updated 9/23/2004 10:50:57 AM ET 2004-09-23T14:50:57

Guests: Mickey Sherman, Dean Johnson, Chief Al Ernst, Michael Massing, Bob Kohn

DAN ABRAMS, HOST:  Coming up, Scott Peterson, more lies on videotape.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Did you tell police?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Told the police immediately.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  When? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  That was the first time.

ABRAMS (voice-over):  Not true.  Scott Peterson never said anything to the police about his affair with Amber Frey that first night.  Just one of many lies prosecutors showed to the jury.  We have the tapes. 

Plus...

(GUNSHOTS)

ABRAMS:  This 17-year-old under arrest after allegedly telling a fellow teen he was planning a Columbine-like attack on his high school.  And wait until you see the home video they found. 

And we’ve hammered CBS for its poor judgment or worse in the Bush National Guard story, but the dean of a prominent journalism school suggests two top newspapers may have been just as bad leading up to the war by failing to recognize problems with their stories about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.  Is that really a fair comparison? 

The program about justice starts now. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ABRAMS:  Hi everyone.  First on the docket tonight, the prosecution in the Scott Peterson case making a mad dash to the finish line in these final days of its case, focusing on what Scott Peterson had with him when he was arrested.  We’ll get a report in a moment. 

And after what has often seemed like a rambling disjointed presentation, they are beginning to focus on the two most important pieces of evidence—where Laci and Conner’s bodies were found and Peterson’s lies.  A lead detective in the case testifying yesterday he came up with 41 reasons to focus the search on the San Francisco Bay, exactly where the bodies were found. 

His reasons range from Peterson placing himself at the marina that day to discrepancy in Peterson’s alibi, telling some he went golfing, others he went fishing.  Many of his lies caught on tape.  For example, he told Diane Sawyer that he told police of his affair with Amber Frey right away. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DIANE SAWYER, CO-ANCHOR, “GOOD MORNING AMERICA”:  Had you told anyone? 

Did you tell police? 

SCOTT PETERSON, ON TRIAL FOR MURDER:  Told the police immediately. 

SAWYER:  When? 

PETERSON:  That was the first night we were together.  The police, I spent with the police...

SAWYER:  You told them about her? 

PETERSON:  Yes, December 24...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  No sire he—we know he didn’t and so did he.  The day after the interview aired he called Detective Grogan to find a way out of his lie. 

(BEGIN AUDIOTAPE)

PETERSON:  Well I said that they’ve got me answering a question.  I answered it wrong on Diane Sawyer.  Sounds like I answered a question that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) I told you about Amber the first night and obviously you know we both know I didn’t.  And (UNINTELLIGIBLE) I don’t know if I should try to get a retraction out there or just you know, anyways, it’s, you know, we both know that’s not true.

(END AUDIOTAPE)

ABRAMS:  We’ll be playing more of those lies, but first “My Take”.  This is big for the prosecution.  Slap of the defense’s argument that police rushed to judgment for no good reason.  Whether all 41 police reasons turned out to be accurate is irrelevant.  He was lying and they were justified in being suspicious of him. 

Most important they were right.  The bodies were exactly where they suspected they would be.  But I wonder whether this is too little too late.  One thing Scott Peterson has going for him is he’s consistent on all the tapes saying he didn’t do.  I fear some jurors may already Justin (ph), my term for jurors who will disregard any prosecution evidence no matter how powerful after watching weeks of an unimpressive prosecution presentation. 

The term, of course, in homage to the defense team favorite, former juror number five, Justin Falconer, who’s been writing into the show with his interesting albeit unproven theories about what might have really happened to Laci.  Let’s bring in our legal team—criminal defense attorney Mickey Sherman, former San Mateo County prosecutor, Dean Johnson, MSNBC analyst and former San Diego County district attorney Paul Pfingst.

All right, so Mickey, is the defense sinking? 

MICKEY SHERMAN, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY:  I don’t know if they’re sinking, but you know, it’s never too late.  It’s not—I saw the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) too little too late.  May be too little, but it’s not too late.  Jurors can, I think, be, you know, can be very flexible, and if they get what they consider to be a smoking gun, even after 16 weeks, they can use it to convict him. 

You know the problem is here you don’t lie to the police and it’s even worse I guess to lie to Diane Sawyer or any other network anchor.  It really comes back to bite you in the rear end...

ABRAMS:  Dean...

SHERMAN:  ... that’s just so basic.  I don’t know why anyone would let him go on a television show at that stage of the game. 

ABRAMS:  Yes, well I don’t know—you know I don’t know how closely he was working with attorneys at the time.  Dean, you have been very critical of the prosecutors.  Is this their comeback? 

DEAN JOHNSON, FMR. SAN MATEO COUNTY PROSECUTOR:  Yes, this is their comeback.  My notes today say prosecution making a rapid comeback.  For about the last two weeks, they have been systematically, first of all, destroying the most outlandish theories that the defense has raised and now they’re starting to bring in their own most important evidence. 

