kill an American hostage and say more will be killed tomorrow, if the U.S. does not meet their demands.

And the war as it is viewed on the campaign trail.  Senator Kerry coming out swinging against the president‘s war policies in Iraq.  Each side says the other candidate would be the choice of al Qaeda.

Those stories ahead.  First, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers.

Number three.  The Bay Area Naturists Club, helping clean up the Bonny Dune Beach near Santa Cruz, California over the weekend.  Many of the members did so naked—in 60 degree temperatures.

One of them, however, begged off explaining, you don‘t want the wind going where the wind shouldn‘t go.

Number two.  James Chavez, the activities director at Rio Grande High School in Albuquerque thought the appropriate gift for 2004 homecoming weekend would be little tiny glasses with “Dreams Will Come True” etched on them.

Not until he had given away 100 of them did he realize that the tiny little glasses were not glasses to hold candles in nor store toothpicks in.  They were shot glasses.

Number one.  Darren Brock of Swansea in South Wales.  A judge hearing a charge of public drunkenness against him permitted Mr. Brock a half-day delay in showing up, and then allowed him to wear a baseball cap in court as he testified, because of a bad hair day—a really bad hair day.

As you see, he had fallen asleep at the barber‘s, and the barber shaved all but a wisp of his hair off the top of his head and removed one of his eyebrows.

The judge fined him 50 pounds for public drunkenness and another 50 for looking like the dog Petey from “The Little Rascals.”

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Those who have seen it say it is, if possible, more grotesque, more inhuman even the video showing the murder of American Nicholas Berg. 

Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, another hostage crisis ends in horror in Iraq, while in this country, we continue to tear ourselves up about events there and in the war against terrorists.  American Eugene Armstrong, one of three men captured and held for ransom, brutally murdered, and his two colleagues facing another agonizing deadline.  The Internet images showing a terrifyingly familiar tableaux. 

Kneeling in an orange jumpsuit, Eugene Armstrong is pleading for his life while five masked men read out a statement.  One of them pulled out a knife and slowly decapitated him, a murder so gruesome, the Al-Jazeera network refused to show it.  Al-Jazeera, though, did identify the murderer as Abu Musab Zarqawi, although whether or not he is still alive is a matter of dispute internationally.

Armstrong and his two co-workers, American Jack Hensley and Briton Kenneth Bigley, were kidnapped late last week.  On Saturday, the militia released this video, threatening to kill all three in 48 hours unless the U.S. released Muslim women from Iraqi jails.  The deadline for Hensley and Bigley has now been extended for another 24 hours.  U.S. officials say they have a task force.  Military, CIA, special forces, and State Department officials working the crisis. 

Back here on Friday, the comedian and political satirist Bill Maher compared President Bush‘s continuing sunny statements about Iraq to those of the infamous Baghdad Bob, the Saddam Hussein spokesman who never let a discouraging word, nor a true one, pass his lips. 

Unexpectedly, Maher‘s point of view got support on the Sunday talk show circuit from Republican senators, Lugar of Indiana on ABC on the fact that only one-eighteenth of the budget for reconstruction had yet been spent.  “This is the incompetence in the administration.”  McCain of Arizona on Fox: “We made serious mistakes in the overall picture.”  Hagel of Nebraska on CBS: “The fact is, we‘re in deep trouble in Iraq and I think we‘re going to have to look at some recalibration of policy.”

All this same-side criticism of President Bush served to set up the latest new centerpiece of John Kerry‘s campaign against the incumbent.  At New York University today, the senator laid out four keys to his Iraq policy, get more help from other nations, provide more and better training for Iraqi security forces, provide benefits to the Iraqi people, guarantee the democratic elections next year. 

Following those four steps, he says, could permit the first withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq next summer and the end of the U.S. presence there within four years.  And anticipating the next round of flip-flop charges, he said that President Bush has—quote—“by one count, offered 23 different rationales for this war.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  The president claims it is the centerpiece of his war on terror.  In fact, Iraq was a profound diversion from that war and the battle against our greatest enemy. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

KERRY:  Invading Iraq has created a crisis of historic proportions.  And if we do not change course, there is the prospect of a war with no end in sight. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And as surely as if they were courting somebody‘s endorsement, the race to try to identify either Mr. Kerry or Mr. Bush as the candidate of al Qaeda has stepped up and not simmered down. 

