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Is It Time for ABC to Put 'Nightline' to Bed?; Beef in McDonald's French Fries

Aired March 8, 2002 - 19:30   ET


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: The late night wars heat up. Is it time for ABC to put "Nightline" to bed?

Then, where's the beef? Could it be in your McDonald's French fries? We'll bring you the latest flap over fries.

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Tucker Carlson. In the CROSSFIRE, Mo Rocca, correspondent for "THE DAILY SHOW." And Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communications. And later, plaintiffs attorney Harish Bharti and radio talk show host Armstrong Williams.

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: Good evening and welcome to CROSSFIRE.

The burning question this week in media land, who will get the 11:35 time slot on ABC? "NIGHTLINE," which has been there for decades or "THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN," which may or may not want to take its place.

The very question infuriates many journalists who regard "NIGHTLINE" as sacrosanct and the executives who might pull it, as vulgar bean counters. Viewers may agree. A new poll says Americans prefer or have told pollsters they prefer, anyway, "NIGHTLINE" to Letterman.

Advertisers feel differently and that might make all the difference. Letterman versus Koppel. It's more meaningful than the choice between Coke and Pepsi, but what exactly does it mean? Has news lost the final battle to entertainment? Do viewers want amusement over substance? Or are the rest of us taking a spat between overpaid TV people a bit too seriously? The debate continues fittingly here on television.

Bill Press?

PRESS: And let's get right to it. Mo Rocca, thank you for joining us tonight.

MO ROCCA, THE DAILY SHOW: I'm very excited to be on the CROSSFIRE. Just -- I want to get shelled here.

PRESS: This is probably the thrill of your entire life or will be. So save the tape. But you know, we all know that, you know, you're not a serious journalist. You're one of these frivolous late- night comics that we're talking about and complaining about.

But I'd still like you to try be as objective as possible, you know, because this isn't the first time that ABC has shown how stupid it is. We saw, it started a couple of years ago when they didn't send Peter Jennings to the White House to interview Bill Clinton. They sent the great journalist Leonardo DiCaprio, straight from the set of the "Titanic."

Then, of course, it looks like they're willing to make Ted Koppel walk the plank. This week, Cokie Robertson announced she's getting out. Maybe just in time. There are rumors about Sam Donaldson. "The New York Times" this morning says Peter Jennings may be the next to go. I mean, you got to admit, ABC doesn't give a whatever about news, do they? Don't care about it.

ROCCA: Well, I mean, look, Ted Koppel himself said in the op-ed piece in "The Times" that, you know, network television is big business. And he understands if Letterman has to take his place. But I think it also may be an issue of relevance.

I mean, look at the last election. George Bush and Al Gore were falling themselves to get where, on late-night television, you know, not to get on "NIGHTLINE." I mean, I wouldn't be surprised if the next time we see Sharon and Arafat reunited, it's you know, reciting a top 10 list about the reasons we'll never get along on Letterman. I mean...

PRESS: Well, that's a very good point. Don't you think the reason Al Gore and George Bush would rather be on "LETTERMAN" than on Ted Koppel is because they'd rather get softballs and stupid pet tricks, than stupid questions about New York than tough questions from Koppel. And why should we let them get away with it?

ROCCA: Well, you know, I actually don't think that Letterman gave George Bush such an easy time about the death penalty when he was on there. I mean, you know, there are too many area -- there are too many other channels for people to get their news at the same hour that "NIGHTLINE" is on. I mean, they can turn to cable television, albeit you know, a little more inflammatory and overwrought than network news, with all due respect.

PRESS: Careful.

CARLSON: Now Kathleen Hall Jamieson, welcome, by the way.


CARLSON: I would say probably every three or four weeks, you hear some self-appointed media watchdog type bemoan the death of news, talk about, you know, the glory days of Edward R. Murrow, etc. America's getting less serious. You hear the same speech, I'm sure you've given it.

But in this case, it's all about money is it not? I mean, just take a look at these numbers. I think they tell the whole story. On "NIGHTLINE," a 30-second spot commands $30,000. On "THE LATE SHOW," it's $40,000. Bottom line, profits, "NIGHTLINE," $13 million; "LATE SHOW," $25 million.

