May 17, 2007

Is There a Litmus Test for Talk Topics?

PEJ Talk Show Index May 6 - 11, 2007

Sometimes in the talk show universe news is in the eye of the beholder. Or, more accurately, in the eye of whoever holds the microphone.

Last week, for instance, the foiled plot to attack Fort Dix was the third-most popular topic in the talk universe, filling 8% of the cable and radio talk airtime, according to PEJ’s Talk Show Index from May 6-May 11. But while conservative hosts such as cable’s Tucker Carlson and Bill O’Reilly and radio’s Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage were eager to talk about the alleged terrorist plans to wreak havoc, according to the PEJ sample, no one listening to a liberal media host such as Keith Olbermann or Randi Rhodes would have heard much about it.

On his May 9 show, Savage blamed the mainstream—and liberal—press for giving short shrift to a “huge story.” “We expect this kind of psychotic behavior from [publisher] ‘Pinch’ Sulzberger of the New York Times,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like the media ignoring the jihadis in New Jersey.”

Meanwhile, the liberal hosts last week wanted to keep talking about the growing scandal at the Justice Department over the handling of the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys, enough to make it last week’s fifth most popular talk topic (at 4%).

The story was punctuated by beleaguered Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s May 10 appearance before Congress.

Against the backdrop of a photo of Gonzales with the caption “Gonzo-gate,” Olbermann on his May 7 show declared that “now Congress is looking at allegations that virtually every level of employment at Justice was subject to a political litmus test. This went right down to the interns.”

None of the conservative talkers in the PEJ Index chose to tackle the Justice Department probe last week.

It is not a luxury that is expected of the mainstream media. But the ability to ignore a major event—like a terror plot or a Justice Department scandal—that does not comport with the host’s worldview seems to come with the territory in the talk world.

The role of subjectivity in selecting subjects worthy of discussion was perhaps even more evident in last week’s most popular talk topic. The debate over Iraq policy filled 21% of the talk airtime. But last week it was almost exclusively a cable topic. On cable TV talk, the subject got twice as much time as any other subject (about 136 minutes).

Yet Iraq barely made a blip in radio talk. Eight other subjects got more talk radio play than the Iraq strategy debate, which logged only about 9 minutes of airtime.

The 2008 presidential race (14% of the talk time) was the second biggest talk subject last week, followed by the Fort Dix plot (8%), the tornadoes that destroyed the Kansas town of Greensburg (5%), and the U.S. Attorneys flap (4%). The lower half of the top-10 list included the French elections (4%), the immigration debate (3%), the fallout over Don Imus’s firing (3%), U.S. efforts to fight terrorism (3%), and those rising gas prices (3%).

(And neither Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the former colonies and British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s resignation made the top-10 list in talk last week, though both were major stories in the media generally. Apparently, Anglophiles are fairly rare in the talk business.)

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.

Much of the impetus behind the Iraq policy discussion last week was the news that 11 Republican lawmakers had met with President Bush to bluntly explain their concerns about the course of the war. In many media quarters, that was treated as a major development in the domestic political struggle over war strategy.

The May 10 edition of CNN’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight” contained a report declaring that the “political pressure over Iraq has been mounting on this White House for some time. The difference now – it’s not coming from Democrats, but now openly, from some Republicans.”

Conservative Joe Scarborough, who has been critical of the President, opened his May 9 MSNBC show by referencing NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert’s report on “a tense private White House meeting with Republican lawmakers. Their message to Mr. Bush: ‘You have no credibility left on the war.’”

But that White House meeting with GOP lawmakers was not a part of any Fox News Channel talk shows examined by PEJ last week. And on his May 11 show, Bill O’Reilly scolded the rest of the media for negativity on the war.

After reading a memo from a retired general that, at least in part, expressed the view that some things in Iraq are improving, O’Reilly said: “I doubt you’ll see the general’s memo in the New York Times or any other left-wing media…the anti-war crew is now fully invested in defeat.”

One other story that appeared to reveal an ideological divide among talkers was the results of the French elections, in which conservative Nicholas Sarkozy defeated a more liberal female candidate, Segolene Royal. Here again it was conservatives—heartened by the Sarkozy victory—who tackled the topic while liberals stayed silent.

They were heartened that a conservative won. But the French election also prompted some conservatives to suggest the results were a bad omen for one of their favorite targets, Hillary Clinton.

“This election in France – not good news for Mrs. Clinton,” said Rush Limbaugh. “They’ve done a preliminary analysis of the votes over there – 48% of French women voted against the female candidate!”

One other subject that continues to hang around on talk’s top-10 story list is the controversy over the April 12 firing of Don Imus for crude remarks about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. Last week, almost all the talk show coverage came in the form of a May 11 special edition of the Fox News Channel’s “Hannity & Colmes.”

In an edition labeled the “Great Debate,” the co-hosts got the two major antagonists to appear together—Imus’s former producer Bernard McGuirk and Al Sharpton, one of the key advocates for Imus’s firing. Like two prizefighters entering the ring, first Sharpton and then McGuirk walked theatrically from the wings into the studio and sat down.

The two men looked so uncomfortable in each other’s presence that McGuirk’s opening quip seemed to sum up the atmosphere: “Let’s get ready to box on Fox.”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. Iraq Policy Debate – 21%
2. 2008 Campaign – 14%
3. NJ Terror Plot – 8%
4. Kansas Tornadoes – 5%
5. Fired US Attorneys – 4%
6. French Elections – 4%
7. Immigration – 3%
8. Don Imus – 3%
9. US Domestic Terrorism – 3%
10. Gas/Oil Prices – 3%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. Iraq Policy Debate – 14%
2. NJ Terror Plot – 6%
3. Kansas Tornadoes – 6%
4. 2008 Campaign – 6%
5. Events in Iraq – 3%
6. Tony Blair Resigns – 3%
7. French Elections – 3%
8. California Fires – 3%
9. Queen Elizabeth Visits the US – 2%
10. Fired US Attorneys – 2%

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