updated 1/12/2005 1:56:05 PM ET 2005-01-12T18:56:05

Guest: Scott Hall, Margaret Carlson

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

While the world continues to watch the tsunami, there are at least four dead in the mudslides in Southern California. 

Your tax dollars in action in the inauguration.  Why the Bush administration will not reimburse the District of Columbia for $12 million in inaugural expenses. 

You‘re fired again.  Armstrong Williams loses another job.  And another commentator quotes him as saying “There are others who took money from the government.” 

He‘s back!  Another O‘Reilly melt down.  This time he attacks Saturday‘s celebrity tsunami telethon. 

And what‘s the most pressing issue in North Korea, hunger, war, haircuts?  Kim Jong Il‘s new campaign, let us trim our hair in accordance with the socialist lifestyle.  Super cuts, 11.95. 

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Good evening.  It is an extraordinary fact.  There are tonight more Americans confirmed dead in the storms that swarmed Southern California than there are Americans confirmed dead in the tsunami that devastated the 11 nations of South Asia. 

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, after more than two weeks of focusing attention on the Indian Ocean, we‘re looking tonight just yards inland from the Pacific to the community of La Conchita near Santa Barbara.  There rescue workers say they will remain just that, rescue workers for at least the next 24 hours, even though it‘s been a day since a massive mudslide destroyed at least 15 home.  An aerial view showing how big this was.  Certainly more than 700 tons of earth stretching right into the neighborhoods, just blocks from the Pacific shoreline. 

As many as 27 people are still unaccounted for.  The newest figures just released by the authorities there, 13 of those 27 are definitely missing, five are known to be dead, 13 more perhaps injured.  Rescuers are using listening devices, hoping some of the missing were trapped in air pockets.  Among the missing, Jimmy Wallet‘s wife and three kids.  One of his friends described what happened. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Jimmy walking down the street here to the gas station to get the kids ice cream cones.  And when he came out, he saw the mountain come down.  And he ran to the house trying to get his kids and his wife out, and he just couldn‘t. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  To the scene now, one of the rescue workers has been kind enough to take a few minutes out to join us.  Ventura County Fire Department Battalion Chief Scott Hall. 

Chief Hall, great thanks.  What realistic hope do you have that there are more survivors in there? 

SCOTT HALL, VENTURA COUNTY F.D. BATTALION CHIEF:  Well, obviously, as time goes by, the chances of having the survival of air pockets diminishes.  We still feel comfortable and confident though that with the amount of resources that we have here, that anybody that is in a position that could be saved will be saved.  But like I said, as time goes by, the hopes for any survivors diminishes quite a bit. 

OLBERMANN:  Those resources, tell me a little bit about the listening and the video equipment that you‘re using. 

How sensitive is it? 

HALL:  Well, it‘s very sensitive.  We have cameras that we can put in very narrow void spaces no bigger than your finger.  And it can go into these areas with a lighted video camera and take images.  And then listening devices, all the USAR (ph) teams carry those.  And we were able to drop those into, again, into void spaces to hear scratching.  We‘ve been involved in rescues where we can determine whether we have a heartbeat and breathing.  So, they‘re very sensitive.  The problem is is getting the massive amount of mud off the void spaces so that we can get in and actually insert the listening and looking devices. 

OLBERMANN:  That massive amount of mud, chief, does it pose any rescue

·         any risk to rescue workers or anybody else at this point? 

Is there a chance of further mudslide activity or do you think that‘s it? 

HALL:  Well, the area is very prone to mudslides.  We had two significant mudslides just before the La Conchita slide yesterday.  So, it‘s prone to that.  We don‘t have any more moisture on it.  The area that we‘re working would not trigger any more mudslides.  But it is an area that is a debris flow.  And our rescuers are in a very precarious position.  We‘ve got spotters out.  We have geologists out.  And we think we have the best intelligence that‘s out there that‘s allowing us to work as safe as possible.  But there‘s always a risk. 

OLBERMANN:  Nearly eight years ago, there was another slide there.  600,000 tons fell on that occasion.  Nine houses were destroyed.  It sounds like it was not as big as this one, but a lot of people simply moved out. 

Is the area intrinsically unsafe?  Should people just not be living there? 

HALL:  Well, the history here is that this hill will come down, and it is a calculated risk.  It is a beautiful location right along the coast and you know, people live in places along earthquake faults and avalanche locations and it‘s a calculated risk.  It‘s not a risk I would take with the past history, but these people really love their homes.  And it‘s hard to leave.

OLBERMANN:  Last question, sir, before we let you get back to your work with our great thanks, what is the—do you have any information on this fifth fatality that was just reported? 

HALL:  We are—we have located what we believe is a body.  It‘s going to be pretty extensive to dig the person out.  We really don‘t have much more information.  I would have guessed that within a couple hours, we‘ll probably have a little bit more information. 

