February 14, 2007

Talk Hosts Feed the Anna Nicole Frenzy

PEJ Talk Show Index Feb. 4 - 9, 2007

On his February 8 Fox News Channel show, Bill O’Reilly professed to being befuddled by the fuss over the death of Playmate/heiress Anna Nicole Smith.

“I have to be honest, I have no interest in her,” said the No. 1 cable host, matter-of- factly. “I’m looking at her and seeing a media creation.”

If Smith’s life was a media creation, consider her death. The sad tale of Smith’s demise not only gripped the media overall. It fascinated the talk shows culture even more, according to the latest PEJ Talk Show Index.

O’Reilly himself, after dismissing the story, devoted part of two nights to it.

Smith’s death was the third hottest subject on cable and radio talk shows in the week of February 4-9 (making up 15% of all talk time), edged out by the debate over Iraq (19%) and the 2008 campaign (18%). But that actually understates the Anna Nicole-mania.

In the two days immediately following her death (February 8 and 9) Smith actually accounted for 37% of the talk show conversation. In that period, the Iraq debate (14%) and the White House race (9%) were almost afterthoughts.

Over the past five weeks, this Index has consistently revealed that cable and radio talk hosts amplify the few subjects that generate the most news coverage of the week. In the Smith case, that remained true. The 15% spent on Smith was almost twice the amount (9%) that the media overall devoted to the subject.

In the talk universe, Smith’s demise primarily attracted cable TV hosts, who devoted about three times as much time to the subject as their radio counterparts. More likely to have guests than the radio talkers, the cable guys interviewed a succession of experts about the unresolved tangle of legal, monetary and DNA issues.

On radio, however, the lack of an obvious ideological angle seemed to make Smith somewhat less inviting.

When those radio hosts did weigh in, a favorite theme was the excessive coverage itself. On that score, indeed, the liberals and the conservatives on radio finally found something they could agree on.

"They’re back to the pink and white dress—the same stock footage,” noted liberal host Randi Rhodes disapprovingly while watching CNN’s coverage. “It’s creepy. It’s crazy. It’s the front page of the New York Post.”

“Another drugged-out starlet collapses and dies and all the news of the world stops. Frankly, I’m sick of the news,” raged conservative host Michael Savage. To protest the media’s Anna Nicole fixation, Savage began reading from “Once Upon a Time in the Catskills” a memoir from a fellow named Phil Ratzer about the summer of 1958.

The Talk Show Index, released each Friday, is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what 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. (See About the Talk Show Index.) 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.

It is possible that Smith’s death may have eaten away at some of the talk time that normally would have been spent on Iraq last week. Although the debate over war strategy was the biggest subject for the fifth straight week, it failed to fill 20% of the talk menu for the first time.

The early-starting 2008 Presidential campaign remained the second-biggest topic thanks to Rudy Giuliani’s February 5 statement of candidacy. This was also the first time in a month that a Republican candidate generated more attention than the Democrats on the talk airwaves. The subject was heavily focused on whether the former New York mayor is too liberal for the GOP’s core constituency.

Two other hot-button political issues attracted more attention on the talk shows (the “Scooter” Libby trial at 7% and the Nancy Pelosi plane controversy at 4%) than they did in the overall news Index.

The Libby trial made the list because it was a favorite subject of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann. Two likely reasons for their interest? NBC colleague Tim Russert was a key prosecution witness and Matthews himself became a sidebar to the trial.

On the February 7 edition of “Hardball,” Matthews reported that Russert’s testimony contradicted one of Libby’s key defense assertions—that he had learned about of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity from the journalist. Then turning to a more personal subject, Matthews explained that the trial also revealed “why Scooter called Tim Russert to complain about me.” (Evidence surfaced at the trial that Libby was advised to call Russert to complain about Matthews because Russert didn't like the "Hardball" host. Responding on Don Imus's radio show, Russert declared his affection for Matthews.)

Liberals and conservatives did find something to disagree about in the debate over the request that Speaker Nancy Pelosi use a government airplane large enough to fly non-stop to her home in California. The story was a bigger one on radio than on cable or the media overall.

With the strains of the Peter, Paul and Mary hit “Leaving on a Jet Plane” playing in the background, conservative radio host Sean Hannity criticized Pelosi for wanting “a gas guzzling presidential-sized aircraft.”

Liberal talker Ed Schultz took the opposing view. “This is basically a story about chauvinism,” he said, dismissing Pelosi’s critics.

One story that generated only modest buzz in the talk culture (4%) was the arrest of astronaut Lisa Nowak for the attempted murder of a love triangle rival. Other than wondering how she passed NASA muster, there apparently wasn’t much for the talk hosts to say.

But that certainly wasn’t the case when it came to the other big scandal story of the week. As he struggled to make sense of the sordid Smith saga, Bill O’Reilly called on none other than Geraldo Rivera to put the coverage in context. Rivera, a former daytime talk host and one of the godfathers of the tabloid media culture, struggled as he tried to define the intangibles that made her worthy of such feverish attention.

Celebrities such as Smith “may be living train wrecks,” Rivera offered. “But they are endearing in some strange, and maybe indefinable” way.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. Iraq Policy Debate – 19%
2. 2008 Campaign – 18%
3. Anna Nicole Smith Dies – 15%
4. Libby Trial – 7%
5. Pelosi Plane Controversy – 4%
6. Astronaut Scandal – 4%
7. Super Bowl – 4%
8. Immigration – 4%
9. Iran – 2%
10. Iraq War Homefront – 2%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. Iraq Policy Debate – 12%
2. Events in Iraq – 10%
3. Anna Nicole Smith Dies – 9%
4. Campaign 2008 – 8%
5. Astronaut Scandal – 6%
6. Severe Weather – 3%
7. Super Bowl – 3%
8. Libby Trial – 3%
9. Bush's Budget Proposal – 3%
10. Iran – 2%

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