May 3, 2007

Iraq and the 2008 Campaign Lead the Talk Parade

PEJ Talk Show Index April 22 - 27, 2007

In a week when Congress legislated Iraq withdrawal deadlines that were destined to draw a Presidential veto, talk hosts mined some unorthodox angles to the intensifying political showdown over the war.

On his April 24 show, the Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly trained his fire on veteran journalist Bill Moyer for his PBS documentary—“Buying the War”—which portrayed the media as having been far too willing to accept the administration’s original WMD rationale for attacking Iraq. 

In a program that included video of an “O’Reilly Factor” producer confronting Moyers on a New York City street, the host characterized Moyers as a “committed leftist” and declared that he “is not objective, has a problem with the truth, and should no longer be receiving taxpayer money.”

On his April 25 program, MSNBC host Keith Olbermann took aim at First Lady Laura Bush who was shown in an interview clip saying that “no one suffers more” than she and the President while watching scenes of violence in Iraq. (Olbermann also played the now-famous footage of the First Couple’s funky Rose Garden hoofing with West African dancers during Malaria Awareness Day).  

“African dancing in the Rose Garden? The First Lady’s calling attention to her own and her husband’s own supposed suffering? Are these smart moves…politically?” Olbermann asked. 

The freedom to stray from an issue’s conventional story lines and to select collateral targets is one of the defining characteristics of the talk show culture. So in a crucial week in the war debate—when the main media focus was on a Democratic Congress and President Bush—Bill Moyers and Laura Bush became proxies for one right-leaning and one left-leaning host’s broader views of the war.

The argument over Iraq was the second biggest topic on the cable and talk radio shows last week, filling 14% of the airtime according to PEJ’s Talk Show Index from April 22-April 27. Iraq was edged out by the leading topic, the 2008 presidential race (at 15%), which featured the Democrats’ televised April 26 debate from South Carolina. 

The Iraq debate and presidential race were also the two biggest stories in the general news Index last week. But with a number of other top subjects, there was considerable variance between what the mainstream media covered and the talk show hosts discussed.

Such top-10 news stories as the bloodshed in Iraq, the death of Boris Yeltsin, and the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre were nowhere to be found among the leading talk subjects. Instead, softer info-tainment topics such as the fallout from the firing of Don Imus  (third biggest topic at 8%), Rosie O’Donnell’s departure from the “View” and ongoing feud with Donald Trump (sixth story at 4%), and Alec Baldwin’s voicemail tirade at his daughter (seventh at 4%) made their way onto the talk menu. 

On April 26—two weeks after Imus was fired by CBS for his remarks about the Rutgers women’s basketball team—the subject was re-ignited when his producer/sidekick Bernard McGuirk showed up on the Fox News Channel’s “Hannity & Colmes.” While displaying some contrition, McQuirk did get in a few shots at Al Sharpton—who helped lead the charge to get Imus fired—by calling him a “classless clown” and “sanctimonious skunk.”

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 three biggest talk topics last week—the presidential race, the Iraq debate, and the Imus flap—all generated significant attention on both cable and radio talk shows. But several of the top-10 subjects showed up only in cable and not in any of the radio segments examined in the Index.

The battle between Rosie and “The Donald” was a cable-only story, with most of the attention coming from MSNBC’s   Joe Scarborough. Alec Baldwin’s voicemail tongue-lashing of his 11-year-old daughter was a matter primarily of interest to Fox’s O’Reilly. Another top-10 subject that was ignored by radio hosts was the April 24 Congressional testimony blaming the Pentagon for circulating false stories about the combat death of former NFL player Pat Tillman in Afghanistan and the capture and rescue of Jessica Lynch in Iraq. That finished eighth overall on the Talk Index at 3%.

There was some evidence, at least for last week, that the cable talk menu is a bit more diverse than the radio talk lineup. While the top three stories accounted for about 41% of the total radio talk airtime, they consumed only about 35% of the total cable talk newshole.

The major story that was most evenly balanced between the cable and radio shows last week was the presidential race, which was highlighted by a Democrats’ debate that featured more fraternizing than fireworks. But that didn’t keep the radio hosts from letting their flags fly.

On his show, liberal radio talker Ed Schultz said he liked all the candidates. “There isn’t one up there I wouldn’t vote for,” he said. “I’m just a big cheerleader today, aren’t I?”

Far less impressed was his conservative counterpart Rush Limbaugh who derided the event as a “press conference” masquerading as a debate. “They’re going to have to figure out that Bush isn’t on the ballot anymore,” he said of the Democrats.

But perhaps even more than being able to lead with their ideology, the talk hosts are distinguished by their selective—and sometimes creative ways—of using an event or  person (such as Bill Moyers and Laura Bush) to represent a much bigger issue.

Last week, the issue of global warming finished in a tie for fourth (4%) on the Talk Index and one of those discussions was led by Paul W. Smith, who subbed for Limbaugh on April 24. Smith, who is “kind of in the middle” on the global warming debate, chose to focus on an unusual idea by musician Sheryl Crow—that people use only one tissue per bathroom trip—as an example of environmental activism run amok. (Crow said the one-tissue suggestion was merely a joke.)

As he made clear to his listeners, Smith was unenthused about efforts to “protect us all from global warming, one toilet tissue square at a time.”       

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 15%
2. Iraq Policy Debate – 14%
3. Don Imus – 8%
4 tie. Global Warming – 4%
4 tie. Fired US Attorneys Controversy – 4%
6. Rosie O'Donnell – 4%
7. Alec Baldwin Voice Mail – 4%
8. Pat Tillman/Jessica Lynch – 3%
9. Immigration – 3%
10. Iran – 2%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. Iraq Policy Debate – 15%
2. 2008 Campaign – 10%
3. Virginia Tech Shootings – 7%
4. Events in Iraq – 5%
5. Boris Yeltsin Dies – 4%
6. Pat Tillman/Jessica Lynch – 3%
7. US Economic Numbers – 2%
8. Texas Tornadoes – 2%
9. Fired US Attorneys Controversy – 2%
10. Don Imus – 1%

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