OLBERMANN:  We thank you for what you‘re able to tell us.  Ventura County battalion chief Scott Hall.  Our great thanks for your efforts there and for joining us this evening, sir. 

HALL:  Sure no problem.

OLBERMANN:  The issue of life or death is decided in the circumstances by the smallest margins imaginable is not news, not to anyone who has paid any attention to the tsunami story.  But it is still starting and heart rending.  A 100 miles to the southeast of La Conchita at San Dimas, an eight week old baby boy rescued from flood water twice.  The raft carrying the infant flipped over in a swollen creek.  But luckily a rescuer managed to hold on to him anyway.  Another rescuer then plunged into the war with out safety restraints and inched his way back to sure with the child.  This little boy is expected to make a full recovery. 

Not so Jemia Davis, 2-year-old.  She slipped from her mother‘s arms on Sunday while a rescue helicopter was pulling them out of a flooded wash.  Her body was found yesterday.  Police are now considering whether to file charges against her mother.  She allegedly drove around barricades to reach the flooded out road. 

In Castaic, that‘s near the Angeles National Forest, about 40 miles north of L.A., rescue crews had to use a raft to rescue kids there stranded when their school bus ran aground in two feet of water. 

Another 25 miles north or so in Palmdale, it took a helicopter to lift this woman out of four feet of water.  She and three other people stuck at an intersection when floodwaters overwhelmed their vehicles. 

And in Malibu, a 25-foot boulder cut off electricity, blocked both sides of the Topanga Canyon Road.  Crews spent hours rigging it with explosives and finally clearing it that way.  Your only frame of reference here, I used to live about five miles from there in Santa Monica. 

The same weather system that created the rainiest two weeks in Southern California‘s recorded history and all the ensuring havoc, also stopped elsewhere in the west. 

In Utah, heavy floodwaters gradually wore away the sides of an arroyo (ph) until a nearby home still under construction broke in half and fell partially into that ditch. 

And south of Flagstaff, Arizona, the Verde River, so swollen that a mobile home park had been moved to safer ground.  Flood warnings remaining in effect until tomorrow morning. 

Southern California got sunshine today.  The massive storm is finally moving eastward.  Residents in the central plains and the Great Lakes can now expect heavy weather by tomorrow afternoon. 

As noted earlier, officially the combination of rains and Southern California‘s notoriously unreliable top soil means that for now, at least, there are more Americans dead there, 19, than in the Indian Ocean tsunami.  In fact, the numbers, the American numbers continue to be almost unbelievably good.  The number of inquiries about missing Americans now down, unresolved ones anyway, to 581.  The State Department saying today it has handled close to 30,000 inquiries since December 26.  Eighteen American were killed—known to be killed by the tsunami, 17 others are presumed dead. 

We are but a tiny component in what is now and may for years remain the worst natural disaster of the 21st century.  The overall death toll for the tsunami now stands at 157,660 people.  Nearly 31,000 of those just on the small island nation of Sri Lanka.  Hoping to prevent another tragedy like that, the government there today promising to enforce the law that bans construction within 1,000 feet of the sea.  According to Reuters News agency, thousands of those killed by the tsunami in Sri Lanka were living in home built illegally close to the shore. 

In Thailand, a scuba diver who literally got out of the water minutes before the wave hit, caught the tsunami on, again, new home video.  This beach did not get the full impact of the wave.  Yet one person was killed by that surge.  That as more and more home video of the disaster surfaces, so does news of those seeking to exploit it.  Black marketeers now selling DVD compilations of amateur tsunami video.  Most of it taped directly off news programs.  The DVDs are selling in Phuket, Thailand for between $2 and $5. 

There are as many different impacts of this disaster as there are victims, but perhaps nothing in the entire nightmare has been more real than the reopening of school after a holiday break.  As we told you yesterday, 420 schools in Aceh province in Indonesia are not reopening.  They have been destroyed.  And Indonesia‘s government reports 1,000 teachers are dead.  And our correspondent Martin Fletcher now reports from Banda Aceh on the starkest fact of them all: In some schools, half the students are dead or missing. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARTIN FLETCHER, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  It is the first day back in class, and children chant the first verses of the Koran, thanking Allah for saving their lives from the tsunami.  One hundred five children study in three classrooms.  The rest are empty. 

While outside in this Banda Aceh high school, Samsami (ph) of the administration staff compiles a sad list.  Parents bring news of their children.  The living get a check by their name. 

(on camera):  So on this page here at random, you‘ve got two children dead out of 44.  That‘s not many, is it? 

(voice-over):  Hard time for these teachers.  Out of 1,275 school students, only 260 are registered.  And as an official deadline here, after 15 days, the missing are presumed dead.  That‘s today. 

“It‘s important the children come to class,” says Mr. Pukari (ph), the principal.  “It helps them cope.  And a psychologist, if we had one.”

