June 7, 2007

Talk Hosts Opt For Politics Over The ‘TB Traveler’

PEJ Talk Show Index May 27 - June 1, 2007

It’s not surprising that Andrew Speaker, (aka the “TB Traveler”) was the biggest story in the mainstream media generally last week. The tale of the Atlanta lawyer with a dangerous disease potentially putting others at risk during an overseas honeymoon touched on all sorts of issues—including homeland security, the methods of the Center for Disease Control, and the fact that the infected man’s father-in-law was a TB researcher.

But despite all those angles, cable and radio talk hosts were unenthusiastic about the subject. While the story accounted for 12% of all the coverage in the general News Index last week, it filled only half that (6%) of the talk airtime, ranking it as the fourth biggest topic, according to PEJ’s Talk Show Index from May 27-June 1.

CNN’s Lou Dobbs, and the Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Alan Colmes spent some time talking about Speaker’s travels. But none of the MSNBC talk hosts examined by PEJ broached the subject. And on talk radio, only Michael Savage managed to work up a head of steam in the hours examined.

When hosts did weigh in, they tended to focus on one basic angle—personal responsibility and accountability.

“I’ve given him the name ‘TB Andy’ in honor of ‘Typhoid Mary’…Should ‘TB Andy’ be charged with a crime?” Savage asked on his May 31 show. “Ultimately, I think you blame ‘TB Andy.’”

Blame was also the operative term on the June 1 edition of “Hannity & Colmes” when Hannity bluntly asked his guests who was to “blame” for the public health scare, Speaker or the CDC?

That same evening, O’Reilly told viewers that Speaker “put his own needs above those of other people.” And on the question of “should we give Mr. Speaker the benefit of the doubt?” O’Reilly answered with a definite “no.”

If nothing else, the treatment of this subject suggests the talk culture’s tendency to boil complex subjects down to morality tales about right and wrong, good and bad.

That also appears to be the case with the talk shows’ handling of the immigration policy debate, which was the third biggest top topic (10%) last week. Ever since the announcement of the May 17 Senate immigration bill compromise, a number of hosts have launched a virtual jihad against the measure, one that continued last week.

On his March 30 MSNBC show, Tucker Carlson made a unique argument about the country that’s responsible for much of the illegal immigration to the U.S. He pointed out that Miss USA in the Miss Universe Pageant had recently been booed by the audience in Mexico City and that a few years ago, a crowd at a U.S.-Mexico soccer game a few years “chanted Osama” at the Americans.

“You’ve got the right to hate the U.S. of course…” said Carlson. “But we in the U.S. also have the right to prevent you from coming here if you hate us. Don’t we have that right?”

The two talk topics that finished ahead of the immigration controversy last week were the Iraq policy debate (second at 11%) and the 2008 Presidential race (the top story at 21%). Two other aspects of the Iraq war also made the top-10 list including the impact on the homefront (5%) and events on the ground (4%).

For the second week in a row, Rosie O’Donnell, and her contentious history on the daytime television show “The View” was a major talk topic, finishing seventh at 3%. That was followed by news of the resignation of White House counselor Dan Bartlett, (eighth at 3%), the new Democratic Congress (2%), and the Memorial Day talks between the U.S. and Iran (2%).

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.

Ever since the 2008 Presidential race kicked into gear in January with crucial announcements by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the subject has been a staple of the talk show culture. And it has finished in the top-five story list in 18 out of the last 20 weeks. Typically, the talk shows give the subject proportionately more play than the general news outlets, and that was the case last week: the race filled more than one-fifth of the talk airtime studied compared to less than one-tenth (9%) of the general newshole.

Last week that talk included a controversy over several rap artists involved with Hillary Clinton fundraisers, closer scrutiny of Michelle Obama, the wife of the Democratic candidate, and plenty of speculation about how the widely expected entrance of actor and former Senator Fred Thompson might reshape the GOP race.

Yet even if it was not the biggest story in talk, little seemed to evoke more passion than the subject of outspoken war opponent Rosie O’Donnell—who announced her early exit from “the View” after a nasty May 23 on-air argument with Elisabeth Hasselbeck—particularly for critics like Hannity and O’Reilly.

On another part of the spectrum, Chris Matthews, host of the Beltway-oriented “Hardball” on MSNBC, wondered if the liberal O’Donnell was becoming a major player in politics. His guests, however, seemed to be skeptical about that.

Some provocative ideas apparently cannot fly even in the talk culture.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 21%
2. Iraq Policy Debate – 11%
3. Immigration – 10%
4. Tuberculosis Traveler – 6%
5. Iraq Homefront – 5%
6. Events in Iraq – 4%
7. Rosie O'Donnell – 3%
8. Dan Bartlett Resigns – 3%
9. Congress – 2%
10. Iran – 2%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. Tuberculosis Traveler – 12%
2. 2008 Campaign – 9%
3. Events in Iraq – 7%
4. Iraq Homefront – 4%
5. Immigration – 4%
6. Iran – 4%
7. Iraq Policy Debate – 4%
8. Global Warming – 2%
9. Sudan/Darfur – 2%
10. Afghanistan – 1%

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