Just before taking the stage at a Republican fund-raiser Saturday night, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert told reporters he thinks al Qaeda will try to influence the election to get John Kerry into office.  He then qualified that statement by adding—quote—“I don‘t have data or intelligence to tell me one thing or another, but I would think that they would be more apt to go to somebody who would file a lawsuit with the World Court or something, rather than respond with troops.”

Finally, a reporter asked him directly if he thought al Qaeda would cooperate or operate better with John Kerry in the White House.  And Hastert‘s reply was, “That‘s my opinion, yes.”

Just as he did two weeks ago when Vice President Cheney implied that the nation would face a greater threat of domestic terrorist attack under a President Kerry, it was vice presidential hopeful John Edwards who took up the gauntlet to slap the speaker. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D-NC), VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  When I say they will say absolutely anything, now we find out, literally in the last 24 hours, that Denny Hastert, the speaker of the House, has joined the fear-mongering choir. 

He said—and I‘m paraphrasing him now—he said last night something to the effect that al Qaeda wants John Kerry to be president of the United States. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And an odd third man in on this whole al Qaeda favorite son notion, Italy and to a lesser degree England now reeling over the comments of the U.K.‘s ambassador to Rome, the British representative there reportedly telling the annual meeting of the Anglo-Italian policy-makers over the weekend that President Bush is al Qaeda‘s—quote—“best recruiting sergeant.”

An Italian newspaper also cites the venerable Sir Ivor Roberts as saying—quote—“If anyone is ready to celebrate the eventual reelection of Bush, it‘s al Qaeda.”

To separate out the war politics from war rhetoric, I‘m joined now by “USA Today”‘s national correspondent, Tom Squitieri.

Good evening, Tom.

TOM SQUITIERI, “USA TODAY”:  Well, my head is spinning, Ken, from all that—Keith—from all that stuff.  I even got your name wrong.  Sorry about that.

OLBERMANN:  Evidence indeed of the head-spinning. 

The Kerry battleship may have been spinning like the prize wheel on “Wheel of Fortune.”  But did it just hit the right spot at the right time?  If Hagel and McCain and Lugar are saying we‘re in trouble in Iraq, does this suggest that John Kerry might have found his resonant note? 

SQUITIERI:  It does suggest that if you listen to some of the military experts who say that making the point that Iraq is not the great place to fight al Qaeda is a winning point possibly when you describe how you approach the war on terrorism—war against terrorists. 

The point that he may be vulnerable on, the same experts say, is that, by setting a timetable for withdrawal of troops, no matter how hopeful that may be, would encourage the enemy to dig in and stay. 

OLBERMANN:  The purely domestic challenge for Kerry is what here, articulate some position that‘s different from the president‘s, keep it simple, supportive of the troops.  Did he get close to that in this four-pointer today? 

(CROSSTALK)

SQUITIERI:  He started moving in the direction, I believe, Keith, according to what you hear him saying, what experts say need to be done. 

First of all, most Americans are uneasy about how the war is going, and for good reason.  We‘ve talked about it before.  We‘ve reported about how no one says they can come up with a way how you get out of Iraq.  So he has that point going for him.  His challenge is to tell a way that he can make it better.  And he started moving in that direction today. 

Again, it is tough for him to articulate a clear policy, because, if you talk to anybody in the military, there isn‘t one out there. 

OLBERMANN:  The other argument today, as we discussed just before you joined us, over who al Qaeda would vote for—when Colin Powell says, John Kerry would be a robust commander in chief against terrorism, is there still enough value in that dark bit of political strategy to make it worthwhile?  Or, by this point, is Speaker Hastert making a fool out of himself when he says what he said on Saturday night? 

SQUITIERI:  If you subscribe to the theory that it is going to be a very close election in some states, any voters you can nudge in one direction or the other is helpful.  So these kind of comments from any camp, planting doubt into the minds of an undecided voter about a candidate is helpful. 

