Guest: Robin Wright, Greg Mitchell, Jean Casarez
KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST: Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?
A good first step, that‘s what the White House calls the “Newsweek” retraction. But it insists 20 times that there‘s been damage, and “Newsweek” still better fix it. And oh, by the way, the Pentagon again insists the rioting in Afghanistan was not caused by the “Newsweek” story.
Would it kill you to go to church? Apparently quite the opposite.
The epidemiologist who says regular churchgoers live 25 percent longer.
How about silent pianists? They found him on the beach, dressed in black tie. He can‘t or won‘t speak. But he is evidently a concert-quality piano player.
You won‘t find this on the beach. This guy can‘t play the piano, and this one won‘t cooperate with the media. But you‘ll see all of them, including the true athletes, as we visit the animal wing of our Hall of Fame.
All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.
The State Department has cabled its embassies around the globe to alert the media. “Newsweek” has retracted its report. And the White House press secretary today characterized that report by using the words “damage” or “damaged” 20 separate times. And he called the retraction a good first step. And he added that the magazine should do its part to help repair the damage.
Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, don‘t worry. “Newsweek” does not have its own bomber squadron. Its reporters are not attacking insurgent positions. And it is not releasing a suddenly discovered stash of armor plating for Humvees.
For more than a week, the United States government said nothing about this. The anti-American disturbances, spreading from Jalalabad in Afghanistan into other Muslim nations, it got no comment. Then last Thursday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the after-action report on the ground in Afghanistan, where 17 people died, concluded that the violence owned not to a note about Koran abuse in “Newsweek” magazine, but rather to local politics.
The magazine had become the latest in a series of news organizations over several years to report that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay had desecrated a Koran by flushing it down a toilet. The difference in its report was that its government source claimed that the alleged act would be mentioned in an official investigation of events at Gitmo.
At some point over the weekend, “Newsweek”‘s government source backed away from his account, and the magazine first apologized for the story, and then, after the press secretary and the secretary of defense said the story had cost lives in those riots, late yesterday, “Newsweek” retracted the story.
Today, the press secretary did not really explain why his account of “Newsweek”‘s culpability did not really match that of the commander in Afghanistan or of the Joint Chiefs chairman, General Myers.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The facts are very clear. This report was used in the region by people opposed to the United States to incite violence and to portray a very negative image of the United States, one that runs contrary to everything that we value and believe. And it has done some serious damage to our image.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Over at the Pentagon, the statements of General Myers were today contextualized somewhat, but not much. Spokesman Larry DiRita suggests that even “Newsweek” acknowledged that some of the anti-American sentiment in Pakistan stemmed from its own troubled reporting. None of the deaths occurred in Pakistan, though, they happened in Afghanistan, where the Pentagon continued to insist that the “Newsweek” report may have become a component in violent protests already planned about the local elections.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LARRY DIRITA, PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: I think General Myers‘ comments referred to Afghanistan, to comments that General Eikenberry, who‘s the coalition forces commander over there, made his based on his own observations and interaction with Afghan officials. There was a perception that this was an opportunistic pretext, but there was probably some preplanning going on for sort of antigovernment rallies.
That‘s our best assessment. I‘m not sure that we‘ve gone back to refresh that assessment or anything like that. It was a contemporaneous assessment of about this time last week.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Some of the continuing journalistic questions in a moment.
First, to try to understand what did and did not happen in Afghanistan and elsewhere and why, I‘m joined by Robin Wright, diplomatic correspondent of “The Washington Post.”
Good evening, Robin.
ROBIN WRIGHT, DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT, “THE WASHINGTON POST”: Good evening.
OLBERMANN: The military assessment of what initiated the violence, specifically in Afghanistan, would seem to be largely in disagreement with the White House assessment. Is it black or white, or is it because McClellan is combining Afghanistan and Pakistan together and General Myers was only talking about Afghanistan?
WRIGHT: I think they were looking at different specifics. One was a broader look at the Islamic world and the wider reaction from Indonesia all the way to the Gaza Strip. And the other was looking at the situation in Afghanistan. And both probably have an element of truth to them. Now, the tragedy is that we really don‘t know the full details.
But I think a lot of things came together. One was the local situation, the exploitation of a report by “Newsweek” by groups that were opposed to the U.S. presence or involved in our policy in the region, by militant—some militants and probably al Qaeda sympathizers.
Some local political movements playing to the really genuine passions and sensitivities among Muslims about the issue of the Koran. As one Muslim said to me, What would happen in the West if an Islamic group flushed a Bible or a Torah down the toilet?
