Roundtable: Jefferson Corruption Probe, 'American Idol'

Topics: Amid an ongoing probe on corruption charges, Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) refuses to step down from a powerful congressional committee, and the phenomenon of American Idol. Guests: Hofstra journalism professor E.R. Shipp; Walter Fields, CEO and publisher of NorthStarNetwork.com; and writer Bob Meadows of People magazine.

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GORDON: This is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

On today's round table, Jefferson is asked to step aside, and is there more scandal to come on the Hill? Joining us today to discuss these topics and more, from our New York City bureau, E.R. Shipp. She's a professor of journalism at Hofstra University School of Communication.

Also there is Bob Meadows, a writer for People magazine.

And also in New York City, he joins us from KISS-FM there, is Walter Fields, CEO and publisher of the NorthStarNetwork.com.

All right, folks. We want to get into, and I should note that in a few moments in this program people will be hearing from Juan Williams and our Washington insiders about the scandal as a whole, but we wanted to talk about what William Jefferson received from Nancy Pelosi. And some people were very surprised. Ms. Pelosi sent a letter over to William Jefferson asking that he resign from the Ways and Means Committee.

When you get a letter like this from the House Minority Leader, in your political affiliation, Walter Fields, what does this say?

Mr. WALTER FIELDS (CEO and Publisher, NorthStarNetwork.com): Well, it says the party is ready to abandon you. And I think, you know, what this shows is that this midterm elections have become key for the Democrats and they don't want to be able to have the Republicans point at them and use the word corruption. I think the Democrats clearly see this as an opportunity to regain the House and they're willing to sacrifice Congressman Jefferson.

The irony is that it really sets up a double standard because no other member has been asked to relinquish a seat on the committee in this manner. And that's a key seat, because Jefferson has been successful in representing his district that had been particularly hit hard after Hurricane Katrina.

GORDON: Let me read from his response letter back to Nancy Pelosi. It says, Leader Pelosi, I have received your letter of this date requesting my immediate resignation from the Ways and Means Committee. With respect, I decline to do so.

He further writes, None of the matters reported to be under scrutiny involve issues under jurisdiction of the Ways and Means Committee, therefore such a request would be even more perplexing and unreasonable.

And lastly, he says, Further, such a request would be discriminatory inasmuch as no other member currently federal investigation has been asked to step aside from a substantive, substantial, I should say, legislative committee assignment.

So when you look at this, Bob Meadows, again, much of what Walter Fields was saying there, the idea that he is embattled not only through this investigation with the FBI but within his own party.

Mr. BOB MEADOWS (Writer, People magazine): Yeah, I think Walter called it exactly. It is an election year. The Democrats don't want to be seen as soft on corruption. Every time a Republican has come under charge, the Democrats have been very quick to point this out. They know - and so they don't want to be seen as hypocritical, I guess you might say. And so when it's somebody in their own party, they're coming out doing it. I actually think that's kind of a good thing.

They realize that Bush is really suffering. His numbers are so low. Even the Republicans are coming out against him. So this is really a chance for the Democrats, perhaps, to get some momentum going and take back the House.

GORDON: Here's something interesting, E.R. Shipp. We saw, as of Monday, I should say starting Monday, many Republicans coming to the aid, if you will, of William Jefferson in fighting against the FBI's ability to come into the offices of a congressperson, many say for fear of what may happen.

And then we saw an ABC report suggesting that House speaker Dennis Hastert is part of an investigation on the ongoing look into the Jack Abramoff corruption probe. Speaker Hastert has asked for full retraction from ABC News in this report. It's interesting to see that it seems, at least for the media, the sharks are circling.

Ms. E.R. SHIPP (Professor, Hofstra): They are indeed. I don't think it's accurate to say that Republicans were coming to the aid and assistance of Representative Jefferson. They were trying to defend the institution of Congress from perhaps…

GORDON: So the idea of separation.

Ms. SHIPP: The separation of powers. They don't want the executive branch to be able at any drop of a hat to invade offices on a Saturday night and rifle through file cabinets and take documents from computers and all of that.

So, they're not so much rallying around Jefferson but around they're own institution, and trying also to make sure that there's some clarity so that they won't themselves be subjected to this kind of treatment, that the FBI won't be coming into their offices to examine their files.

Hastert's, the issue with Hastert is a little complicated. ABC says it stands by its story, and the Justice Department says there is no story. So we don't quite know…

GORDON: Forgive me, E.R., but we should note, that is very unusual for the Justice Department…

Ms. SHIPP: Yes.

GORDON: …to come out to deny on the record that there is no probe here.

Ms. SHIPP: That is very true, but - but you have to read all the language. There is a probe of some type. Whether Hastert is the target is the issue. He says he's not and that was what the statement said. But that doesn't mean that something that he did, a letter he wrote on behalf of a lobbyist, may not be something that's part of another probe.

GORDON: And that's ABC's point. The idea as we try to slice up the words, if you will, the legalese, that the idea that he may not be a formal target does not mean that he wouldn't be under investigation in the larger probe issue here.

