August 2, 2007

Hosts Debate the Debate as the Campaign Dominates

PEJ Talk Show Index July 22 - 27, 2007

Much of the media narrative that emerged from the July 23 CNN/YouTube debate was about the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama disagreement over whether a President should meet with hostile foreign leaders. And when that argument continued throughout the week, some analysts viewed it as one of the early defining moments of the Democratic presidential battle.

But in the world of talk last week, both in cable and radio, it was the CNN/YouTube debate itself—with its unusual format of citizen-produced video questions—that became a big part of the story. The reviews were mixed.

On his July 24 program, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh thought “a lot of these questioners were idiots.” He especially didn’t like the citizen who asked each candidate to say something they liked and disliked about the person next to them.

“This is silly,” Limbaugh observed. “This is right out of the Miss American pageant.”

On the same day, liberal radio talker Ed Schultz waxed enthusiastic about the format. “Did you watch the YouTube debate last night?” he asked listeners. “I thought [CNN moderator] Anderson Cooper did a great job…You have to admit the questions were different and the responses were somewhat different.”

The July 23 edition of the Fox News Channel’s “Hannity & Colmes” program featured a focus group assembled by controversial pollster Frank Luntz reacting to the debate. By a substantial margin, they thought Obama had outperformed Clinton, using words like “charismatic” and “sincere” to describe the Illinois Senator. But the verdict seemed even more unified when Luntz asked how many people liked the debate. Virtually every hand shot up.

“They want real people talking on the real issues,” Luntz concluded.

With that “real people” debate accounting for almost 50% of the segments, the presidential campaign was the leading cable and radio talk subject last week, filling 18% of the airtime according to PEJ’s Talk Show Index for July 22-27.

The next biggest story in the Talk universe last week was the growing confrontation between Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and those in the Democratic-led Congress who believe he has been playing fast and loose with the truth, which made up 9% of the talk time. (The presidential campaign and the Gonzales crisis also finished #1 and #2 last week in the general news Index.)

A brutal crime that attracted major news coverage last week was also among the top stories on the talk shows. The home invasion that took three lives in quiet Cheshire Connecticut was the third-biggest talk topic (at 6%). That was followed by the issue of borders and immigration (fourth-biggest at 6%) that festers in the aftermath of the recent defeat of the immigration bill. The top-five story roster was rounded out by concerns about domestic terrorism (5%), driven in part by a Transportation Security Administration report about possible “dry runs” for attacks that entailed bringing suspicious objects into airports.

The talk culture was also more fixated than the news media generally on two stories that generated considerable buzz in the sports and celebrity worlds. The fallout from Atlanta Falcon quarterback Michael Vick’s dogfighting arrest was the eighth-biggest story at 3%. And the drug and alcohol bust of one of Hollywood’s girls gone wild, 21-year-old Lindsay Lohan, was ninth at 3%.

PEJ’s 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 horrific slaying of a Connecticut mother and her two daughters is the kind of event that triggers coverage not only because of the nature of the crime, but because it reinforces the basic fear that no one is really safe from crime. And while the news coverage was gruesome enough, the emotions associated with a case like this had even freer rein in the talk realm.

Two of those hosts, MSNBC’s Dan Abrams and talk radio’s Michael Savage, did most of the talking.

Calling the two suspects in the Connecticut case, “the worst of the worst,” Abrams offered some advice. “Even though [Connecticut has] only executed one person in the last 29 years, and only eight inmates are on death row, this is the time to add two more.”

Calling the crime, “the worst nightmare imaginable to any normal human being,” the conservative Savage directed his anger against the media. He basically accused journalists of downplaying this case because the victims were affluent and white.

“Are they saying it’s offensive to poor people to cover a slaughter like this that occurs to rich people,” he continued. “Instead, we’re hearing about the drug-addicted slut Lindsay Low Brow. Instead, we see the story of the crimes of dumb football player who throws a dog into a pit bull ring.”

The latest Lohan misadventure also was dissected on Abrams’ July 24 show when the host relied on another celebrity “familiar with Hollywood, drugs and rehab”—former “Partridge Family” child star Danny Bonaduce—for expert commentary and context. Asked if he was surprised that Lohan had been busted so soon after a rehab stint, Bonaduce responded with a kind of celebrity worldly weariness.

“Not surprised at all,” he said. “I spent 30 days in the exact same rehab…The success rate of rehab is four to eight percent.”

The Michael Vick saga, about the Atlanta Falcons quarterback indicted for dogfighting, also became fodder for detours into other matters. On the July 27 edition of The Fox News Channel’s “O’Reilly Factor,” guest host Michelle Malkin turned the case into a referendum on PETA, the animal rights group that has been a vocal critic of the quarterback.

“Animal rights groups are pressuring Nike and other major companies to drop the NFL star,” explained Malkin as she interviewed PETA official Daphna Nachminovitch.

“What happens if Michael Vick is exonerated of these charges?”

Yet of all the talk hosts examined in PEJ’s Index last week, only one of them brought up the fantastic tale of Oscar, the Rhode Island nursing home cat with extraordinary powers.

“Seen the story about that cat?” asked Rush Limbaugh on his July 26 show. “Beautiful cat. People in a nursing home have figured out this cat knows when residents of the nursing home are going to pass away. It gets up on their beds and cuddles up.” Right before launching into a discussion of the Democrats versus Alberto Gonzales, Limbaugh made the salient point about Oscar.

You probably don’t want him hanging around you.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the Talk Show Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 18%
2. Alberto Gonzales Controversies – 9%
3. Connecticut Murders – 6%
4. Immigration – 6%
5. US Domestic Terror Threat – 5%
6. Iraq Policy Debate – 5%
7. Health Care – 4%
8. Michael Vick Indicted – 3%
9. Lindsay Lohan – 3%
10. Fired Attorneys – 2%

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 12%
2. Alberto Gonzales Controversies – 6%
3. US Domestic Terror Threat – 4%
4. Iraq Policy Debate – 4%
5. Iraq Homefront – 3%
6. Events in Iraq – 3%
7. Connecticut Murders – 2%
8. Stocks Fall – 2%
9. Afghanistan – 2%
10. Immigration – 2%

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