updated 1/27/2005 2:17:03 PM ET 2005-01-27T19:17:03

Guest: Rod Nordland, Margaret Carlson, Bethany Decker, Carrie Cooper, Susan Hallums

ALISON STEWART, HOST:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?  The deadliest day for U.S. troops in Iraq.  A chopper goes down in bad weather killing everyone aboard. 

And the Iraqi voter digesting two very different messages.  Terrorists say Baghdad streets will be washed with voters‘ blood.  President Bush asked Iraqis to defy the terrorists. 

And meet the press do some explaining.  After last week‘s broadstrokes inaugural address, the press presses the press for details.  And what about that second journalist paid by the administration in exchange for support? 

A botched suicide attempt ends up killing ten others.  Two trains collide outside Los Angeles and hundreds are injured. 

Stop Ashlee Simpson.  Music lover turn to the web to express their deep desire for Jessica‘s little sister to cease and desist.  All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.  

Good evening.  I‘m Alison Stewart.  Keith Olbermann is still on vacation.  It was the single deadliest day for the U.S. military since the war began.  37 U.S. troops killed across Iraq.  Most of the deaths coming from the chilling phrase, chopper down.  The rest coming in the insurgents‘ violence we‘re seeing day in and day out.  Attacks are expected to intensify as election day approaches.  Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, Iraq.  We begin in Baghdad with Richard Engel. 

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Alison, U.S. marine officials tell NBC News, the crash may have been caused by bad weather, pilot error, or mechanical failure.  But that there‘s no indication the helicopter came under attack. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over):  The CH-53 Super Stallion like this one was transporting marines for an election related security mission when it went down near the town of Rutba 220 miles west of Baghdad, an area that is known locally for fierce sandstorms. 

LT. GENERAL JOHN SATTLER:  A recovery team is at the crash site and the cause of the crash is currently under investigation. 

ENGEL:  In Washington, President Bush reacted to the loss. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  The story today is going to be very discouraging to the American people.  I understand that.  We value life.  And we weep and mourn when soldiers lose their life. 

ENGEL:  The Super Stallion is the largest U.S. military transport helicopter and it has been in use since Vietnam.  In Iraq, where convoys are so often targeted, helicopters are used constantly.  They fly fast and low. 

LOREN THOMPSON, MILITARY ANALYST:  Our helicopters have to fly low now to avoid being shot down by insurgents.  The problem with that is that if you‘re in bad weather, if you‘re in a sandstorm, and you lose your sense of direction, you‘re in trouble real fast. 

ENGEL:  The crash came as violence worsened throughout Iraq, with at least 14 vehicle bombs and ambushes killing more than two dozen Iraqis.  Including three suicide car bombs near Kirkuk, targeting police and Iraqi soldiers.  To the southeast in Baquba militant opened fire on three political party headquarters.  In Baghdad, two bombs on the airport road wounded four American soldiers.  And three voting centers were attacked.  All of them schools.  All were empty at the time. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(on camera):  And Alison, with violence here only expected to get worse ahead of Sunday‘s elections, U.S. troops are running intensified missions.  That means more fights and more strain on the troops. 

STEWART:  Thanks.  This just in here at MSNBC.  The military has confirmed that 27 of the 31 marines who perished in that chopper crash came from a marine corps base in Hawaii on Oahu. 

The campaign of intimidation doesn‘t stop with bombs and mortars.  Insurgents are now canvassing would-be voters with leaflets threatening to murder them and their entire families.  At one shelled-out polling place, insurgents left a note vowing to wash the streets with voters‘ blood and warning that they have prepared a car bomb for every polling place.  Another leaflet distributed in Baghdad reads, quote, “to those who think you can vote and then run away, we will shadow you and catch you and we will cut off your heads and the heads of your children.”

President Bush today acknowledged that such tactics will keep some people away from the polls but he says he remains optimistic about voter turnout. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  We anticipate a lot of Iraqis will vote.  Clearly there are some who are intimidated.  Surveys show that the vast majority of people do want to participate in a democracy.  And some are feeling intimidated.  I urge all people to vote.  I urge people to defy these terrorists. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  We‘re joined by MSNBC‘s David Shuster who just arrived in Baghdad to cover the election.  We just heard the president speaking to reporters here in the States.  Tonight, he also went directly to the Arab media to address the Iraqi voters.  What did the president hope to get across? 

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, the message there was that the president indicated that U.S. forces are doing everything they can, taking a variety of steps to make sure that the elections will be secure.  The airport will be closed.  Borders are closed.  There will be special permits required if you want to be on the streets.  The message from the president was look, we‘re doing everything we can to make sure these 5,000 polling locations are going to be safe.  The second message from the president was he told the government of Iran not to meddle in the Iraqi elections.  And this was very interesting for two reasons.  First, the Bush administration has been ratcheting up its rhetoric, its pressure on the government of Iran which is a nuclear armed regional power and they‘re very worried about that situation. 