We’re seeing the flip side of that rush to judgment defense, as you pointed out.  When you talk about rush to judgment then you get to talk about the investigating officer’s state of mind and all the reasons he was suspicious and in effect you get to have the investigating officer give a closing argument for the prosecution in front of the jury. 

I don’t know what the opposite of Justin (ph) is, but the prosecution is definitely rising.  There are jurors in that box who when Geragos stands up to do anything now, close their notebooks, put a rubber band around it and sit back and don’t have anything to listen to. 

ABRAMS:  (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

JOHNSON:  Those same jurors flip open their notebooks when the prosecution gets back up now. 

ABRAMS:  (UNINTELLIGIBLE) what to make, what to make.  Paul Pfingst, I want to you listen to this on “Good Morning America”.  Again, this was played in court today.  Let’s listen. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SAWYER:  Was this the first time?  Are there others out there? 

PETERSON:  No. 

SAWYER:  There’s no one else who can come forward? 

PETERSON:  No.  I owe a tremendous apology to everyone. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  I always love when he is talking about the apologies that he owes.  Bottom line is seems pretty clear Scott Peterson had had a number of affairs in his past.  Simply not true.  A number of discovery items that came up in this case made it quite clear that Peterson had had a number of affairs.  This is just one Department of Justice report on an affair from ‘98. 

Although Scott reported his marriage had not experienced serious problems, a young woman who said she had an ongoing sexual relationship with Scott for several months in ‘98 contacted investigators.  The young woman said the relationship ended after she unexpectedly visited a house Scott shared with several other men and found Laci and Scott in bed together. 

I think that has been verified by friends and family of Laci, as well.  All right.  So Paul Pfingst, look, we have been hammering these prosecutors for weeks and weeks and weeks now.  They still have hope? 

PAUL PFINGST, MSNBC LEGAL ANALYST:  Well, the rule of thumb in a long trial, Dan is begin strong and end strong.  And in this case, nobody really believes that the prosecutors began particularly strong.  But certainly they’re ending a lot stronger than they have been. 

And it’s hard to impress upon people who have not been in jury service before how much it affects a jury to actually visually watch someone lying to another person.  It is more persuasive than hearing it in testimony, it has a dramatic effect on the outcome of a case.  When you see someone actually look someone else in the eye and lie to that person, and I think that can’t help but make the prosecutors’ case a lot more strong, because why would he be lying if he were innocent? 

ABRAMS:  This is Diane Sawyer, again, played in court today, talking to Scott Peterson, asking him if he was in love with Amber Frey. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SAWYER:  Were you in love with her? 

PETERSON:  No. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  He said no there.  I don’t know if you could hear it, but he said no.  All right, here is what he said to Amber Frey on the tape. 

(BEGIN AUDIOTAPE)

AMBER FREY, SCOTT PETERSON’S FORMER GIRLFRIEND:  I guess the one that bothered me the most was when they asked if you are in love with me and you said no, right?

PETERSON:  Yes, I thought that might bother you. 

FREY:  You know you never said that, but your intentions as far as (UNINTELLIGIBLE) you and I talking about future plans and everything and as well as Ayianna...

PETERSON:  Yes, we talked about possibilities with you, definitely. 

(CROSSTALK)

PETERSON:  And that’s one of the things that they cut down really bad on what I had continued to say.

(END AUDIOTAPE)

ABRAMS:  Yes, you got to hate that when they do that to you. 

All right.  Let’s take a quick break here.  The panel is sticking around.  We’ve got more of the tapes.  We’ve got more of today’s testimony.  An expert testifying that Laci’s baby Conner likely died on the day before Scott reported her missing—he’s making an estimate.  That’s a key point for the prosecution. 

Plus, police raid the home of a 17-year-old boy arrested for allegedly planning an attack on his high school.  They find an arsenal of weapons, bomb making materials and some disturbing video of the boy and an AK-47. 

And CBS isn’t the only one who’s made mistakes reporting explosive stories.  The dean of a top journalism school compared CBS’ mistakes to those made by “The New York Times” and “Washington Post” in their reporting before the Iraq war.  Is it a fair comparison?

Your e-mails abramsreport@msnbc.com.  Please include your name and where you’re writing from.  I respond at the end of the show.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Prosecutors present evidence about some of what Scott Peterson had with him when he was arrested—a live report from the courthouse coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PETERSON:  (UNINTELLIGIBLE) but walking the dog through there like she would do on most mornings.  It’s like a way to experience her right now for me.  A lot of times, I can’t make it very far.  I make it part of the way.  I certainly can’t make it to the part of the park where currently there is a big poster of her up. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  That was played in court yesterday.  Scott Peterson in tears, talking about his wife.  Remember, of course, he was in tears many times talking to Amber Frey, as well, and you know I guess the theory of the defense now is he didn’t mean it at the time. 

Edie Lambert, our friend from KCRA out there has been in the courtroom.  So Edie, they’ve moved on a little bit from the tapes, but still some important evidence coming in for prosecutors, right? 