Then he interrupts class.  12-year-old (UNINTELLIGIBLE) have brought in this poster looking for their son.  Mr. Pukari (ph) asks the children, “does anybody know where Takeyongi (ph) is?”  Nobody knows. 

We wanted to ask Takeyongi‘s (ph) parents how they were coping.  We drove deep into the heart of the devastation.  

(on camera):  We‘re looking for this boy, or his family anyway. 

(voice-over):  She had no news of the boy.  Nor did this man. 

(on camera):  This is a neighborhood that‘s mostly destroyed.  And the family is gone.  They‘re refugees. 

(voice-over):  But we couldn‘t find them at this refugee camp outside town.  Instead, we did find a tent school.  Not math or language, but a how-to-cope.  Dancing to stories of the Koran, smiles and laughter.  Refugee children being instructed through their trauma by Muslim (UNINTELLIGIBLE).  But even here, the pain. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  My kid is gone.

FLETCHER (on camera):  Where, where is she? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I don‘t know. 

FLETCHER (voice-over):  He asks desperately for help that we can‘t give.  While in the background, children dance and laugh. 

Martin Fletcher, NBC News, Banda Aceh, Indonesia. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Also tonight, it is a town that is hard to surprise, but today the president managed to do just that, with his secretary of homeland security designate take two. 

And inauguration frustration building.  Fights over money.  Fights over crosses.  And even one suggestion that the whole big party should just be called off.  You‘re watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The president‘s new pick to head Homeland Security raising eyebrows in some circles in Washington, and also raising eyebrows, Bill O‘Reilly.  It is with great pleasure that we bring back the clock.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) 

OLBERMANN:  It is an odd evolution.  The current head of Homeland Security is the former governor of Pennsylvania.  The man George W. Bush wanted to succeed him was the former two-fisted multiple-wife poli-scandalized former police commissioner of New York City.  Now in our No. 4 story on the COUNTDOWN, the latest intended secretary of homeland security is a former head of the criminal division of the Justice Department, who is connected to the prisoner abuse scandals.  Michael Chertoff, who just over a year ago left that position to accept a lifetime appointment to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.  The president today quick to note that Judge Chertoff has sailed through Senate confirmations on three prior occasions.  But that was before the Justice Department and reportedly Chertoff himself OK‘ed the 2002 memos that suggested tactics such as water hoarding—simulated drowning—were not torture. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  He has faced countless challenging decisions.  And he has helped to protect his fellow Americans while protecting their civil liberties.  I‘m grateful that the judge has agreed to bring his exceptional judgment and integrity to an urgent new responsibility.  I am confident that he will be a strong, effective leader for the Department of Homeland Security. 

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY NOMINEE:  It will be my privilege to serve with the thousands of men and women who stand watch across the country and overseas, protecting our security and promoting our freedom. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  If confirmed, Judge Chertoff will complete the president‘s second-term cabinet just in time for his second inauguration.  But it by itself has become a focus of controversy.  Traditionally, the government of Washington, D.C. has been reimbursed by the feds for the quadrennial affair.  In 2001, it spent and got back $8 million for the additional police, public works, transportation, security and emergency management services needed for the event.  This year, not so much.  The first post-9/11 inauguration is expected to cost Washington more than $17 million.  But this time, the federal administration has told the District it should take that money out of the city‘s own homeland security allocation. 

Mayor Anthony Williams protesting in a letter to the Office of Management and Budget, and the Republican chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, Representative Thomas Davis, calling the administration‘s move, quote, “simply not acceptable.” 

No matter your political stripe, January 20th offering something for everyone to get upset about.  You may remember California atheist Michael Newdow.  He had his suit to remove “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance tossed by the Supreme Court in June.  He is now suing to remove the religious aspects from the president‘s inauguration ceremony.  Mr.  Newdow contending the presence of a benediction in a convocation by Christian ministers violates the First Amendment‘s separation of church and state.  Attorneys for President Bush filing to dismiss the case.  A hearing scheduled Thursday. 

Atheists put upon by Christians; Christians put upon by the Secret Service.  The Christian Defense Coalition threatening a lawsuit after a directive from the agency banning from the inaugural crosses.  The Secret Service says this is not about religion.  It‘s about the wooden or metal ones being potential components for weapons.  The Service is working on a clarification to its list, which also, incidentally, prohibit puppets. 

No protest on that yet from Paul Winchell or Jerry Mahoney. 

One other inauguration note: The president will not go into his own second term with an approval rating under 50 percent.  Today‘s new Gallup poll showing Mr. Bush with a 3 percentage point bump from mid-December, to a new figure of 52 percent approval.  A year ago today, it was 59 percent.

Back to next week‘s festivities.  When we‘re confused by something in Washington, we usually turn to Craig Crawford of MSNBC and “Congressional Quarterly,” and I sure am confused by all this.  Craig, good evening.