But secondly, there is some evidence that the Iraqi government has been supporting some of the insurgent attacks, specifically those aimed at the Shiite secularists.  The government of Iraq would like the Shiite religious organizations to do very well in the election and to have a secular groups minimized as far as the power is concerned and there are great concerns among the Bush administration that Iraq will try to dissuade secular voters from going to the polls. 

STEWART:  David, I know that you‘ve been all over the world in your reporting.  It is actually your first time going to Iraq and you arrived in Baghdad yesterday.  Just give us your initial thoughts. 

SHUSTER:  Well, the initial thought is that Baghdad is very much a typical city in the sense that you see people going to work.  You see people waiting at the bus stop and whatnot.  But you also see the degree to which U.S. forces are really isolated.  There‘s such anger and tension you can feel.  And when you see the convoys rolling through streets, they‘re now requiring Iraqis to stay 100 meters back on the streets.  The convoys are clearly operating essentially on their own and one of the reasons they can‘t go after some of the insurgents who attacked them from some of these neighborhoods is because U.S. forces are not getting any help. 

So you really see the tension.  But to that end, you also see the incredible courage and valor of these U.S. forces simply when they‘re rumbling through the streets of Baghdad. 

STEWART:  Iraq with some fresh eyes.  Thank you for that.  We‘ll be checking with him regularly as election day approaches. 

In a sign of just how tense the situation is in Baghdad right now we could not even get our next guest to a camera because of security concern.  Instead, Rod Nordland, Baghdad bureau chief for “Newsweek” magazine, joins us by the phone.  Thanks for taking the time tonight. 

ROD NORDLAND, “NEWSWEEK”:  Glad to do it. 

STEWART:  It is interesting talking to David Shuster who has just been there for 24 hours.  You‘ve been in Baghdad for the past two years.  You have a whole other perspective here.  Tell us if there‘s any sense of anticipation among Iraqis, a real desire to vote on Sunday. 

NORDLAND:  I think there certainly is among the Shia, especially.  On the part of the Sunnis, I think most of them will probably boycott the elections.  The ones who would like to vote, I think they‘re looking forward to the election with a sense of dread and just what is going to happen.  Baghdad is just swirling with rumors that there will be 150 suicide car bombs launched on election day.  Whether that is true or not, I‘m sure they couldn‘t quite manage that many, it just shows you how nervous people are. 

STEWART:  I know you‘ve done quite a bit of reporting about how blatant and direct the insurgents have been in terms of intimidation.  Can you share a few examples with us?

NORDLAND:  This most striking image to me here and it is a big change in recent weeks or months, but probably in the last couple months, especially.  We‘re seeing the Iraqi security forces, the police and the national guard wearing (UNINTELLIGIBLE) masks.  In the building where I have my office, which is run by the U.S. military now, the Iraqis who search our bags as we come in have their faces masked.  A few months ago, it was the insurgents that had their faces masked.  Now we see them appearing on the streets, making no effort at all to hide their identity.  Executing people in broad daylight on a downtown street, distributing leaflet and fliers.  And one of the most chilling things, the chilling developments has been the institutionalization of death threats.  They deliver a death threat and they actually deliver it with instructions, to the receiver on what he has to do if he wants to not have the death threat executed.  This involves often going to a place and making a public renunciation of the Americans, or the Iraqis or whoever it is that he works for and not promising not to do it again. 

STEWART:  That is remarkably bold.  From the Iraqis you‘ve spoken to, has the idea of the violence changed their decision about whether to vote or whether not to vote? 

NORDLAND:  It has.  Did I a little poll of “Newsweek” staff, which isn‘t a huge staff, but you know, we have a dozen people or so working for us who are Iraqis and have worked for us for a couple a years.  And as it happens, most of them are Sunnis.  And the Shi‘as are all primed to vote.  But—And the Sunnis began by not wanting to vote, thinking it wasn‘t going to matter.  Then they wanted to vote.  And more recently, they‘re too afraid to vote.  And I don‘t think—I don‘t think that maybe more than one of them will actually vote election day. 

STEWART:  But when you talk about safety at the polls, any idea or any word from your reporting how the U.S. military and the Iraqi police, you say are covering their own faces, are planning to protect the polling places?  Is it possible? 