There is a great deal of sensitivity on this issue.
OLBERMANN: Whether we‘re talking about Afghanistan, where the
brutalities occurred, or Pakistan, where a lot of the well-publicized and
well-covered violence occurred, one thing transcends both regions, or seems
to. It was more than a week between the publication of “Newsweek”‘s note -
· it wasn‘t even really an article—and the White House protest to “Newsweek.”
Is there something in the events or the sequence of the events, or the growth of the events, that would explain that delay in complaining?
WRIGHT: I think much of it is because of what happened in the region. No one in the United States anticipated that the “Newsweek” report would inflame the kind of reaction it did. In fact, I had someone at the Pentagon say to me on Monday that they didn‘t anticipate this reaction because they‘d seen this report so often over the past two years. Different sourcing for it, of course, but the report was not at all new.
OLBERMANN: That was my next point here, that the original story itself, that one of the disorientation techniques at Gitmo was flushing a copy of the Koran down a toilet or otherwise abusing it, as the term has come to be known, is at least two years old, maybe three years old.
You mentioned the sourcing. Can the reaction now, as opposed to the lack of reaction previously, really be explained by the idea that the people in the Muslim world believe that “Newsweek”‘s sourcing, since it quoted a government source, they believe that sourcing as opposed to the prior claims of fellow Muslims?
WRIGHT: Well, remember, for an American audience, this gives it more credibility, because it is an American source. And this seemed to indicate that, yes, indeed, this is true. You have both sides of the story saying the same thing. And so that is a—something that probably would make it a bigger issue, give it more credibility.
OLBERMANN: Last question. Perhaps at the heart of the White House complaint is kind of a string of unprovable negatives. If “Newsweek” had judged its sourcing was not going to hold up or was insufficient, there wouldn‘t have been a story. If there hadn‘t been a story, there wouldn‘t have been rioting. If there wouldn‘t have been rioting, there wouldn‘t have been deaths.
Does that backwards chain hold up to scrutiny, or might events have been similar in the last week in the Islamic countries regardless?
WRIGHT: I don‘t think there‘s anything the Islamic world that would lead them to have rioted during this last week otherwise. At the same time, there is a much greater sensitivity in the Islamic world in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib. And this is a volatile transition period in many Muslim countries as they begin to open up, as in Afghanistan, they are able for the first time to speak, to demonstrate, to say what‘s on their minds.
So there are a lot of different elements that are coming together to inflame passions and to lead to the kind of violence we‘ve seen, unfortunately.
OLBERMANN: Robin Wright, diplomatic correspondent for “The Washington Post.” As always, great thanks for helping us assess the damage.
WRIGHT: Thank you.
OLBERMANN: The caveats we should note, “The Washington Post” owns “Newsweek” magazine. MSNBC has a business relationship with “Newsweek” magazine.
Now, too, Scott McClellan‘s words, repairing the damage. How does a magazine do that? And moreover, why is it being asked to?
Back to the press briefing this afternoon.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MCCLELLAN: I think it‘s incumbent and a response, and incumbent upon “Newsweek” to do their part to help repair the damage. And they can do that through ways that they see best. But one way that would be good would be to point out what the policies and practices are in that part of the world, because it is in that region where this report has been exploited and used to cause lasting damage to the image of the United States of America. It has had serious consequences.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: For more on the journalistic end of things, I‘m joined now by the editor of the industry newspaper, “Editor and Publisher,” Greg Mitchell.
Good evening, Greg.
GREG MITCHELL, EDITOR, “EDITOR AND PUBLISHER”: Good evening to you.
OLBERMANN: What is Mr. McClellan saying here? Is it—can we tell what he is asking for? I mean, does “Newsweek” need to include a special supplement in the May 30 issue, the military is good to the Koran, or something?
MITCHELL: It sounds like he wants an article in print that will explain the American policy or the—what is said to be the American policy with detainees, which is supposedly showing greater respect for the Koran.
One of the reporters at the briefing this afternoon said to McClellan then, Do you want to be editor? Are you—you want to—are you the editor of the magazine? So the reporters sort of called him on the fact that he was sort of pressuring the magazine to run a certain type of article. Although McClellan then mentioned about 15 more times his desire to see that, he then said, of course, he wouldn‘t make them do that.
OLBERMANN: To speaking of calling on, to what degree did “Newsweek” do the right thing in the retraction, and the White House pressure for the retraction, and to what degree do you think we‘re seeing the journalistic equivalent of “Fear Factor” in play now?