EDIE LAMBERT, KCRA REPORTER:  Absolutely.  The person we just heard from is agent Alex Quick who followed Scott Peterson around on the day that Scott was arrested.  He said it wasn’t easy.  First of all, as you know, his appearance had changed.  He’d dyed his hair.  He had a goatee.

This was four days after Laci’s remains were discovered and on this day he went on a 160-mile route across southern California with no apparent destination, nine or 10 cars following him and he apparently knew it.  He was driving very erratically, and at one point he waved his middle finger at Agent Quick.

Now the Department of Justice agent arrested him in the parking lot of the Torrey Pines Golf Course.  That’s near San Diego.  And Peterson—a supervisor, that is, asked Peterson what’s in your car.  It was Peterson who directed Agent Quick to the cash in the car.  Now Agent Quick didn’t count it, but we know it’s upwards of $10,000. 

The rest of the car was left to Modesto police officers who arrived about 15 minutes later.  Interesting to note, Agent Quick said that after Peterson was already in handcuffs, he was told the Modesto police were on their way and he said quote “have they found my wife and son,” again, in handcuffs at that point.

Also today important evidence as prosecutors were to establish their

timeline for the murder.  They called an internal fetal specialist to try

to estimate exactly when Conner Peterson died.  I can show you a timeline -

·         the way prosecutors have narrowed this down. 

First of all, jurors heard from the coroner that the coroner thought Conner was about full term.  Then a forensic anthropologist estimated 33-38 weeks old, best guess around 35 weeks.  Well today’s expert compared Laci’s two ultrasounds and medical records with Conner’s upper-leg bone and said he was 33 weeks and one day old.  That means he was killed around December 23, 2002, which matches the prosecutor’s timeline exactly. 

As you can imagine, the defense attorney, Mark Geragos fought this quite a bit.  He said that you’ll come up with a range of dates, depending on which measurements you use and which calculations.  As you know, Dan, it’s his theory that Conner was much older than that, born at a time that Scott Peterson would have been under full-time surveillance so there would have been no way that Scott Peterson could have been the killer. 

As I mentioned, they are taking these witnesses out of order today.  Right now the lead detective, Craig Grogan, is back on the stand.  He’ll testify for about an hour this afternoon. 

Back to you. 

ABRAMS:  Edie Lambert is so good.  Every time I’m about to like add things, to put things in to perspective so people can understand, she finishes it—my thoughts.  All right, Edie Lambert thanks a lot.

All right.  We’re back with the legal team here.  You know, this issue of the time of death, important, we’ll get to that in a minute.  But Paul Pfingst, this business about what Scott Peterson looked like, how much money he had with him, people keep making a really big deal about it, but I got to tell you, I don’t think that’s one of the prosecution’s strongest points.  I think there are too many explanations for what might have been happening, what could have been happening that make it seem like, you know, yes, there’s some problems with it but it doesn’t really seem like a dash for Mexico.

PFINGST:  Yes, that’s not going to make—that’s really not going to make it.  If the guy is making a dash to Mexico, I’m here in San Diego.  You go across the border; he could have been there in 15 minutes.  He stopped at a golf course.

ABRAMS:  He didn’t have to give them the finger.

PFINGST:  He didn’t have to do that...

ABRAMS:  I mean, you know, if you’re trying to escape, probably the best idea is not to give the cops you know there the finger. 

PFINGST:  And frankly, the best explanation he does have is that he become such a public figure, was so well known.  His face had been plastered all around the place that he wanted to go back to being somebody who was not recognized.  And I think...

ABRAMS:  Yes.

PFINGST:  ... that is not going to be the strongest point.  The strongest point here today is that this baby...

ABRAMS:  Yes.

PFINGST:  ... timeline death is going to be devastating for Geragos, because he over promised in opening statement and if he doesn’t keep the promise of showing when that baby died while Scott Peterson was under surveillance, good prosecutors can make him pay in closing statement. 

ABRAMS:  Dean, what about that?  Does Geragos still have something up his sleeve to continue to try to prove that that baby was a lot older than the prosecutors are saying?

JOHNSON:  Well, I think Mark Geragos always has something up his sleeve.  But Paul is absolutely right.  This is a fact that the prosecution needed to put before this jury.  Up until now, the defense could effectively argue that even on the prosecution’s evidence, this baby most probably was born sometime well after December 24, which opens them up to al sorts of other possibilities, and which leads them to one conclusion, which is that whoever did it, it wasn’t Scott. 

They needed to show that the date of death was December 24th, and this doctor testified very credibly that the date was December 24 or earlier.  When he said that, everybody’s hair stood on end.  Geragos did not lay a finger on this guy on cross-examination.  He has to come up with expert testimony to rebut that if he’s going to be successful with any of his theories. 

ABRAMS:  Yes and he’s probably going to say the twine wrapped around the baby’s neck et cetera, couldn’t have gotten there, you know, just from debris and we’ll see...

JOHNSON:  And that’s...

ABRAMS:  ... what kind of...

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMS:  Let me take a quick break here...

JOHNSON:  ... that’s going to fail. 

