July 6, 2005 | 4:50 p.m. ET

Generation Next: The New Billy Graham 
(Dionne Slaughter, Associate Producer)

I remember working at a Billy Graham Crusade as a volunteer counselor about 15 years ago.  Aside from counseling a few people after they had just accepted Christ into their lives, and the mass amount of people, I don't remember much.  I was glad to be there and glad to potentially help impact someone's life.  But at the same time, let's be real.  At 13, all I really wanted to do was talk on the phone with my girl friends, listen to music and watch TV. 

As a young teen, it just wasn't my speed.  The Crusade consisted of choirs, hymns, preaching, prayer and bibles. Your basic recipe for a church service. I've always loved going to church from the time I was little.  I've always loved God for who He is, and for the miracles I've seen him work right before my eyes, including in my own family.  I've always respected the church and it's purpose, but if I may speak for me and a lot of my peers -- hymns, and traditional sermons don't always cut it.
 
Reverend Graham made his way back to New York for what he called potentially his last crusade and I jumped at the chance to work again, but this time from a different perspective.  With Graham possibly stepping down as the world's greatest and most influential evangelist, who would take over?  Who's going to be the next Billy Graham?

Graham has an idea.  It's not just one person it's many young people.

Several weeks ago "USA Today" featured an article in which they had a sit down interview with Reverend Graham at his log cabin home in Montreat, N.C.   They talked about the future and what's to come.  "Indeed, his life is lit by joy when he looks to the future. Graham sees that future carried by young people 'trying to make a better world and serve the Lord.'"

I found that interesting considering there are less than 3 percent of this current population under the age of 21 willing to go into any type of ministry or mission field compared to the 21 percent committed to Christ on that level in Billy Graham's generation (passageway.org).

I finally made it down to the crusade on the second night. They called it "Youth Night: A Concert of Hope". The recipe was a bit different from my last experience: Prayer, preaching, Bibles, colored hair, do-rags, acoustic guitars, rap, and dancers. I've been to many concerts like this.  I have friends who are Christian rock and rap musicians, in fact my brother is a gospel rap artist (www.slaughtermusic.com), so the scene didn't shock me at all. It was the idea that an 86 year old evangelist was behind it that threw me for a loop.  I've been a witness to many pastors, half grahams age, who refuse to allow hard bass lines and screaming guitars across their thresholds. They declare it's the devils music.

But Billy Graham sees it a bit differently.  He began appealing to the youth in his crusades 10 years ago.  He acknowledged in his 1997 autobiography, "Admittedly, it wasn't really my kind of music, nor was it what we have ordinarily featured in our meetings during most of our ministry. But times change.  As long as the essential message of the Gospel is not obscured or compromised, we must use every legitimate method we can."

Amen to that, and consider it done.

South African rock group Tree63 sang:
"Every blessing you pour out,
I turn back to praise.
When the darkness closes in, Lord
Still I will say...
Blessed be the name of the Lord"

That was the overall flavor of the lyrics that rang out that night.  The concert was sick (sick = good). The roster included Nicole C. Mullen, Jars of Clay, Mercy Me, and Tree63 (who, by the way, have been compared to U2, Train, and Coldplay).  The scene didn't look much different than what you'd see at any other rock, R&B or rap concert.  There were lights, live music, dancers and 90,000 screaming fans (most under the age of 21).  But clearly unlike a lot of secular music-- the lyrics are every bit focused on bringing peace, empowerment and hope to people, and Glory to Heaven's throne.

If graham's mission is to crack the code that will draw young people to hear the gospel, I think he's on to something and the collective church should take heed. 

Bart Millard from rock group "Mercy Me" (www.mercyme.org) said it best at a press conference before they hit the stage at the New York Crusade.  "The church has spent generations using the same methods, the same techniques, the same traditions to reach people...there are many churches breaking the mold...and other churches will try to knock them down saying it's unorthodox" but instead, churches should consider "meeting students where they are...and say look, you don't clean up before you get in the shower, we don't want to change you before you come to Christ.  We just want you to meet Christ and the rest will fall in place where you are."

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July 1, 2005 | 4:50p.m. ET

Cruise-a-Palooza (Alison Stewart, MSNBC Anchor)

The box office numbers have just come in and I am not surprised in the least that War of the Worlds hauled in $21 million in its first day of release. The movie is good. I signed something saying I wouldn't say that in the media until the U.S. release. I saw it two weeks ago on the first day of the "Today World Cruise" when I was following Tomster from city to city as he premiered his latest flick.