NORDLAND:  I don‘t think anybody feels they can protect all the polling places, and it is 5,300 places around the country.  Even in Baghdad, forget the exact number, but it‘s well over a 1,000 polling places.  All they can do is hope to react quickly when there are attacks.  And they have not—the other thing is, is that the Iraqis themselves are going to take responsibility, because they don‘t want it to look like it‘s an election under foreign occupation.  So American troops are going to stay in the background.  That mean that when they do get attacked, the Iraqis are going to have to take the first—the first line of defense and respond and they have not so far been very good at that. 

STEWART:  Now, U.S. officials are saying that anything above 50 percent voter turnout for the election would be considered a success.  Is that a realistic assessment? 

NORDLAND:  Well, I think it‘s kind of an admission of just how troubled this election is.  The first free and democratic elections in Iraq, were going to be happy with a 50 percent turnout.  I think it‘s a very open question whether even the international community will consider that credible.  But certainly, the Sunnis, the minority Sunnis, a very important minority, are not going to take that as a sign of credibility.  I mean, in East Timor when they had elections for the first time a few years back, they had something like a 98 percent turn out, and they also were under threat at that time. 

STEWART:  “Newsweek‘s” Rod Nordland, joining us on the phone from Baghdad, thank you so much for sharing your reporting and your perspective.  And please stay safe.

NORDLAND:  Thanks so much. 

STEWART:  The family of an American held hostage somewhere in Iraq is pleading for help from President Bush.  Roy Hallum‘s family joins us to talk about the efforts to fine him and give their take on the video that surfaced yesterday. 

And we‘ll have the latest from the scene of that deadly train crash in L.A. this morning.  Morning commuter describing a scene of a carnage and simply chaos.  This is COUNTDOWN on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Up next, 10 dead, some 200 injured.  We‘ll go live to L.A.  for the very latest on the commuter train crash there.  Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  It bore a chilling resemblance to the opening sequence of a TV show “24,” a passenger train smashing into a vehicle left on the tracks.  Only this wasn‘t the work of fictional terrorists, it was one man who tried to kill himself and instead, just took the life of 10 innocent people. 

Our number four story on the COUNTDOWN, a double train disaster.  Two commuter trains collided in California after a suicidal man deliberately drove his car on to the tracks. 

Jennifer London joins us live from the scene in Glendale, California. 

Jennifer get us up to speed.

JENNIFER LONDON, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Well, Alison, the latest number that we were given just at a press conference a few moments ago, 10 people confirmed dead at this hour.  They are saying four people remain unaccounted for.  And when fire crews first arrive at the scene here this morning, they thought they were dealing with a tragic accident.  There was a small fire burning in one of the derailed trains.  There was a diesel spill from one of the trains engine.  But the scene here quickly turned from an accident scene to a crime scene. 

Officials say they believe a young man, Juan Alvarez (ph), described as a transient of sort, deliberately drove his car onto the south bound track and parked it there.  They say it was an apparent suicide attempt.  Officials then say, they believe at the last minute Alvarez may have changed his mind.  He got out of the car and was seen fleeing from the area.  However, his car still parked on the tracks and the south bound commuter train slammed into it.  And what officials are describing as a perfect storm of bad timing, at that very moment, a northbound commuter train slamming into the wreckage, causing the massive derailment.  Here‘s how some eyewitnesses described what happened.  

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It was on fire.  And I said, oh, my God!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  People just screaming, you know, God help me!  Somebody help me!  Just screaming out.  They knew we were there but we couldn‘t get to them.  The flames would not let us get to them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I consider myself very lucky that I was able to get up, get all my stuff and just walk out of there. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LONDON:  Juan Alvarez, the suspect, has been taken into custody.  He has not been charged at this time.  The L.A. district attorney saying the charge could be filed as early as tomorrow—Alison.. 

STEWART:  Jennifer London from Glendale, California, thank you so much for that report. 

First it was Armstrong Williams deal raising eyebrows around Washington, D.C., now a second rider (ph) coming under fire for not disclosing a relationship with the administration.  But up next, it is “Oddball” time.  The old-fashioned pine derby gets—gets all high tech.  Standby. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  I‘m Alison Stewart.  Show sitting for Keith Olbermann.  It is $10 an hour.  And it is time once again to step away from the important news of the day with our nightly segment devoted to the stories with no news value whatsoever.  Let‘s play “Oddball.”

We begin in Sioux City, Iowa, where the traditional soap box derby race has entered the 21st Century.  Well, not really, but they have this really cool new aluminum track.  And hooked up to a laptop to clock the winners at the finish line. 

The car construction is the same as it‘s ever been, though there‘s clearly some new models this year, such as the soap box hummer.  Even though it was made using only a block of wood and some plastic wheels, it sure burn three gallons of gas during the race. 

