March 1, 2007

The Radio Talkers Hit the Presidential Hopefuls

PEJ Talk Show Index Feb. 18 - 23, 2007

On February 23, Sean Hannity welcomed listeners to his syndicated radio show with a greeting designed to rally folks less than keen on Senator Hillary Clinton. “This is the ‘Stop Hillary Express,’” declared the conservative talker. ”Jump on board.”

Two days earlier, liberal radio host Randi Rhodes spent her time whaling away at the leading the Republicans in the 2008 presidential campaign.

“The frontrunners seem to be ‘Grandpa McCain,’ ‘Happy Pants Giuliani’ and ‘Brigham Romney,’” she declared, lampooning Senator John McCain for his age (70), former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani for his multiple marriages, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney for his Mormon religion.

On February 20, it was Michael Savage, the conservative contrarian, who put a pox on everyone’s candidacy.

“Right now, we need a new Teddy Roosevelt,” he declared. “But there is no Teddy Roosevelt. There’s nobody out there except these sheisters and these phonies.”

After telling his listeners that he’s received 1,178,000 votes on a web poll in favor of him running for president. Savage asked: “Do you actually think that Obama could get a million votes on a web site saying he should run? I kinda’ doubt it.”

Welcome to the intersection of presidential politics and talk radio, circa late February 2007. For last week at least, it was a wild and woolly place where passions are roused by hammering the bad guy (which for the moment at least seems more important than endorsing the good guy) and where the dialogue is limited only by the host’s imagination. With a crowded field full of well-known candidates, the 2008 race has been a major talk topic since Barack Obama’s January 16 announcement that he was forming an exploratory committee.

For the week of February 18-23, the 2008 presidential race was the second-biggest story on cable and radio talk shows, filling 19% of the airtime. It finished just behind the week’s top subject, (the never-ending saga of Anna Nicole Smith at 22%) and edged out the debate over Iraq strategy, which accounted for 18% of the talk menu.

Still, as a talk subject, the presidential race was up significantly from last week (when it attracted 11% of the talkers’ attention). One factor was a high-profile skirmish between the Clinton and Obama campaigns after Obama supporter and Hollywood mogul David Geffen publicly criticized Bill and Hillary Clintons’ character. The sparring match between the two Democratic heavyweights helped fuel talk show chatter as well as the news coverage. (The campaign was the top story in the news media overall last week, filling 12% of the newshole. Thus, as usual, a big story in the media overall is even bigger in talk media).

So far this year, cable talk has made more of the early days of the political campaign than has radio. But last week—in a reversal of that pattern—the radio hosts devoted more time to campaign events than did their cable colleagues (74 minutes to 56 minutes). And while the Geffen episode worked its way into their conversations, the radio hosts simply seemed inclined to use their considerable editorial license to vent about their least favorite candidates.

“If you listen to Hillary,” said Rush Limbaugh with more than a touch of exasperation on his February 20 show, “I’m still stunned….that anybody is willing to credit Mrs. Clinton with any kind of coherence.”

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.

The Index reveals a serious schism between the cable and radio talkers when it came to special subjects last week. While the 2008 presidential battle was the primary topic of the radio hosts, the cable anchors continued to favor the continuing saga of Anne Nicole Smith. Last week, they were fascinated by the legal fight over Smith’s body and the antics of Judge “cryin” Larry Seidlin. Her story accounted for 142 minutes of the cable talk time that PEJ examined compared to a mere nine minutes on talk radio.

Even the discussion of the U.S. strategy in Iraq could not escape the long shadow of Anna Nicole and her posthumous paternity fight.

When MSNBC’s “Hardball,” host Chris Matthews asked Iraqi war veteran Paul Rieckhoff on February 19 whether the debate over Iraq damaged troop morale, Rieckhoff responded by shrugging that off. “Morale is impacted by frequent tours, by divorce rate, by the fact that America is paying attention to Britney Spears and Anna Nicole Smith and not what’s happening in Fallujah and Ramadi,” he said.

There have been numerous efforts to link the sad demise of Smith with the problems besetting Spears, the partying pop idol who has hopped in and out of rehab. But although Spears’s erratic public behavior has generated plenty of coverage in the entertainment outlets, it has failed to really break through into the mainstream media coverage or into the talk show culture.

Last week, while Smith was the leading talk subject, Spears’ troubles generated only 2% of the talk airtime, making her the 10th biggest story. (Only Sean Hannity, who has a Fox News Channel program along with his radio show, seemed interested in her plight.)

The Washington Post’s powerful February 18 and 19 expose of problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center was picked up by much of the media last week, making the Iraq war on the homefront the fifth most covered story in the overall Index, at 5%.

The story of wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans being hobbled by bureaucratic red tape and sub-standard conditions at the famed military hospital got roughly the same amount of attention from the talk shows, (4% of the airtime, the fifth biggest talk topic). But it received very selective treatment, with only a few of the cable hosts—CNN’s Lou Dobbs and MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann and Matthews—spending time on the subject.

Liberal radio talker Rhodes also devoted a few minutes to the Walter Reed scandal.

But in the world of talk, where news is more a matter of perspective, it was not universal. In the content examined by the PEJ, the issue was not picked up by any of the conservative radio hosts or by the Fox News Channel talk anchors.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. Anna Nicole Smith – 22%
2. Campaign 2008 – 19%
3. Iraq Policy Debate – 18%
4. Iran – 4%
5. Iraq Homefront – 4%
6. Immigration – 4%
7. Libby Trial – 3%
8. Events in Iraq – 3%
9. Global Warming – 2%
10. Britney Spears – 2%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. Campaign 2008 – 12%
2. Iraq Policy Debate – 11%
3. Anna Nicole Smith – 10%
4. Events in Iraq – 9%
5. Iraq Homefront – 5%
6. Iran – 5%
7. Libby Trial – 3%
8. Climbers Rescued on Mt. Hood – 3%
9. Jet Blue – 2%
10. General War on Terror – 2%

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