Now if you're a shareholder in one of the companies that owns these two -- or an ABC, you're interested, legitimately, in having a more profitable show on. So why is it illegitimate for the network executives to say, put the moneymaker on, take the moneymaker off?

JAMIESON: Well, first, if I were a shareholder at this point, and I saw Disney's reputation being bashed the way it's been in the last week over this decision, I think I'd worry a lot about this decision.

But the more important question is are the advertisers making the right assumption? You know, those people who are less valuable because they're older, are the ones who buy luxury items. They buy mutual funds, and they buy a lot of the country's travel.

Maybe the problem here is the advertiser's values are misplaced. It seems the viewers think that these two things are both valuable. They're fairly large numbers there. Indeed, the numbers there are high compared to the numbers for many other places that we would ordinarily look, to ask whether or not there's a sizable audience, such as cable, which I think provides a very important role.

CARLSON: Now you said you're not a Disney shareholder and that's a shame, because Disney stock jumped over $1 just on the news that they were talking to Letterman. But let me ask you this, speaking of money. Ted Koppel makes about $8 million a year. He deserves it. Good for him.

But that, let's be honest, that's an entertainment salary. That's not a news salary. Ed Murrow never made $8 million a year, anywhere near it. And once you accept an entertainment level salary, don't you have to play by entertainment industry rules? And those rules are really clear. Bring in the numbers or get fired?

JAMIESON: I don't know how you place a value on the kind of programming that Koppel did on the Congo, at a time when most of the other places around the news spectrum weren't addressing that kind of a serious issue. I don't know how you place a dollar value on the very fine town halls that they've done or excellent documentaries.

Now there are other places you can find that as well, but there has been a unique niche for the Koppel program. It's gone places other people haven't gone as comfortably. And it's gone there well. I think there's a high value there. I have real trouble translating into dollars because these are publicly owned airways. And they have a special obligation to viewers that those of you in cable don't have that, although you satisfy it often in other ways.

PRESS: Now Mo, first of all for the record, I would like to state that Tucker and I together do not make $8 million. In fact, Tucker, you and I don't make $8 million.

ROCCA: Ooh, I don't know about that.

PRESS: All right, kind of fall in the same boat. But speak -- Tucker says it's a business proposition. It is a business proposition, but I want to look at the business side. Gallup released a new poll today, because you know, Disney says the reason they want Letterman, Koppel gets more viewers, but the reason they want Letterman is because he'll get younger viewers.

OK, now Gallup did a poll today. They asked these younger viewers, 18 to 49, the people supposedly who buy all the products, you know, the favorability, who do you prefer? Koppel over Letterman? Koppel gets 81 percent to Letterman's 75 percent. So even on those numbers, Koppel wins, right?

ROCCA: Listen, that's like those polls about churchgoing. I mean, this is all guilt abatement here. Now everyone feels really lousy because they never actually watched the show. And now, you know, I don't believe it. I'm serious. I really don't.

PRESS: You don't think that people are lying to pollsters?

ROCCA: Absolutely. Oh, they're totally lying. They're totally lying, because they want to sound smarter. I mean, look, you know, I love Ted Koppel. And after what Kathleen Hall Jamieson just said, I'm actually starting to creep over to that side. I know I can't because, you know, we have to battle to the death here, but you know, she makes a lot of valid points there.

PRESS: Well, on that last point I wanted to ask you about, that she made the point that these are public airwaves. We own them. Disney doesn't own them. We, the people, own them. They get the use of them for free. Don't they have a responsibility not to just do entertainment, but to put on some good stuff like "NIGHTLINE?"

ROCCA: Yes, but I mean I suppose...

PRESS: Thank you.

ROCCA: ...there's some flexibility. I mean, you know, if -- this week, when it was Sam and Cokie's tanking, so why can't they put "NIGHTLINE" on Sunday morning? I mean -- you know, I think that this whole thing could be solved if Ted just lightened it up a little bit. Like I see stupid Senator tricks as a great segment that he could do. And the ratings would spike.

PRESS: There are too many of them in Washington. You know, I mean.

