May 31, 2007

Talk Hosts Score the Big Fights

PEJ Talk Show Index May 20 - 25, 2007

One of the things that the talk show culture seems to appreciate is a good fight—particularly one with ideological implications.

Last week, two of the top-10 stories on the cable and radio talk shows involved high-profile dustups, according to PEJ’s Talk Show Index for May 20—25. The shoutfest on ABC’s “The View” between Rosie O’Donnell and Elisabeth Hasselbeck turned out to be the fourth biggest story (filling 5% of the airtime). Of lower volume but arguably more significance, the fallout from former President Jimmy Carter’s assertion that George W. Bush’s administration was “the worst in history” ended up he 7th most popular topic (3%).”

Neither of those incidents, by contrast, were major events in PEJ’s general News Coverage Index, finishing well out of the top-10 story list. But they both had a key element that apparently proved irresistible to some of the ideologically driven talk shows. They pitted a liberal (O’Donnell and Carter) against a conservative (Hasselbeck and Bush).

In the nasty May 23 “View” battle, O’Donnell—an outspoken critic of the Iraq war—felt her co-star had not adequately defended her from allegations that O’Donnell had equated U.S. troops in Iraq with terrorists. Hasselbeck fought back. The talk referees stepped in quickly with their score cards.

“Rosie O’Donnell…is an ill-informed bitter woman who was allowed by ABC-Disney to parade her absurd view of the world in front of ‘The View’ audience,” declared Bill O’Reilly on his Fox News Channel show.

While the “Rocky” theme song played in the background, MSNBC’s Dan Abrams described the fight as a “pay-per-view Smackdown” between O’Donnell and “her conservative arch-enemy” Hasselbeck. “The winner in a split decision,” Abram declared, “Elisabeth.”

The Carter-Bush tiff began when the former President was quoted in the May 19 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette calling Bush’s tenure “the worst in history” in global affairs. A Bush spokesman responded by calling Carter “increasingly irrelevant.” Carter later acknowledged his words were either “careless or misinterpreted.” But the gauntlet had been tossed and the talk shows weighed in.

On MSNBC’s “Countdown” Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter said reaction to this spat was “one of those Red State-Blue State things”—meaning that Bush supporters would object to Carter’s words while critics would applaud. But Alter did criticize Carter for retreating, asserting that having uttered the “worst in history” remark, “he just should have stuck with it.”

Over on Fox, presidential historian Richard Shenkman faulted Carter for his initial criticism of Bush, saying he “messed up. He did break an unwritten rule…Once [former presidents] are out of the White House, we don’t expect them to be politicians anymore.”

There were other kinds of battles—less personal and direct—that topped the talk show roster last week. The passions stirred by the new compromise immigration measure helped make that subject the most popular talk topic, filling 24% of the time in PEJ’s index. (It was, incidentally, the second biggest story in the news media generally last week, at 10%). That was followed by the debate over Iraq policy (15%), and the 2008 contest for the White House (13%).

The fifth biggest story (5%), a survey of the attitudes of Muslim Americans by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (a sister organization of PEJ), was of particular interest to some conservative radio hosts.

The Talk Show Index, released each week, 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.

For the second week in a row, opponents of the compromise immigration measure used the talk show microphones to assail that agreement from a variety of angles. More and more, some hosts appear to be trying to launch a full blown airwave crusade to stop the legislation.

About half of all talk segments on the immigration debate last week were aired on a single program, Lou Dobbs’s CNN show. Dobbs, the most vocal of all the hosts on the immigration issue, tends to describe the compromise plan with the politically loaded term—“amnesty.”

Much of the conversation about Iraq policy revolved around the crucial May 24 Congressional vote that funded the war but did not include withdrawal timelines. That was widely portrayed in the media as a political victory—perhaps temporary—for the President. And the sense of disappointment from liberal talkers was palpable.

In a scathing commentary, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann accused the Democrats in Congress of “betrayal” and “surrender” to the White House. “The Democratic leadership has agreed to finance the deaths of Americans in a war that has only reduced the security of Americans,” he declared.

In an interview with Senator Edward Kennedy, who voted against the funding measure, liberal radio host Ed Schultz said “there’s a lot of Democrats [who] think the Democratic leadership let down the base and that 80 votes for this failed policy in the Senate was way too many.”

One issue that particularly seemed to galvanize conservatives was the release of a Pew Research Center survey headlined “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream.” A number of the findings indicated that many Muslims in this country are assimilated and moderate. But some hosts seized on the fact that 26% of Muslim Americans under 30 said suicide bombing was “often,” “sometimes” or “rarely” justified to portray the results as ominous.

Criticizing much of the mainstream media for playing up the more reassuring aspects of the poll, Rush Limbaugh declared on his May 23 show that “Islam has made American Muslim residents more extreme….Wealth and education and opportunity and freedom have done nothing to moderate them.”

On his radio program that same day, Michael Savage in discussing the survey asserted that “we have a time bomb ticking in the United States of America—young Muslims. Twenty-six percent of them back killings.”

Thus Savage phrased his question for listeners this way: “What should the government do to protect us from the 26% of Muslim youth who approve of suicide bombings?”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. Immigration – 24%
2. Iraq Policy Debate – 15%
3. 2008 Campaign – 13%
4. Rosie O'Donnell – 5%
5. Pew Research Report on Muslim Americans – 5%
6. Fired US Attorney Scandal – 4%
7. Jimmy Carter's Comments about Bush – 3%
8. Iran – 3%
9. Gas/Oil Prices – 2%
10. Events in Iraq – 2%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. Iraq Policy Debate – 10%
2. Immigration – 10%
3. Events in Iraq – 9%
4. Lebanon Violence – 6%
5. 2008 Campaign – 6%
6. Gas/Oil Prices – 4%
7. Fired US Attorney Scandal – 4%
8. Iran – 3%
9. Pew Research Report on Muslim Americans – 2%
10. Iraq Homefront – 2%

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