MITCHELL: Well, what‘s interesting and is often overlooked is that “Newsweek” only retracted one part of the story, which referred to that specific mention of this flushing incident in that report. They did not retract the whole story, and, in fact, made references that they were going to continue to investigate this whole issue.
So it seems to me that the White House, in taking the offensive here in trying to put “Newsweek” on the ultradefensive, may be trying to forestall future work by “Newsweek” in this area. I think “Newsweek” seems to suggest they have other sources, that they‘re going to continue to look at this. And the White House wants to take the onus off them for all the very many prisoner abuse stories that have surfaced, the outsourcing of torture to other countries, and the new concerns about the misrepresentations or lies to the American public on weapons of mass destruction.
So it‘s been a very bad period for the White House in ways they have misled the country, by the way they have promoted abuse overseas. And this is a way to keep “Newsweek” on the defensive.
OLBERMANN: But narrowing it a little bit, there are a couple more specific disconnects here. Mr. McClellan was talking about journalistic standards, and he was, of course, the guy who kept admitting Jeff Gannon to the White House press room.
OLBERMANN: And Mr. McClellan is talking about the irresponsibility of the media, yet his answers today about why “Newsweek” is to blame for the rioting kept coming back to, well, all the media reports in the area say so. And Mr. McClellan was blistering about this being a one-source story. And, of course, White House officials go off the record daily to leak one-source stories to the media that they happen to want see the printed or reported.
When did the White House press office—and not just this one, I mean, even Mike McCurry‘s or Larry Speakes‘s—when did the White House press office become the arbiter on journalistic standards?
MITCHELL: Well, that‘s—and where does Scott McClellan get off talking about credibility, given the administration‘s track record in many areas, including weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?
There‘s been a raging battle, actually, in Washington the last couple weeks over this issue of background briefings. In fact, McClellan and other press secretaries have demanded that the press report on stories that are given by single sources and anonymous sources that are provided by the White House in these backgrounders.
So a reporter today at a briefing said, said to McClellan, So let me get this straight. Your single anonymous sources are good, and our single anonymous sources are bad.
And so this is the background of what‘s going on now with the debate over anonymous sources.
OLBERMANN: A last question, a variation of the one I just asked Robin Wright now, any clues journalistically as to why it would have taken the White House as long as it did to react to this?
MITCHELL: Well, I think probably the simplest thing—I mean, there could be various conspiracy scenarios out there. But the simplest thing is that it seemed credible. It seemed like this was something that could have been going on. It had been reported, as was mentioned earlier, by other sources going back for two years.
So it‘s possible that they just looked at it and said, OK, we‘ve seen this before, it‘s quite possibly it did happen that way, so we‘re not going to raise an objection right now.
OLBERMANN: Greg Mitchell, the editor of “Editor and Publisher” magazine. And someday, by the way, we need to have you and the publisher on so we can have the editor and publisher of “Editor and Publisher” at the same time.
MITCHELL: That would be nice. Thank you.
OLBERMANN: Thank you so much for your time tonight, Greg.
Also tonight, the leaders have stopped talking. Moderates on both sides of the aisle trying to avert legislative disaster. In the Senate, we‘re fast approaching zero hour in the fight over the right to filibuster.
And can going to church extend your life? New science saying people who do live longer. Not all scientists have faith in it, though.
You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.
OLBERMANN: It is not unusual in history for judges to make eternal impacts on the fabric of American society. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney may have started the Civil War snowball down the hill when he wrote the Dred Scott decision in 1857. We are still grappling with the consequences of the various courts that heard Roe v. Wade in the early ‘70s.
But it is rare that American life could be significantly changed by not the decisions of judges, but just the process of their confirmations. Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas come to mind, Abe Fortas, maybe. And now, probably, Janice Rogers Brown and Priscilla Owen.
Remember those names, because, as Chip Reid reports in our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, the Senate judicial filibuster nuclear option looms, and it‘s got the names Brown and Owen on it.
CHIP REID, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): On Capitol Hill today, two federal court nominees faced the media, and the political firestorm that has erupted around them, Priscilla Owen and Janice Rogers Brown, chosen by Republicans to be test cases in a high-stakes battle over judicial nominations.
Democrats say some of the president‘s choices, including Owen and Brown, are out of the mainstream, too conservative to sit on the federal appeals court.
SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER: We‘re dealing basically with five radical recommendations for judges. Five.
REID: Democrats have used a delaying tactic known as the filibuster to block confirmation votes on the Senate floor. But frustrated by what he calls Democratic obstructionism, Senate Republican leader Bill Frist says he will soon trigger what‘s known as the nuclear option, a vote to change Senate rules to ban filibusters on judicial nominees.
SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN), MAJORITY LEADER: Are they really out of the mainstream? Or is this really just politics? The best way to decide is take it to the fore of the United States Senate and let 100 United States senators decide.
REID: After weeks of struggling to reach a compromise, Frist and Reid ended their talks last night. Angry Democrats repeated their threat to shut down the Republican agenda on everything from the energy bill to immigration reform if Frist succeeds in ending judicial filibusters.
Now the only hope of avoiding a showdown may be compromise talks led by Republican John McCain and Democrat Ben Nelson. One draft compromise circulating on Capitol Hill, obtained by NBC News, suggests that some nominees would be approved, others would not, and that Democrats would agree to filibuster future judicial nominees only under extraordinary circumstances.
(on camera): One big reason Democrats want to preserve the filibuster for judicial nominees is that they want the option of filibustering any of President Bush‘s future nominees to the Supreme Court.
Chip Reid, NBC News, the Capitol.
OLBERMANN: If you think that fight is going to be ugly, it will be nothing compared to the haranguing senators got today from maverick British politician George Galloway. Expelled from Tony Blair‘s Labour Party for his antiwar comments about Iraq, he‘s kind of like the left-wing version of Zell Miller, only with a funny accent, a different funny accent.
Mr. Galloway today appeared before a Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Subcommittee chaired by the Republican Norm Coleman to defend himself against allegations that he was knee-deep in the U.N. oil-for-food scandal.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
GEORGE GALLOWAY, ACCUSED IN OIL-FOR-FOOD SCANDAL: Now, I know that standards have slipped over the last few years in Washington, but for a lawyer, you‘re remarkably cavalier with any idea of justice.
You have nothing on me, senator, except my name on lists of names from Iraq, many of which have been drawn up after the installation of your puppet government in Baghdad.
I‘ve met Saddam Hussein exactly the same number of times as Donald Rumsfeld met him. The difference is, Donald Rumsfeld met him to sell him guns and to give him maps the better to target those guns.
Senator, this is the mother of all smokescreens. You are trying to divert attention from the crimes that you supported, from the theft of billions of dollars of Iraq‘s wealth. Have a look at the real oil-for-food scandal. Have a look at the 14 months you were in charge of Baghdad, the first 14 months, when $8.8 billion of Iraq‘s wealth went missing on your watch. Have a look at Halliburton and the other American corporations that stole not only Iraq‘s money but the money of the American taxpayer.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: And that was just a sampling of his opening statement. The committee wrapped up his testimony about half an hour later. No word on when the next oil-for-food hearing will be, or if there will be one.
From fireworks on Capitol Hill to animals on the run. Nice jump. Boo Boo goes bye-bye.
And a bizarre British mystery. No, it‘s not about Mr. Galloway. Dazed and confused, this gentleman found on a beach in a tuxedo. The only clue to his identity, his ability as a piano virtuoso. OK, which movie plot come to life is this?
OLBERMANN: We pause our COUNTDOWN now to bring you some of the stories those other networks are afraid to cover. That‘s right, funny animals stuff. What are you scared of, Bill, huh?
Let‘s play Oddball.
We begin in Scappoose, Oregon. There‘s a moose loose in Scappoose. It‘s a bear, actually, but bear doesn‘t rhyme. A four-foot black bear running through this neighborhood like he just stole something. Checking the Oddball bear chase scoreboard for the year, we can see it‘s—well, it‘s nothing-nothing, because this is the first bear chase of the season.
But it‘s a dilly. All the bears chased. Look at him run. What could have him so scared? Perhaps it‘s that giant thing in the sky chasing him around, making the thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump noise. Fortunately, Scappoose appears to be ghost town. There were no humans run-ins with the little fellow, no evidence, in fact, of human residents. Police were hoping to tranquilize the bear and move him safely away here, away, but they were never able to catch him.
So I guess it‘s bears one, cops nothing.
All this reminds me, stay tuned later in this hour for our free tour of the animals wing of the COUNTDOWN Hall of Fame. Something for you to aspire to. And don‘t forget to bring in your own pick-i-nick baskets, Boo Boo.
It was all right.
To Thailand, one of the top exporters of odd news in the free world. This is not their fledgling space program. It is the big annual Bon Bong Phi (ph) festival, a fertility celebration, which could explain the phallic symbols being launched into the sky at the start of every rainy season.
Local farmers originally believed the rockets would fertilize the skies and bring them rain. But no, in the modern era, they have realized they‘re actually just showering themselves with jet fuel and deadly debris.
