April 5, 2007

Justice Probe Edges Hostage Drama for Talkers

PEJ Talk Show Index March 25 - 30, 2007

For many of the cable talkhosts, the March 29 Congressional testimony of Kyle Sampson—former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales—was an event worthy of discussion.

Testifying about the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, Sampson contradicted Gonzales by saying he had discussed the firings with the attorney general on several occasions.

On his March 29 MSNBC show, host Tucker Carlson said Sampson’s remarks didn’t produce a “smoking gun” for a criminal offense. “But today’s questioning did result in a damning description of the attorney general who had previously stated he was not involved in the firings of the now famous eight prosecutors,” he added. “I think…Gonzales is in trouble.”

For some radio talkhosts, the March 25 “60 Minutes” interview that Katie Couric conducted with Presidential hopeful John Edwards and his wife Elizabeth was the hot topic.

Sitting down with them just days after the revelation that Elizabeth’s cancer had returned, Couric generated some criticism for being too aggressive in her approach. But on his March 26, show Rush Limbaugh took something of the opposite tack.

“She’s coming under some fire for her tough questions to the Edwards,” declared Limbaugh. “I dispute that she asked tough questions. The subject matter may have been tough, but I think Katie took the easy way out.”

The U.S. attorneys probe last week was the biggest overall topic last week, consuming 19% of the cable and radio talk airtime, according to PEJ’s Talk Show Index for March 25-March 30. (It marked the third week in a row in which the U.S. attorneys case was the top talk subject.) The 2008 presidential race, which included the controversial “60 Minutes” interview, was the fourth biggest topic at 11%.

But the radio and cable hosts differed noticeably on their favorite subjects. The U.S. attorneys—or “Gonzales-gate” as it has become known in some circles—was the top subject on cable talk shows, but only the third biggest topic on talk radio. Conversely, the leading story for radio talkers was the race for the White House. Yet that was only the fourth biggest topic on the cable programs.

There was, in fact, some fierce competition for talkers’ attention last week. For the first time since the Index began in January, four different subjects commanded at least 10% of the talk airtime. The second biggest story, just behind the U.S. attorneys, was the conflict with Iran (18%), dominated by the Iranian-British hostage crisis that was resolved on April 5. The third biggest story was the debate over Iraq strategy, at 12%.

There can be a number of reasons why one issue gets more traction on cable talk while another is more popular on radio. They include the hosts’ priorities and the programs’ editorial DNA. The two cable shows that devoted the most segments to the U.S. attorneys last week were CNN’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight”—which often projects an investigative zeal—and MSNBC’s “Hardball” with Chris Matthews, a show frequently drawn to Beltway intrigue and conflict.

At the same time, ideology also appears to be a factor. The conservative hosts, who dominate the talk radio genre, did not have a lot to say about the deepening U.S. attorneys/Justice Department scandal. Yet, talk radio’s interest in the presidential race was driven primarily by conservative hosts—who were more interested in sizing up everyone from Hillary Clinton (a favorite target) to Rudy Giuliani—than their liberal counterparts.

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.

Two weeks ago, even as the March 22 announcement about Elizabeth Edwards’s cancer dominated overall news coverage, talk hosts appeared somewhat reticent to tackle the subject. In that week, they devoted only about one-third of their segments to the issue.

Last week, however, Couric’s interview with the presidential hopeful and his wife gave some hosts another way to broach the issue. And on her March 27 show, liberal radio talker Randi Rhodes attacked Couric’s interview from a different angle than did the conservative Limbaugh.

Rhodes exploded in anger after playing a clip of Couric asking the Edwards about critics of their decision to continue his presidential campaign in light of her medical situation.

“I saw the interview with Katie Couric…This from the woman who videotaped her colonoscopies,” said Rhodes. “I can’t believe this, that they’re literally sitting there and attacking [Elizabeth] Edwards for having cancer.”

Another subject that provoked passion last week was the showdown between Britain and Iran over the 15 sailors and marines taken hostage on March 23. While this confrontation did not directly involve the U.S., some conservative talkers advocated an aggressive response toward a country that has been a subject of growing concern for the Bush administration.

On March 26, radio host Michael Savage expressed frustration. “We’ve got two carrier groups in the Strait of Hormuz and they’re doing nothing,” he said. “We have two giant carrier groups telling the [expletive] from Iran to watch his step or we’re liable to blow him off the planet. But I don’t know if we have the guts to do it.”

Two nights later on his Fox News Channel show, Bill O’Reilly cited Britain’s “tepid response” to the crisis and warned that “Iran and other haters around the world believe the USA and Britain have been dramatically weakened…and will now ramp up the violence to show the world the West is in decline.”

The eighth biggest story last week, global warming at 2%, was a subject discussed only by Limbaugh, who often challenges the theory that humans are responsible for dangerous heating of the planet. While talkhosts aren’t necessarily a self-effacing lot, Limbaugh cited the "Planet Earth" series on the Discovery Channel to highlight the insignificance of the human race when it comes to altering our environment.

“This series buttresses the point I’ve been trying to make about how massive and complex our whole climate and planet are,” he said on his March 26 show. “It just makes the case of how literally insignificant we are in everything that has ever happened on this planet.”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. Fired US Attorney Controversy – 19%
2. Iran – 18%
3. Iraq Policy Debate – 12%
4. 2008 Campaign – 11%
5. White House Scandals – 4%
6. Tony Snow's Health – 2%
7. Anna Nicole Smith – 2%
8. Global Warming – 2%
9. Events in Iraq – 1%
10. Afghanistan – 1%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. Iran – 12%
2. Fired US Attorney Controversy – 11%
3. Iraq Policy Debate – 10%
4. 2008 Campaign – 7%
5. Events in Iraq – 6%
6. US Domestic Terrorism – 3%
7. Iraq Homefront – 2%
8. Heart Disease Research – 2%
9. Severe Weather/Storms – 2%
10. Anna Nicole Smith – 2%

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