In other high tech news, an Israeli scientist believes he has develop a machine that measures sexual drive.  Doctor Yorm Bardi (ph) of the Rambam Hospital, that‘s actually its name, I checked, says his gizmo can measure brain waves to pinpoint when people become aroused. 

I thought there was an easier way to do that.  But what do I know. 

Vardy says the machine could be a breakthrough in treating libido loss.  And envisions a future when we can all just hook up to the computer and never leave the house. 

Finally, Ow, ow, ow, ow!  The annual Thaiphusam festival is underway in Singapore where each year more than 50,000 Hindus make penance by piercing their skin with dozens of hooks and needles.  Ow.

Those taking part in the ritual say they feel no pain, because before the piercing, they enter into a deep trance.  Then walk a 2 ½ mile parade route and hopefully avoid any big magnets. 

A kinder, gentler George W. Bush meets the press.  But how much will a convivial Q&A really help him when it comes to passing his agenda? 

But now the top three news stories—news makers of the day. 

No. 3, John Courtney of Belleville, Illinois, is wanted on a criminal warrant for criminal damage to property.  Courtney drove his GMC truck to the St. Claire County Jail to turn himself in.  He left the truck running outside the building, thinking he would be in and out.  Unfortunately for him, he was arrested and booked into jail on the charge when he told deputies about his truck outside.  They gave him a ticket for leaving an unattended vehicle. 

No. 2. James Thomas of Belleville, Illinois.  He happened to be leaving the Saint Claire County Jail when a guy in a GMC truck pulled up and left it running in a parking lot.  So, he stole it.  And later that night, crashed it into a tree after a short police chase.

And No. 1, it‘s Jon Courtney again.  He was released from the jail that night just as James Thomas was being for burglary and possession of a stolen vehicle.  Courtney had to call for a ride home.  And there is a moral to the story, but we can‘t quite figure it out.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  For a president who doesn‘t like answering questions, he‘s only called a news conference 17 times during his first term, George W.  Bush appears to be getting down right chatty.  Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, the president meets the press: How he plans to spend his political capital on the home front. 

Today‘s Q&A‘s session at the White House lasting a whopping 47 minutes.  A relaxed President Bush shining and defining his second term agenda. Touching on his agenda to overhaul Social Security, the budget deficit and those pesky Democrats who keep complaining about his cabinet picks. 

The president urging the Senate to confirm the nomination of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state.  From his lips to lawmakers‘ ears, her nomination went through just a few hours later but not without controversy.  The final vote was 85-13.  Now, it doesn‘t sound like much opposition until you consider that no one voted against the last five nominees for Secretary of State.  All of them receiving unanimous confirmations.  Instead, Dr. Rice heads to the State Department with a baker‘s dozen of no votes.

Almost all of them coming from, guess what, Democrats.  Voting against were Senators Boxer, Kennedy, Levin, Byrd, Reed of Rhode Island, Durbin, Dayton, Akaka, Bayh, Lautenberg, Harkin and oh, yes, Kerry.  One Independent also among the nays, Senator Jeffers of Vermont.  13 is the highest number of no votes for the last 10 secretaries of state.  Henry Kissinger, he had seven nays back in ‘73.  Alexander Haig, six in 1981.  But Dr. Rice didn‘t let the opposition slow her down.  She is now officially madam secretary, sworn in earlier tonight.  Or is that Dr. madam secretary.  Smart lady. 

When it comes time to vote for the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general, 13 no votes could seem relatively puny.  The narrow margin by which his nomination passed through the judiciary committee stage today, may be an indication of a tough fight to come.  The vote was 10-8.  Right along party lines.  That means every Democrat on the committee voted against Gonzales.  Get ready for hours of debate on the Senate floor and numerous questions about his role formulating U.S. policy on torture when he was White House counsel.  But the fireworks will probably end there.  The Senate is still expected to confirm Gonzales eventually. 

Now could there be trouble brewing between the executive branch of government and the legislative?  Here to help us read those tea leaves, Dana Milbank, until recently he was the White House correspondent for the “Washington Post.”  These days he‘s the national political reporter.  Hi, Dana.  Congratulations on your new gig. 

DAN MILBANK, “WASHINGTON POST”:  Good evening, Alison.  Congratulations on that $10 an hour.  I think you‘re earning every penny of it. 

STEWART:  Thank you, sir.  If Democrats in the Senate are putting up a fight on foregone conclusions like Condi Rice and Alberto Gonzales, what do you think will happen when something like, say, reforming the entire Social Security program comes up for discussion? 