It is now going to a competition in which the homemade rocket that stays up longest wins a small prize and, of course, a contract with NASA.
Finally, to Richmond, Virginia, which has hosted its most significant event since Patrick Henry‘s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. The world‘s biggest tea party, thank you very much. Yes, it‘s official, the “Guinness Book of Records” says its 7,291 guests in attendance, they drank tea from fine china and ate butter cookies in a successful bid to break the previous record held by about 6,000 people in Singapore.
The event was later married by a huge brawl between rival tea lovers‘ gangs over the keeping of the pinkie extended or restrained. They‘re still bailing some of them out.
Also tonight, sleeping in on Sundays may sound nice. But can, in fact, it kill you? We‘re not talking about the proverbial lightning bolt for skipping church. But there is some science out there that suggests if you go, you will live longer and happier.
And a trip to an amusement park goes horribly wrong. A parkgoer killed. And now a jury has held the park‘s manager responsible.
Those stories ahead.
First, now are COUNTDOWN‘S top three newsmakers of this day.
Number three, Stinson Bailey of Benton, Arkansas, demolition dummy. He had a permit to knock down his own house, so he set it on fire. After two adjoining empty houses also burned to the ground, Mr. Bailey commented, “I would have been all right if the wind hadn‘t changed.”
Yes, this time.
Number two, Jesus Ignacio Jimenez, the mayor of Icononzo of the nation of Colombia. He has just guided through legislation that establishes prison sentences of up to four years and fines of up to $150,000 for spreading gossip. “The New York Post” has hurriedly recalled copies of its last 7,123 newspapers.
And number one, Corey Houle and Lovie Lee Riddle of Corinth, Maine. They‘re under arrest, charged with robbing the bank. The flaw in their plan? It may have been the getaway vehicle. It was a Ford Ranger pick-up truck, purple with red pinstripes and red sport flares on the sides. Bank executives simply said, Look for the guys driving the hot wheels car.
OLBERMANN: Other networks are devoted to the premise that they‘re going to tell you that something, someone or some political ideology is about to kill you, but they‘ll tell you how to avoid it if you‘ll just stick around through the next few commercials.
In our third story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, we‘ll take a page from their book, but we‘ll be a little bit more honest about it. Here it comes, the “It could kill you” segment. Actually, you can look at the first part of this story from the exact opposite point of view. This is something that could actually make you live longer, evidence that there appears to be a clinical link between going to church and not dying so soon.
As COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny joins us now to report, in short, you can call this story, “Healthier Than Thou.” Good evening, Monica.
MONICA NOVOTNY, COUNTDOWN: Always bringing good news whenever I can. Keith, good evening. A group of doctors appointed by the National Institutes of Health spent two years looking at about 250 studies linking religion and health, many of which were done by secular institutions. What they found: Religion can be good for you, really good for you.
LINDA POWELL, EPIDEMIOLOGIST: I want to live longer, and I want to live a long and happy life.
NOVOTNY (voice-over): It‘s back to the Bible for Linda Powell. After leaving the Catholic Church as a teenager, Linda may go back for good because of recent research linking the regular practice of religion to living a longer life, research she trusts because it‘s her own.
(on camera): Did you ever think that your work would have this kind of an impact on your personal life?
POWELL: Not this particular work, no.
NOVOTNY (voice-over): Dr. Linda Powell, a once skeptical epidemiologist, spent two years researching the body of studies that link religion and health and now says the science proves it, worshipping can do wonders for your health.
POWELL: People who attend church or services at least weekly, if not more, have a lower rate of mortality. That is, they live longer. And the reduction in mortality was on the order of about 25 percent.
NOVOTNY: Her own assistant, Lupe (ph), a lifelong churchgoer, too polite to say, I told you so.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It just proves what I‘ve always believed. You put yourself in the hands of God and that‘s it.
NOVOTNY: But is God the reason worshipers may be living longer? Dr.
Powell says it could be simpler than that.
POWELL: People who are stressed tend to struggle. Struggle triggers stress hormones. And that, in effect, shortens their lives. My conjecture is that people who go to church or religious services regularly are more effective at coping with stress.
NOVOTNY (on camera): More effective, she says, perhaps because people are taking what they learn, prayer or meditation, and using it in their everyday lives, which could be staving off stress hormones and promoting more beneficial ones. But not everyone agrees.
DR. RICHARD SLOAN, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY MEDICAL CENTER: The evidence is weak and inconclusive, at best. Most of the studies are terrible. Even if there were solid evidence that religious attendance is associated with reduced mortality, we have no idea whether physicians recommending that to their patients would lead to the same effect.