ABRAMS:  We’re coming back in a minute with more on the Peterson case, more on the tapes played in court, as well. 

And police say it could have been another Columbine-style massacre.  A 17-year-old boy gets on an Internet chat room, brags about his plans to attack his high school.  Luckily, a young girl stopped him before he could act.  Wait until you see what they found at his home. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN AUDIOTAPE)  

PETERSON:  Amber, are you asking if I had something to do with this?

FREY:  You’ve never told me you haven’t.

PETERSON:  Yes, I have.  I had nothing to do with this.  You know that.

CRAIG GROGAN, DETECTIVE IN THE SCOTT PETERSON CASE:  It’s a matter of time...

PETERSON:  Craig, you—I had nothing to do with Laci’s disappearance.

(END AUDIOTAPE)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SAWYER:  I think everybody sitting at home wants the answer to the same question.  Did you murder your wife? 

PETERSON:  No, no, I did not.  And I had absolutely nothing to do with her disappearance. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  All tapes played in court; one consistent statement from Scott Peterson—didn’t have anything to do with his wife’s disappearance. 

Mickey Sherman, so—look, there’s no question the guy has told a lot of lies to a lot of people, but that’s one thing he has got going for him.  How big a thing is it? 

SHERMAN:  It’s (UNINTELLIGIBLE).  Maybe...

ABRAMS:  Helpful or huge? 

SHERMAN:  I’m sorry...

ABRAMS:  Is it helpful?  I mean, of course it’s...

SHERMAN:  It’s helpful.  It’s not huge. 

ABRAMS:  No.

SHERMAN:  Because I happen to agree with Paul.  When you see someone lying and he’s not lying about Amber Frey that much.  I mean all the Amber Frey stuff to me was all a lot of garbage.  It was just bad character evidence.  But then he lied about talking about Amber Frey to the police, that’s like a—it’s kind of a different level.  And as Paul really articulated well, when you see him physically lying, you see what a practiced liar he is, and the jury can easily translate that into him saying he’s not guilty.  Well how do we know he’s not lying now?  That’s very damning evidence. 

ABRAMS:  Speaking of lies, this is again another one of these comparisons between what Scott Peterson told Diane Sawyer, with regard to Laci’s reaction when he claims that he told her about his affair with Amber Frey. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SAWYER:  Do you really expect people to believe that an eight and a half months pregnant woman learns her husband is having an affair and is saintly and casual about it?  Accommodating?  Makes a peace with it? 

PETERSON:  Well, yes.  I mean you don’t know—no one knows our relationship but us and that’s—that peace with it, not happy about it. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Not happy about it.  Here is what he said to Amber Frey about that same issue. 

(BEGIN AUDIOTAPE)

FREY:  But I’m saying now, was Laci aware of the situation about me?

PETERSON:  Yes.

FREY:  She was?

PETERSON:  Yes.

FREY:  Really?  How did she respond about it?

PETERSON:  Fine. 

FREY:  Fine?

PETERSON:  Yes. 

FREY:  An eight-month woman fine about another woman?

PETERSON:  You don’t know all the facts.  Amber, you don’t know all the facts.

FREY:  Oh.  She was OK with it, but you continued to lie to me and couldn’t be with me the holidays, but she was OK.  She was fine with knowing about me?

PETERSON:  Yes.

(END AUDIOTAPE)

ABRAMS:  I could take these Scott and Amber tapes on a long trip across country and just keep putting them back in my car and listen to them more and more and more. 

All right, Dean Johnson, how important that he’s telling somewhat different stories?  That discrepancy there is not that significant, right? 

JOHNSON:  Yes, I think it’s not that huge.  Certainly there is a volume of lies, and both Mickey and Paul happen to be right on this.  The thing that is really telling for this jury in the last few days is seeing Scott lie.  We had one point at which Detective Grogan begs him to tell the detective, you know, are you seeing somebody else?  I need that for my investigation.  He shoves a picture of Scott and Amber under Scott’s nose.  This is a silent black and white video and you can see Scott shaking his head, nope, nope, never saw her.  He even denies that it’s him in the picture. 

(CROSSTALK)

JOHNSON:  It’s just—it’s amazing to see this guy lie. 

SHERMAN:  Dan, Grogan’s approach is so kind of nice and not like we would expect.  Everyone expects that the cops are going to be mean and tough and tricky, but he just very gingerly says, you know, why don’t you just stop the nonsense and tell us what really happened.  I mean a very kind of a down-to-earth way about him, which helps his credibility quite a bit. 

PFINGST:  And Dan, you know that last tape you played about Laci was OK with it; we used to call that spitting on the grave.  That will affect the jury.  Because talking about his wife in that way is really dishonoring her memory to that jury.  And I think that’s not going to pass unnoticed.  I don’t think that’s a light thing. 

ABRAMS:  All right.  Mickey Sherman, Dean Johnson, Paul Pfingst, thanks a lot. 

Coming up, police say this 17-year-old boy with the AK-47 rifle was allegedly planning an attack on his school.  Police got a tip-off from another teenager he was chatting with online.  You’re not going to believe what they found in his house. 