CRAIG CRAWFORD, MSNBC ANALYST:  Good to see you.  I‘m not confused.  After one of the meanest campaigns we‘ve ever seen, we‘re going to have a mean inaugural, probably.  Plenty of argument.

OLBERMANN:  Yeah, but the federal government won‘t foot the entire bill for the inauguration of the head of the federal government?  This is new, isn‘t it? 

CRAWFORD:  It is new.  And D.C. is obviously upset about it.  Point of personal privilege, I‘ve been a taxpayer in Washington since 1989, and we‘re used to this.  We get stuck with a lot of bills.  But I got to say, you know, it‘s not really that easy to take when you consider that the D.C.  government is also planning to kick in $100 million for a baseball team.  And maybe if Bush would kick in a few dollars for that, it would ease some of the anger.  

OLBERMANN:  A baseball team to replace the one that the president used to own.  I just want to pass that along to stoke the fires a little more. 

CRAWFORD:  There you go.

OLBERMANN:  When Barbara Boxer and the 30-odd congressmen challenged the electoral vote from Ohio last Thursday, you and I were talking about, this is a template for the second term.  Symbolic protest.  The inauguration feels like an even bigger and better example of that.  A Democratic congressman wants them to cancel the whole thing and give the money as extra pay to the soldiers in Iraq.  You got the Christian groups now protesting because the crosses have been banned from the scene. 

Are we entering into new presidential territory, where there is going to be a protest every time this man takes a step or a breath or waves in the wrong direction? 

CRAWFORD:  He‘s a living example, for every action, there‘s an equal and opposite reaction.  That‘s the political nature of President Bush.  He is a man who takes his stands and the rest, and the critics can be damned.  He‘s very much like Lyndon Johnson used to say, let‘s all come and reason together and do it my way.  And then that‘s how people see him.  And nearly half the country is against this president, and half the country love him.  Half the country thinks he can do nothing right.  And so as a result, I think he is going to continue to be a provocative figure in our politics.  And that‘s one of his strengths, too.  He believes what he believes and he takes no guff from anybody. 

OLBERMANN:  Well, not everything goes the way he wants it to, which brings us back to the topic with which this segment began.  The new, new head of homeland security, Judge Chertoff, do you know, did they check him for kickbacks and extra wives and undocumented nannies and things like that? 

CRAWFORD:  I‘m sure they‘ve X-rayed his personal life every which way, I would think.  And we‘ll see what happens.  But this doesn‘t seem to be a consensus choice, which we‘re not going to see a lot of that.  Again, this president—it seems like the more people criticize and try to put pressure on him, the more he likes to aggravate them.  He sort of sticks that stick in the lion‘s cage, to get—to rile up the beast.  He almost seems to enjoy it.  And I think this appointment may do that as well.

OLBERMANN:  Well, it gives us something to talk about for four years, if nothing else.  Craig Crawford...

CRAWFORD:  It may do that.

OLBERMANN:  ... of MSNBC, “Congressional Quarterly.”  Thank you much for your time tonight, sir.  

CRAWFORD:  Hope to see you down here for the inaugural next week. 

OLBERMANN:  No, I think I have something else to do. 

CRAWFORD:  I‘m going to dinner with Tony Orlando, Tony Orlando & Dawn. 

I wanted to take you to dinner with him.  

OLBERMANN:  Give him a big hug for me. 

CRAWFORD:  OK.

OLBERMANN:  Thanks, Craig. 

If the inauguration has to be done on the cheap, perhaps we can literally just scale everything down.  We‘ll introduce you to the fifth grader who finds the fruits of his talents, his considerable talents, winding up in “Oddball.”  (UNINTELLIGIBLE) little Tony Orlando.

Speaking of “Oddball,” Bill O‘Reilly is an equal opportunity offender. 

Now he is taking issue with tsunami relief. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  We‘re back, and once again, we pause the COUNTDOWN to check in on the strange stories that might go otherwise uncovered, or worse yet, treated as real news by somebody else.  Let‘s play “Oddball.”

We begin in Mr. Spiropolous‘ (ph) fifth grade classroom in Gooding, Idaho.  The extra credit assignment, build something out of rolled up newspapers.  Little Dexter Loder (ph) put a little bit more effort into the deal than the rest of his lazy, unimaginative classmates.  The 10-year-old built a three-story scale model of a White House, complete with a fountain, working electricity and a welcome sign.  Just another project of Dexter‘s laboratory.  The entire project took two weeks and almost 800 rolled-up pages of “The Gooding County Leader.”  It will remain on display in the school library until such time as it is recycled, destroyed by punk older kids, or we elect a really short president who could actually live there. 