NOVOTNY (voice-over): Whether it‘s hormones or a higher power...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There‘s a lot of connection between you spiritually, you mentally, you physically and you emotionally.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Maybe it might help mentally, but I don‘t think that it would necessarily help your physical health.
NOVOTNY: ... for this scientist, the first personal prescription may be prayer.
(on camera): It‘s just coincidence that you live right next door to this church, right?
POWELL: Well, one could say it‘s either coincidence some divine intervention is moving me.
NOVOTNY: The doctors also found consistent evidence that regular service attendance results in lower rates of depression and can protect against cardiovascular disease. But they also say the research shows no evidence that religion has a positive impact on people who are already ill. So if you‘re in the hospital, it‘s a little too late. They said it might make you feel better mentally.
OLBERMANN: But isn‘t it—it‘s easier for her to go to church because she lives next door, right?
NOVOTNY: Yes. That‘s true.
OLBERMANN: COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny. Many thanks, as always.
OLBERMANN: And now to something else that can kill you but never should, an amusement park ride. Despite the fact that such rides seem to thrive on and even promote their thrill effect, whatever damage they promise is supposed to be the stuff of illusion. We expect them to be safe. Sometimes, they are not, and deadly so.
But now an amusement park manager in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, has been found guilty of reckless homicide after a woman died from a 60-foot fall when her harness came loose on a ride just as it turned upside down. Charles Stan Martin may get two to four years in prison at his July sentencing, the jury having already entered a $5,000 fine against him. The jury also had the option of second-degree murder, and on the lower end of the spectrum, negligent homicide. That they found him criminally liable at all is a first for this kind of case in Tennessee.
The 51-year-old June Alexander died in March, 2004, when she fell from a ride called The Hawk, a swinging gondola that ultimately moves through a 360-degree cycle. Jurors must have found compelling testimony from an Indiana man who in 2003 complained that his seat harness had opened and he was almost thrown out.
Joining me now from outside the courthouse in Sevierville, Tennessee, Jean Casarez, an attorney and also correspondent for Court TV, who has been covering this trial. Jean, good evening. Thanks for your time.
JEAN CASAREZ, COURT TV: Good evening. Thank you, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Before some of the specifics of this case, the big picture. Is this indeed precedent-setting on a national level?
CASAREZ: Oh, I think it really is. It‘s a first—a case of first impression for Tennessee, but if you look at the whole country, this is a case that normally is a civil case. But all of a sudden, here in Tennessee, it has become a criminal case. And more than that, the prosecution gained a conviction. So other states can look at this and say, Gee, maybe all these cases, or at least some of them, that we thought were civil, we can actually bring criminal charges in.
OLBERMANN: There was evidence given that the ride‘s safety mechanism had actually been altered so that it would start even if the harnesses were not locked. But the defendant claimed he had not tampered with the system. By not convicting him of the second-degree murder charge, did it seem as if the jury was believing him, at least as far as that went?
CASAREZ: I think you‘re exactly right. I actually spoke with a juror this afternoon, and he said that the jury did not believe beyond a reasonable doubt that Stan Martin, the defendant, had actually toyed with that safety mechanism inside the control panel.
What they did believe, though, was that the prior incident about nine months before—and the man took the stand in front of the jury, and he said, I clung for my life when this safety harness seemed to just dispatch from my body during the course of the ride. They said that made them, the jury, believe that Stan Martin should have done something about that ride after that incident. He didn‘t do it, and nine months later, June Alexander died.
OLBERMANN: What was the supposed motive in trying to defeat the safety mechanism, the locking of the harnesses? Was that explained?
CASAREZ: Sure, it was. The prosecution said it was all money because there was testimony that the seats that were not filled—there were 24 seats on the rides, and that the seats that were not filled, the safety harnesses just always had a problem latching. So you‘d have to go from seat to seat to seat and get the safety harness to latch if you only had a few riders. Well, if you bypass the system, everybody that was riding the ride, no one was hurt, the ride kept going, but you bypassed having to work on all those seats that people weren‘t sitting in.
OLBERMANN: Yes, unless somebody fell out. Bottom line on this, is the verdict going to increase or likely to increase safety in amusement parks nationally just for fear of this happening to somebody?
CASAREZ: Well, in a lot of states, there are strict regulations. Tennessee is not one of them. But before the legislature now in Tennessee, there is new legislation to increase the insurance amounts for amusement parks and other things. So I think definitely, in this state, things are going to change. And other states that don‘t have those regulations may take notice.
