January 17, 2007

Talk Shows Battle it Out Over the “Surge” Strategy

PEJ Talk Show Index Jan. 7 - 12, 2007

The nation’s cable and radio talk hosts were even more consumed with Iraq last week than the media generally, devoting nearly half their air time to dissecting and arguing about President Bush’s “surge” strategy, according to the inaugural edition of the PEJ Talk Show Index.

In the period from January 7 to January 12, the debate over Iraq policy accounted for an overwhelming 48% of the talk menu. When added with the second biggest story—the activities of the Democratic-led Congress (12%)—the top two subjects accounted for 36 minutes out of every hour of talk measured in our universe of talk programs.

The other subjects rounding out the top five list in the talk media were the prospect of armed conflict with Iran, events on the ground in Iraq, and the Malibu California wildfires that destroyed a few homes of the rich and famous.

The Talk Show Index, which will be released every Friday, is designed to provide an empirical look at which stories and topics are most frequently dissected and discussed in the media universe of talk and opinion—a segment of the media that spans across both prime time cable and radio. PEJ’s Talk Show Index includes seven prime time cable shows and five radio talk hosts and is a subset of our News Coverage Index, which is released every Tuesday and measures the subjects covered in a week by 48 different outlets from five American media sectors.

Certain subjects appeared to be more natural fodder for a talk show culture than we found in our broader News Coverage Index the week of January 7 through 12.

The top two stories were the same in both indices. But the talkers seized on the mainstream media's biggest stories and then spent even more time and energy hashing over them. They were not in significant degree adding new elements to the news agenda last week.

The debate over Iraq that consumed nearly half the talk time, for instance, accounted for markedly less, just a third, of the overall media coverage (34%). The new Democratic Congress also got more time on talk (12%) than overall (7%).

The talk hosts were also much more interested in the possibility of escalation with Iran (third place at 4%), a subject that finished 18th in the News Coverage Index of the media overall. Conversely, the talkers paid little heed to two subjects that made the News Coverage Index’s top 10 —aging soccer star David Beckham’s decision to play in Los Angeles for a cool quarter billion and Governor Schwarzenegger’s unveiling of a $12-billion California health-care plan.

What did the talkers have to say about the President's plan? In general, they reflected the core arguments of the political parties in the wake of the Preisdent's January 10 speech. Bush supporters pointed to an unfriendly media and argued that withdrawal was a recipe for defeat. Opponents pointed to the administration’s failures to date in Iraq and said that any further buildup would compound the already costly mistakes.

On January 11, for instance, the Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly started by assailing the “the usual left-wing suspects” in the media for being unfair to the president. O’Reilly then went to an interview with White House press secretary Tony Snow, with the host noting approvingly that “President Bush looks to me to be determined…he’s gonna do everything he can to prevent defeat.”

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann—emerging as a liberal counterweight to the conservative-leaning O’Reilly—offered a very different perspective on his January 12 show. Under the caption “Axis of Escalation,” Olbermann interviewed Richard Nixon’s counsel, John Dean, conjuring up memories of a disgraced presidency, the Vietnam quagmire, and of a possible battle between the White House and Congress over war-making power.

“Most Democrats and some Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee [are] saying they do not understand how the president’s plan can work,” declared Olbermann.

For those wondering whether the election of a Democratic-run Congress would re-invigorate conservative talk radio by providing fresh targets, the Index suggests the answer is yes. That subject was driven last week largely by conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, who focused attention on Senator Barbara Boxer’s statement to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the unmarried Rice would not pay any personal “price” for the combat in Iraq. In a radio interview, Tony Snow quickly jumped into the fray, calling that exchange a “great leap backward for feminism.”

Bush’ statement in his January 10 speech that “we will interrupt the flow of support [into Iraq] from Iran and Syria,” was largely subsumed into broader Iraq coverage by most of the news media. But thanks to the intense interest of MSNBC hosts Olbermann and Chris Matthews, the prospect of hostilities spilling into Iran was topic number three on the Talk Show Index.

Matthews, whose tommy-gun cadence seems to lend urgency to virtually every subject, began the January 12 edition of “Hardball” by asking: “Is Bush trying to gin up a war with Iran?”

Immigration policy, which was the seventh- biggest topic in the Index at 3%, is the handiwork of one man. Lou Dobbs’s career has had several incarnations, but as the host of CNN’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” he is now “an evangelical opponent of liberal immigration laws,” in the words of a recent New Yorker profile. According to the Index, Dobbs devoted time to that subject on four shows last week. No other show in our talk universe devoted any time to it.

The mysterious odor hovering over Manhattan on January 8 finished eighth on the Talk Show Index at 2%. It got play only on talk radio, where some couldn’t resist the siren song of humor. “New Yorkers described the odor as foul, pungent, and overall, a vast improvement,” declared the announcer on the liberal Randi Rhodes show.

And even the freewheeling talk show culture couldn’t justify making the ongoing Donald-Trump Rosie O’Donnell feud a top story. It finished 11th at 1%, perhaps proving that it was too hard to distinguish the protagonist from the villain.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. Iraq Policy Debate – 48%
2. New Congress – 12%
3. Iran – 4%
4. Events in Iraq – 3%
5. Malibu Fires – 3%
6. U.S. Attack on Somalia Targets – 3%
7. Immigration Debate – 3%
8. NYC Odor – 2%
9. General War on Terror – 2%
10. Stem Cells – 1%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. Iraq Policy Debate – 34%
2. New Congress – 7%
3. U.S. Attack on Somalia Targets – 5%
4. Events in Iraq – 4%
5. Iraq Homefront – 2%
6. Malibu Fires – 2%
7. Beckham Signs in U.S. – 2%
8. Immigration Debate – 2%
9. Stem Cells – 2%
10. California Health Care – 1%

Click here to read the methodology behind the Talk Show Index.