March 15, 2007

A Talk Tango: Anti-Clinton Hosts Praise Obama

PEJ Talk Show Index March 4 - 9, 2007

On his syndicated radio show, Michael Savage played a clip from a Hillary Clinton campaign speech and then disgustedly turned it off.

“Can you believe this?” he asked. “She has no qualifications whatsoever other than gall. She’s running sheer-ly on gall.”

Another popular conservative talkhost, Rush Limbaugh, argued the New York Senator is so dependent on her husband that he vowed to refer to her henceforth as “Mrs. Bill Clinton.”

On its face, none of this is new or surprising. For eight straight weeks, the 2008 presidential race has been one of the top five stories in PEJ’s Talk Show Index. Last week, it was the No. 2 story on the radio and cable talk shows, filling 17% of the airtime from March 4 to March 9.

And the most-discussed candidate has consistently been the unofficial Democratic frontrunner and former First Lady. (From mid-January until now, she played a significant role in nearly 50% of all the talk segments devoted to 2008 campaign.) And much of that has been not been flattering.

Last week, only the verdict in the Scooter Libby trial (at 28%) generated more talk airtime than the presidential campaign. And in a week in which the metastasizing Walter Reed scandal did not really catch fire, some verbal pyrotechnics—an Ann Coulter insult and a battle between cable TV hosts—were among the 10 leading talk topics.

The fact that Hillary Clinton took something of a pounding last week wasn’t big news. But an examination of the talk outlets revealed an interesting twist to that pattern. Whatever the motivation, some of those conservative hosts are not only using their microphones to blast away at Clinton. They are also embracing, or at least saying nice things about, Barack Obama, a liberal Democrat whose primary virtue in their eyes may be that he can defeat Clinton for the nomination.

Whether heartfelt, strategic or simply faint praise, this Obama mini-love fest may strike some as sounding strange coming from some icons of conservative talk.

After criticizing Clinton’s March 4 speech in Selma Alabama on his radio show, for instance, Hannity said Obama’s address advocating more personal responsibility “was echoing Bill Cosby…In a call to action, Barack Obama sounded a lot like Cosby.” As the host was quick to note, “I love Bill Cosby.”

On his March 5 show, Limbaugh was also eager to award the battle of Selma to the Illinois Senator. “Obama upstaged Mrs. Clinton yesterday,” he declared firmly. “Drew a larger crowd, didn’t speak with a fake southern accent, didn’t screech."

Speaking on the March 5 edition of the Fox News Channel’s “Hannity & Colmes,” columnist Robert Novak struck that theme.

“I think [Hillary Clinton] is scared to death of Senator Obama, who is really a very fresh face, and very attractive,” Novak fairly gushed. “He’s a phenomenon.”

The biggest topic of the week, the jury’s decision to find Libby guilty of perjury and obstruction, triggered more of a classic ideological tong war between hosts who viewed the trial either as an indictment of White House Iraq war policy or as a confusing witch hunt.

The reaction to Coulter’s use of an anti-homosexual slur to describe John Edwards was not a major story in general news coverage. But it was the eighth-biggest talk subject at 3%. And one talk-only topic was the ongoing war of words between the Fox News Channel and MSNBC/NBC. With Joe Scarborough and Bill O’Reilly as the combatants, these self-referential talk wars finished as the 10th biggest topic at 2%.

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 talk Index has consistently confirmed that the few stories that attract the most general news coverage are dramatically magnified on the talk airwaves. That was again true last week. While the Libby and presidential campaign stories combined to fill 22% of the overall newshole last week, they accounted for 45% of the talk menu.

One story that triggered major news coverage, but did not get the talk lines buzzing last week was the expanding investigation into problems with the medical care of wounded veterans. That broad topic, the Iraq war at home, filled 7% of the overall newshole in our weekly News Coverage Index. But it accounted for only 6% of the air time in the talk universe and was ignored entirely by the radio hosts in our sample. With all sides on the Iraq war debate in essential agreement on the need to fix the problem, the subject may not lend itself to the kind of polarizing arguments that drive talk radio.

And the burgeoning Justice Department scandal involving a group of fired U.S. attorneys (the seventh biggest story in the news Index at 2%), generated almost no attention on the talk programs. That may change next week since much of the growing pressure on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign occurred too late for this Index.

One characteristic that the two big talk topics had in common last week was they attracted both cable and radio talkers. The Libby verdict, for example, generated about 103 minutes of cable airtime and almost 94 minutes of radio talk. The Presidential race generated about 70 minutes of cable conversation and 50 minutes of radio time.

But unlike the Libby trial, which was dissected by both liberal and conservative hosts, the battle for the White House was fodder largely for the conservative-leaning hosts, from Tucker Carlson and O’Reilly on cable to Limbaugh and Hannity on radio.

There’s a history here. The Clintons have been talk-show lightning rods since the early 90’s when rookie President Bill Clinton tried to change the military’s policy on gay service and Hillary worked to revamp the health care system.

Meanwhile, one spirited exchange among talk hosts last week seemed to suggest that corporate and network allegiances may be as much of a factor as ideology and politics when it comes to picking fights on the air.

In what might have been one of the harsher exchanges of the week, O’Reilly devoted part of his March 8 show to an attack on NBC News for being “sympathetic to the far left” and on its correspondent Richard Engel for “consistently tak[ing] an anti-war view in general."

The next night, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough struck back by accusing O’Reilly of skewing the facts and criticizing “NBC and a war correspondent in Iraq…from the safety of his cushy Fox News Washington D.C. studio."

These news wars might be considered too much inside baseball for the public to grasp – if they weren’t so entertaining.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. Libby Trial – 28%
2. Campaign 2008 – 17%
3. Iraq Policy Debate – 10%
4. Iraq Homefront – 6%
5. Immigration – 5%
6. Bush Trip to Latin America – 4%
7. Events in Iraq – 3%
8. Ann Coulter's Comments – 3%
9. Congress – 3%
10. Talk Show Host Wars – 2%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. Libby Trial – 13%
2. Campaign 2008 – 9%
3. Events in Iraq – 8%
4. Iraq Homefront – 7%
5. Iraq Policy Debate – 7%
6. Bush Trip to Latin America – 3%
7. Fired US Attorney Controversy – 2%
8. Immigration – 2%
9. US Domestic Terrorism – 2%
10. Bronx Fire – 2%

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