Now that I'm off to vacation in eight hours and Cruise has seemingly pressed the power-off button on his publicity machine, I can finally let my keyboard do the talking about Cruise-a-palooza -- around half the world with Tom Cruise in eight days.

One humid Wednesday morning in June my biggest concern was how many liters of cola should I buy for my niece's high school graduation party. 48 hours later, I was taking off on a 14 hour plane ride to Tokyo to interview Tom Cruise & Steven Spielberg before the world premiere of War of the Worlds. It would then be on to Berlin for the German premiere, onto the Marseilles premiere, and then London and Madrid.

There were highs (seeing Japan for the first time) and lows (getting chewed out by a movie publicist), the odd -- a bear hug from Cruise -- and the odder -- living inside a celebrity bubble for a week. ...

Click here to read Alison's entire around-the-world experience.

June 21, 2005 | 1:54 p.m. ET

Replacing Rusty (Tamara Ward, Segment Producer)

Since my favorite NASCAR driver is retiring at the end of this season, it's time to start thinking about a new driver to replace him. My last blog was about my conversation with my favorite driver, Rusty Wallace (#2 Miller Lite Dodge).

Well, it's good to work at MSNBC because I'm getting the opportunity to "interview" different drivers. We had Tony Stewart (#20 Home Depot Chevrolet) on air the other day.  He was promoting a playground project his team is involved with. We chatted a little bit about last year's Michigan race, then I told him I was on the lookout for a new driver because Rusty was retiring on me.

His response: "Just add a zero to that 2."

I told him I would if he won the race at Michigan on Sunday. Well, Tony Stewart led the most laps at the Batman Begins 400. But he didn't win the race.  He finished 2nd, behind Greg Biffle (#16 National Guard Ford). And the only reason he lost was pit strategy. But that 2nd place finish certainly helped Stewart in the Nextel Cup standings.

When MSNBC's Natalie Allen interviewed him he was 10th in points, 380 back from first.  Now he's 6th place, 311 points back. So I'm still looking for a new driver... but Tony Stewart is definitely on my short list.

MSNBC's Tamara Ward is a segment producer on MSNBC Live.

Questions/Comments: Newsforce@MSNBC.COM


June 11, 2005 | 5:54 p.m. ET

What approval rating? (Chris Ariens, Executive Producer)

If President Bush is at all dismayed by this week's AP-Ipsos poll which shows his approval rating at 43% , he should give a call to his friend Alejandro Toledo of Peru.

Toledo, who was elected four years ago this month with 52 percent of the vote, now garners a 7 percent approval rating.  I didn't leave out a number: just 7 percent of Peruvians approve of the job he is doing.  So why do so few Peruvians support their leader, the first native Indian to be elected president?  That's just what I wanted to find out, so between stops at Peruvian tourist staples including ancient Cuzco, the ruins at Machu Picchu and the mysterious Nazca Lines, I asked some Peruvians about their President. The political line quickly became clear.

I asked Raul, my 50-something guide from the rural, desert areas south of Lima.  As he explained about the thriving cotton, asparagus and grape farms, he talked about "no progreso," that Toledo was a lot of talk, but did very little.  I asked Moises, a 36-year-old teacher from Lima, who called Toledo a "moron" and who was so dismayed by Peruvian politics that he said he would probably leave the country in the next couple of years.  And Humberto, a 26-year-old artist from Trujillo, who summed it up by drawing his finger from ear to ear, under his throat as if to say "it's over."  But it's not quite.

Toledo has another year in office.  And while no one expects him to run again, things aren't much easier for his vice presidents, one of whom, David Waisman, had a heart attack earlier this year after defending himself against claims he's not fit to govern Peru.

So, who's supporting Toledo?  Well, there's Walter, a 28-year-old IBM project leader from Lima who talked about how Peru's growing economy and how the Peruvian currency, the Nuevo Sol, has stabilized against the dollar.  And there's Alvaro, who works for Peru's leading telecommunications company, Telefonica who says home-grown terrorism is not a concern like it once was.

Toledo was swept into office 4 years ago amid a corruption scandal involving his predecessor, Alberto Fujimori.

Fujimori was run out of the country in 2000, and may still yet be tried by an international court for dereliction of duty.  So you can imagine my surprise while driving through Lima to see signs reading "Fujimori 2006."  Yes, the hard-line ruler says he wants to run again.  In fact, poll conducted in March by the Instituto de Desarrollo e Investigación de Ciencias Económicas (IDICE) found 12% of Peruvians would vote for him!