Who the al Qaeda candidate is, is a myth to discuss, because, unlike Spain, if there‘s a huge attack against the Americans here, Americans tend to rally around the flag.  So that would in a sense be good for President Bush and not Senator Kerry.  So it‘s hard to see how al Qaeda can influence election, because, if they give up and surrender, that‘s good for President Bush, one could argue.  Or if they stage massive attacks, it‘s good for him. 

OLBERMANN:  One thing we know about all that is that the Cheney-Edwards debate may be the most entertaining we‘ve seen in several years. 

SQUITIERI:  Indeed.

OLBERMANN:  Tom Squitieri, national correspondent of “USA Today,” as always, sir, great thanks. 

SQUITIERI:  Thanks, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Iraq and terror certain to play a huge role in any presidential debates.  And tonight, we finally learned, none too soon, that there will be three of them, both candidates agreeing to three face-to-face meetings.  In principle, that agreement has taken place. 

Each takes place in a key swing state, first Florida September 30 in Miami.  That‘s next Thursday, if you want to mark it down.  Then comes October 8, Saint Louis, and the third debate five days later in Tempe, Arizona.  The first would focus on foreign policy and homeland security, the second on all subjects, and the third domestic and economic policy. 

There‘s also one debate on the schedule for the vice presidential ticket, October 5 in Cleveland.  Be there.  Aloha.

And a day without sunshine is, well, night.  But a day without polls is, well, impossible, today‘s from Zogby and Pew, one general, one specific.  The national presidential figure, 46-43 Bush.  Margin is three points.  Margin of error is 3.1 points.  Polling was Friday through yesterday.  The week before, it had been 46-42 Bush.

A specific question asked by Pew Research:  Are you worried President Bush will enter into another war?  Registered voters said yes, 51-35.  Undecided voters said yes 52-41. 

And also on the poll scoreboard for decision 2001, Yankees 11, Red Sox 1, Mussina over Pedro Martinez.  This one, New York up by 4.5.  And the margin of error is Esteban Loaiza.  And from Antiga, the gender of the first child in the newly married Britney Spears, dead-even, couldn‘t be closer.  And that will go to the prenatal college. 

Up next, tonight‘s No. 2 story, the destructive power of Ivan from the Southeast to the mid-Atlantic to the Northeast.  Cleaning up will take weeks.  And later, that‘s right.  As we just told you, Britney Spears gives wedded bliss a second try.  And, at the rate she‘s going, in a few hours, that will outlast the first marriage. 

All that ahead.                 First, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three sound bites of this day. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)  

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  Actually, all those questions have been asked and answered in the previous campaign and in this campaign.  It‘s been documented that the president fulfilled his obligations. That‘s why he was—it‘s been documented that the president fulfilled his obligations, and that‘s why he was honorably discharged.

DONALD TRUMP, DEVELOPER/BUSINESSMAN:  Who would have thought this was going to happen? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  You!

TRUMP:  Yes, probably.  When you get right down to it, that‘s probably right. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Exactly.  All right, look into the camera and say those two famous words. 

SQUITIERI:  Ready?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Yes. 

TRUMP:  Are you ready, dear? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  No, you do it, baby.

TRUMP:  You‘re fired. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  These people are trying to shake the will of the Iraqi citizens.  And they want us to leave.  That‘s what they want us to do.  And I think the world would be better off if we did leave—if we—if we left, the world would be worse.  The world is better off with us not leaving. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Up next, Ivan‘s lasting impact.  The death toll rises, the number of homeless now, too.  And extreme advertising later on.  As you tune commercials out, they have to find new ways of worming their way in.  And they have.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  No immediate threat to land, that‘s the assessment tonight about Florida about Tropical Storm Jeanne. 

Our No. 2 story on the COUNTDOWN, no one there is lamenting her failure to RSVP.  This latest nightmare of this long nightmarish hurricane season, though, did not skip the Caribbean, causing massive destruction to the Western Hemisphere‘s poor nation, Haiti.  There are already 300 confirmed dead and U.N. peacekeepers with unconfirmed reports that the number is actually more like 450.  The interim prime minister has declared of three days of national mourning. 