CARLSON: I think you could sum it, Mo Rocca, in two words, more nudity.

But Kathleen Hall Jamieson, let me just ask you a last question. You said that the airwaves are publicly owned, famously. It's a phony proposition, all of us buy into. But we don't have time for that debate.

Let me move to the next one, more important one, cable. You said, oh, and then there's cable. That is a 1979 understanding. Cable is news in the year 2002 and people want news. They don't wait for the evening news. They don't wait for "NIGHTLINE." They go right to cable. Cable fills the void broadcast news used to.

And as one final piece of evidence, what happen when Ted Koppel all of a sudden was worried about his show? What was the first place to offer him or potentially offer him a home? CNN.

JAMIESON: But the cable channel that gets you to us right now is not publicly owned. If you want to talk about commercial value, the country gave those broadcasters the digital spectrum on the assumption that they provide a public service on those airwaves. And this kind of decision by ABC calls that into question.

CARLSON: No, but wait a second. The bottom line here is not who owns the airwaves, but how do people get their news? If you're hungry for news, where can you get it? You can go to the networks, but you can also go, if you really want deep news, of course, you go to "The New York Times." You go to "The New Yorker," You go to long-form journalism, most of which is in print.

So if you want news, it's very easy to get. You don't have to wait until 11:35 on ABC, do you? I mean, it's not -- you know, it's not a Soviet system here. Many options.

JAMIESON: You know, I don't wait until 11:30 often. And I don't make the assumption that Letterman, Leno and Koppel are mutually exclusive, because I have this amazing phenomenon to tape things in time shift.

So often, I get my Koppel early in the morning. And I pick up Leno and Letterman in whatever pieces I want by speeding through to get the monologues. And the other thing this discussion doesn't really address is, most people have a remote control in hand. And they're not actually watching Letterman all the way through.

Letterman gets bounced back and forth to Leno with the remote control. The people who start with Koppel tend to stay there. That tells you something about what's engaging, as opposed to what's entertaining.

PRESS: Right now Mo, I want to get some real news here, because the word in Washington is that David Letterman, despite his whining, is going to stay at CBS, maybe for the pleasure of continuing to mock the CBS executives, and that ABC is really maybe interested in, guess who? You and Jon Stewart. Are you talking to ABC? Will you go if asked?

ROCCA: Oh, gosh. I, you know, I'm saving it for an exclusive with Diane. All right? I'm going to talk to her on ABC. You know, I can't talk -- I can't be too loose right now.

PRESS: Come on. You can cry for us, as much as Barbara Walters. All right.

ROCCA: I have not heard this at all, actually. Well, sort of I have. I mean I've had some -- you know, by the water cooler we've gossiped about it, fantasized. We don't get health benefits at Comedy Central. So I'm ready to go to network like that. PRESS: All right, ABC, did you hear that? Mo Rocca, thanks for joining us on CROSSFIRE. The high point of your media career so far. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, thanks for the work you do. Thanks for joining us on CROSSFIRE.

And now let's get serious. In our next segment, McCrossfire. McDonald's says we love to make you smile, but you may no longer be smiling when you hear what's in their French fries. Unhappy meals, next.


PRESS: CROSSFIRE round two, where's the beef? In the fries. Yes, McDonald's is world famous for the skinny French fries, but it turns out those skinny fries aren't so skinny after all. After being sued by American Hindus and vegetarians, McD's admits it's been cooking those fries in oil mixed with beef extract and not informing the public.

To make up for it, Ronald McDonald has promised to issue a public apology and fork out $10 million to charities that promote vegetarianism, which presumably does not include eating Big Macs. Is this a true case of corporate malfeasance or a corporate shakedown wrapped in religion? Welcome to McDonald's.


CARLSON: Mr. Bharti, thanks for joining us.


CARLSON: We appreciate it. And please excuse me if I break into scornful laughter. But let me ask you this question, outside every McDonald's is a sign that says fairly clearly, in fact, in the 50- point type, McDonald's hamburgers. Now as I understand it, your client is an observant Hindu, prohibited from eating meat. I guess my question is what was he doing in a McDonald's, eating McDonald's food, if he's a vegetarian?