Still, Toledo continues to press on.  The former shoeshine boy turned Stanford-educated Ph. D was in China last week, where the two countries signed agreements on issues related to transportation, medicine, education and tourism.

So, whatever the results of next year's election, the people of Peru will carry on.  This Andean nation is a dichotomy:  One of the poorest nations in the world (50% live below the poverty line), it is rich with natural resources, a thriving tourist industry, and a sense they can succeed.  Like Omar, a Navy Lieutenant I met who says he loves his country, no matter who is leading it.

MSNBC's Chris Ariens is an executive producer of MSNBC Live.

Questions/Comments: Newsforce@MSNBC.COM

June 8, 2005 | 2:18 p.m. ET

Heads or tails? (Lisa Daniels)

If you put 2,000 journalists under one big white tent, what do you get? Apparently 2,000 different predictions on when the Michael Jackson verdict will come down. And most of them will be wrong.

It's sad but true. No matter how good your network is, no matter how good your sources are, a journalist probably has little more insight into the timing of the Jackson verdict than that of a random person on the street. And if you ask me, that notion doesn't sit too well with a bunch of journalists, who like control. If you thought the JFK conspiracy theories were complicated, you should hear the Jackson verdict theories floating around here. Video: High profile deliberations

And quite frankly, it's getting comical. It's funny to see a bunch of well-dressed journalists, wearing impractical high-heels (why?) crouching behind bushes, trying to get a glimpse of what the jurors are wearing. It's even funnier to hear what they're saying: "Is Juror number three wearing a white skirt? Oh, we're getting a verdict today."

I think not. As a lawyer and a pragmatist, sorry folks. But there is no way of knowing. No matter how many times an anchor asks me the question "when" the answer will still be "no idea."

But in my humble opinion, there's something refreshing about the fact that none of us know when the jurors will finish their deliberation process and what that decision will be. That's part of the story. And hopefully soon, journalists will understand, they cannot control the judicial process, no matter how much they want to.

Before starting her broadcasting career, NBC's Lisa Daniels was an associate with the New York law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell. She graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School.

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June 3, 2005| 10:35 a.m. ET

Random thoughts from Santa Maria (Lisa Daniels)

Everything in Santa Maria is a lot smaller than it appears on TV. The "huge" courthouse that we see on TV looks tiny. The fence, separating the pop star from the crowds, only goes up to my hip. Even Michael Jackson himself looks much smaller and thinner than he appears on TV.
 
The media circus is much less of a circus than I anticipated. Many of the journalists here are tired. After all, some members of the press have been here since November of 2003. As one of them told me, things have changed since they arrived. Their children have grown. Loved ones have passed away. I am struck at how one man's trial can affect so many strangers for such a lengthy period of time.

Media outlets from all over the world are here to cover the trial. Amongst the journalists, there is an interesting mix of camaraderie and competition. We are united by this strange story, but driven by our zeal to cover the story better than the competition.

Michael Jackson's adoring fans are an interesting group of people. Every day, at least some of them dress up like the pop-star, complete with makeup, gloves, hats, sunglasses, and of course, those moonwalking shoes. Yesterday, I spotted one of them "moonwalking" down an empty street in Santa Maria, wearing earphones, mouthing the words to a Jackson song. He seemed unaware of my spying.

The trial itself has worn out its welcome, even among the jurors. During closing arguments, they seemed bored. And who can blame them? The allegations against Michael Jackson have been stated, restated, and rehashed over and over again. Why would they want to sit through eight more hours of the same allegations?

But the end of this trial promises to be interesting. Will justice be served? How will Jackson handle victory -- or defeat. If he is convicted, can a man with so many quirks (and I'm stating that nicely) handle the rigors of jail? If he is acquitted, what will he have learned?

The legal story is about to end. The human story is about to begin.

Before starting her broadcasting career, NBC's Lisa Daniels was an associate with the New York law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell. She graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School.

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May 25, 2005| 12:39 p.m. ET

Banish your Jackson fatigue (Lisa Daniels)

I readily admit Michael Jackson's trial has the potential of fatiguing even the biggest legal junkie. After all, both the prosecution and defense seem unfamiliar with the term "resting their case." The personnel changes in the Jackson camp require a flow chart. And the parade of celebrities entering the courtroom is irksome. Even Jackson's shenanigans have long since become routine. Who can blame people who say they've had enough of the Jackson trial?