And is it fair to compare the CBS document scandal with many inaccurate reports leading up to the war with Iraq?  Other mainstream news organizations who believed shady characters about weapons of mass destruction. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Coming up, two teens meet in an online chatroom; one tells the other he’s planning a Columbine-style attack on his high school.  Wait until you see what they found in his home, scary stuff, weapons, bombs, first the headlines. 

(NEWS BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Welcome back.  A girl on a computer in Idaho could be responsible for preventing a Columbine-like tragedy 1,000 miles away.  The girl met a boy from Michigan in an online chat room.  They exchanged messages for a few weeks.  He started telling her about his plans to attack his high school.  The girl, then with her father, went to the police who alerted the authorities in Michigan.  Police raided the boy’s house, found semiautomatic weapons, explosives, videotapes of the teen using them all caught on tape. 

Before we talk to the police chief who helped bust him, NBC’s Kevin Tibbles has more on the story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEVIN TIBBLES, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  It all happened so innocently, an Idaho schoolgirl on an Internet chat room exchanges messages with a student in Detroit who attends the Chippewa Valley High School.  The girl is 16-year-old Celia McGinty. 

TIBBLES:  This is the 17-year-old student, Andrew Osantowski, seen firing an assault rifle.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

TIBBLES:  McGinty says he threatened to kill the school’s police officer and take revenge against fellow students.  McGinty told her father who warned authorities in Michigan.

JEFFREY BARBERA, CLINTON TOWNSHIP DETECTIVE:  We averted a disaster here by luck and by some good police work.  We got to him before he was able to act out.

TIBBLES:  In this home video, Osantowski is seen brandishing numerous high-powered weapons, posing, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with white power.

BARBERA:  This says to me that he was going to do something more than just act things out in his bedroom.

TIBBLES:  Police raided Osantowski’s home and found an arsenal, charging the father, Marvin, with concealing stolen firearms, charging the son Andrew with 10 felonies, including threatening an act of terrorism.

(on camera):  Now, a local real estate agent says he hopes to fly the McGintys to Michigan so people at the school can say thank you in person.

Kevin Tibbles, NBC News, Chicago.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ABRAMS:  Wow.  Joining me now on the phone is Chief Al Ernst from the Clinton Township Police Department in Michigan.  Chief, thanks a lot for coming on the program, taking the time.  We appreciate it.

So, what convinced you to go to the home?  I mean I’ve got to believe when someone says yes, I’m talking on an online chat room and this guy is telling me he’s going to, you know, blow up his school or whatever, you’ve got to be a little suspicious.  What led you to actually go?

CHIEF AL ERNST, CLINTON TOWNSHIP MI POLICE DEPT. (via phone):  Well, first of all, when we received the fax it was in the early morning hours, and the officers took it very serious, notified our investigators.  When we read through the transcripts that were faxed to us, they were very disturbing, and the threat to our police officer was of great concern and of the children.  So we decided—the investigators took him into custody at the school in the morning without incident.  A search warrant was prepared, and along with the raid team from our jurisdiction, and a Macomb County prosecutor’s office we conducted a raid on the home. 

ABRAMS:  Chief, what else did you find there? 

ERNST:  Well, we found two shotguns, AK-47, some pipe bombs, several rounds of ammunition, some neo-nazi type materials, stolen property.  There were quite a few items in there.

ABRAMS:  Are you convinced that he was actually going to go forward with this?

ERNST:  From all the information that we’ve received thus far, we are pretty sure that he was in fact planning something with the school, similar to a Columbine, perhaps.  It appeared as if from reading his e-mails it was going to be sometime off, perhaps later on in the spring.  But he was upset about the upcoming homecoming, also.

ABRAMS:  Chief, very quickly, he’d gotten some help allegedly from family and friends?

ERNST:  Well, we believe that the father may have been aware of the stolen weapons and some other stolen merchandise he had.  We’re not quite sure.  We’re still investigating whether or not they knew of the plan.  That’s still under investigation.  There was a person that lives in the area that we believe instructed him on the making of a pipe bomb or that type of equipment.

ABRAMS:  Wow.  Chief Ernst, good work and you know I feel like sometimes only these stories get reported after bad stuff happens.  I think it’s really important for us to get out there and report it when the good stuff...

ERNST:  Well, we worked very closely with the school...

ABRAMS:  Yes.

ERNST:  ... and the FBI has been involved, and parents and—need to be aware what their children are doing and the children need to know if they hear something like this, do what this young lady did and report it.

ABRAMS:  Absolutely.  Chief, thanks a lot.  Appreciate it. 

ERNST:  No problem. 

ABRAMS:  Coming up, we have been tough on CBS for days now for the Bush National Guard story, but the dean of a top journalism school suggested on this broadcast that at least two newspapers may have been just as bad in their reporting before the Iraq war.  Is that a fair comparison?  We debate.