There‘s one sad truth about Jeanne relative to this country.  The damage from Ivan was so pronounced and prolonged, it is almost as if Florida had been visited by yet another hurricane over the weekend. 

From Pensacola, Kerry Sanders now chronicles a place and a time where those who have to repair and mend their broken homes and broken lives are the lucky ones. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KERRY SANDERS, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  In Pensacola, they‘re patching up, cleaning up, as today it became clear how deeply Hurricane Ivan destroyed not only communities, but also lives.  Thousands are now homeless in Florida and Alabama, like Chisheila Edwards (ph) and her 1-year-old son. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  These are all trying times for us. 

SANDERS:  News today her apartment building has been condemned. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Seek other shelter until further notice. 

SANDERS (on camera):  Where are you going to go? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  There ain‘t got nowhere to go. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We ain‘t got nowhere to go.

SANDERS (voice-over):  The roof ripped off. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  That‘s our insulation.  This just came down. 

SANDERS:  The only food in the darkened apartment...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  He‘s not really good at digesting all this kind of food. 

SANDERS:  ... rations handed out by the National Guard.

With at least 52 killed in the United States, Ivan is the fifth deadliest hurricane since 1960.  It hit with 130-mile-an-hour wind.  Insured losses are estimated up to $10 billion.  But not everyone is insured or has a job. 

GREG PAPPAS, HURRICANE VICTIM:  I work on boats.  I did, not anymore. 

SANDERS:  No work, no home turns an Oldsmobile into more than just transportation. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Our only option is—right now is maybe just to live in the car maybe for a while. 

SANDERS:  Yet another hardship for a woman who is also battling cancer. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I‘m always the strong one in my family.  So now all this happened.  I  don‘t have nothing to put over my son‘s head, no clothes, nothing.  And it is making me feel bad, because I could have done better.  We could have done better.  So...

SANDERS (on camera):  Tonight, relief agencies and the federal government are promising to remain in the devastated areas until everyone gets help. 

Kerry Sanders, NBC News, Pensacola, Florida. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  From the serious news to the day‘s celebrity and gossip round-up, the nightly segment we call “Keeping Tabs.”

And trophy dates everywhere are in mourning tonight.  The father of palimony is dead.  The concept was unheard of when Marvin Mitchelson claimed that Michelle Triola was entitled to just as much of Lee Marvin‘s wealth as she would have had they been married, not merely living together.  A court agreed.  That was 25 years ago.  He also represented the ex-wives of Marlon Brando, Bob Dylan and James Mason.  Mitchelson died Saturday in Beverly Hills, age 76. 

And just when Britney Spears was getting started.  The chanteuse of the bare midriff married her fiancee, dancer Kevin Federline, Saturday in a surprise ceremony.  That would be another surprise ceremony.  But unlike Spears‘ previous wedding this year, this was not in Vegas in the middle of the night; 20 to 30 guests were invited to a private home in Studio City, California, and told they were attending an engagement party.  Not among them, Federline‘s ex-girlfriend, Shar Jackson of the TV show “Moesha,” who just gave birth to their second child.

COUNTDOWN just moments away from revealing our top story.  Your preview, what does Oprah Winfrey, General Motors, and Ivory Soap—what do they all have in common?  Bet you can‘t wait to hear the answer to that one. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  One hundred years ago, when New York City‘s subway system

was opened, America‘s finest $2 adventure ride, by the way, some criticized

the advertising posters in the stations.  But an independent survey of

those riders indicated an overwhelming preference for them for a simple

reason.  They provided much-needed information about new products.,

Our No. 1 story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, information, we‘ve got plenty of, thanks, thanks largely to Microsoft with Intel Inside.  Ads and commercials are ubiquitous, courtesy of the J. Walter Thompson agency, yet technology is striking back.  There‘s TiVo, that wonderful recording device that lets you watch any of the fine NBC brand family of networks while skipping the commercials.  Thus, perhaps the commercials of the future, a future brought to you by Halliburton, will have to be inserted inside the broadcasts, like the six I‘ve just dropped in, in the last 48 seconds, or, more creatively, what General Motors pulled off a week ago.