In New York, underpaid workers appearing on the verge of a strike.  Underpaid comedian workers.  This is no joke.  No, sir, no one is laughing at this particular punch line.  About 300 area comics have formed the New York Comedians Coalition to attempt to bring their pay levels more in line with the cost of living increases.  The coalition says the typical pay for the top gig at the famous Improv in New York is typically about $60.  That‘s not funny.  The guy playing drums on a bucket in the subway is making more than $60.  This would not be a first.  Stand-ups went on strike in L.A. in 1979, disproving the theory then that everybody was a comedian. 

And then there‘s the “Oddball” outrage of the week.  We‘ll do something the creators of this commercial won‘t.  Warn you that it might not be suitable for kids, or adults, or anyone not employed in the adult entertainment business.  New ad for a fast food chain burger, which weighs in at 107 grams of fat and 1,420 calories.  No, they did not get a cardiac surgeon to do the commercial, telling you what to prepare for if you eat this thing; they tried a different tack. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  How do you know if you can eat the largest double burger in the country?  There‘s one way to find out.

The two-third pound monster thickburger, the largest double burger in the country, at Hardee‘s.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Subtle.

Also tonight, a not-too-subtle admission about the lack of safety for the Iraq elections, and the Iraqi free press taking a page from this guy, Armstrong Williams, now an international symbol of the intersection of news and government contracts.  And was his government contract the only government contract?  These stories ahead. 

Now, though, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of this day. 

No. 3, the guy who polishes the floor at Virginia Mason Medical in Seattle.  He parked the floor buffer next to the MRI machine.  Now, the M.  MRI stands for magnets.  You‘re not supposed to leave big metal things near the MRI.  When the MRI machine sucked in the floor buffer, it caused $200,000 worth of damage to the MRI, not to the buffer. 

No. 2, the unnamed home owner in Jersey City, New Jersey.  It‘s happened again.  She wanted to make sure the bug bomb got rid of her roaches, so she used three bug bombs.  Kaboom.  The explosion only singed most of her belongings.  Fortunately, the roaches are fine.  They‘re all over the place, says the fire captain. 

And, No. 1, another anonymous newsmaker, a 20-year-man in Walker, Michigan, kidnapped by three guys.  He was rescued by police.  But, in the confusion, not only did they incarcerate his captors, but they threw him in jail with them.  If that were not bad enough, the ransom they were demanding for his release, exactly $800.  Maybe they were running a special this week. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  As the head of the Shorenstein Media Center at Harvard, Alex Jones, said here last night, the worst part about the CBS Killian memos disaster perhaps was that it had overshadowed the Armstrong Williams‘ pay-for-praise disaster.  Oh, no, it hasn‘t. 

Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, there is tonight a secondhand report of other payments by the government to pundits or reporters, the claim, that both Williams and the Department of Education broke federal law, and what looks like a copycat version of the event in the still blossoming democracy of Iraq. 

There were two news conferences in Iraq, one held by interim Prime Minister Allawi, the other by Mr. Allawi‘s campaign committee.  The pundit pay event occurred after the latter news conference.  Details in a moment.

At the first conference, the former news conference, Mr. Allawi publicly acknowledged for the first time that some parts of the country will be too unsafe on January 30 to permit elections. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

IYAD ALLAWI, IRAQI INTERIM PRIME MINISTER (through translator):  And certainly, there are some pockets who will not take part in these elections.  But they are not many pockets. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  When Mr. Allawi‘s new political party held its own separate news conference to announce some of its candidates for those elections, it had a little surprise for the reporters who attended, $100. 

The newspaper “The Financial Times” reporting that, after their statements, Allawi‘s colleagues allowing each journalist to an upstairs room and handed them a $100 bill, you know, a Ben Franklin, American money.  They newspaper reported that giving gifts to journalists in many authoritarian states was a common event in the Middle East.  But the reporters at the news conference in question said it was not common in post-Saddam Iraq. 

On the other hand, most of them also said they kept the cash, which is what Armstrong Williams continues to insist he is going to do, keep the $241,000 paid him by the Education Department to hype its No Child Left Behind program.  The Williams case continues to have unexpected repercussions.  Now he is under investigation by the conservative TV station group Sinclair and he has been fired again. 

The firing first.  “America‘s Black Forum,” the long-running public affairs TV program co-anchored by NPR‘s Juan Williams and the Fox sportscaster James Brown, says today it has terminated its relationship with Armstrong Williams.  He had appeared as a commentator.  Its executive producer says today that his—quote—“failure to disclose the potential conflict of interest has led to his firing.”

Then there is Sinclair.  The 39-station conglomerate telling the industry newspaper “The Hollywood Reporter” that it, too, had a contract with Williams as a consultant and as a contributor to a Sinclair-produced news broadcasts called “News Central.”  Sinclair‘s lawyer says it is believed Williams interviewed Secretary of Education Rod Paige from whose department Williams received the contract on the Sinclair broadcast. 

Since “USA Today” broke the Williams story on Friday, one of the many questions asked has been, was that contract the only one?  The White House spokesman, Mr. McClellan, says he does not know of any others.  But a Fox News Channel commentator says he does, because Armstrong Williams told him about them. 

