July 26, 2007

Gender Politics – Talk Show Style

PEJ Talk Show Index July 15 - 20, 2007

By now, Senator Hillary Clinton is probably accustomed to gender-related questions as she pursues the most serious White House bid ever launched by a woman. During the July 23 CNN/YouTube debate, for example, she was asked to respond to the media’s focus on the issue of her not being “satisfactorily feminine.”

While basic campaign reporting certainly doesn’t shy away from the implications of having a woman President, the talk show circuit tends to be even blunter (some might say cruder) about the subject. At least last week, that appeared to be the case as Clinton’s place on the gender spectrum proved to be a ripe topic for debate.

On the July 20 edition of “Hardball,” the candidate’s torso was a focus of attention as the show aired footage of Clinton wearing a mildly plunging top with a caption that read “Senatorial Cleavage.”

In response to substitute host Mike Barnicle’s question—which stemmed from a July 20 Washington Post story about the Senator’s neckline—two guests tried to parse the cleavage conundrum.

“Directing attention to ‘is she showing cleavage or isn’t she’ is kind of a complete waste of time given the dire straits our democracy is in,” asserted writer and feminist Naomi Wolf. For her part, conservative talk host Melanie Morgan advised the New York Senator to “wear bi-partisan clothes [but] she shouldn’t wear her cleavage so low.” She then added, “But she probably should have been wearing stiletto heels underneath her pantsuit.”

Three nights earlier on MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson show, the gender issue was raised in a quite different context. It was a follow-up to an interview with Salon.com in which Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Democratic hopeful John Edwards, said Clinton is “just not as vocal a women's advocate as I want to see. John is."

“Let’s take that critique seriously,” said Carlson as he turned to his guests. “Is Hillary Clinton too manly to be president?” (A.B. Stoddard, associate editor of the Hill newspaper, dismissed the charge as “a cheap shot.”)

On his July 19 show, conservative radio host Sean Hannity gave Ms. Edwards’ comment further attention. In what he called a “public service announcement” he played an audio clip of Bill Clinton’s response to Ms. Edwards: “I don’t think [Hillary is] trying to be a man.”

“I’m just very thankful to know that,” retorted Hannity, with more than a hint of sarcasm.

With Senator Clinton—and her femininity—featured as a story line, the Presidential campaign filled 13% of the airtime and was the second most-popular talk topic on radio and cable, according to PEJ’s Talk Show Index from July 15-20. (Cable shows paid far more attention to the campaign than the radio talkers did.) The one subject that commanded more attention last week than the Presidential race was the renewed debate over U.S. strategy in Iraq. Driven by the July 17 Senate all-nighter that ended with the defeat of a Democratic attempt to set withdrawal deadlines, the policy debate filled 19% of the talk menu, with some hosts decrying the all-nighter as a ploy or stunt and others seeing it as crucial moment in the Iraq argument.

The third-biggest talk topic was U.S. domestic efforts against terrorism (10%), a subject fueled by the release of a national intelligence report warning of a strengthened Al-Qaeda threat. And although the three most popular talk topics last week matched the top three stories in the general news Index, the talk shows went their own way on topics # 4 and #5. The fourth-biggest subject, immigration (6%), has been a favorite of a number of talk hosts, most notably CNN’s Lou Dobbs. And the fifth story is the controversy over a potential reprise of the Fairness Doctrine (5%), which could have major implications for talk radio.

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 discussion about reinstating the Fairness Doctrine—an FCC rule mandating balanced coverage of controversial issues that was repealed 20 years ago—has made the list of top-10 talk topics a few times in recent weeks. But in reality, it’s less of a debate over the virtues or shortcomings of the Fairness Doctrine (it’s hard to find a Fairness Doctrine supporter in the media) than a debate about whether reinstatement is a real possibility or a threat invented for ideological purposes.

Conservative radio hosts such as Hannity and Rush Limbaugh have been pointing out that Democratic lawmakers are interested in reprising the rules to silence the voices on the right, which dominate talk radio. On Hannity’s July 19 Fox News Channel show, conservative host Laura Ingraham warned against its return, declaring, “I always thought that liberals were for free speech.”

On the same show, Hannity’s liberal co-host Alan Colmes, downplayed the idea of a new Fairness Doctrine. “I don’t know where this is getting traction in Congress,” he said. “I don’t see enough of a push for this that is really is going to be an issue in Congress.”

On his July 20 program, liberal radio host Ed Schultz characterized talk of a reinstated Fairness Doctrine as a “straw man” invented by conservatives. “They have 450 right-wing talkers in America,” he said. “They all read off the same talking points.’

The discussions of immigration were a return to a subject that united a number of talk hosts, most of them conservative. Limbaugh, Hannity, Michael Savage and the most vocal of them all, Lou Dobbs, had energetically campaigned against the immigration bill (what they often called an “amnesty” bill). And in some quarters, they were credited or blamed (depending on your view) for a major role in its defeat on June 28.

Last week Dobbs, who is a tireless advocate of tougher immigration enforcement, turned to another of his favorite subjects—the controversial jailing of to two former border agents for wrongdoing in an incident in which they shot a drug smuggler on the Mexican border.

On his July 17 show, Dobbs reported on the beginning of Senate hearings on the case, saying, “I’ve been calling for Congressional hearings over the prosecution of former border patrol agents…for almost a year.”

And, if viewers weren’t sure of Dobbs' feelings about the case, the wording of his viewer poll that night offered a clue: “Do you believe Congress is serious about correcting the outrageous miscarriage of justice against [agents] Ramos and Compean?”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

 

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. Iraq Policy Debate – 19%
2. 2008 Campaign – 13%
3. US Domestic Terror Threat – 10%
4. Immigration – 6%
5. Fairness Doctrine – 5%
6. Brazilian Plane Crash – 3%
7. DC Escort Scandal – 3%
8. Events in Iraq – 2%
9. FDA/Imported Food Safety – 2%
10. NYC Steam Pipe Blast – 2%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. Iraq Policy Debate – 14%
2. 2008 Campaign – 9%
3. US Domestic Terror Threat – 6%
4. Events in Iraq – 6%
5. Pakistan – 3%
6. Brazilian Plane Crash – 3%
7. NYC Steam Pipe Blast – 3%
8. Immigration – 2%
9. Japanese Earthquake – 2%
10. North Korea – 2%

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