But like the O.J. Simpson case, the Jackson case is noteworthy. Certainly not for its legal maneuvering and endless publicity stunts. But rather, for its ability to capture where we are as a nation. The Simpson verdict taught us about justice, or as some would argue, the lack of justice. The jury had its say in the court of law. Then the nation had its say as to its view of Simpson's guilty or innocence.

Likewise, the Jackson trial will show us where a group of ordinary folk stand on Jackson's guilt. And while the verdict will surely be the show-stopper for the immediate future, I am more curious to see how our nation reacts. Will we agree with the verdict? Will our sympathy lie with a bizarre pop star whose last good song was Thriller? Or will we be outraged by Jackson's ability to "moonwalk" out of such serious charges of child molestation?

As with all celebrity justice cases, my hope is there will be some self-reflection, in the courts and on the streets. Legally, I'm curious what our legal system will learn from the Jackson case. Celebrity has always been an issue the courts have struggled with. Whether its regulating cameras inside the courtroom or dealing with the media circus outside the courtroom, America's courts haven't resolved the "celebrity" factor.

Then again, neither has America. As a country, we are obsessed with celebrities. And unfortunately, that adulation sometimes interferes with justice.

So before you declare yourself ill with "Jackson-itis", remind yourself, even he will be doing our country some good.

Before starting her broadcasting career, NBC's Lisa Daniels was an associate with the New York law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell. She graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School.

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May 24, 2005 | 12:59 p.m. ET

Oddly, Jackson might help himself (Lisa Daniels)

Will Michael Jackson take the stand? At this point, the answer is anybody's guess. The better question is: Should Michael Jackson take the stand? Even legal experts seem to be divided on this question, and for good reason. Michael Jackson's testimony could make or break this case.

According to the Fifth Amendment of our Constitution, Michael Jackson does not have any obligation to take the stand and testify. In criminal cases, the jury cannot draw any inference of guilt from the fact the defendant is refusing to testify. That is our law.

Video: Should Jackson have testified? But there's a big difference in what the law *says* and what a jury is *thinking,* and I am willing to bet, if Michael Jackson does not take the stand, some members of the jury will be wondering if Jackson had something to hide. Again, they shouldn't be thinking that. But as an attorney, I assure you -- they will.

If Michael Jackson does take the stand, there is also danger. Jackson seems to be fragile. Worse than that, he is strange. VERY strange. Some legal experts have argued, that he will appear so bizarre that he will convince the members of the jury that he is so twisted as to be capable of child molestation.

I disagree.

Ironically, the fact that Michael Jackson is so bizarre may be exactly why Michael Jackson should take the stand. Who better to explain his odd philosophy than Michael Jackson himself?

Think of it. All along, the defense's strategy has been that Michael Jackson is weird. The defense readily admits Jackson sleeps with young boys. He doesn't molest them. He sleeps with them. Bizarre? Yes. But that's Michael Jackson. According to the defense, Michael Jackson is longing for the childhood he never had. That's why he adores children. They are innocent. They are good. They are what make the world go around.

Only Michael Jackson can fully and properly explain his philosophy. The more bizarre he appears, the more the jury may actually buy his defense. The jurors will think: Michael Jackson isn't like us. He was a child star. He was deprived a childhood. That explains the Neverland Ranch. That explains why he befriends child actors. That explains why he sleeps with young children.

And his oddity explains the rest

His obsession with plastic surgery. His money issues. His alarm system in his bedroom. All that stuff... it's because he is so very weird.

Most importantly, Jackson has the ability to explain to the jury that he loves children. That he worships children. He has the power to convince a jury that he would never hurt a child. Because in his mind, children are on a pedestal -- a pedestal on which he never stood.

And so, if I were Michael Jackson's defense attorney, I would coach Jackson to act as himself. In fact, I may even encourage Jackson to act odd. The more bizarre the better. Oddity may be Michael Jackson's saving grace.

But the strategy does carry risks. Jackson is not one of those clients who (how should I put this) is "easily coachable." His dancing on top of the white SUV at the start of this long legal road quickly proved that assertion. And even though I believe his defense attorneys should be encouraging his "Wacko Jacko" behavior, they must be careful to coach him on what not to say. After all, an innocent slip of the tongue may give the prosecution the opening they've been waiting for.

Yesterday, I interviewed criminal defense attorney Trent Copeland. Mr. Copeland made the point, you have to take risks to win big. With all due respect to Mr. Copeland, I disagree. The defense doesn't have to win big. They just need to win. Jackson's defense attorney Tom Mesereau is a shrewd, capable attorney. He is smart enough to know whether the jury is siding with him. Or whether, as Mr. Copeland suggests, Mr. Mesereau needs to take a big risk to win.