Writing on the Web site of the liberal magazine “The Nation,” David Corn says he encountered Williams in the Fox green room after the story broke.  And Williams told him—quote—“This happens all the time.  There are others.”  Corn says he then asked Williams for the names of the other conservative commentators who accepted money from the Bush administration, to which Williams replied, “I‘m not going to defend myself that way.”

Corn writes that even he could not tell whether Williams was just covering his own butt or if he really knew of other cases like his own.  But, apparently, there is going to be a congressional investigation.  A spokesman for the Ohio Congressman John Boehner, who chairs the House Education and the Work Force Committee, says on the Republicans‘ behalf:

“If what has been recorded is accurate, it is certainly indefensible.  It is an inappropriate use of taxpayer money.”

The story is not going to go away any time soon. 

Joining me now to take its various temperatures, “TIME” magazine columnist Margaret Carlson. 

Good evening, Margaret.

MARGARET CARLSON, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, “TIME”:  Good evening, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  First, this question about whether there might be somebody else doing this.  Until the Williams story broke, I had never even considered it as a possibility, although I find myself wondering in retrospect how some of the more elaborate Web sites have stayed on their feet financially.

Had you heard anything like this?  Had you heard anything besides David Corn‘s story that suggests maybe it was not a one-shot deal? 

CARLSON:  Well, once I read David Corn and once Armstrong Williams said it, it made me think, well, why would the administration put—of all the journalists on the right, put all its money on Armstrong Williams?  There‘s no particular reason to choose him, although he did a very good job.  I saw some of the tapes.  And no matter what question was asked of Armstrong, the answer was always, No Child Left Behind. 

OLBERMANN:  Money for value, as he said.

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON:  He said he earned it.  When he was asked are you going to give the money back, he said, no, I earned it. 

OLBERMANN:  Exactly. 

Now, there was a lot of—tub-thumping would be a good term for it in Washington about Dan Rather and the CBS story, as that exploded yesterday.  And there have been some other journalistic debacles that have drawn the rhetoric of the politicians.  But in the Williams case, they seem to be genuinely concerned about this.  And I emphasize seemed.  Are they genuinely concerned about this or are people just seeing an opportunity to pile on here? 

CARLSON:  Well, what Armstrong Williams did is unethical. 

To turn the cliche on its head, if you play a journalist on TV, you are a journalist and have to play by certain rules, which he did not play by.  And you have to fault producers here as well, because producers treated him as a journalist, even though he was known to be more of a political operative than a journalist. 

But leaving that aside for the moment, he‘s unethical.  The administration is doing something illegal.  You‘re not allowed to use taxpayer money to propagandize.  And so I think that‘s why Congressman John Boehner and Congressman George Miller are looking into it, because it‘s not allowed.

OLBERMANN:  Friday morning, by the way, he said he was not a journalist.  Friday afternoon, he said he was a journalist.

CARLSON:  Yes. 

OLBERMANN:  And then today, he went back to saying he‘s not a journalist.  So I‘m not—that‘s still breaking news.

CARLSON:  No, but as I say, if you play one on TV, I think you‘ve got to own up and abide by the rules. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes. 

Do you think, to some degree, that the political reaction to this is a case of people directing focus at Williams because it is a way then of putting on to the back-burner whatever federal statutes, whatever implications there are of—of what the Education Department did?  In other words, if you can just burn Williams, you don‘t have to worry about what the government did?

CARLSON:  That‘s a good point, because I think some heads will have to roll.  Listen, four people were fired at CBS.  They didn‘t—they got it wrong and they weren‘t—they didn‘t behave in an entirely professional manner.  But they were not purposely doing it.  They weren‘t lying. 

Somebody in the administration has done something that is illegal and no one has owned up to it. 

OLBERMANN:  I wouldn‘t be surprised if that continues to be the case. 

We‘ll find out. 

“TIME” magazine‘s Margaret Carlson—as always, Margaret, a great pleasure. 

CARLSON:  Thanks, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Also tonight, the axis of evil is cracking down on internal evildom, North Korea‘s latest scheme sending its own citizens into panic.  It is beyond belief, simply put.

And who could turn a benefit for tsunami victims into a story about himself?  This guy.  The O‘Reilly countdown kicks ever closer. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  EBay helping a young boy fight a rare form of cancer.  And

who is Bill O‘Reilly fighting?  The people trying to help—that‘s right -

·         the people trying to help the tsunami victims.  Here we go again.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  If you‘re a constant viewer, you do not need to be reminded of the epidemic of Jesus sightings on eBay, Jesus on a grilled cheese sandwich, Jesus in a piece of scrap marble, Jesus appearing on the size of a fish stick, all up for bidding on eBay. 

