May 25, 2007

Iraq Dominates PEJ’s First Quarterly NCI Report

Talk Radio

In February, a classic Beltway flap arose over the request that new Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi use a government plane large enough to fly non-stop to her home in California.

In the rest of the news media, this was not a big story, taking up only 1% of the week’s overall news coverage. In talk radio, however, this was a major issue. And not surprisingly, radio talk hosts on the right and left staked out very different positions.

With Peter, Paul and Mary’s hit song “Leaving on a Jet Plane” playing in the background, conservative radio host Sean Hannity (also a Fox News Channel host) criticized Pelosi for wanting “a gas guzzling presidential-sized aircraft.”

To liberal radio talker Ed Schultz, such critics were motivated by something less lofty than budgetary or environmental concerns. “This is basically a story about chauvinism,” he asserted.

The Pelosi debate highlights a few fundamental truths about talk radio, the most blatantly ideological of the media platforms in PEJ’s News Coverage Index.

For one thing, its news agenda—and its sense of what is newsworthy—differ markedly from that of the rest of the media universe. In talk radio, qualities like passion, polarization, and hyperbole are the criteria of importance rather than the number of people affected by an event. The way that plays out is that rather than adding to the news agenda, the biggest tendency for talk radio is to take the top one or two stories in the mainstream press and then magnify and chew over them—often giving them double the time of the press overall. Thus, the new Democratic Congress, with Pelosi as its most visible symbol, received 5% of the news coverage in talk radio (making it the third most popular topic) versus 2% in the overall Index. The Iraq policy debate was the top story for both, but received more attention among the talk shows (12% overall versus 19% for talk).The presidential race that made up 7% of general newshole filled twice that (14%) on radio talk.

Indeed, when combined, the two top talk radio topics consumed one-third of all the airtime while the two biggest general news stories accounted for only one-fifth of the overall newshole.

Some subjects that get limited coverage generally do get more time in talk radio, but it might be a stretch to call it coverage. Global warming, a subject many talk hosts treat as synonymous with former Vice President Al Gore, filled 4% of the talk radio time, while getting only 1% of the coverage in the general Index.

If the radio hosts were similar in their tendency to focus on just two or three big news events, they were anything but that in the events they chose and in what they said about them. The ideology of the host had a major impact on what subjects get talked about at all. (Despite the emergence of more liberal hosts in recent years, talk radio is still dominated by conservatives, and so the PEJ sample contains more conservative than liberal radio talk.)

One lesson that this pattern drives home is that in the talk radio universe, it is much easier to play offense than defense, far more desirable to attack rather than sing praises.

Conservative hosts, for example, made the Democratic takeover of Congress their third most popular topic of the year, (at 6%). Liberal talkers were noticeably less interested in the issue, which was their sixth most popular story at 4%.

The reverse was true of the controversy over the fired U.S. attorneys, which has put the administration’s top law enforcement official, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, in the crosshairs. At 7% of the total airtime, liberal hosts made the issue their third biggest topic. But on this subject, conservative talkers have been considerably quieter, making it only their sixth favorite subject at 3% of the newshole.

Global warming, the fourth most popular subject among conservative radio hosts, did not even make the liberals’ top-10 list. That’s because Gore, the former vice president and Democratic presidential hopeful, makes an inviting target for conservatives. Meanwhile, liberal radio hosts were twice as likely as conservatives to talk about George Bush’s State of the Union speech, with the president serving as the chief punching bag.

There are also significant differences when it comes to the presidential campaign, with conservatives being nearly twice as likely as liberals (16% to 9%) to raise that subject. The candidacy of Hillary Clinton may be dividing Democrats who have to choose between several major candidates. But it is uniting conservative talkers who have made the former First Lady a subject of major interest. In fact, both Hillary and Bill Clinton have had a long and not particularly positive relationship with the medium. The rise of conservative talk, and of its best-known practitioner Rush Limbaugh, coincided in good measure with Bill Clinton’s 1992 election.

This year, as the Democrat’s unofficial frontrunner for the White House, Hillary Clinton has not only generated more news coverage than any other candidate, she’s gotten the most attention from the talk hosts as well. And on the conservative side, it hasn’t been very flattering.

Some of those conservative hosts’ antipathy toward Clinton has been so intense that they have been 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.

The March 4 speeches by both Clinton and Obama in Selma, Ala., are a good example. After criticizing Clinton on his radio show, Sean Hannity said Obama’s address advocating more personal responsibility “was echoing Bill Cosby.” And as the host was quick to note, “I love Bill Cosby.”

On his 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."

She’s not the only reason that conservative talk hosts are eager to discuss the presidential campaign. But Hillary Clinton’s role as a talk radio lightning rod is well into its second decade.