MILBANK:  It is true.  Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.  They‘ve got down to just 45 votes in the Senate.  Barely can mount a filibuster and not all the time.  Really, all they can do is make these symbolic statements, demand time to speak and rail for the TV cameras.  If that‘s what we saw with Condi Rice, is what 13 senators can do, just wait to see what they can do on Social Security.  Don‘t forget the leading candidate to lead the Democratic party now as DNC chairman is Howard Dean.  He is no wallflower. 

STEWART:  No shrinking violet there at all. 

Why the hastily arranged, last-minute news conference in the first place? 

MILBANK:  Well, I‘m sure that people in the White House are asking themselves that very question right now.  Apparently, it had been arranged before they had heard about the tragic helicopter accident.  The president was trying to set straight the rather confusing message from the inaugural speech when he said he did not quite mean exactly what he had said about all that freedom in the first place.  He instead got bombarded with lots of questions about Social Security, about the budget deficit, about problems in Iraq.  So he handled it quite well.  You can see he is getting more comfortable in this forum.  But I can‘t imagine that really advanced the ball for him that much. 

STEWART:  I heard talk that part of this new effort to reach out to the press might be because of his new communications director.  It‘s Nicole Devenish.

MILBANK:  Well, we all in the press love Nicole Devenish and that could be just the kiss of death for her.  I‘m hoping that Dan Bartlett and others in the White House are not watching this broadcast tonight.  But they have—she definitely is putting a friendlier face on the White House.  I wouldn‘t get too excited about this.  Because a lot of the characters are the same.  And the person sort of enforcing the tight-lipped White House is the president himself.  So we shouldn‘t expect all of a sudden, lots of warm and fuzzy coming to all of us in the press from the White House. 

STEWART:  And before I let you go, something that was sort of interesting as you watch the press conference, you went back and read it.  The first question out of the gate was about Iraq.  The president really want to talk about Social Security.  The questions kept coming about Iraq.  Do you think his domestic agenda will have to take a back seat and what can you really do about it? 

MILBANK:  It sure is.  We‘ve got a budget deficit for this year, up to some $450 billion.  That‘s because we‘ve had to add in another $80 billion for Iraq.  It is already derailing the agenda.  The president is doing his best to tone down expectations.  In the press conference he said millions of Iraqis would vote in the elections.  He had an interview in the afternoon and he said I believe thousands of people will vote in the elections.  Hopefully we‘ll at least get some dozens out there. 

STEWART:  Dana Milbank from the “Washington Post.”  Thanks for taking the time tonight. 

MILBANK:  Thanks, Alison.

STEWART:  Another concern for the president, Americans held hostage in Iraq.  A videotape released yesterday shows an American who was abducted last November.  Roy Hallums was working in Iraq as a catering contractor and was taken from his Baghdad compound during an armed assault.  On that videotape, he pleads for his life with a rifle pointed at his head.  You can see it on the screen.  It is a sight difficult to witness, most of all, for his family.  And joining me now, his former wife Susan Hallums and their daughter, Carrie Cooper.  We thank you both so much for coming on the program under these circumstances.

I took a look at the website you created.  It has all kinds of information about your dad and his abduction.  Can you give us some of the details about the night he was taken? 

CARRIE COOPER, ROY HALLUM‘S DAUGHTER:  From what I was told, he was taken on November 1 in the afternoon around 4:00. 

It was dinner time.  And he had one guard that was protecting the compound.  All the other guards were eating dinner.  That‘s when two carloads of about 20 attackers with rocket launchers and automatic weapons came and overtook the compound and I believe one or two people died.  And my dad was taken hostage. 

STEWART:  Ms. Hallums, you and Carey have made a decision to talk to the press now almost three months since Roy‘s kidnapping.  Were you advised not to speak out earlier? 

SUSAN HALLUMS, ROY HALLUMS EX-WIFE:  It was always pretty much put in our hands.  In the beginning, we were pretty much advised against it.  To let them know but we weren‘t given any information.  We were pretty much advised not to. 

STEWART:  What‘s changed your mind? 

HALLUMS:  Well, we sort of lived on the Internet since we didn‘t have any answers.  And we started to see his name on the Internet and once we saw his name out there, we decided as a family, we should recognize him and plead to help him. 

STEWART:  Carrie, how do you feel about how the investigation is going so far? 

COOPER:  Well, to answer your question about what has changed our mind and to answer this question is we didn‘t feel like enough was being done.  So that‘s when we decided to start speaking out.  And going on these types of shows in order to have more attention paid to my father‘s case in hopes that he will be released.  So that‘s what has changed our mind.  And caused us to speak out. 

STEWART:  Carrie, when was the last time you saw your dad? 

COOPER:  The last time I actually saw him was when he was on vacation in Memphis last June. 