Now, you can believe or not.  That‘s the premise of this country.  And they stay the lord moves in mysterious ways.  That‘s the premise of the religion. 

And in our No. 2 story on the COUNTDOWN, maybe this is the strange way.  Maybe all this auctioned-off odd iconography happened just so that a Virginia family could afford to keep fighting the illness that threatens their son‘s life. 

COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny is here with this rather singular tale. 

Good evening, Monica.

MONICA NOVOTNY, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Keith, good evening.

In fact, those unusual Internet auctions are exactly what inspired one mother to log in, set up her own public sale, and hope that some generous people would do their bidding. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRYN GROVER, FATHER:  I thought she was insane.  She came in and told me, remember that grilled cheese sandwich that went for like $20,000?  I‘m like, yes.  Well, I just David‘s tumor on eBay. 

NOVOTNY (voice-over):  Actually, the bidding just buys a bumper sticker.  But after helping their 9-year-old son David battle a rare form of pediatric cancer for almost two years, this Virginia family is getting creative, raising money on an Internet auction to help pay for the demise of a tumor they call Frank. 

(on camera):  How did you come up with the name frank? 

DAVID DINGMAN-GROVER, NINE YEARS OLD:  Well, because I was scared of Frankenstein.  And I had to conquer my fears.  I named my tumor Frank.  And it sort of made me laugh. 

NOVOTNY:  Frank sits at the base of David‘s skull, almost impossible for doctors to reach.  But after months of chemotherapy, David needs a biopsy to determine his next course of treatment. 

TIFFINI DINGMAN-GROVER, MOTHER:  Because his carotid artery goes straight through the tumor, a lot of doctors won‘t perform it, because he could die. 

NOVOTNY:  The family did manage to find a surgeon in California, but needs some help footing the bill.  And though insurance has covered much of the more than $1 million in medical expenses so far, the family is responsible for 20 percent, plus the medical needs insurance does not cover. 

T. DINGMAN-GROVER:  I sell on eBay.  I‘ve been selling a year pretty much everything in our house that doesn‘t hold a sentimental value to help raise money for David‘s bills. 

NOVOTNY:  Then David‘s mom decided to auction off a sticker representing the one thing they do not want. 

T. DINGMAN-GROVER:  If somebody can make so much money off a grilled cheese sandwich, maybe I can get at least like $500.  That‘s all I anticipated.

GROVER:  I thought it was insane and I was wrong. 

NOVOTNY:  So far the response, overwhelming, bids over $10,000 and messages from around the world worth even more. 

T. DINGMAN-GROVER:  I got one e-mail from soldiers in the Middle East who said that they were complaining about what they were going through until they saw David‘s article.  And they even donated money. 

GROVER:  I‘ve also learned that no matter what else is going on, people have time to stop and think about a little child in need.  And that‘s pretty awesome. 

NOVOTNY (on camera):  You said that you were a pessimist by nature. 

T. DINGMAN-GROVER:  Yes. 

NOVOTNY:  Is this changing you at all? 

T. DINGMAN-GROVER:  It is.  It is.  It makes me realize that people have true warm hearts.  It really does.

NOVOTNY:  And while this family is asking for help now, they, too, have been quite generous in the past.  At one point, when David was very ill, he received his wish from the Make-A-Wish Foundation.  David turned it into a shopping spree at a local toy store and purchased toys not for him, but for the other sick children at the hospital. 

Now, the auction continues through tomorrow afternoon.  And the link to it is our on Web site at COUNTDOWN.MSNBC.com. 

COUNTDOWN There are piggyback auctions connected to this on eBay?  Do we know if they‘re actually funding this kid‘s fight or they‘re separate of that? 

NOVOTNY:  At this point, there is some concern because there‘s no way to know.  Certainly, David‘s mom thinks that there are some very well meaning people out there who do intend to donate any money that they raise to David‘s cause. 

But she just doesn‘t know.  So, if you want to be sure, you probably should go just to theirs. 

OLBERMANN:  COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny, great story.  Many thanks. 

From the sublime to the ridiculous, we segue into our nightly roundup of the celebrity and entertainment news.  And we begin with round 10 of what has the makings of the self-destruction of Bill O‘Reilly.  The man who moved from falafels, loofahs and $60 million lawsuits over sexual harassment charges to being the self-appointed holy protector of Christmas has now taken off on another flight of delusion of grandeur. 

He has attacked Saturday‘s tsunami relief telethon on NBC and its own cable networks like this one, telling his semi-comatose viewers—quote—

“A national TV telethon will raise millions and ‘The Factor‘ will be watching to see if the money gets to the tsunami victims.  If it does not, there will be trouble”—end quote. 

We‘re guessing he is going to try to cause lightning, maybe locusts.  The rant continues: “If George Clooney and other stars go on TV and ask you to give, then they had better be involved all the way down the line.”

