July 19, 2007

Talk Hosts Turn Into “Live Earth” Reviewers

PEJ Talk Show Index July 8 - 13, 2007

As mega-concerts go, the July 7 “Live Earth” event was ambitious as they come. The world-wide show—featuring musical artists from Kanye West to Madonna and the Police to Dave Matthews—was designed to highlight the environmental threat posed by global warming. It also included appearances by the issue’s best-known advocate, Al Gore.

The reviews seemed polite, if not gushing. The New York Times declared that despite the environmental theme, “many bands just pumped out their regular material, satisfied to entertain between messages.” A blogger on Cinemablend.com, who chronicled the three-hour NBC primetime concert broadcast, dubbed it “an entertaining couple of hours followed by a painful ending section chock full of commercials and smarminess.” (NBC’s ratings were disappointing, with media accounts estimating the audience at about 2.7 million, less than normal summer Saturday viewership.)

One place, however, where the musical extravaganza attracted a lot of attention was in the world of cable and radio talk shows. And for the most part, the reviews there were very much of the thumbs down variety.

“I watched a lot of it,” said radio host Sean Hannity on his July 9 program. “It was awful. I mean, it was terrible…I guess you had a bunch of has-beens and wannabes that were out there singing for this thing.”

“The [ratings] numbers for NBC Saturday night were dismal,” added Rush Limbaugh the same day. “Here we’ve got this big global warming move going on…which I really do think is dying a slow death.”

For a group of largely conservative talk hosts, the concert was a chance to take aim at the global warming movement and Gore, the ex-Democratic presidential hopeful who has made environmentalism the linchpin of a career that some believe could entail another White House run. With the concert as the news hook, global warming was the fifth-biggest talk show topic last week (filling 6% of the airtime) according to PEJ’s Talk Show Index from July 8-13. (By way of comparison, the subject was not among the top 10 stories in that week’s general news Index measured by PEJ.)

The Iraq policy debate—driven by the Bush administration’s release of an interim progress report that offered a mixed assessment and triggered widely varying reactions—was the leading topic among talk hosts last week, at 22%. That very closely tracked the 20% of the newshole it filled as the lead story in the general Index.

Two terrorism-related subjects combined to account for 16% of the talk menu. U.S. domestic terrorism (second-biggest at 9%) centered on a few developments. The biggest was Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff’s now-famous “gut feeling” that the nation was entering a period of higher terrorism risk. Another was the release of a video from the International Association of Firefighters attacking GOP presidential candidate and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s 9/11-related stewardship. The general war on terror story line (fourth-biggest topic at 7%) was fueled by news of a counterterrorism report warning of a stronger and reconstituted Al-Qaeda.

The third-hottest talk topic (8%) last week was the 2008 presidential campaign. That conversation was driven, in part, by the continued turmoil in Republican John McCain’s campaign. But a private chat at an NAACP forum between Democrats Hillary Clinton and John Edwards turned into talk fodder when the two candidates were overheard registering unhappiness with the crowded field participating in those events.

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.

The talk shows’ attention last week to the re-ignited debate over Iraq, potentially growing terror threats and the presidential campaign closely mirrored the news priorities in the general news Index. But the talk hosts jumped into that crossroads of environmental policy and rock n’ roll reviewing with considerably more vigor than some of their colleagues in the media.

On the July 9 Fox News Channel show that he co-hosts, Hannity opened by panning “Al Gore’s Live Earth concerts” and noting that “many people are criticizing the event today as not being impressive or as popular as Live Aid or Live 8 in the past.” Hannity then aired a clip of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at the concert lashing out against talk hosts such as himself and Limbaugh by calling them “flat earthers” and “corporate toadies…telling you that global warming doesn’t exit.”

Not surprisingly, the one ringing endorsement of the political-musical extravaganza came from liberal radio talk host Randi Rhodes.

“The Live Earth thing was just the most amazing thing,” Rhodes declared on her July 9 program. “It was on seven continents…it was like a tasting menu in a fine New York restaurant.”

“If you don’t think there’s global warming,” she added, “go outside.”

If the critique of Live Earth got pretty impassioned last week, another political hot-button issue also emerged to stir partisans on both sides.

The Washington D.C. madam scandal—which ensnared Republican Louisiana Senator David Vitter who acknowledged involvement with the escort service—was the sixth-biggest talk topic (5%). It was primarily driven by coverage on the MSNBC talk shows. One memorable July 11 exchange occurred between conservative-leaning MSNBC talk host Tucker Carlson and liberal activist Michael Rectenwald on the subject of whether a politician’s sex life is fair game.

Citing the Vitter case, Rectenwald said public scrutiny was justified because “here we have candidates running on so-called family values platforms and legislating morality…This is a [Republican] Party that’s full of hypocrisy.”

Disagreeing vigorously, Carlson responded that “you’re holding up this guy’s sex life to public ridicule and you ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

The proceedings deteriorated from there. Carlson told Rectenwald that “I want to ask you some questions about your sex life” and an angry Rectenwald retaliated by saying “You are despicable the way you are attacking me…you are an unapologetic Republican partisan.”

Carlson countered by referring to his guest as a “creep” and “scandalmonger.” Then it was on to another segment.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

 

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. Iraq Policy Debate – 22%
2. US Domestic Terror Threat – 9%
3. Campaign 2008 – 8%
4. International War on Terror – 7%
5. Global Warming – 6%
6. DC Escort Scandal – 5%
7. Congress – 3%
8. Fired Attorneys Scandal – 3%
9. Wrestler Crime – 2%
10. Health Care Debate – 1%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. Iraq Policy Debate – 20%
2. Campaign 2008 – 7%
3. International War on Terror – 4%
4. US Domestic Terror Threat – 4%
5. Events in Iraq – 4%
6. Lady Bird Johnson Dies – 4%
7. Pakistan Mosque Siege – 2%
8. 2003 Pizza Bomber Case – 2%
9. Fired Attorneys Scandal – 2%
10. DC Escort Scandal – 2%

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

Note: The sample for PEJ’s Talk Show Index typically includes MSNBC’s Scarborough Country which aired at 9 pm ET. However, MSNBC has replaced that show at least temporarily by MSNBC Live with Dan Abrams. Accordingly, we have replaced Scarborough Country with MSNBC Live with Dan Abrams in our Talk Show Index sample.