Ms. SHIPP: Correct.

GORDON: All right. Well, we'll continue to look into this. And as I say, in just moments we'll hear from our political insiders.

Here's something interesting. The women's lacrosse team, the Duke women's lacrosse team, will play Northwestern University over the weekend in an NCAA Semi-Final Game and they plan to wear sweatbands with the word innocent written on them, Bob Meadows. Of course, this meaning that they are showing solidarity with the men's team who is under fire, of course, with rape allegations swirling around.

Mr. MEADOWS: Yeah, I looked at this as really, this is a sign to me of friendship. I'm sure that the women on the lacrosse team are familiar at least with the men on the men's lacrosse team, and so this is a situation where you're just coming in support of people that you know. As we have discussed, it has been talked about a lot, the accuser, the story isn't exactly rock solid necessarily. And so it's really typical for when somebody in your, somebody who you know, somebody you care about gets charged with something like this, that you're actually going to come out and support them.

GORDON: Walter Fields, many might feel that this is interesting though in terms of the idea of the women's lacrosse team standing in solidarity, even with friends, based on the idea that this is about rape.

Mr. FIELDS: Yeah, I think it's symbolic of something a little deeper. I think it really is illustrative of white privilege, that you have this women's lacrosse team that's going to wear these bracelets, and you have a young lady who is an alleged victim, that they have disregarded those gender issues and sort of race has trumped gender. And I think Duke University has a responsibility at this point to make sure that those, those, they're never worn on the field, because they represent the University. They're not representing themselves when they don that Duke uniform. They represent the institution.

So I want to see how Duke University reacts to this move, because the University should come out strongly and tell the team members that they are not allowed to wear those bracelets as long as they represent the University.

GORDON: I was going to bring that up, E.R., in the sense of when this story passed the AP wires, Duke University had not released a statement. I'll be surprised if they allow the women to wear these sweatbands.

Ms. SHIPP: That will be interesting, but you know, the women have first amendment rights, too, so even if the University declares that this is adding to the uniform in a manner that's forbidden under their rules, assuming they have such rules, the women still can demonstrate their support for the male lacrosse team if that's what they choose to do.

GORDON: Yeah, they would just not do so in that uniform or play at that point.

Ms. SHIPP: Right. Right. But I would say, I don't know the racial composition of the women's lacrosse team, so I won't say that this is race trumping gender or gender trumping race, sorry. I think that we first should know what the composition of the team is before we make the assumption that the teammates are racist and that they're somehow dissing black people in the community.

GORDON: Walter, do you want to go out on a limb and suggest that?

Mr. FIELDS: Yeah. I would -

Ms. SHIPP: The male team has at least one black member.

Mr. FIELDS: I would suggest that the composition probably looks like the men's team. And I think that there is an issue here in terms of the privilege of these students from a racial point of view.

I mean, what's really troubling about this is that much of the criticism of the alleged victim is what you've always heard about black women. And clearly we don't know the specifics of what happened in that house. But something happened in this house. There's medical evidence that suggests this young lady was abused. So for a lacrosse team to go out and represent a university…

Ms. SHIPP: But not by these, but not by these players, Walter. They found nothing to indicate - though there was some evidence of sexual activity, it did not match these men.

GORDON: Well, that's the rub right now, folks. Before we get into, we don't know whether the abuse…

Mr. FIELDS: We don't know that.

GORDON: …happened in the house or outside of the house. We don't know whether it happened by someone else.

Ms. SHIPP: We don't know whether it happened.

GORDON: We just don't. Exactly. We just don't know yet. So rather than debate that, let's…

Mr. FIELDS: Yeah, I think that's, I think that's beyond the point. I think the point for me is that you have this institution, Duke University, where you have had this horrible incident occur that involves their athletic teams. And for another athletic team in the representation of the University to go out on the playing field and make a statement in this manner, I think is wholly inconsistent with what we would want to see, coming out of a university like Duke. And I think the university is going to speak up shortly, and tell this team that they cannot do that.

GORDON: Bob?

Mr. MEADOWS: Again, I just have to go back to one thing, I think we're maybe over, you know, putting it gender versus race. If that's the case, I think we're overestimating the solidarity in, just in gender alone.

I mean, women come out on all different views - all different types of viewpoints on every type of issue. I mean, if they were so solid, George Bush never would have been elected.

So I think we're just oversimplifying it by saying it's gender versus race. Again, I think it's more - I know that the woman's lacrosse team, they know these guys on the Duke team, they're going to support them. It seems like that's pretty cut and dry.

GORDON: All right, well if we're going to talk about oversimplification, then certainly we should move on to our next topic from...

Mr. FIELDS: That is very over (unintelligible)...

GORDON: ...from the ridiculous and here we go, our talk about

American Idol, as if you haven't had enough of it. But here's what I wanted to raise, Bob, and let me go to you...

Mr. MEADOWS: Mm hmm.

