June 28, 2007

Bloomberg and Clinton Top the Talkers’ Agenda

PEJ Talk Show Index June 17 - 22, 2007

The big campaign news last week was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s announcement he was dropping his Republican affiliation, a move that sparked frenzied speculation that the billionaire centrist might launch an independent bid for the presidency.

Media interest in Bloomberg’s intentions helped make the 2008 White House race the biggest story in the general news Index, as it accounted 11% of the overall coverage last week. And the cable and radio talk hosts were even more fascinated by the presidential battle, which was the leading topic and filled 25% of talk airtime, according to PEJ’s Talk Show Index for June 17-22.

Bloomberg generated the big buzz last week. But there was a difference in how the broader mainstream media and the talk hosts handled the topic. In the general news Index, Bloomberg truly dominated—he was the subject of about 45% of all the stories while about 20% of the stories were primarily about Democrat Hillary Clinton.

In the talk show world, however—where Clinton always seems to be a handy lightning rod—that difference was considerably narrower. Bloomberg was a chief subject in fewer talk segments (40%) and Clinton was involved in more of them (26%).

Sure, the “will he or won’t he?” Bloomberg discussion got a good going over on the talk shows. But so did the news that Clinton got booed during a June 20 appearance at the “Take Back America” conference where the liberal, anti-war audience had some problems with her record on the war.

On MSNBC’s “Countdown,” the caption read “Boo Tube” as liberal host Keith Olbermann opened his June 20 show with a recap of the “Take Back America” episode.

“Senator Hillary Clinton has made it clear she has no intention of apologizing for her 2002 vote authorizing the war in Iraq,” Olbermann noted. “Today, the liberal base of the Democratic Party made it clear that it has no intention of stopping asking her to do so.”

On the same night, the Fox News Channel’s conservative co-host Sean Hannity quizzed an anti-war activist about Clinton’s views on Iraq. Accusing the New York Senator of being “politically expedient,” Hannity asked: “She doesn’t have any core values on this, does she?”

If Bloomberg and the Clinton boo birds helped drive their interest in the campaign, the talk hosts’ battle against the immigration bill helped make that subject the second-most popular topic (at 12%). The case of the missing Ohio woman Jessie Davis—whose boyfriend was subsequently charged with her murder—was next at 8%. (The cable hosts discussed that story, but radio hosts took a pass.) The fourth-biggest talk topic was charges of White House ethical lapses (4%) launched by two liberal hosts – Olbermann and radio talker Randi Rhodes. And fallout from the intra-Palestinian conflict in the West Bank and Gaza was the fifth-biggest story at 4%.

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.

If the presidential campaign has been the dominant talk story in recent weeks—it was the top topic in four of the past six weeks—then the battle over immigration legislation has been a pretty close second.

Since the May 17 announcement of a Senate compromise, a number of hosts have launched a full-fledged attack on what they have dubbed an “amnesty” bill. That was the case as well last week, after the legislation was resurrected and sent to the Senate for one last ditch effort at passage. (That effort appears to have finally failed when the bill came out on the short end of a crucial June 28 vote to end debate.)

Even as such vocal opponents of the measure as radio hosts Michael Savage and Sean Hannity continued to denounce it last week, more than half of all the segments devoted to the subject originated with CNN’s Lou Dobbs.

On June 22, Dobbs—who has made opposition to the immigration bill the hallmark of his show—aired a report on talk radio that seemed intended to rebut lawmakers’ criticism of the talk hosts’ role in the immigration debate (One of the more noteworthy comments came from Mississippi Senator Trent Lott who complained that “Talk radio is running America. We have to deal with that problem.”)

“Well, it’s amazing,” offered Dobbs at the end of the report. “It keeps coming back to who do you trust. And I’m gonna go with just about anybody but an elected official in this day and age…Whether you like a talk radio host or not, they have performed a very important function here.”

One notable aspect of the current Talk Index is that half of its top-10 stories don’t match the general news Index’s top-10 story list. Such spot news stories as the Texas floods and the South Carolina inferno that claimed nine firefighters failed to make the talkers’ roster along with the Senate passage of an energy bill, the fighting in Afghanistan, and the impact of the Iraq war on the U.S. homefront.

Conversely, the White House ethical issues and the fired U.S. attorneys controversy (sixth-biggest topic at 3%) were top talk stories that didn’t generate much general news coverage. The Iraq policy debate (ninth-biggest talk topic at 2%) and the fallout from the Duke lacrosse rape case (tenth-biggest at 2%) also failed to make the general news Index’s list of top stories.

One other top-10 talk topic was one uniquely suited for the ideological and argumentative talk show culture. The “talk hosts wars” (eighth at 3%) conversation involved liberal radio host Ed Schultz’s June 22 call for more political diversity in talk radio.

Citing a recent report indicating that conservative talk hosts overwhelmingly dominate the airwaves, Schultz—a syndicated talker who is heard on more than 100 stations—declared that “all progressive talkers seem to be fighting over the same 100 stations…And there are radio companies in this country that broadcast absolutely zero seconds of anything other than hard right-wing talk. Are they operating in the public’s interest?”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

 

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 25%
2. Immigration – 12%
3. Ohio Woman – 8%
4. White House Scandals – 4%
5. Palestinian Conflict – 4%
6. Fired US Attorneys – 3%
7. Events in Iraq – 3%
8. Talk Show Wars – 3%
9. Iraq Policy Debate – 2%
10. Duke Lacrosse Scandal – 2%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 11%
2. Events in Iraq – 9%
3. Palestinian Conflict – 7%
4. Ohio Woman – 5%
5. Immigration – 4%
6. Charleston Fire – 3%
7. Energy Debate – 3%
8. Iraq Homefront – 2%
9. Afghanistan – 2%
10. Texas Flooding – 2%

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