STEWART:  And you spoke to him when? 

COOPER:  The last time I spoke to him was just prior to his kidnapping in October. 

STEWART:  Did you discuss the safety issue at all?  We‘ve heard so many stories coming out of Iraq.  Was he concerned at all? 

COOPER:  No.  I addressed it with him several times.  I never knew he was in Iraq.  I always thought he was in Saudi Arabia.  And I was uncomfortable with him being there.  And so I expressed that to him.  I didn‘t nag him about it but I definitely expressed that I was not comfortable and I was worried about his safety in Saudi Arabia.  This might have played a role in why he did not tell me that he was in Baghdad.  He knew then I would be even more worried, I‘m assuming. 

STEWART:  Now you‘ve seen this tape.  And we don‘t really know what your dad looked like before.  How does he look to you?  Has he lost weight?  Does he look older? 

COOPER:  Definitely. 

HALLUMS:  Definitely. 

COOPER:  He has shortness of breath.  It sounds like he‘s laboring to speak.  I see plastic—they‘ve cut them—it appears to be plastic handcuffs around his wrists.  To me that‘s what it looked like because I‘ve watched the tape several times today.  And I noticed a lot of things. 

STEWART:  And Mrs. Hallums, what‘s next for you and your daughter in this investigation? 

HALLUMS:  We‘re just pleading with every world leader, every government official to please have mercy and try to help him out of this horrible, terrible situation that he looks very sick and that he needs our help. 

STEWART:  Susan Hallums and Carrie Cooper, thank you so much for joining us tonight.  Every good thought is with you both. 

The Bush administration is coming under fire again for payoffs to journalists in exchange for support.  The president says he has cracked down on his cabinet secretaries but are these allegations only going to grow? 

Things really haven‘t exactly been going Ashlee Simpson‘s way lately.  Now a campaign is under way to keep her out of the spotlight.  Those stories ahead.  Now here is a special edition of the sound bite of the day.  Our forward looking president looks forward to a second term. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  We have a full agenda.  I‘m looking forward to the work ahead.  And now I‘m looking forward to answering some of your questions.  I‘m looking forward to the challenge.  I‘m looking forward to reaching out to our friends.  I‘m looking forward to taking the case to the American people. 

I‘m looking forward to make sure Afghanistan is—looking forward to spreading freedom around the world. 

I look forward to working with Congress. 

I look forward to holding the line with the United States Congress. 

I‘m looking forward to leading the Congress. 

And I‘m looking forward to my visit with him this afternoon. 

And I‘m looking forward to working with her. 

I look forward—And I look forward to. 

And Dr. Rice and I look forward to moving forward. 

And I look forward to working with member of both parties. 

I‘m looking forward to discussing it with member of both parties. 

I‘m looking forward to working with people of both parties.

I am looking forward to working with both Republicans and Democrats. 

And then I look forward to taking off shortly and traveling around the country discussing this issue. 

And so I look forward to leading the world in that direction. 

I feel like people looking forward to working with us. 

Listen, thank you all very much for your time.  I appreciate this.  And I‘m looking forward to working with you all as we have a productive 2005.  Thank you. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  OK.  It isn‘t often that President Bush admits an error.  So, listen up and roll that V.C.R.  Remember that quarter million dollars the Education Department acknowledged paying the columnist Armstrong Williams so he would promote president‘s education plan?  Remember that? 

Our 2nd story on the COUNTDOWN, Armstrong Williams wasn‘t the only one. 

More on who else was paid by the administration and what they did in just a moment.  But first, near the end of his news conference today, the president said that although the White House didn‘t even know about the arraignment with Armstrong Williams, it was a mistake to pay the pundit? 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION:  Do you think it is a proper use of government funds to pay commentators to promote your policies?

BUSH:  No. 

QUESTION:  Are you going to order...

BUSH:  Therefore, I will not pay you to—all our cabinet secretaries must realize that we will not be paying, you know, commentators to advance our agenda.  Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  It turns out that Armstrong Williams isn‘t the only conservative commentator on the administration‘s pay roll.  The Washington Post reporting that syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher was paid $22,000 by the Department of Health and Human Services to promote president‘s marriage initiative.  Only that—only not—let me try that one more time. 

That‘s not how Maggie Gallagher sees it.  There you go.  She says the money was not for promotion, it was for research.  Issuing a statement to COUNTDOWN tonight, she said she was actually hired to write 4 scientific brochures on the benefits of marriage.  And that she should have mentioned it before now. 

Quote, “It was a mistake on my part not to have disclosed any government contract.  It will not happen again.”  end quote.

The company that syndicates her column is letting Gallagher keep her job. 