OLBERMANN: Jean Casarez of Court TV in Tennessee on this extraordinary case. We appreciate your time and your perspective on it. Thanks.
CASAREZ: Thank you, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Also tonight, a movie script come to life, a mystery man searching for clues to his identity, his means of communication reduced to drawing of a piano and his amazing ability to play one. And the COUNTDOWN Hall of Fame, speaking of amazing, day two of our tour. Step lively through the animal section, and be careful where you step. If you know what I mean.
OLBERMANN: The odds are pretty good that you‘ve never seen the movie “The Legend of 1900” starring Tim Roth and a bunch of other people you also probably never heard of. Our number two story on the COUNTDOWN: Part of this improbable film appears to have come true in Great Britain. The gist of the plot was that at the turn of the century, a boy was abandoned aboard a luxury cruise liner. Taken care of by the stokers and raised in the engine room, he eventually became a concert quality pianist who has no memory of ever being on land.
No? How about the film “Shine”? You remember that one, about the Australian pianist who could perform before crowds but not tie his own shoes? Well, never mind. Truth, as Don Teague reports from London, is far stranger than fiction anyway, even in the dysfunctional concert pianist department.
DON TEAGUE, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Who is this man? Where did he come from? And why won‘t he speak? So far, the only sound he‘s making is at the piano. It‘s a mystery straight from Hollywood, the British press recalling the Oscar-winning movie, “Shine.” Authorities say the mystery man hasn‘t spoken a word since he was found some six weeks ago, dazed and wandering alone on a British beach, drenched in the sea water and dressed for a black tie dinner.
KAREN DOREY-REES, MENTAL HEALTH EXPERT: He was soaking wet. He was just wearing a suit, not talking. He didn‘t communicate with people at all. And again, very distressed.
TEAGUE: Apparently uninjured, the man was taken to a mental hospital, where doctors discovered the labels had been cut from his clothes. They described him as agitated and extremely vulnerable, unable to speak or write. But he drew this picture, and the staffers led him to a piano in the hospital‘s chapel. He played, a virtuoso performance.
MICHAEL CAMP, SOCIAL WORKER: The music, obviously, is one way of communicating, and that‘s something obviously maybe we need to tap into.
TEAGUE (on camera): Authorities are also asking the public for help. A tip line here in London received 160 phone calls on Monday alone. But so far, no solid answers.
(voice-over): So the piano man, as he‘s now called, plays on, the haunting eyes of a virtuoso hiding a bizarre mystery. Don Teague, NBC News, London.
OLBERMANN: And from a man with no name but a lot of talent to a woman with a name and—you can finish this thought for yourself any way you like. Mrs. Federline, formerly Ms. Britney Spears, tops our segment of celebrity news and gossip, “Keeping Tabs,” appearing on the talk show “Ellen” with husband-slash-bulge to promote their new reality series which premieres tonight, featuring lots of home videos of their early romance and marriage, kind of like a cheap version of MTV‘s “Newlyweds.” But judging by the interview today, this couple has even less insight into the institution.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ELLEN DEGENERES, HOST: So what is the best part about being married?
BRITNEY SPEARS: The baby?
KEVIN FEDERLINE: The baby?
SPEARS: No, I said, what‘s—she said, “What‘s the best part about being married?”
DEGENERES: All right, let‘s not argue now. I mean, I...
FEDERLINE: That‘s the best part. The make-ups from the arguments are the best part.
DEGENERES: Yes. Yes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: The recipe for a great marriage, deafness from lip-synch playback tracks being played tragically too loud. And how did they miss being cast in the new “Dukes of Hazzard” movie?
Time now for a quick check of your tax and entertainment dollars in action, day 547 of the Michael Jackson investigations. And the subject of Brazil once again was the center item at the trial, a social worker testifying that the accuser‘s mother told her that Jackson wanted to send them there, but that she, the mom, did not want to, quote, “go to that dump,” unquote. The witness also said that the mother and the accuser denied all charges of molestation when she met with them on February 20, 2003. The prosecution in this case says the boy was molested from the 20th through March 12 of that year.
Then Michael Jackson‘s 16-year-old cousin got on the stand, testifying that the accuser‘s sister told her that the family was moving to Brazil. She will be back on the stand tomorrow. Then on Thursday, the defense expects to call Larry King to court. I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth. Santa Maria, California. Hello! What‘s your question, prosecutor?