If Mr. Mesereau senses that the jury is not completely with him, then I believe Jackson should take the stand. Yes, there are risks. But Jacko's wackiness may be exactly the final nail to a "not guilty" verdict.

Before starting her broadcasting career, NBC's Lisa Daniels was an associate with the New York law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell. She graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School.

Questions/Comments: Newsforce@MSNBC.COM

Related: Stacy Brown blogs -- Jackson must take stand to save his career

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May 23, 2005 | 5:42 p.m. ET

Rusty's last call
(Tamara Ward
, Segment Producer)

It's not everyday you get to speak with your favorite NASCAR driver.  But after four years of waiting for the moment, it finally happened.

Last week, Natalie Morales interviewed Rusty Wallace about his final year driving the #2 Miller Lite Dodge in the Nextel Cup Series.  And of course, I produced the segment. There's no way I'd let anyone else handle a NASCAR segment, especially when the guest is Rusty Wallace.

More often than not, segment producers don't get to speak directly with the guests, unless the guests are here in studio. The booking department books the guests, and producers in the control room speak with the guests.  But I wanted to go into control room.  I didn't want anyone else to talk to MY driver!!!

So, it's 3:40 p.m. eastern and the interview is about 10 minutes away. Time to go into the control room and speak with Rusty Wallace. I couldn't contain my excitement. I was hyperventilating, and my heart was racing nearly as fast as a qualifying lap at Daytona.  (That's nearly 190 miles an hour, in case you didn't know)

I slowly walk to the control room, trying to calm my nerves. When I got there, my executive producer turned to me, wanting to make sure I didn't blab on and on to Rusty Wallace about how I was a big fan.  And rightfully so.  He knows I like to chat and knows how excited I was to actually talk to my favorite NASCAR driver.  I took a deep breath, said Hi and thanked him for joining us on MSNBC.

Surprisingly, I wasn't too nervous when speaking to him ... unlike the last time I spoke with a NASCAR driver.  MSNBC interviewed Jimmie Johnson last year about his Spongebob Squarepants-sponsored car. I'm not even a huge Jimmie Johnson fan, but I don't recall my sentences making much sense. But this time around, I held myself together. Anyway, the interview went well.  But how could it not?  It's Rusty Wallace, one of the most energetic and photogenic NASCAR drivers out there.

I thanked Rusty and told him we'd love to have him here in studio for our next interview with him.  He said he'd love to.

Can't wait to blog that!

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May 20, 2005 | 3:28 p.m. ET

When missing children stories hit home
(Tricia McKinney, Segment Producer)

Two more children are missing -- this time in Idaho.  Ah, yes, it's just another weekend at MSNBC.    But I'm starting to take these child abduction stories a little more personally than I probably should.  Every time I see the pictures of these children flash on my TV screen, I look over at the framed photograph of my 18-month-old daughter on my desk and think, "What if...?"

Producing a missing-child story involves making some distasteful choices.  You have to go through family photos of the missing child and plaster the airwaves with her innocent, smiling face.  You have to cut sound bites of weeping parents begging her abductor to let her go unharmed.  You have to wonder if someone from the family could have done it-are their tears real?  You have to ask experts to lay out the worst-case scenario-is she dead?  All the while lurking in the background is the dread that she was raped and tortured before she died.  I can't be the only one who thinks that way, can I?

The first time I had to produce one of these abduction and murder stories, I dreaded the assignment.  I couldn't watch the parents weep without crying myself.  I couldn't think about that little girl's last moment without feeling a jolt of panic -- did she suffer?  Did she cry out for her mama?  I can't even write that sentence without tearing up.  I ended up doing the story anyway.  I think I still managed to be objective.  No phone calls from the control room, anyway, so that's a good sign.  And I am always grateful that I'm not the one who has to talk about this stuff live on the air.

Some morbid part of me wonders which of my baby's pictures I would put on a poster if she ever disappeared.  Do I have enough recent video?  Which thirty seconds of my joyful little girl's life could I bear to see played over and over in segments and teases?  Would I want hear my own naked pain distilled into fifteen-second sound bites?  But I know that at least until the child is found -- dead or alive -- it is in the parents' interests to put that stuff out there. 

And of course, I also try to learn from these stories what I can do to make my child safer.   In fact, after months of producing segments with advice for parents, just today I took the step of calling my local police department to set up an appointment to have her fingerprinted.  It's a small step, but it makes me feel a little better.

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