So first it was Armstrong Williams.  Now we have Maggie Gallagher.  Could there be anybody else out there?  Joining us to weigh in, “TIME” magazine‘s Margaret Carlson.  A columnist who is not on the administration‘s pay roll, unless there are any confessions you would like to make, Margaret. 

MARGARET CARLSON, TIME:  We could make some news.  But fortunately, or unfortunately for my bank account, I am not being paid by the Bush administration. 

STEWART:  All right.  So, we cleared that up. 

CARLSON:  Now, when this Armstrong Williams story first broke, the question was is there anybody else.  Now we definitely know there‘s at least one somebody else.  So now is the question how many more are there?  Is it reasonable to expect that it will stop at two? 

CARLSON:  Reasonable to expect, more in that there was nothing so special about Armstrong Williams that he‘d be the only one.  Even though he did his job very, very well and looking back at tapes, no matter what the question, is the sky blue, Armstrong Williams would fit in the No Child Left Behind Act.  So he really earned that money. 

And as between Maggie Gallagher and Armstrong Williams, there is the matter of the amount of money.  But Williams‘ syndicate let him go.  And as you reported, Universal Press Syndicate is keeping on Maggie Gallagher.  And I think it is just a matter of the amount of money not whether this should happen or not. 

STEWART:  That‘s an interesting idea, the idea that the money should really matter.  Isn‘t it in journalism, shouldn‘t it be that a lie is a lie?  A little white lie versus a big, fat one?

CARLSON:  Right.  Well, Armstrong was just better paid to carry the administration‘s water on these subjects.  I think Maggie got something in the range of $20,000.  And Armstrong Williams got $200,000. 

STEWART:  So the next time I see someone on TV passionately arguing for some proposal, should I make the leap that he might be paid for I had?  Is that much of a black mark? 

CARLSON:  I don‘t think there‘s that many.  It just—the idea that this administration would pay people to pose, in a sense, as journalists, independent journalists, to promote their policies is so strange given that this administration is one of the most press phobic administrations I‘ve seen, despite Bush‘s press conference today when he said, among the many things he was looking forward to, he was looking forward to more press conferences. 

STEWART:  It was interesting.  Maggie Gallagher gave a little bit of a snarky response when she was originally was asked about it.  She has since backtracked from it.  She responded, did I violate journalistic ethics by not disclosing it?  I don‘t know.  You tell me.  Did she?

CARLSON:  Well, you know, that‘s so Rumsfeldian to ask a question sort of rhetorically and then push it off on your listener.  Well, if you say, tell me, the answer is, well, yes, it is.  And I think you should have.  And I think you should in the future. 

And by the way, part of what happens here is that she‘s a very good guest and producers, I‘m not going to name any names here at MSNBC, but producers at other cable channels may call her on and not ask the question.  And maybe producers will start asking that question. 

STEWART:  All right.  You‘re going to have to e-mail me those name later. 

Margaret Carlson of “Time” magazine, thanks so much. 

CARLSON:  Will do, Alison.  I look forward to doing it.

STEWART:  Thanks so much for the taking the time and for your thoughts.

CARLSON;  Bye.

STEWART:  And with that we make the transition to the stories in which we all check our ethics at the door.  The entertainment stories of keeping tabs.  And just when you thought there was no more room in the world for one more animated super hero, pow, here comes Super Ringo Starr Man!  The former Beatle drummer announced he was joined with the legend, Stan Lee, to create a new multimedia adventure surrounding the animated character, Ringo Star with super human powers. 

A 90-minute animated DVD is first, with TV film and possibly comic books to follow.  No word when exactly Stan Lee lost his mind, but it won‘t be the first time Ringo has appeared in a cartoon.  He‘s played himself in “Yellow Submarine,” the old Saturday morning with the Beatles and most recently on the “Simpson‘s.” 

From super heroes to the Super Bowl, and they‘ve already begun booking guests for the 18-hour pregame show on Fox.  Boy, making an appearance this year, the travelling road show of former president, Bush and Clinton.  41 and 42, have been making a series of media appearances to raise awareness for tsunami relief and have booked themselves to do just that at about 5:30 on Super Bowl Sunday, just an hour before kickoff.  The two will not perform in any halftime show, which this year is being called a tribute to keeping your shirt on. 

And finally, scientists in Greece say they‘ve discovered a shrine to the original man‘s man, Hercules.  I say, bring him on!  Archaeologists Thebes, Greece believe they have found what ancients believed was the birth place of the mythical hero, Hercules.  A sight that‘s been half excavated, and revealed alters and dwellings dating back to the third millennium B.C.  Researchers think the sight was used the worship the famous son of Zeus, best know for slaying a lion, and a nine headed serpent and a man who could actually multitask there.  As well as inspiring the distinguishing acting career of Fabio. 