BHARTI: Tucker, I'm representing a class of 16 million people. Out of that, 15 million are vegetarians. They are not Hindus. Only 1 million are Hindus. And this is about following the law.

You know, we are like stepping into the shoes of the attorney general. And we are enforcing the law of the land. And if there was no law, I wouldn't be in the picture. So it is about following the consumer protection laws. And just like your role is, to improve a good country into a better country by informing the public. Our job is to hold the corporations or any lawbreakers to the law. So we have a same role. And what is wrong with disclosing truthful information to your own customers who are paying for it?

CARLSON: Mr. Bharti, presumably at some point, common sense intersects with law. I mean, if I don't eat pork, I don't think, you know, I go to Perry's House of Pork Barbecue. I would expect to get something I didn't like. And not only me, other vegetarians understand this. I want to read you a quote from a man named Paraj Ghandi. Here's what he says about at least 15 million of your 16 million clients. "I don't think Ronald McDonald walked up to them and made him eat the French fries. People should know that if they're eating a place that serves meat products, they have to be more than careful if they don't want to eat meat. Come on, I mean, it's McDonald's."

So I say to you, come on, I mean, it's McDonald's. Come on.

BHARTI: I agree with you, but let me tell you McDonald's is a very mighty, powerful corporation with a lot of smart people. But in the last 100 years, I know of no other megacorporation who is paying millions of dollars, on top of that apologizing, disclosing ingredient list, and also setting up their advisory board.

Do you think they don't know what they're doing? They have smart people on their board. So they -- if they were not compelled to do this, if the laws were not on my side, do you think I'll be able to make them do? So (UNINTELLIGIBLE) I think. And we shouldn't be criticizing somebody for being honest. And we all make mistakes. We shouldn't criticize McDonald's for doing the right thing and trying to be straight with their (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Now this...

PRESS: Hold on. We have another customer we have to take care of up here. Armstrong Williams welcome, please. Have some fries on us. We bought them so you can eat them while you're answering. What I know is, look, I can't believe you're here. When I heard you were coming on the show.

ARMSTRONG WILLIAMS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I can't believe your still here.

PRESS: Don't go there. But I thought, I mean if you're here, you are going to be on my side because I know you are an ethical person. McDonald's lied. They admitted they lied. So are you here saying it's OK for corporations to lie? Armstrong.

WILLIAMS: You know, I consider -- I appreciate the fries, Bill, but because I know who and what McDonald's are, I choose not to eat them because I consider myself a vegetarian. So let me give you your fries back.

And the same thing that they should have considered before going to McDonald's. You know, McDonald's actually told the truth. They said it was made from 100 percent vegetable oil. What they did not talk about were the processing of the fries, where they used these meat products sort of as, they say, to sort of flavor the French fries.

Now, let me finish. The only reason McDonald's is apologizing is not because it necessarily feels that it is wrong, 16 million people in this lawsuit. It's because they don't want the publicity. Remember what happened with the coffee? They want this to go away.

Anybody, like Tucker said, with common sense, will know if you go to McDonald's, which is a fast-food restaurant, the possibility of your getting something that as 100 percent of anything, may not necessarily be the case.

BHARTI: Let me jump in here. Let me tell you McDonald's wouldn't be doing this if the law was not compelling them to do it.

WILLIAMS: Brother, this is about the money. You, as a lawyer, you're looking for a big payday. Why don't you just admit, you're looking for a big payday? It's about the money. You go into McDonald's and buy $3 worth of fries, and you're trying to get a part of a $10 million lawsuit, which you'll probably going to end up getting 20 percent of it. This is not about money. This is not about principle. It's about your getting paid.

BHARTI: This is about my children and grandchildren...

WILLIAMS: Your children, they're getting paid and you're getting paid.

BHARTI: ...because they have the right to know what they are eating. And I think this is about this country that you have to be honest. And look, we don't get a dime paid until we get what we deserve. Now...

WILLIAMS: You're working for free?

BHARTI: They have to decide whether we did a good job.

WILLIAMS: Are you working for free? That's what you're telling me, you're working for free? Of course, you're (UNINTELLIGIBLE), of course not.