Mr. O‘Reilly has been replied to.  Clooney, whom he had also attacked after a similar celebrity telethon for 9/11 victims, released a letter that he wrote to the bizarre Fox host: “So, all right, Mr. Journalist.  Come on in.  I‘m booking the talent for the tsunami event, and you, Mr. O‘Reilly, are now officially invited to be a presenter.  Either you ante up and help out and be that watchdog that you feel we clearly need or you simply stand on the sidelines and cast stones.  This is your chance to put your considerable money where your considerable mouth is.”

O‘Reilly says in reply: “I have to see what the format is.  I would like to go over there and check things out.  Whether I make a pitch or not depends on how organized things are.”  In other words, he‘s thinking about it.  Don‘t hurt yourself, buddy.

For the record, the telethon with or without him goes live at 8:00 p.m. Eastern on NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, Bravo, Sci-Fi, Telemundo and PAX, also, taped for the West Coast on NBC at 8:00 p.m. Pacific.  Among the performers, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Eric Clapton, Lenny Kravitz and Madonna.  The money is going to the Red Cross.  At the same hour, one of Fox‘s cable networks will be airing a special edition of the movie “Die Hard 3.” 

Perhaps our next telethon will be for North Korean haircut relief. 

Amid chaos and even starvation, what is the dictator most worried about?  Whether or not his citizens get a trim every 15 days.  Our No. 1 story is next. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Here in the early years of the 21st century, only one nation on earth truly goes back and forth between being a member of Mr.  Bush‘s axis of evil and being something out of “Alice in Wonderland,” North Korea. 

Our No. 1 story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, there‘s famine in North Korea.  There‘s apparently a constant fear of nuclear attack from the south or from the United States or the Canadian Olympic curling team.  And there‘s a dictator who knows more about American action movies than Roger Ebert and Arnold Schwarzenegger combined.

But none of those stories is the hot topic in North Korea right now.  Move over, hunger, war, and crazy leaders.  The No. 1 story on the North Korean equivalent of COUNTDOWN the other night was about the government‘s latest top priority.  It was called a report—or a report, rather, was called, “Employers of Pyongyang textile plant keep their hairstyle and dressing neat and tidy.”

With more now on these breaking developments, here‘s me. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN (voice-over):  North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People‘s Republic of Korea, DPRK, not to be confused with DKNY, though the country of the morning calm is not without a sense of fashion, evidently.  They will put up with a lot behind that bamboo curtain, starvation, poverty, international blockade, the scorn of the entire world. 

But if there‘s one thing the eternal president, Kim Jong Il, will not stand for, it is an unruly hairdo.  Thus, the latest propaganda campaign from the North Korean government.  Let us trim our hair in accordance with the socialist lifestyle.  OK, brutality, they‘re good at.  Slogans, not so much. 

Through a series of news reports on state-run TV, radio and newspapers, the government is suggesting—well, not so much suggesting as recommend—no, ordering, ordering is the right word—ordering its citizens to keep a tidy haircut for the good of the state, because—quoting here—“People who wear other style of dress and live in other style will become fools and that nation will come to ruin.”

Shaggy, unkempt, over the ears, covering the eyes, this is no longer acceptable.  And those who do not conform find their picture on Pyongyang television, along with their names and home addresses.  Sooner or later, all will comply, because Kim Jong Il is on a mission.  He is putting the barber back into barbarism. 

But there‘s still choice for the people.  In fact, they can choose from any of the four government-approved hairstyles, the flattop crew, the low hairstyle, the middle hairstyle, and, the dear leader‘s favorite, the high hairstyle.  One to five centimeters is allowed in the back, five centimeters on the top.  Men over 50 get a bonus, up to seven centimeters.  That is to cover baldness. 

And all should give praise to the glorious leader and his generous 2-centimeter comb-over allowance.  The leader is good.  I know this because their version of Armstrong Williams tells me so. 

This is about a lot more than just a nice do, of course.  A tidy haircut, North Korea says, is necessary to stave off the corrupt capitalist Western influence, not to mention the negative effects on human intelligence development.  You see, according to the program—quoting again—“Long hair consumes a great deal of nutrition and could thus rob the brain of energy.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE BIG LEBOWSKI”)

JEFF BRIDGES, ACTOR:  Yes, well, that‘s just like, your opinion, man. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  It is in this hair salon of a totalitarian country that we as Americans can see the stark differences between them and ourselves. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  They hate and we love freedom. 

OLBERMANN:  Over there and over here, axis of evil, Evel Knievel.  We cherish our freedom because it lives in our hair.  And no man can truly be free while the very essence of his individuality sits in a pile on the barber shop floor. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  You may have laughed at that sign mullet boy was holding there, but you wait.  The next big thing from North Korea will be a crackdown on people named “Moran.”

That‘s COUNTDOWN.  Thanks for being part of it.  I‘m Keith Olbermann. 

Good night and good luck. 

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

END   

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