For just $8 million, it got millions more in advertising by giving a free car to every member of Oprah Winfrey‘s studio audience.  There‘s another 20 cents worth.  The company reports that the Pontiac Web site is now getting 10 times its usual total of traffic. 

That doesn‘t stop with Oprah.  Oh, no.  This letter came FedEx.  It reads: “In celebration of our 125th anniversary, we‘re presenting you with a hand-carved soap bust of yourself,” not just any soap, Ivory soap, new Ivory Aloe, no less.  The company asked for no publicity, but got it anyway, especially when my soap head separated from my soap neck in transit.  Contents may settle while shipping, my bass.

It‘s a bad sign when that happens, don‘t you think?  They fixed me. 

Joining me now, David Verklin, the chief executive officer of Carat North America, an independent media services company working with such clients as Pfizer, Radio Shack, and, for the purposes of full disclosure, Procter & Gamble.

Mr. Verklin, good evening. 

DAVID VERKLIN, CEO, CARAT NORTH AMERICA:  Nice to see you, Keith.  How are you doing today? 

OLBERMANN:  Well, I have a big soap head of myself in my office. 

VERKLIN:  You‘ve never looked better.  You‘ve never looked better. 

OLBERMANN:  Well, I‘ve never smelled better. 

Was what Pontiac did with Oprah a dawn of a new era of stunt advertising? 

VERKLIN:  I think it‘s really a big part of advertising‘s present and a major part of advertising‘s future; 276 members of her audience are given a $28,400 car, $7 million, $8 million in retail value, over $20 million of publicity generated to date, not including this segment that you and I are doing right now. 

OLBERMANN:  Exactly.  We‘ve just shown the tape again.  That‘s another couple of bucks right there.

What happens to commercial TV as recording devices and commercial clipping devices become ubiquitous and they become cheap?  Do shows on television here become like the European soccer broadcasts that have a sponsor‘s name always in the corner, always? 

VERKLIN:  Well, I think—first of all, this isn‘t a new idea.  It goes back to the early days of television.  “The Texaco Star Theater” and “The Sunshine Biscuit Hour” have had advertising intervention in it from the very beginning.

But, yes, this is what the future of television is going to look like.  You‘re going to see advertising intervention, commercial persuasion, put in all forms and flavors of the future of television.  It could be as simple as that Motorola logo on the coach‘s microphone in the NFL broadcast and it could be something as huge and a special what you‘ve seen on Oprah.  But welcome to the future and welcome very much to the experimentation with advertising‘s present.

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  The first real national daily newscast—people forget this—with John Cameron Swayze on NBC about 1950 was “The Camel News Caravan.”  And not only was it sponsored by a cigarette company.  It had the advertisement in it throughout the newscast and he sat there and smoked a cigarette. 

So we go back to where this broadcast started.  There are campaigns—and, ironically enough, I saw this on “60 Minutes”—which are devoted to placing seemingly unsolicited testimonials for products or for music on chat rooms on the Internet.  Is that where we‘re going, ultimately, not stunt advertising, then, but stealth advertising? 

VERKLIN:  Well, yes.  The three big ideas in terms of what‘s called branded entertainment—and that‘s really what this segment is about, branded entertainment, integrating a brand into the content of a movie, of some music or a television show.

The three things that need to be considered are integration, is it natural and does it feel seamless?  NBC‘s “The Restaurant” last year was probably none of those three things.  Many viewers felt it was over the top.  Some people would say something like Oprah is hitting a sweet spot, where you‘re getting a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of people very excited about a product in a way that, in some cases, is very, very natural. 

(CROSSTALK)

VERKLIN:  So you‘ve seen the best in both.

OLBERMANN:  And how could you possibly top it, though?  You would have to give somebody a house, I suppose. 

David Verklin, marketing and media specialist, thank you for your perspective and for not plugging anything.  Thank you for doing that, too.

VERKLIN:  Nice to be here, Keith. 

That‘s COUNTDOWN.  Thanks for being part of it.  I‘m Keith Olbermann.  My head has been made of soap, but you‘ve known that all along.  Good night and good luck. 

END   

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