And I argued that this man should not be called a militant or insurgent.  He’s a terrorist.  He kills innocent people.  Not all of you agree.  We’re going to get to your e-mails coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAN RATHER, “CBS EVENING NEWS”:  It was a mistake.  CBS News deeply regrets it; also I want to say personally and directly, I’m sorry.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  CBS News’ Dan Rather after his scoop attacking the president’s National Guard’s service fell apart.

Now, we’ve been raking CBS over the coals every day on this program and since we couldn’t find a single expert that would back up the network on the documents behind its story even before they came forward, and you know there really are no excuses for what CBS did.  But Monday on this program we spoke to Loren Ghiglione, dean of the prestigious Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.  He suggested we might be being too hard on CBS, given that “The Washington Post” and “New York Times”, for example, both admitted major problems with their coverage of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction in the months before the war.

The Times said—quote—“In some cases information that was controversial then and seems questionable now was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged.”

Like stories about a secret Iraqi camp where terrorists trained that was never independently proved or one on secret facilities for WMDs built under a Baghdad hospital.  Disproved, but not reported until it went in an editorial.  And then there was the story about Iraqi WMDs that were destroyed or sent to Syria.  “Times” apparently never verified its source or his claims.

As for “The Washington Post,” when it came to WMDs, executive editor Leonard Downie says—quote—“We were not giving the same play to people who said it wouldn’t be a good idea to go to war.  That was a mistake on my part.”  And “The Post” admits it relied on suspect sources who it claimed were the only game in town and intelligence officials who could never be certain of what they knew.

Even President Bush relied on some suspect sources.  And, in fact, it appears forged documents like CBS when he claimed that Iraq was buying uranium or in Niger to restart its atomic weapons program.  But is it fair to compare what CBS did with its story with all of these other issues, “The Times”, “Post”, other things we’ve talked about? 

“My Take”  --  not quite fair.  CBS relied on documents that took bloggers an hour to determine were likely forged.  While “The Times” and “The Post” and the rest of us could have done more to investigate WMD claims, it’s just not as easy as this probably should have been.  Disproving government sources who legitimately had heard what they were recounting is a lot harder than recognizing suspect sources knocking at your door with second-rate forgeries.

Let’s see what my guests make of this.  Bob Kohn is an attorney and author of “Journalistic Fraud: How The New York Times Distorts the News and Why It Can No Longer Be Trusted” and Michael Massing is an adjunct professor of journalism at Columbia University, the author of “Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq”.

Mr. Massing, let me start with you.  What do you make of what I just said?  I mean I think that—I understand why people are saying, well, what about that, “The Times” and “The Post” didn’t get blasted.  Seems to me that it’s a little bit apples and oranges.

MICHAEL MASSING, AUTHOR, “NOW THEY TELL US”:  Well, actually I’m glad you’re doing this segment because it helps perhaps to put in perspective events of the last week or so.  I mean there’s just been a feeding frenzy about CBS.  You’d think that it is the only sort of fallible news organization.  And I totally agree with what you are saying.

There are no excuses, of course, for what they did.  But if you look at the seriousness of things.  I mean in some way the CBS issue is sort of a squall compared to the tempest that we had before the war.  I looked very closely at the coverage in the months leading up to the war and it wasn’t just disproving that they didn’t disprove what administration officials or intelligence analysts might have said.  They went beyond it.  “The New York Times” went out of its way to run scoops that claimed, I think, the most egregious one that Iraq had an active nuclear program.  This was then cited by administration officials on talk shows and President Bush cited it in a major speech.  If you look at sort of the actual seriousness of what’s going on, CBS thing, serious no doubt.  But the failure to present opposing views during the war, to look more skeptically at what the administration was putting out...

ABRAMS:  All right.

MASSING:  ... I think was a massive institutional failure.

ABRAMS:  Bob Kohn, I mean, you know, it sounds like what Mr. Massing is saying is you know look, CBS, yes, bad.  They should be criticized.  But boy, we all should have been a lot harder on “The Times” and “The Post” and the rest of them leading up to the Iraq war.

BOB KOHN, AUTHOR, “JOURNALISTIC FRAUD”:  I can’t speak for “The Washington Post” because I haven’t studied “The Washington Post,” but I completely disagree about “The New York Times” which I have looked at very carefully.  Leading up to the war of Iraq, “The New York Times” ran a virtual crusade against that war.  Now, your other guest has written a book and I’ve written a book and you don’t have to take our word for it.

What I suggest, Dan, is let’s turn your audience into an Internet blogging community.  Have your audience simply go, just like any blogger would go, to “The New York Times” Web site newyorktimes.com, set the parameters for the nine months leading up to the war in Iraq, March 23 or 24, 2003, and do a search on the word Iraq.

Then just look at the headlines.  The 90 or 100 headlines during that nine-month period on the front page of “The New York Times,” railing against the war, talking about all of the costs, do it yourself.  I think this is a perfect paradigm...

ABRAMS:  So...

KOHN:  ... for what happened.

ABRAMS:  Let’s be clear on the comparison though.  You think that making that—I mean what do you think broadly about people who are saying, yes, you know what?  CBS is bad, but you know what?  There has been a lot of other stuff out there that’s been horrible and yet because it was on the other side of the spectrum, meaning in this case, Dan Rather got sort of you know caught, they say, trying to expose the president, didn’t work.

