March 22, 2007

U.S. Attorneys And Politics Dominate As Talkhosts Pick and Choose

PEJ Talk Show Index March 11 - 16, 2007

Even though the political confrontation over the fired U.S. attorneys and the 2008 presidential campaign were the two biggest talk show subjects last week, whether or not you heard about them at all depended on who was doing the talking. 

The battle between Congress and the White House over the U.S. attorneys accounted for 21% of the talk airtime, according to PEJ’s Talk Show Index from March 11-March 16. And MSNBC’s prime-time hosts dove into the issue. 

White House correspondent David Gregory opened the March 13 “Hardball” by declaring: “Tonight, under intense pressure from Congress, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales admits mistakes in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. Democrats looking for blood. Could more jobs be lost?” 

Three nights later, when “Countdown’s” Keith Olbermann talked about growing pressure on Gonzales to resign, an image of the Attorney General popped up on the screen above the caption “Gonzo?”  

Yet, if you were tuned to the Fox News Channel, none of hosts in the Index sample—Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes—raised the flap over the U.S. attorneys last week.

But the opposite was true when it came to the 2008 campaign for the White House, which accounted for 13% of the talk menu. On this subject, the Fox hosts were deeply engaged.  

On the March 12 “Hannity & Colmes,” Hannity ran a clip of a Hillary Clinton speech that drew analogies between her campaign and John F. Kennedy’s in 1960. “Hillary Clinton is claiming she is the JFK of 2008,” said an incredulous host. “Really?” 

On the same night, Bill O’Reilly revealed the results of an online poll for GOP hopefuls that showed Newt Gingrich at 49%, Rudy Giuliani at 30%, Mitt Romney at 17% and John McCain at 4%. 

“Boy, John McCain’s got some work to do,” noted O’Reilly after reviewing the numbers. 

But despite the already crowded and heated race to succeed George Bush, the Index found that “Countdown” and “Hardball” were silent on the subject last week. 

This kind of selective news judgment was not always the case. Some of the biggest talk topics last week such as the former CIA operative Valerie Plame’s Congressional testimony (third place at 8%), the Iraq policy debate (fourth place at 7%) and domestic terrorism (fifth place at 7%) attracted a fairly balanced mix of radio and cable talkers, both conservative and liberal. 

But as the two top stories illustrate, the talk genre is far from monolithic and the talk menu is quite subjective. Thus, the decision about of which stories generate attention often depends on the hosts, their pet subjects, and seemingly, their ideology.  

Last week, immigration (at 5%) was the sixth biggest talk story, even as it failed to make the top-10 list in the overall news Index. A closer look reveals that it was solely the province of conservative hosts like O’Reilly and Hannity as well as CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who regularly advocates a hard-line view on the subject. 

Conversely, even though it was the fifth biggest news story last week, the war at the home—which includes the issue of medical care at Walter Reed Hospital and other military facilities—didn’t make talk’s top-10 list. That’s largely because talk radio hosts have ignored the subject.

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.

Although cable and radio talkhosts have some things in common—both thrive on controversy and rely on opinion—a number of the subjects are treated differently on the two media platforms. 

The issue of gays in the military—an old wound re-opened by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Peter Pace’s view that homosexuality is immoral—was the eighth biggest talk story at 4%. But it generated about 18 minutes of talk on radio compared to only eight minutes of conversation on cable. 

The decision of Halliburton – the big military contractor once run by Dick Cheney—to open a headquarters in Dubai was the seventh biggest talk story (at 5%) last week. But it was a considerably a hotter topic on radio (about 26 minutes) than cable (about eight minutes). 

Rush Limbaugh was a voice defending the Halliburton decision, noting that the company “is one of the footballs kicked around by the mad, insane left.” Several hosts, however, attacked the move as an example of the unfettered power of big business, including liberal Randi Rhodes and the conservative contrarian Michael Savage.  

To make his point, Savage played a clip of former President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous 1961 speech warning of the rise of a “military-industrial complex.”

Savage, who says he is mulling his own run for the presidency, is something of an ideological wild card, vehemently anti-liberal, but averse to toeing the Republicans Party line, either.  

The domestic terrorism story last week, for instance, was driven by the news that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed had confessed to involvement in a wide range of plots from 9/11 to an attempt to kill Bill Clinton. That confession, released by the Pentagon, seemed to offer relief to a White House in the middle of a tough news cycle by reminding people of the war on terror and one the country’s big successes—Mohammed’s capture. 

Not too surprisingly, Rhodes treated the Mohammed confession satirically on her March 15 show, declaring that “the war on terror is now over…That one man has confessed… We’re safe, safe from the scourge of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.” 

But a day later on his program, Savage sounded virtually the same note, sans the sarcasm. 

“Every crime against America and the West he said he did,” said Savage, referring to Mohammed. “I don’t believe a word of it.”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. Fired US Attorney Controversy – 21%
2. Campaign 2008 – 13%
3. Plame CIA Leak – 8%
4. Iraq Policy Debate – 7%
5. US Domestic Terrorism – 7%
6. Immigration – 5%
7. Halliburton to Move to Dubai – 5%
8. Gays in the Military – 4%
9. Health Care Debate – 2%
10. Events in Iraq – 1%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. Fired US Attorney Controversy – 16%
2. Campaign 2008 – 9%
3. Iraq Policy Debate – 7%
4. US Domestic Terrorism – 6%
5. Iraq Homefront – 4%
6. Events in Iraq – 4%
7. Bush Trip to Latin America – 3%
8. Gays in the Military – 3%
9. Plame CIA Leak – 2%
10. US Economic Numbers – 2%

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