And Michael Jackson‘s collection of wild animals are in a place in the COUNTDOWN “Animal Hall of Fame.” The bear obviously has our induction ceremony moments away. Grab the kids, call the neighbors, get the popcorn, and please do not feed the seagull with the Barbie doll foot.
OLBERMANN: And as you no doubt saw during the half-hour infomercial we bought on all the broadcast networks and all the nation‘s radio stations earlier today, our number one story all week, our tour of the COUNTDOWN Hall of Fame continues.
Now, we‘ve already shown you repeatedly the apology wing. We‘re going to skip that. Last night was the “Stupid Traditions” exhibit. Tonight, COUNTDOWN‘s Hall of Fame animals. But as always, these are not just repackaged reruns of stuff you‘ve already seen. Actually, some of them are. And when I say some, of course, I mean 90 to 95 percent. Rather a lot, really. But we always give you a little added value.
Pigs in cake! Here they are, the porcine pastry fanatics—or porcine, if you prefer. The cake left over from the Las Vegas centennial celebration this past weekend. Or if you prefer, Las Vegas. And it was delivered to the little piggies via dump truck. In its more glorious incarnation, it was over 130,000 pounds of confectionery sweetness, happy Las Vegas natives and visitors partaking of all seven gooey, unmanageable layers.
But none were so joyous as the epicureans at R.C. Farms. They got the remainder of the original 23 million calories and could just tuck in a snout and go. “Guinness Book of World Records” currently judging its candidacy as biggest cake ever. If nothing else, it certainly is, at the very least, the piggest. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. Ha.
This reminds me of the day as a teenager when I foraged in the dumpster at the Hostess Bakery thrift shop. This was euphemistically named, of course, the place where they sold 3-day-old bread and 3-month-old Twinkies to the economically challenged or the merely cheap. What was I doing there? Hunting for the baseball cards on the backs of the Twinkie boxes, of course. Why would they let me do that for free? Because the next stop for the contents of that dumpster was the pig farms of New Jersey. And as the generous owner of the thrift shop thoughtfully explained, the pigs don‘t collect baseball cards.
On that note, long preamble is complete. We take you now to the COUNTDOWN Hall of Fame animal exhibit, parade and mass Twinkie feed.
(voice-over): Enshrinement in the animal wing is not an easy achievement. There are many pretenders. On the eve of the balloting, leading candidates often revert to their vices to ease the stress of election night. And if they don‘t get in, sometimes they blame the media.
That being said, your admission to the animal wing comes with caveats. Remember the buddy system. Keep your hands away from Pinky the cat at all times. And if you think you smell something, yes, guess what? You do.
Ladies and gentlemen, the animal wing. Attraction number one, that which people line up around the block to see, the bear in mid-air. An original COUNTDOWN classic, it‘s bear falls out of tree. Sure, the people enjoy dog riding on a skateboard, and the three-eyed, two-mouthed cow is nice, but there‘s something about an unconscious bear doing involuntary gymnastics that makes Americans giddy. To say nothing of making the bear giddy.
Of course, you have your hybrids, the wholphin, the zonkey and, yes, the liger, plus the half machine, half dog and the half seagull, half Barbie doll. This squirrel over here can water ski. This parrot can ride a bike. If you think a cat using a toilet is impressive, how about an elephant?
Speaking of elephants, some of our Hall of Fame exhibits play tribute to animals who have met top Republicans. Reversing his earlier stance that turkeys make good bowling balls, here President Bush pardoning two turkeys named Biscuits and Gravy. Sadly, they later died anyway. Happily, they were young.
And of course, there was that impromptu “No elephants left behind” moment witnessed by the president‘s safari in Africa. We have this tape playing at the Hall of Fame 24 hours a day in a continuous loop. And lastly, in this group, the commander-in-chief‘s old friend, Barney, who gave the phrase...
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE WALKER BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We‘re making progress on the ground.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: ... a whole new meaning.
In the politics-free zone, if you can ride a dog, you‘re elected. If you can free your enslaved colleagues, you‘re elected. If you‘re the missing link, we‘re all afraid not to vote for you. Let us not forget the Hall of Famers who have gone ahead to that great zoo in the sky, like Dick the goldfish or Bubba, the 100-year-old lobster. Fortunately, there‘s a new generation chomping at the—something—to get into the hall.
Then, most importantly, let us not forget that the bear survived his fall. He was OK and went on to live a productive and happy life and he gave up smoking and everything. Thus we honor the beasts that ease our burden because here at COUNTDOWN, we‘re crackers about animals.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
And that‘s COUNTDOWN. I‘m Keith Olbermann. Peace. Good night, and good luck.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
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.