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMS:  But when it’s on the other side, some are saying, no one is yelling and screaming.

KOHN:  There is no comparison here.  Dan Rather and his producer had an agenda.  They knew the conclusion they wanted to reach and they were looking for evidence to find it.  You can’t accuse “The New York Times,” one of the most liberal newspapers in the country, of having an agenda in favor of the war in Iraq, especially...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Well...

KOHN:  ... when you take it—look at the context.  There may have been a couple of articles concerning weapons of mass destruction.  But in the context of the crusade “The New York Times” was running against President Bush during that period of time, there is no way you can say “The Times” had an agenda in favor of...

ABRAMS:  Go ahead Mr. Massing.

KOHN:  No way.

MASSING:  I think they did.  You’re just arguing, you know, from your belief that they’re inherently liberal, and so it can’t be any other way.  I read those articles closely.  I wrote about this back in February for “The New York Review” of books.  It took months of debate; I got all kinds of letters from “The New York Times,” their reporters.  Eventually “The Times” and “The Post” both came forward and they hated to do this.  They did not want to admit that they got it wrong, but they did.  They don’t have any particular—it’s not profiting them to come forward and say it.  September 8...

ABRAMS:  Did they get beat up?

MASSING:  ... 2002 they ran an article saying Saddam Hussein has a nuclear program.  This became a major prop in the administration’s case for war.  So, I think they did have an agenda in this case.

KOHN:  This self-adulation, I think, was simply a smoke screen.  I think it was part of the agenda to advance their case against President Bush.

MASSING:  Well, that sounds like conspiracy thinking to me.  I’m sorry.  So, even when they admit that they did not show skepticism, they’re doing that as a way of getting President Bush?

KOHN:  Yes...

MASSING:  I just don’t see that at all.

KOHN:  Absolutely.  Well you take a look at the article.  Look at Judith Miller’s article.  She had some source.  She quoted sources.  They were government sources.  They weren’t based on forged documents.

MASSING:  She went...

KOHN:  Those sources believed in what they were saying.

MASSING:  Yes, but look, journalism is about going to a variety of sources and not becoming captive to one particular group.  CBS fell into that.  Judith Miller did as well.  She has been raked over the coals numerous times and other journalists too for relying on too narrow a group.

Let’s put this in perspective.  There was not a good debate in the press about whether we should have gone to war.

(CROSSTALK)

MASSING:  And I think people looking back now wish there had been more

reporting and more skepticism and thus more debate.

KOHN:  OK, that’s your spin.  If you think I have a spin, let the users go to the newyorktimes.com and washingtonpost.com, do a search on the word “Iraq” and let the viewers act as bloggers and do exactly to us...

MASSING:  Well, we’re supposed to be helping them out here, so...

KOHN:  No...

ABRAMS:  Mr. Massing, your position, OK, is that “The Times” and “Post” and I think other publications as well didn’t do enough  -- their homework, et cetera.  Do you think that they got slammed the way—we know.  The bottom line is CBS is getting slammed a lot harder.  But does CBS deserve it more?  I mean I guess my point is it was a lot easier for CBS to discern what was going on here, I think, than in some of the reporting you’re talking about.

MASSING:  Yes, it was a more egregious type of mistake that they made.  There’s no question.  But the stakes are not the same as they were before, and there’s been this echo chamber, sort of feeding frenzy, cable news, I mean you turn it on, you can’t get enough of this.

Enough already, you know?  Let’s move on to something and that’s why I think this is a good program.  Let’s realize that there are other abuses that have gone on in the press surrounding this issue.

ABRAMS:  All right, well...

KOHN:  This is a good story for journalism.  It bodes very, very well because it’s going to stop this agenda-driven journalism...

ABRAMS:  You get the final word there.  All right, Bob Kohn and Michael Massing, great guests.  Thanks a lot.

MASSING:  Thanks.

ABRAMS:  Appreciate it.

Coming up, more on CBS, this time, many of you not happy with “My Take” on why Dan Rather went with his story, using those documents that were so clearly—I’m not defending him, but I have an explanation.  Some of you don’t agree.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Coming up, Abu Musab Zarqawi beheads American hostages, but many in the media simply call him an Iraqi insurgent, not the terrorist that he is.  I’m surprised a lot of you didn’t agree with me on this one.  Your e-mails coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  We received so many e-mails on topics I want to discuss, instead of a “Closing Argument” tonight I’m going to dedicate the entire segment to “Your Rebuttal”.

Last night in my “Closing Argument” I asked why so many in the media are afraid to call terrorists what they are, terrorists.  Instead, many used more heroic, softer words like militants, rebels, insurgent.  I compared the dictionary definitions and it seemed clear when we’re talking about the targeting of civilians terrorist is far and away the most accurate term.  Many of you had other suggestions.

Nina from New Haven, Connecticut, “I would call them their deserved name of animals.”