Form multitasking to just plain tasking.  Some ask why can‘t Ashlee Simpson sing?  Why is she a celebrity?  Now, those nay sayers are trying to have the red carpet pull out from underneath her.  I say leave Ashlee alone.  That debates up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  It has been more than two decades since video killed the radio star.  And considering where I worked for eight years, I do feel a wee bit guilty about it.  However, who could have foreseen the slow decent into the artistic abyss marked by Saturday nights cozied up to a full queue of TiVo‘ed “Fear Factors” and “Growing up Gotti.” 

Tonight‘s number one story on the COUNTDOWN, the alarm sounds anew, quoting hear from Academy Award winner, Dustin Hoffman, “The whole culture is in the crap house.”  The acting legend articulating that particular sentiment to London‘s “Guardian” newspaper in regards to the current state of film and theater.  Hoffman in London to promote that piece of cinematic excellence, better known as “Meet the Fockers,” saying both Hollywood and Broadway are more interesting in, “Playing to the demographic than promoting a cultural experience.” 

Music, he forgot music. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ASHLEE SIMPSON, ENTERTAINER:  (SINGING)

CROWD:  BOO!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  Now, I have personally come out of the closet as an Ashlee Simpson fan, plunked down $13 for the CD and everything.  Got that off my chest.  That‘s however not the opinion shared by the over 215,000 people to sign a petition at stopashlee.com.  The minimalist site as but one purpose, to somehow, some way get Ashlee Simpson to stop.  Just stop.  Now, please stop Ashley Simpson‘s career. 

It‘s specifically addressed not to the performer herself but to her record label, Geffen Records, and her management company J.T.  Entertainment.  That happens to be run by her dad.  We the undersigned are disgusted with Ashlee Simpson‘s horrible singing and hereby ask her to stop.  One recent petition signer contributing to that opening salvo, “What is America coming to when such a talentless brat can rule the charts.  I‘m ashamed to be an American.” Ouch. 

A little lip syncing, some bad clothing choices and your own TV show for no good reason seems to really irksome folks, especially Bethany Decker founder of stopashleesimpson.com.  Bethany, thanks so much for joining us.   

BETHANY DECKER, STOPASHLEE.COM:  Thank you for having me. 

STEWART:  Now, what‘s your beef Ashlee? 

DECKER:  Well, mostly I guess, me and everybody that‘s been signing is just sick of the fake celebrity.  You know, her CD sounds fairly good after it‘s been touched up.  And then, if you listen to her on her show recording or when she sings live she just can‘t hit any notes.  And it‘s just—you know, we‘re just wanting for authenticity and haven‘t gotten it, so I guess we‘re kind of revolting. 

STEWART:  Now, what made you decide to turn this distaste into action? 

DECKER:  I had I talked to a bunch of people online, and everybody was looking for some kind of way that we could all band together, and kind of let our voices be heard as one, and just really express that.  We‘re just sick of it, you know.  No one would give her a second look if she wasn‘t her sister‘s sister. 

STEWART:  I‘m getting this vibe from you it‘s not so much about her per se, but it‘s about the whole media machine force feeding you her. 

DECKER:  It is also a about that, you know, that we really had no choice but to accept her as this pop icon.  And, you know, she‘s really just isn‘t good enough, and the consumers are now telling everybody so. 

STEWART:  Well, she sold 3 million records. 

DECKER:  Well, those were records that were retouched.  And she wasn‘t singing live when you put her in the CD player.  You can do a lot to fix it.  And nobody knew better at that time.

STEWART:  So, I know you don‘t like her, but a whole lot of people on that site like her as well, right?  It‘s posted?  There‘s been Ashlee—stop Ashlee bashers!

DECKER:  Every now and then, somebody—you know, you‘ll get a supporting signature.  But basically the comments don‘t matter, it‘s that the numbers go up. 

STEWART:  All right, Bethany Decker, founder of stopashlee.com.  I don‘t know if you‘re going to be able to stop her. 

DECKER:  I don‘t know but we can try. 

STEWART:  Thank you for your time. 

DECKER:  Thank you. 

STEWART:  Everyone‘s got to have a mission in this lifetime.  Thank so much, Bethany. 

DECKER:  Thank you. 

STEWART:  All right, that‘s it for COUNTDOWN.  I still like Ashlee.  Thank you for being part of it.  I‘m Alison Stewart in for Mr. Keith Olbermann.  I will see you back here tomorrow night.  Stay safe and be well.

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

END   

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2005 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2005 Voxant, Inc. ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

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