BHARTI: My goal is to clean up the mess and make this country better. And this is the only way to hold corporations to the laws.

PRESS: We got it. We heard it. We heard it. I want to jump here, He's not working for free. Neither are you, neither am I.

WILLIAMS: Well, of course, he's not working for free.

PRESS: But I want to come back to this little lie that just skimmed by here. Wait a minute. 100 percent vegetable oil. Now, I'm not an expert in nutrition. But I know a cow ain't a vegetable. I know a pig ain't a vegetable. If you say 100 percent vegetable oil, that means no beef. These things are laced with beef. They lied and you're saying it's OK to lie and get away with it.

WILLIAMS: Bill, I don't need you to put words in my mouth. I can do that very well.

PRESS: You said it.

WILLIAMS: It was misleading is what it was.

PRESS: It was a lie.

WILLIAMS: It was misleading. Listen when people, most consumers in this country that buy at least fast-food restaurants understand when you talk about 100 percent vegetable oil that beef, when you talk about -- you can be beef oil, vegetable oil. It's implied that there's a possibility that you may get beef.


BHARTI: Let me jump in. My clients went and asked every time...

CARLSON: Mr. Bharti, I'm afraid I'm going to have to cut you off. I have French fry in hand. And that's the sign that we're out of time, but thank you for joining us.

BHARTI: Thank you.

CARLSON: Armstrong Williams, thank you. And coming up next, it's time to "Fire Back." You send e-mail. We read it. Tonight's highlight, Randy Missouri takes on Bill Press. Good for you, Randy. We'll be right back.


PRESS: And now the moment you've been looking forward to all week, when you get to throw tomatoes at Tucker. Oh yeah, a few rotten tomatoes headed my way, too. Like this one from Mark on the cost of Ken Starr's investigation of Bill Clinton. "Bill, get over it. $65 million? That works out to 3 cents per year for every man, woman and child in America. Name one other thing the government does that is such a bargain. But then, that wasn't our money, it was Uncle Sam's that was wasted."

Well, Mark, to me $65 million is still a lot of money. And I can think of a lot better ways the government could spend it, than investigating Bill Clinton's sex life.

CARLSON: Not possible. And here's an e-mail from someone named Harrison, responding to our show on the battle of the bulge. "Everyone is getting fat. Look around anywhere and you'll see the majority of those around you are overweight. I'm skinny and can't imagine how anyone can allow themselves to get fat."

Well, Harrison, funny you asked. I understand the principle. I write e-mail every day all day long and I can't imagine how anyone could write an e-mail as ludicrous as the one you wrote. I think both of us need a little empathy. That's the lesson here.

PRESS: OK, and the other night, I laughed President Bush waving at Stevie Wonder. This e-mail from Randy in Fredericktown, Maryland. "It is apparent from your comment about President Bush waving that you have never attended a gospel concert. It is not uncommon for a person to be seen in a gospel concert or some churches waving their hand. This is not to seek recognition from the one on the platform but it is recognizing God is present in a real and vital way." Randy, you don't get it. President Bush was not waving to God. President Bush was waving to Stevie Wonder, who couldn't see him because he was blind. But you know, I forgive President Bush. As Conan O'Brien said, "He probably thought Stevie Wonder was Ray Charles."

CARLSON: Here's an e-mail from Michael, responding to the crisis in the Middle East. "Gentlemen, one way to win the popularity campaign in Muslim countries would be to send Tucker Carlson on a speaking tour. People in the Middle East are sure to love him just as much as we do here in Canada."

Thanks, Michael. That might be the unlikely fan letter we get. I don't get many. But I'm not quite sure, but I will say if I have won your heart in Halifax Nova Scotia, I think the citizens of Damascus, Syria are a tougher nut to crack. But I appreciate it.

PRESS: We are big in Canada.

CARLSON: We are huge in Canada. I'm not sure how good we are in Syria, but I appreciate the words of confidence.

PRESS: And you love you people up north and all of your curling. Good-night for CROSSFIRE. Have a great weekend, everybody. We'll see you Monday night.

CARLSON: From the right, I'm Tucker Carlson. Join us again on Monday night, as Bill said, for CROSSFIRE. See you then.


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