Iris Paschedag from New York.  “I prefer to call them what I think they are, cowards.”

Bob Quirk from Connecticut, “To be perfectly accurate they should be labeled militant Islamic terrorists.”

Jan Goodman from California asks, “Are news agencies afraid that they won’t get the first interview with the bin Ladens of the world unless they sugarcoat their acts?  Terrorists are terrorists, period.”  Agreed.

Also from California, Stephen A. Silver, “When the media describe these and similar acts of barbarity using euphemisms such as militancy, activism, resistance, et cetera, this effectively amounts to excusing, justifying and even taking sides with the barbaric terrorist killers.”

But Branch Talley, another Californian doesn’t see it our way.  “Reuters and other responsible members of the press may prefer to use less emotive words than terrorists in an attempt to register that conflicts have two sides and characterizations that completely prejudice opponents detract from understanding.”

And Branch, your kind of softy, wishy-washy thinking is the problem.  There’s no second side to terrorists who target civilians.  It’s not two-sided.  Anyone who attempts to kill as many civilians as possible deserves no recognition as a party to a conflict.  They are killers.  Period.

Dominic Valenti and I am sorry to say many others took that argument to this same level that I’m about to read you.  “They target innocent civilians no more than the U.S. military personnel do.  Are the U.S.  soldiers terrorists by your definition because they kill women, children and any other innocent bystander on a regular—I couldn’t believe how many people wrote in.

You know, Dominic, it’s not just ignorant.  It’s insulting.  Whatever you think about the war, to suggest our troops who are doing everything they can to avoid civilian casualties are targeting civilians is just so offensive.  I could go on—you know, I’m not going to even give you any more time on this.

Cassie Manning from Virginia has a legitimate question asked by many of you about my use of the word suicide bombers.  Quote—“On that same note a person who straps explosives to their chest and kills not only themselves but anyone within their path is not a suicide bomber, but a homicide bomber.”

You know, Cassie, I’ve thought about this one a lot.  The reason I disagree is because any time we talk about a person who is setting off any type of bomb to kill people, that person is a homicide bomber.  Whether it’s a truck bomb or a grenade, the person is a bomber.  What makes suicide bombers different is that they’re also killing themselves in the process.  It’s just slightly more descriptive, I think, to say suicide bomber than the more generic term homicide bomber, which I think applies to a lot of different kinds of bombs.

In my “Closing Argument” Monday and in a piece on our Web site based on comments I made on the show, I said Dan Rather’s involvement in the CBS memo controversy was likely overeager, maybe reckless journalism, but almost certainly not partisan politics as some are claiming.  Many, many of you don’t agree, but I would say many of you are misinterpreting my thought as well.

Eric Davis, “To say Rather is not partisan only hurts your credibility.”

Eric, I never made any comment about Dan Rather, about whether he is partisan.  His show is on the same time as mine.  I don’t get to see it often enough to make that kind of judgment about his program.  All I said was that it didn’t make sense that Rather would have aired a shaky story in some blind fury to bring down the president.  That more likely he and his team were just too eager to get the scoop.

Ken Stinson from Oklahoma.  “Your defense of Rather and CBS is shallow and exceedingly weak on its face.  For you to insist that an experienced journalist would ignore all of his experts, would ignore obvious flaws in the documents themselves, would consider Mr. Burkett a reliable source and still believe that he had a scoop is laughable.”

Again, Ken, I wasn’t defending Rather.  I was criticizing him.  Just trying to explain why I think they likely failed all of us.  I just don’t buy that he would be dumb enough to air a shaky story knowing that it was controversial and therefore be scrutinized by everyone.

Michael Elings, “I understand your desire to diffuse the idea that some journalists and news organizations have a political agenda because it taints the entire profession.  I think you would be doing a far more useful service to expose them and marginalize them instead of making excuses.”

And yet, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing.  I think it’s more hard hitting to a journalist to say they failed as journalists than to say that they’re biased.  It’s an issue I’ve exposed in the past where I’ve taken on some of the news people who claim to be objective.

Ron Futrell from Nevada, “The only reason CBS violated so many basic rules of journalism is that they wanted the story to be right so badly that it clouded their judgment.  I believe they also arrogantly felt that nobody would have the guts to call them on the carpet over this.”

Ron, you think CBS believed that all the other media outlets would leave them along because they’re the big bad CBS on a story this controversial?  I promise you they knew it would be controversial.  What they should have known is that the story had big holes in it.

Finally from Illinois, Judith Harland coming at me from the other side.  “All of you call CBS unethical and roll your eyes.  Where were your ethics—concerns when Senator Kerry was being viciously attacked by the Swift Boat ads?  You weren’t at all upset about the blatant lies they told.”

You know (UNINTELLIGIBLE) there are more important distinctions, but that was a political group with a clear agenda.  CBS, held to a higher standard than an advocacy group.  Come on.

Your e-mails abramsreport@msnbc.com.  I go through them at the end of every show.

Thanks for watching.  Up next, “HARDBALL” with Chris Matthews.  I’ll see you tomorrow.

END   

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