GORDON: ...as a writer for People Magazine. When you look at the kind of coverage, not only last night's finale received but just in general, as soon as Taylor Hicks was announced the winner, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, across the board, started to five wall-to-wall coverage. It's amazing.

Mr. MEADOWS: It's baffling.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEADOWS: It is - and I'm going to just say, I've never seen the show. But I have watched other reality TV shows and I do understand how people get involved with them and why.

You know, this is a world that's hinging - you know, it's not really a world, I think it is the media is looking for something to cover because now you have 24-hour news. You have the Internet. You have to be - you have to have something to fill that hole.

So when something like this occurs - and yeah, 53 - what 60 million people watch this show. So yeah, American people do want to know about this. So that's why you jump on it. But I think it has more to do with the fact that you have this huge gaping wide, chasm of a news hole, and that you have to fill it and this is the story of the moment.

GORDON: It averaged about 30 million viewers per show this season, 63 million calls and text messages, they say, they received yesterday. And, Walter Fields, the host Ryan Seacrest wanted America to know that this, the 63 million, was far greater than any presidential election that we've ever seen, in terms of votes cast. Now we should note you can't sit at home and cast your vote for the presidency, and you can't be 12 and eight and nine and vote...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GORDON: ...for the U.S. presidency in this country. But nonetheless, it does speak to the idea of the importance of American Idol, in terms of people even moving to the phone and the civic responsibility that Americans feel.

Mr. FIELDS: But you can count multiple times. I mean, I think so...

GORDON: Only in Chicago.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FIELDS: ...some similarities, yes there are some similarities between politics and American. Well, look I think it has a lot to do with the cult of celebrity in this country. I think that, you know, we're living in a very trivialized state where something like American Idol can sort of grab the nation's fascination and you have this outpouring of interest in who the next winner will be.

Mind you, you could probably walk into any black church and find a better singer, than the next American Idol. So I think that part of it is what we are as a nation today, that we're enveloped in 15 seconds of fame now. And anything of this nature is going to grab our attention, because our country has just moved in that direction.

GORDON: Here's what's interesting though, in terms of again, the phenomenon that is American Idol. One would have found it hard to believe some years ago, and particularly in his no-name phase, that Prince would perform on this show, E.R. Shipp.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SHIPP: Everybody seemed to have performed on that show last night, except me. I wasn't invited.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SHIPP: And I think I could have held a note a little bit better than some of those singers, I've seen. But, I think it's become such a phenomenon that right now, it's a cash cow for Fox. It's great publicity. It's probably helping ratings on the network, beyond that show. But, it's also an opportunity for people like Prince and Mary J. Blige and others who have records to sell, to be assured they've got this humongous audience out there.

So, you know, yeah we like to be distracted perhaps from war and pestilence and Representative Jefferson hiding money in a refrigerator. But, you know, there's a lot of money being made on this.

GORDON: Let me ask this, then. How much - and I'll as you all to comment on this very quickly - how much do you believe that those of us who sit in the media ivory towers, and go back and forth about the world's ills and political punditry, may not get it. Maybe America doesn't care as much as we believe about this stuff. And that what they care about is Soul Patrol and Taylor Hicks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FIELDS: Well, look, I think...

Prof. SHIPP: I'm trying to get the Soul Patrol part.

Mr. FIELDS: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FIELDS: I think people want an escape valve and I think that, you know, reality TV, American Idol, provides that. I mean we're living in some troubled times and I think people want some relief. And, apparently, these shows do provide that.

Mr. MEADOWS: People are definitely interested in this type of stuff. I mean, the magazine I work for is the biggest magazine in the country, maybe even, you know, the world or whatever. And people are very concerned, they want to know -and I think, I believe American Idol gets into the backstories of these people, I think.

And that's what really, I think, is what makes American Idol better than say, Star Search, which is how I view it. It's that you get into the story of these people. You knew that Fantasia was a single mom, a struggling single mom. You knew all the different background stories, these people fighting weight. And so, I think, that's what brings the American people into making these singers actual people who you want to know more about.

Prof. SHIPP: But you know, for the most part, you don't know anything about them after the American Idol season is over. Because I don't know what became of most of the winners.

GORDON: Mm hmm.

Prof. SHIPP: And the number twos. But I will agree with what Alessandra Stanley said in today's New York Times. He called the show a monster-sized celebration of mediocrity.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEADOWS: While that may in fact be true, a couple of the idols have sold fairly well. Kelly Clarkson, being the first winner, has sold two albums...

Prof. SHIPP: Right.

GORDON: ...very well as a matter of fact, and moving on with her career. And many of us still wonder what happened...

Prof. SHIPP: But, what's happened to Rueben?

GORDON: ...with the teddy bear Ruben Studdard, we'll have to find out. America awaits. All right folks, thank you so much, greatly appreciated.

Mr. MEADOWS: Thank you.

Mr. FIELDS: Thanks.

Prof. SHIPP: Thank you.

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